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Incorrect information about Alaska is about as well traveled as its tourists

Mythical Misconceptions

Posted: Sunday, May 28, 2006

 

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  Myths abound over the size and ferocity of the Alaska mosquito. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Some tourists seem to think the northern lights can be turned on and off on demand.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Here we are on Memorial Day weekend, the official kickoff to summer. And as we all know, summer is tourist season, that special time of year when we are inundated with folks who are suffering from various misconceptions about the Great Land.

Let’s be honest. Referring to the falsehoods some folks believe about Alaska as “misconceptions” is being politically correct.

Crusty old Sourdoughs known for straight talk and honest opinions are more prone to simply refer to them as, “stupid Alaska myths.”

“See that gal with the pointy-cornered glasses, red scarf and fake leopard-skin parka? Betcha she’s a regular encyclopedia of stupid Alaska myths. She asked me what time we let the moose out to feed ‘em. She wants to take a picture.”

 

While igloos have fallen out of favor with humans, tourists can still see them in use by hardier breeds of Alaska dogs.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“What’d you say?”

“Come back at midnight.”

While there are countless stupid Alaska myths, or SAMs, for short, there are 10 which are as perennial as the tourist run. One or more of these top 10 are certain to crop up any time an Alaskan has a conversation with someone from Outside.

The first, and probably most common, SAM is about mosquitoes: Alaska is swarming with clouds of mosquitoes the size of buzzards.

 

For tourists who want to watch and feed wildlife, knowing where to go is the key.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Alaskans are supposed to be excited about having their home denigrated in such a fashion? I think not. It’s time to put this SAM to rest.

First off, who wants the reputation of hailing from a place seething with blood-sucking insects? Nobody.

That’s like expecting Floridians to advertise and stand proud on the fact their state is the roach capital of the western hemisphere.

Secondly, let’s break down this SAM in a realistic light. Mosquitoes as big as buzzards? C’mon, get real! That’s not only impossible;, that kind of stupid remark is offensive. Scientifically speaking, our mosquitoes can’t get any larger than barn swallows.

And as far as the number of mosquitoes we breed, there are no more than one might find in any malarial jungle along the equator.

It doesn’t seem possible, in this day and age of HGTV, but some folks still half expect to see igloos when they visit Alaska.

 

Myths abound over the size and ferocity of the Alaska mosquito.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When the igloos, or even remnants in the form of flooded foundations, aren’t forthcoming, there is often an almost-palpable disappointment.

“That’s a letdown. I was expecting ... you know ... to see homes that were ... well, you know ... .”

“Igloos?”

“Well, maybe not the REAL igloos ... but you know, nice ranch styles made out of ice and snow.”

“You should have been here 10 years ago; before the global warming thing was approved by the Legislature to promote tourism.”

Alaskan wildlife provides the basis for a universally held SAM. People, particularly those from either of the more populated coasts, expect to see wildlife running around everywhere.

“I’ve been here two days, and haven’t seen a bear, a moose, a caribou, or a musk ox yet. What gives?”

Obviously this person was under the impression they would have to stay in their car simply to avoid being crushed in the stampede of wildlife that swarms over the face of our fair state. However, the real kicker to this SAM is that when the visitor does see one of our wild residents, they are vaguely disappointed.

“OH MY GOSH! That’s a BALD EAGLE! Why is it sitting on the edge of a Dumpster?”

“If it’s any less painful, that fast food restaurant used to be a Burger King. You know, in the final analysis, eagles are little more than vultures operating under the guise of good PR.”

“Heretic! Heretic!”

One of the more common myths about Alaska is the “24 hours of light” to be found in the summer. Non-Alaskans come to the Kenai Peninsula believing the sun will never set for the duration of their visit. When they learn we’re more of a midnight sunset — as opposed to a midnight sun — kind of place, they are at first disappointed. The disappointment is short-lived when they realize that, although the sun sets, it doesn’t get totally dark in the peak of summer.

What is truly amazing, however, is the SAM that we go from total light to total dark, period. The total light/dark myth doesn’t have room for the four months of transition required in both directions.

“So what day do you switch back to total dark?”

“This year? I’m not sure. The Legislature usually picks the date. But this year they were so busy arguing over how to spend the oil revenue windfall from the high crude prices that it’s been passed along to a special session that won’t be held until August some time.”

Speaking of light, the northern lights are another SAM source. People want to believe we see them constantly the moment Alaska switches back to the “all night” mode. The simple explanation is that the northern lights are activated by the same switch the Legislature uses to make the change between all light and all dark.

A more bizarre SAM, and one whose origins are impossible to trace, is that the aurora is always so intense it can generate sound.

“I understand you can even hear the northern lights tinkle during the winter.”

“Only when the toilet isn’t frozen.”

Another cherished SAM is that Alaska is a barren wasteland of ice and snow. Yet at the same time, those very same people will express disappointment in the size of our trees, which are most often mistakenly called pine trees.

“Gosh, I thought Alaska would be nothing but an expanse of frozen white! Instead, you’ve got the sickliest looking pine trees I’ve ever seen. I thought they’d be much bigger.”

“OK, let’s do a little deductive reasoning here. If we had nothing but snow and ice all the time, how would trees grow?”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. Well those sure are the littlest pines I’ve ever seen in a forest.”

“They’re not pine trees. They are spruce.”

“They’re blue spruce? I just love blue spruce! But they sure don’t look very blue.”

“They don’t look blue until we turn on the northern lights.”

Aviation in Alaska has a couple of its own SAMs. First, there’s the one about more licensed pilots per capita in Alaska than anywhere else in the world. That myth is only partially true. The part about “licensed” kind of puts a cramp on it.

Then there’s the one about how we have more runway than paved road in the state . The basic truth of that statement is not at issue.

But what an Alaskan Bush pilot considers “runway” allows for a very broad interpretation. Given that a plane on floats can practically call any body of water larger than a sidewalk puddle a runway, we’ve got more runway than the East Coast has paved road.

“I’m gonna set you boys down on that lake right there.”

“That lake? What say you make a couple of passes over it? I’ll spit out the window, double its size, and improve the chances of survival.”

“Oh, you kidder! Here goes.”

“AAAUUUUGGGH!!”

Alaskan men, as everyone knows, are the epitome of outdoor machismo. The SAM is that the average Alaskan male doesn’t give a second thought to enduring subzero winter nights, with howling wind and lashing snow. And it’s true, because the average Alaskan male is stretched out on the couch with either a video game controller or the TV remote in his hand throughout the winter.

The pipeline SAM has proven over the past 31 years to be all but impossible eliminate. People still believe we’re in the middle of building a pipeline. Every summer, amid the tourists, are some poor souls who visit and believe they will stay on to “work on the pipeline.” Of course, it’s going to be nearly impossible to kill that myth, since even our very own governor seems to believe it.

The SAM that clings to life most tenaciously, however, is the one about the legality of marijuana in Alaska.

According to the myth, any private individual can grow any amount of smoky-dope, use it and transport it with total impunity — or at worst, nothing more than a misdemeanor fine. Discrediting that SAM should be no more difficult than taking a close look at those who would like to perpetuate it.

“Is it, ummm ... You know, like, true you can, ummm ... Wait a minute man, I’ll remember. It was uh ... something about marijuana.”

“You mean is it legal in Alaska?”

“Huh?”

“Is marijuana legal in Alaska?”

“Whoa! That’s just freaky, dude. I was just gonna ask you that! Wow. So, like, you don’t know either?”

So there you have them, the top 10 Stupid Alaska Myths. Go ye forth, and debunk!

Oh, and for the record: I would have told that gal in the fake leopard-skin parka the moose are fed at 3 a.m. She’d be up at midnight to see the sun, anyway.

A.E. Poynor is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai. Copyright 2006.

Mystifying myths:

Here’s a sampling of some questions tourists have asked Kenai Peninsula residents working in the visitor industry:

“When do you turn on the

northern lights?”

“When I come up there, am I going to be able to see any Eskimos?”

“What’d you do with all the wildlife? I haven’t seen anything. I’ve been here two days.”

“Where can I go to see a bear? I don’t want to get out of my car.”

— Sylvia Reid, coordinator,

Soldotna Visitors Center

“So when do we go see the moose?”

“Where do we go to see the moose?”

“When will the moose come out? ... They want to go pet them.”

“A lot of times they’re looking for the forget-me-not flower. They’re under the impression we can see them everywhere.”

— Susan Jordan, owner, Fireweed Herb Garden and Gifts, Kenai

“Living

in Moose

Pass ...

somebody

there asked,

‘When do the

moose turn into

caribou?’”

“Drive times. They

have no idea how long

it takes to get anywhere.

They always think, ‘Well,

I’m going to drive to Valdez

today and I’ll be back tonight

for a room.’ And I’ll be like,

‘Good luck. Have a nice drive.’”

“They think that we don’t

get any daylight in the winter,

and (in the summer) they’ll stay

up until the sun goes down to go

have dinner and they’ll be waiting

until 1 a.m. and realize the sun isn’t

going down and they still haven’t had

dinner.”

— Alice Paulson, owner, Soldotna Inn

“They seem to think that we’re this big mysterious state and we’re just isolated and don’t have any modern conveniences, and some people seem really surprised when they come up here. They’re like, ‘Oh, wow — roads. And they’re paved!’”

“We’ve had people that come in in their sweaters, and actually they’re cold. Turtlenecks and long-sleeve shirts and they’re just freezing.”

“They’re going to get a rental car and they always think they’ll need a four-wheel drive. They need a four-by-four. They don’t think we drive little cars up here.”

“I had one guy come in — you know how many birch trees we have around here — and tell me that he could not find one single birch tree.”

“A lot of people seem to think they need to bring a firearm with them.”

— Alise Bowen, membership and visitor services manager,

Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center



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