Alaska Life

From our archives: Some thoughts of where ‘The real Alaska’ begins

Originally published Nov. 17, 1986 in the ADN’s We Alaskans magazine

"The nice thing about Anchorage is it's close to Alaska." So goes the cliche. But the popular maxim leaves one question unanswered: If Anchorage isn't Alaska, where does Alaska begin?

Real Alaskans statewide have spent endless hours pondering the issue, no doubt while gazing at the dank, underwearbedecked walls of real Alaska roadhouses.

In these establishments, it's fashionable to say the Real Alaskan lifestyle is retreating, cowering in the face of a malignant urbanization. The heart of the cancer, Los Anchorage, has quickly infected the surrounding areas with its pollution, bureaucracy, and general unneighborliness.

"I generally halfcock my revolver when I hit Peters Creek," said Nelchina hog farmer Herb Simon.

But not all Alaskans subscribe to the philosophy. Judging by an unscientific poll of Alaska oldtimers, Bush residents, smalltown politicians and Anchorage yuppies, Alaska could begin a few miles past the farthest road, or in the Matanuska Valley's subdivided suburbia, or at Anchorage International Airport.

A slight difference of opinion. But then, difference of opinion is a Real Alaskan trait.

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Ask Jim Bitney, the lone teacherprincipal at Skwentna School, and he'll say the Real Alaska lifestyle is incompatible with asphalt and convenience stores.

Set in the roadless expanse west of the Susitna River, Skwentna is really a 200squaremile area of swamps, forests and prime salmon streams, peppered with a few fishing lodges and homesteads. There, or in any Bush community, selfreliance is what separates the Alaskans from the quasiAlaskans, Bitney said.

Bush residents withstood the recent flood disaster far differently than their counterparts in Willow and Seward, for example, according to Bitney. Since everyone in Skwentna routinely squirrels away four to six weeks' worth of food anyway, residents there must practically lose their cabins entirely to need emergency assistance, he said.

While Anchorage residents worry about black ice on the highways, Bush residents worry about incomplete freezeups stranding them at home for weeks on end. When it's not safe to travel in town, he said, people travel anyway. When it's not safe to travel in the Bush, they sit at home and grumble.

"I'll give you another illustration. When you go Outside to visit, you could talk about Eskimos and subsistence lifestyles for days," Bitney said. "But they're really not interested in hearing about splitlevel homes and what bridge club you belong to.

"I think if you get far enough off the roads it really creates a different lifestyle entirely. You have to be independent."

Some longtime residents hold to a less strict definition of Alaska's boundaries. Lifestyle, more than road access, is the important factor, they say.

Friendliness and informal attitudes draw the lines for George Carte, Palmer's parttime mayor. There's still some Real Alaska remaining, he said, where doors can be left unlocked and dress codes are loose. The Golden Arches, on the other hand, herald the arrival of the Lower 48 for Carte, he said.

McDonald's recently built its first franchise in Palmer.

"The Alaska attitude . . . is hard to define," Carte said. "It's where in the downtown area they're not embarrassed to go shopping with mukluks and suspenders on."

Carte charted his own history of the advance of nonAlaska. In the 1960s, before the 1964 earthquake, Anchorage still clung to some of its friendly nature. Ten years later, the Real Alaska boundary fell somewhere around Eagle River. Now, Carte lumps the Matanuska Valley, from the Big Lake cutoff to Palmer, in with the Anchorage lifestyle.

"I think Houston's still Bushy enough for us . . . Big lake's getting too urban and sophisticated," he said. "I really might be criticized for saying this, but the Valley's losing some of its friendliness. Businesses are getting bigger and more impersonal.

"I lock my cars now. Golly, I never used to lock my house or my car when I first came to Anchorage."

Simon seems to agree, but is more optimistic.

"I think in about six months Alaskans are going to have Alaska back," he said. "I live on the main trunk going Outside (the Glenn Highway), and they're LEAVING, with the mattress and bike tied to the top and the kids in back."

The view is different from the upscale heart of Anchorage, at least for Jim and Sue Tupper. The young couple moved north a year ago from Washington, D.C., when Jim transfered to the Alaska office of his law firm. They live in Bootlegger Cove.

Jim and Sue don't agree on Alaska. But then, Sue doesn't share Jim's love of the outdoors. If their personal television show were "Green Acres," Jim would be Eddie Albert and Sue would be Eva Gabor.

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For Sue, Alaska begins at the airport, and goes downhill from there.

"You have to understand, I've made it a point not to really take part in the "Alaska Experience,' so for me it's sort of a moot point," she said with a laugh. "I'm not exactly what you would call a happy camper my idea of a camping trip is a nice room in the (Hotel Captain) Cook, with chocolates on the pillow.

"I just find it a very lonely and harsh environment . . . It's a beautiful land, I'm in awe of it, and I don't mean to be so flip about it.

"I just need something more populated."

A few oldtimers, such as Charles "Scatter" Edwards of Wasilla, take a cynical stance. The former manager of the Rainbow Lake Lounge, Edwards is a onetime brothel owner with a boisterous past.

"I don't know about this Alaska anymore. It's gone to hell," Edwards said. "There's too many politicians hell, they've ruined the country, they've ruined the whole world.

"You can't go nowhere and get away from them they'll fly in with helicopters."

Perhaps the biggest category of all were those Alaskans who don't draw any boundaries. Like it or not, Anchorage remains the economic center of the state, they say. The shifting suburban jungles of Wasilla, and herds of Subaru commuters on the Glenn Highway, are every bit as Alaskan as Ungalikthluk and Johnnie Frog Cabin.

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For them, "Where does Alaska begin" is simply a dumb question.

"It's a cliche to say that Anchorage is not part of Alaska," said Lidia Selkregg, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska and a 28year resident. "Of course it's in Alaska. In a few minutes, you can be in the wilderness.

"I feel very sad when I drive to MatSu. I worry that the strip commercial development could go all the way to Mount McKinley some day. At least Anchorage has a center."

But the boundaries within the state, she said, "depend on what people see and what people want to see."

MaryJo Comins, who works at the Sheep Mountain Lodge, said she has friends from Fairbanks who would say they're "going back to Alaska" after a visit to Anchorage. But she also knows people in Anchorage who live without electricity or water, in semiwilderness settings.

“To say where Alaska starts you can’t put a geographical boundary on it,” Comins said. “I’ve seen a lot of change, and I guess the lesson from it is the only thing constant is change.”

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