The Skinny Raven Shop 907 article from a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about Alaskan's shoes. My wife is a transplant to Alaska who moved here from Washington state more than three years ago. The first thing she noticed was the license plates.
"Why are there so many customized license plates?" she asked early on. It's a common question I get from friends who come up to visit. I usually attribute it to the old ugly yellow-and-blue standard plates, a template the customized plates avoid.
A little later, she began to notice the shoes. Alaskans just wear different types of shoes than the rest of the U.S. Not to say the shoes don't exist elsewhere -- it's just that their popularity in Alaska seems to be unlike anywhere else I've seen in the Lower 48. So I began wracking my brain for shoes that have a popularity up here that isn't reflected in the other states in the union.
We certainly have a fondness for shoes with ugly, monosyllabic names -- Uggs, Crocs, Bogs, Mucks -- but surely that isn't the unifying factor. What shoe best embodies the Alaska spirit? What shoe can be worn by an oilfield worker on the North Slope, a subsistence hunter in the Interior, a weekend warrior on the Kenai, an urban Alaskan doing some midday shopping, a southeasterner tromping around gravelly beaches? What shoe works in summer, winter, breakup -- which, lets face it, are the only seasons we enjoy up here?
The first shoe that came to mind is the Dansko. It's hard to go anywhere in Anchorage without seeing someone wearing a pair of Dansko clogs. I'm told the Danish-style shoes are very comfortable after being broken in, and the high soles are nice for elevating the foot away from a thin layer of snow coating downtown sidewalks in the winter.My wife took notice as well, and purchased a pair of her own after a couple of years in the state. Soon, she was sending some to her mother back in Washington, who had never heard of them, even though they were perfectly suited for her work in a floral shop where she spent a lot of time on her feet. My own mother has several pairs, including ones painted by local artist Romney Dodd.
Working against the brand is the fact that while they're not solely available in women's styles, I can count on one hand the number of men I've ever seen wearing them around. They're also somewhat restricted to city-dwellers and have little insulation for the cold winter months. They're designed for casual comfort, not active use.
Given these shortcomings, and the fact that our state is shrouded in a thick coat of snow for half the year, it would seem the only logical choice for the Official State Shoe of Alaska would indeed be a boot.
First, we should rule out some boots. Bogs are another popular choice for urban Alaska and offer warmth, waterproofing, and a high cut to keep snow from slipping into your socks. But again, although they offer a variety of styles for men, they seem to be much more popular with women.
Muck Boots, offering many of the same benefits and even some of the same aesthetics as Bogs, have the opposite problem. Their following among men seems much larger than among women. Hunters and construction workers (both male and female -- no discernment there) love their warmth, comfort and durability, but the plain black styling probably does little for fashionistas looking to make a statement. And the camouflage look is only for the brave few. I personally own an insulated pair for working outside in the winter and those mid-January trips to the dog park.
For fashion, Uggs are probably the most famously stylish boot, worn by young women across the nation and celebrities in tabloids -- not to mention Tom Brady's recent questionable endorsement deal with the company. But their lack of waterproofing can lead to frozen toes on slushy days. While still popular in Alaska, Uggs don't reach the same level of ubiquity here as they do elsewhere in the Lower 48. They also suffer from the same gender-centric problem as Muck Boots and Bogs, successful NFL quarterbacks aside.
That leads us to our runner-up: Bunny Boots. Designed for use in extreme cold weather -- the white pairs are rated up to minus-65 degrees -- these boots are popular for those working outdoors in the Alaska winter, especially the closer they get to the Arctic Circle. The boots are extremely bulky and heavy because of all that insulation, however, and offer little to anyone wanting to wear them in warmer temperatures.
Which takes us to my pick for the official State Shoe of Alaska, a jack-of-all-trades, all-season, gender-neutral boot. It can be seen on clam diggers near Homer, commercial fishermen in Unalaska, villagers motoring across the tundra on four-wheelers, and hipster kids in midtown Anchorage. It can be worn in the summer and the winter, in rain, shine, and break-up; with jeans, Carhartts, and skirts. They aren't sold in trendy boutiques, but in industrial supply shops and at Costco. They are Honeywell's Xtra Tuf boots.
The Xtra Tuf is an odd choice for fashion -- it sports brown rubber with a beige stripe above the sole and the top of the leg opening. It has a small rectangular logo on the top front, usually just below the knee. Jeans can be tucked into them or worn outside, because the rubber is particularly pliable.
Go to the website and you'll see only a few styles, all the same color. The only difference is in the height of the boot, whether it has a steel toe, and the availability of insulation. There are a total of six styles for adults, and they only come in men's sizes 3-16 -- women have to figure out their size conversion. There is also a single style of kids' boot.
But they are surely the most ubiquitous shoe in Alaska, and can be seen on the Great Land's men and women from the far north to the ends of the Aleutians and the islands of Southeast. Xtra Tuf even promotes them as "worn for commercial fishing, canneries, general outdoor, casual wear and for fashion in Alaska!" A trooper in an episode of the National Geographic series "Alaska State Troopers" refers to the boots as "Southeast sneakers."
Our love of these boots, and their recognition of our love for them, merits their title as official state shoe of Alaska. They're versatile, practical, and beautifully basic. Just like us.
But this is just one man's opinion. Did I miss the mark? What do you think the official shoe of Alaska should be?
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.