I figured I had graduated from cheechako status when I could correctly pronounce Tuntutuliak and Kwigillingok, after visiting these places in Alaska, and when I could accurately pronounce Tlingit and Inupiaq. I’m not sure when a cheechako becomes a bona fide Alaskan. Maybe it’s after the first winter when a newcomer becomes ‘broke in.’ Alaska is the land of acronyms. I learned this when I worked for BLM, the Bureau of Land Management. (My employer was even an acronym). I spent the first year asking people what they meant by: PFD, ANWR, ANCSA, ANILCA, ADNR, ADF&G, FBX, and abbreviated names such as Mat-Su. Now they roll off my tongue like an old pro. Alaska is a complete paradigm shift from the Lower Forty-Eight. I learned a new set of rules: “When you float a river, don’t jump in for a swim. Stay off the mudflats, you’ll get stuck and drown when the tide rises. Don’t walk on glaciers; you’ll fall in a crevasse.” Then there is the old standby, “Don’t fix your windshield until after break-up.” Some rules I learned from experience, such as don’t flip off an Alaskan driver or they’ll chase you home. My pursuer had an easy-rider-rifle-rack mounted in his truck. I panicked, raced home, and burst through the door, my screams levitating my husband off of the couch. The second time I flipped someone off, I thought they had followed me to work. They did. It was my boss. I didn’t get a good performance evaluation that year. I finally decided to follow that rule. (It’s not good form to flip anyone off anywhere in the U.S. these days unless you have a death wish.) When I became a parent, I found myself saying, “Watch out for moose and bears and put on your bug dope.” I demonstrated to my girls how to play dead, swat Godzilla B-52 mosquitoes, and slather themselves with insect repellant. The only thing my Montana mother said was do not talk to strangers. We didn’t have wild animals running amuck when I was a kid, except for the occasional deer that danced around our grille on a dark, country road. But the sauntering moose and lumbering black bears endear us to Alaska. We’re concerned if we don’t see them on a regular basis. Fish are another story. I thought Montana lake trout were massive. The first fish I caught in Alaska was shot in the head—not bonked on a rock as we did in Montana. I was traumatized. I had never heard of shooting a fish with a gun. It’s somewhat tricky to wrestle a slimy seventy-pound king salmon into position to bonk its head on a rock. Plus, this method of ending a salmon’s life in a boat is trickier; rocks are hard to come by unless you run into one. I did manage to slide off of a glacier, luckily not into a crevasse. I got stuck in the mud, but not in a tidal zone. I was stuck in a river, terrorized, not from being stuck, but from the shark imitation a king salmon made as it swam toward me, its dorsal fin out of the water reminiscent of Jaws. Remembering Quint’s demise I freaked out, wrenched my back, and wound up in the E.R. The fish got away. When I first learned of bunny boots I cracked up. But the truth is, workers on the North Slope wouldn’t have feet if they didn’t wear bunny boots at fifty below zero. I found that out in Prudhoe Bay one January. Other things were fun to learn about, like oosiks, ice worms, no-see-ums, and Spenard divorces (which didn’t always happen in Spenard). Looking back now, Alaska seemed mystical and adventurous when I first moved here. It still is—but seeing my first sun dog, ice fog, aurora display, and Iditarod start seem old hat now. Fur Rondy is a comfortable tradition. I take as many pictures now as I did in year one. Alaska mesmerizes my mind into foggy submission. I love this place. It doesn’t matter that I have thirty-two years of photos chronicling the same thing. Who cares? I snap the photos. Thirty-two years later, I still run to the window when a moose strolls by, and in winter I regard the alpenglow peaks of the Chugach range as old friends. No matter how often I see these things, they’ll always hold a special fascination for me. They don’t hold the same magic and mystique as they did when I was a cheechako. But the Alaska way is securely woven into me now. It still possesses the same mystique, adventure, and beauty. But I see and experience it with different eyes these days. I guess because now…could it be? I’m an experienced Sourdough.
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