By Steven C. Levi
When it comes to tall tales, Alaskans are king. No one can tell a whopper like an Alaskan. In fact, telling fabricated tales of the Northland and being an Alaskan go hand-in-hand. This is not to say that all Alaskans tell lies — most of them do, though not all of them — but so many Alaskans have grown accustomed to telling wild tales about the northland that the only person with a lower credibility than an Alaskan with a bear story is a politician proposing a tax cut three days before a primary election.
And Alaskans have such easy marks! For the most part, Outsiders, i.e., people from the Lower 48, are amazingly ignorant when it comes to Alaska. Though Alaska is a state of the United States, many Americans continue to believe that it is a different country, uses another form of currency and requires a visa for travel. These same people, many of them with college educations, also fervently believe that Alaska is a land of ice and snow where the residents live in igloos and ranch penguins. In fact, in downtown Anchorage it is not uncommon to hear tourists actually asking which restaurants serve blubber stew, the location of the nearest igloo, or where the Northern Lights go when the sun is up for twenty-hours a day.
During the summer, it takes Alaskans all of about two weeks to get tired of setting the record straight for Outsiders. It is just too time-consuming for Alaskans to be truthful because of the number of visitors that flood the state during the summer months. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, only has 265,000 people but it hosts more than one million travelers during the 90 days of summer. That’s quite a few people to set straight. After about the l5th of June, tired of constantly telling tourists that there are no igloos in Alaska or that penguins are only indigenous to Antarctica, Alaskans begin to fudge on the truth. They aren’t really lying; it’s an Alaskan folk art form kindly known as “absurding.”
More precisely, absurding is a technique similar to the tall tale. But it is different from the tall tale because it is the art of deliberately confirming whatever bizarre fantasy a tourist believes of Alaska, regardless of how incredible that might be, and then expanding the absurdity even further. For example, if a tourist were to ask where he or she might see a penguin nest, an Alaskan intent on absurding might respond, “Well, it’s been a lean year for penguins because the alligators keep forcing them out of the beaver lodges. That’s where they spend the summer, you know, in beaver lodges.”
While this may sound like a bizarre answer, it is not. Astoundingly, tourists will believe just about any tale about Alaska, and the more fantastic the lie, the more believable it will appear to be. From giant, man-eating crabs in the Kuskokwim River to a genetic cross between a moose and a walrus (called an alascattalo), tourists are constantly being absurded by Alaskans who weave the most ludicrous of stories from the threads of the tourist’s imagination.
What makes this easy for Alaskans is the incredible diversity of the state. Since Alaska is so large, there are few statements that are true from Ketchikan to Barrow. Take the myth of Alaska’s seasons. In the far north, Barrow, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, the sun is aloft for months at a time during the summer. It does not set, as people in the Lower 48 know the word, for 84 days. The sun simply circles the horizon. Time of day is indicated not by when the sun sets, but at what point of compass it happens to be.
Then there is the flipside to this good news. During the winter there are 67 days when the sun does not ‘hop’ above the horizon at all. In other words, on November 18, the sun sets and does not rise until January 24.
But in Anchorage and Fairbanks there are sunsets during the summer and sunrises during the winter, just as there are in Seattle, Denver, Chicago and New York. Yet, over the years, textbooks have mistakenly stated that Alaska, the Land of the Midnight Sun, has six months of darkness and six months of light leaving many college-educated Americans to firmly believe that Alaska has six months of pitch darkness followed instantaneously by six months of unbroken sunshine.
Living in Alaska also requires an adjustment in one’s vocabulary. While most Alaskans speak English, there are many terms which Alaskans use daily that are not even in uncommon usage in the rest of America. “Sitka slippers,” for instance, are plastic boots with felt liners which are the preferred footwear in cities like Sitka, obviously, where the only time it isn’t raining is when the storm clouds are gathering. A “cache,” is a place to store food and “hooch” is a cheap form of alcoholic beverage. Alaskans, to the distress of Cheechakos, frequently use such terms as taku, kuspik, chinook, williwaw, Orca, muktuk, blue ticket, Lower 48, pingo, berm, breakup, scrimshaw, square tires, and termination dust. While each of these has a specific, Alaskan meaning, sometimes the use of these terms can lead to humorous confusion.
One evening a news reporter called a public relations representative for a large oil company only to be told by the man’s wife that he was “outside.” “Outside,” to an Alaskan, means the Lower 48 or, to Cheechakos, the contiguous 48 states.
“Will he be gone long?” the reporter asked, assuming that he was in Seattle.
“I hope not,” his wife replied. “He’s only taking out the garbage.”
Alaskans also thrive on the differences between their state and the rest of the union. Beards and bear stories are in; yuppies are out. Functional dress is expected; a three-piece suit is reserved for IBM salesmen and Xerox repair personnel. Backpacks are as accepted at business meetings as briefcases.
Alaskan humor is different as well. Take Alaskan holidays. Every February, Cordova, on the shores of Prince William Sound, sponsors an Ice Worm Festival to commemorate the beastie of Robert Service invention. Though there really are ice worms which live near the surface of glaciers, the beast of Robert Service creation was a piece of spaghetti with inked-in eyes that was dropped into a shot glass of whiskey to bamboozle a Cheechako. Honoring the ice worm, and Alaskan humor, each year the citizens of Cordova conclude their Ice Worm Festival with a parade highlighted by the appearance of a l50 foot ‘ice worm’ that weaves its way along the parade route.
Farther north, Talkeetna sponsors a Moose Dropping Festival with contests involving another item of Alaskan humor: moose “nuggets.” In Anchorage, each November there is the Alascattalo Day Parade. Taken from a story in Warren Sitka’s SOURDOUGH JOURNALIST, the alascattalo is a genetic cross between a moose and a walrus. Billed as the longest running, shortest parade in American history, the Alascattalo Day Parade is one block long down an alley. It is held the first Sunday after the third Saturday in November and begins at precisely 12:03. “If you want to march in the parade,” Warren Sitka advises, “you’d better be on time. If you’re 30 seconds late, the parade’s half over.”
Alaskan humor is different because Alaska is different. While many regions of America can point with pride to their own homespun humorists, Alaska is not so fortunate. Mark Twain captured the spirit of Western humor while Uncle Remus did the same in the South. In the East there is Washington Irving. Alaska, however, is a land without a written heritage of humor.
But Alaskans, one by one, each in his or her own small way, are changing that. One winter, as an example, during the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, a bearded Alaskan was pawing through a pile of imported kangaroo pelts on the floor of a fur shop. Looking for just the right color combination to make himself a floppy winter hat, he was dividing the pelts into piles of possibilities. Just as he was finishing, a tourist, fresh from the thrill of her first, open-air, fur auction, stepped into the shop and spotted this bearded character, clearly one those grizzled sourdoughs of which she had read so much, with piles of pelts on the floor. Pulling out her camera and adjusting the focus she asked what kind of pelts he was handling.
“Kangaroo,” he said without looking up.
“Oh,” she replied. “Are they Alaskan?”
An evil gleam flashed in his eye for a split second. “Yeah,” he grumbled without looking up, “from up ‘round Bethel.”
And right now, somewhere in upstate New York, there is some woman swearing to her friends that there really are kangaroos in Alaska.