Lois Paige Simenson: The Alaska Way

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 I’m 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 spring. 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.
Lois Paige Simenson moved to Alaska from Montana in 1983. She recently retired from the U.S. Department of the Interior after 35 years in Anchorage. She was a technical and legal writer for several Interior agencies and has authored and edited several government publications. She is a playwright, with one play that received a staged reading at the annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez and two plays recently staged and produced by Perseverance Theatre at the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts. She is working on a debut novel. Lois divides her time between Eagle River and her beach house on Peterson Bay, across Kachemak Bay from Homer

3 thoughts on “Lois Paige Simenson: The Alaska Way”

  1. An amazing article…so like myself when I first arrived in Alaska, and even now, 30 years later I feel the same way. Love this writer's way with words!

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