When I rolled into my small Alaskan Ford 36 years ago this month, I didn’t know an animatronic salmon dog. You could have told me that the North Slope was connected to the Panhandle and I would have believed you.
At the time, I misspelled the name of my new home river – Tanana – because a pitcher for the California Angels spelled its name the same way.
I could have avoided this embarrassment had I had the Alaskan English Dictionary.
In it, former University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor Russell Tapbert included hundreds of terms he found unique in Alaska. He compiled it in a volume published in 1991 and considered it “a museum of linguistic natural history, providing a view of the land and the lives of the people there.”
Over time, I stopped saying snowmobile. “Snowmachine” and “sno-go” described the same device and were more fun to say.
[Curious Alaska: Why do Alaskans call it a snowmachine instead of a snowmobile?]
I settled down to live in the hot and cold “inland”, which is just as central Alaska as it sounds, and visited the treeless “Northern Slope” out of the Brooks mountain range and the rainforests of the “Southeast”. Once I sailed on a research boat almost to the end of the “Aleutian Chain” to Russia.
Indoors, the heavily insulated white “bunny boots” are a common sight inside the home’s “Arctic Entrance,” waiting to shield the owner’s toes from the cooler than 35-degree Fahrenheit air. This is the temperature at which “ice fog” forms, because cold, dry air cannot tolerate more moisture.
Some of my favorite times happened while navigating through the “jungles,” which are wild places far from the major cities of Alaska. Bosch includes more than 200 indigenous villages, most of which are on the banks of rivers. In one of these communities, I might sweat in a wood-heated ‘vapor’ (sauna) or – if honored with an invitation – bring a potlatch, where indigenous people share food, often in memory of someone who has died.
Traveling in the country in the middle of the Yukon River, I heard stories of the “lumberjack man,” a creature with the magic of Bigfoot.
Anthropologist Richard Nelson once wrote: “Forest woodcutters are as real as any other creature in the Koyukon environment (Koyukuk and Yukon rivers), but they are very shy and quickly disappear when people approach.” “Lumberjacks are especially happy to harass people, which they do by whistling, throwing sticks, rustling brushes, or issuing evil laughter near them.”
Somewhat easier to see than a lumberjack as he now swims over the great Alaskan rivers are “chinooks” (king salmon), “dogs” (friends), “cohos” (silver), “humpies” (pink) and “sockeyes” ” (the Red ).
When the water freezes and snowmakers launch their rigs and congregate in trails, dog hunters follow. Along the “zigzag lines” extending from the front of the sled, they put the “lead dogs” on top of the team. A good leader knows “ji” – right – from “hao” – left. The “swing dogs” are tied into a pair behind the leader or a pair of leaders. Dogs with wheels are attached near the sled. Mushers borrowed all these terms from horse drivers.
It took me a while to learn the terminology of “honeybucket”, a 5 gallon pail used in place of a toilet. ‘Push’, dark plants pushed on pond ice by musk; and a “washeteria,” a building with hot showers and washing machines in a location where there is no plumbing system, but I’m now familiar with all the Alaskan-centric terms that Tapbert documented.
Perhaps this is a sign that I – as they said in the old days – “missed a lot of boats.”