[Originally published at Matador Network on July 2, 2013. Republished with permission from the author.]
Ask if we speak English.
True, geographically, Alaska is right up there next to Canada, and no, Alaska does not come into contact with any of the other 49 US states. But we gained our statehood in 1959 and are well aware of our status as Americans (and lest we forget, the IRS is always eager to give a reminder).
Therefore, yes, we do speak English (as do most of the Canadians between Alaska and the rest of the states) and yes, we even use US currency. Brush up on your third-grade history and geography before someone dumps you in a snowbank.
Dispense with fishing etiquette.
Fishing in Alaska is an angler’s wet dream. Fishermen love to spread tales (some even true) of their battles with our giant Chinook and Coho salmon, which may be why you’re rubbing elbows with a gentleman from Germany and a woman from Oklahoma, all searching for monsters of their own. Unfortunately, the limited access to prime fishing spots means you’re probably standing in the exact spot where, many years ago, I hauled in my first Chinook — and so are your neighbors.
A sure way to find yourself in a northern brawl is to fail to follow the rules of the river. Go ahead and keep casting that outrageously large lure while someone nearby is struggling to land the catch of their lifetime. If your lines tangle and your neighbor loses their trophy (and their bragging rights), you just may get to take a glacial swim.
Better yet, get a little wild while flipping your line out. Most of us don’t appreciate an unsolicited piercing in the cheek or ear, nor would a rusty Spin-N-Glo be our first choice of jewelry. Pull this one off and you’ll receive an up-close look down the barrel of the large revolver many anglers wear for grizzly protection.
Ask if we know Sarah Palin.
Though Alaska’s population is less than that of tiny Delaware, it still tops 700,000 people. Inhabitants are spread throughout a large area, which means the chances Alaskan A knows Alaskan B are slim. And while the Palin family does give off a redneck vibe, we aren’t all related Ozark-style.
If you really want to play 6 degrees of separation, we can go with this: My brother once coached her daughter’s baby’s daddy in high school hockey. That’s as close as you’re going to get, now drop it.
Search for penguins.
Alaskans like penguins just as much as the next guy, but just because we find something cute doesn’t mean they live anywhere near us.
You will not see wild penguins in Alaska. For that matter, you won’t see them in Canada, Iceland, Greenland, or any other region near the North Pole either. They happen to be endemic to the Southern Hemisphere, so please refrain from asking about the best place to spot penguins, and do NOT argue with an Alaskan about whether penguins inhabit our great state.
Drive like a blue-hair.
Bad driving is universally disliked, but driving like a granny is deadly in Alaska. We have few roads in proportion to the size of the state, and when tourists flock to major arteries in the summer, traffic tends to get crazy. When someone decides to cruise along at 30mph in a 35ft Winnebago on a two-lane mountain pass, inevitably an impatient bozo six cars back will get fed up and decide to pass the whole line of traffic on a curve. People in Alaska die from this kind of idiocy every summer.
Seriously, obey those road signs that tell you to pull over if you have five or more vehicles behind you. It’s more than common courtesy — it’s a matter of life and death.
Visit only Anchorage and claim you’ve been to Alaska.
There’s a saying among locals: “The best thing about Anchorage is that it’s close to Alaska.” Though Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and once had a frontier-y vibe, don’t assume it’s representative in any way of the entire state. It’s tough to find that true Alaskan feel here these days — the city is being overrun by box stores and chain restaurants.
So, when you hear that I’m from Alaska, don’t tell me you’ve been there too while regaling me with tales of eating at Applebee’s and shopping at Old Navy. If you want to say you’ve been to Alaska, at least have the decency to travel an hour or more outside of the city limits. Bonus points for participating in an Alaskan activity (e.g., salmon fishing, whitewater rafting, being mauled by a bear).
Ask what time the wildlife shows up.
Disneyland runs a tight ship with their show and event schedule, and if punctuality is important to you, then a theme park in California might be the place to go. Alaska, no. The people here are generally on time, but the animals, not so much. We say wildlife in Alaska with an emphasis on the wild.
Alaska’s bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and numerous other iconic species of fauna ramble through the state, but most of them tend to avoid populated areas out of self-preservation, and they sure don’t show up on any sort of schedule. Your best bet is to ask a local where to go for a chance of spotting a wild animal, then sit and wait. If you’re lucky, something will show up, but if not, don’t come bitching to us. We prefer our critters to remain unpredictable.