Monday, September 22, 2008

Understanding Alaska to Understand Palin

On Sunday, September 21, the following appeared in the Seattle PI newspaper as a guest column. It was intended as a neutral piece addressing how those in Alaska might view the world differently from those residing in the lower 48 states. It inspired considerable on-line reaction from some who viewed it as partisan, either way. Here it is, as it appeared in that paper.

Sarah Palin's ascent to the national stage has political pundits scrambling. Who is she? What does she believe? Is she for real? While her record in public office will provide breadcrumbs for the investigative tracker, a look at Alaska and its people might contribute to an understanding of the woman. Since she has lived in Alaska nearly her entire life, the essence of the place is a part of her being.

Alaska and its people are different. Visitors may not sense the difference unless they move away from their hotels, cruise ship terminals or the airport. But if they reach out, wander the state and engage its people they will sense the differences.

First of all, it's a big place. So is Texas. But Alaska is 2 1/2 times larger. It's twice the size of the original 13 colonies combined. That wide-open space is a factor in how Alaskans view their home.

In other ways it's small. In population it ranks 47th; only three states have fewer residents. And they tend to live in small communities. Only three cities have a population of more than 10,000 and only Anchorage exceeds 100,000. Wasilla, Palin's hometown, is typical at 9,800 (not counting the newly arrived reporters.) Some argue that small towns in Alaska or any other state tend to foster a closeness not found in big city environments.

Alaska is remote from the lower 48 states and, with its great expanses of open space, its small towns are often remote from one another. Many can only be reached by sea or air.

To many on the "outside" Alaska is a land of myths perpetuated by history, television and misinformed writers.

Myth: Alaskans are hardy independent types who don't much care for outsiders.
Reality: There is a frontier independent streak evident with many locals. But they are the friendliest people I've ever met, even when you are clearly an out-of-state tourist. They are courteous drivers. They yield to pedestrians. They stop to help if you appear to have car trouble.

Myth: All the men in Alaska wear wool plaid shirts and drive rusty pickup trucks.
Reality: As for the wool plaid shirts, not so much. Most Alaska residents would not stand out at a Minnesota mall. But it does rain and snow at times and they dress for it.
Old TV shows, such as "Northern Exposure" and "Men in Trees" (neither of which were filmed in Alaska), helped form the image of the rusty Alaska pickup truck. Well, it's not true. There are certainly old trucks around. But the parking lot at the local Safeway displays a robust mix of vehicles. In an informal survey, taken on the road to Homer (population 5,400), only 22 percent of the vehicles were pickup trucks. And most were free of rust or duct tape repairs. Perhaps some were left at home because of gas prices but still, real Alaskans don't all drive trucks.

Myth: It rains or snows all the time.
Reality: It rains and snows some of the time. I suspect that a local will tell you it is what it is. Oh, they appreciate a sunny warm day and, in the summer, they get long, long sunny days. If the weather turns cold or damp, life goes on. I've watched pub patrons enjoying their beverages on the outside deck in parkas, hats and gloves because the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I watched a tai chi class on wet grass enjoying the sun and ignoring the 50-degree temperature. I've watched fishermen crowding a riverbank in their rain gear trying to coax salmon from the waters. I've seen campers parked side by side on the frozen Chena River awaiting the return of mushers during a winter dog sled race.

The residents take the weather they are given, dress for it and live their life without whining.

Myth: They drink black coffee from crockery mugs.
Reality: Some do, but they like good coffee like everyone else. Espresso stands abound; drive-through, walk-up and walk-in stands appear in towns, large and small. I saw three drive-in stands in a four-block area of remote Soldotna, a fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula. And the names reflect the state: The Coffee Boat (housed in an old fishing boat), Latte Landing (on a lake shore) and the Reel Cup (in a fishing resort.)

Myth: They don't respect the environment. They kill their wildlife, dislike wolves and support drilling for oil in ANWR.
Reality: They love and respect their environment, but not in a way easily understood by "outsiders."

They love their wildlife. They love to watch it and they love to eat some of it. By and large they are not looking for trophies to hang on a wall. They are looking for meat for the freezer. Many are subsistence hunters. For them hunting is key to eating. Others are sport hunters. They enjoy hunting but wouldn't starve if they had a bad year. But few are killing for the sake of killing. Hunting is a tradition; a fall ritual passed down through generations.

The governor hunts. That fact does not turn Alaskan heads. Lots of people hunt in Alaska because there is lots of game to hunt in Alaska. It is not conducted like a Wild West buffalo hunt. The state values the resource and manages the hunt. Bottom line, hunting is no big deal in Alaska.

As for wolf hunting, an activity Palin's state administration supports, opinions vary. In Anchorage, the largest city, you will find more support for wolves and less support for hunting most anything. But the typical small town sees wolves as an overprotected predator that threatens the rest of Alaska's wildlife heritage. In the lower 48, Palin's views on wolf hunting might be viewed as extreme. Not so in her home state.

Then there is the question of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska argument, not supported by all residents, might go like this:
First, we need the energy resource. It's there; drill now.
Second, it's good for the economy. Locals enjoy the lowest per capita taxes in the nation because of the taxes generated by the existing energy operations.
Third, it's safe. The existing pipeline has been operating for decades with little environmental impact. Drilling for and transporting oil can be done safely. The Exxon Valdez was an anomaly (they might not use that word). Post-oil-spill safety improvements have eliminated the risk of similar spills.
Finally, get over it. The Arctic region is huge. The drilling operation will impact only a pinprick-sized area of the state.

Alaska is Alaska.

Palin is from Alaska. Some of her views may seem out of place in Washington, D.C., salons but are less so in her home state. To understand the woman, it helps to understand the lens through which she views the nation. That lens was ground and colored by a life in Alaska.

As the presidential race moves to the wire, voters will learn more about the governor. And in doing so they will learn more about the other 680,000 residents who call Alaska home. We may all be better off for the experience.

Stephen Dennis is a Bellevue-based writer who has traveled extensively in Alaska.

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