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Alaska Definitions

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

We hope the following “Alaska Definitions” will enhance your knowledge and guide you through your Alaskan Adventure. There are many Alaskan terms you may not be familiar with:

Fact:  A “fact” is what the tour guide tells you. Another fact is that every tour guide and every information sign has a different number or name for the same fact. The more we learn about the rebuilding of caribou herds (also called “reindeer” if they are domesticated), it’s hard to know if there are 500 or 500,000 roaming the northern lands.

Alaska Time Zone: One hour earlier than Pacific Time. Confusing at first, but it works.

Arctic Haze: The north’s version of smog, mostly from industrial pollution and forest fires imported from Russia by prevailing winds.

Web AK definitions Athabaskan mapAthabaskan:  The collective name for the Indians of Interior Alaska and Northwestern Canada and their language. Athabaskans are closely related to the Navajos. Of the roughly 19 native people languages still spoken in Alaska today, 11 are Athabaskan, so you hear that term often, particularly in the Alaskan Interior. In Arctic regions, the people are Inupiaq. Along the lower coast are the Yupik people. Then there are the Aleuts (pronounced “Al-e-oots”) around the Aleutian Islands. The natives refer to themselves as the “First Nation People.”

Bore Tide:
  A huge tide. The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia is the world leader at over 50 feet. “Turnagain Bay” in Alaska is either the second or third highest bore tide in the world at 23 or 28 feet. And Wikipedia and local books disagree on who named Turnagain Bay and why and when.

Bush:  Areas in the Interior accessible only by air or intrepid dog-sledding.  We met an artist who said he lived in “the Bush,” but by his garb, we think he meant “a bush.”

Web AK definitions fireweed flowerCentre:  The Canadian spelling of “center,” and there are “metres” here, but they have no problem with “otter.”  They also misspell “labour” and “humour” by U.S. standards.

A small town, river and loop road.  You don’t really need to know that, but it is indicative of the unique names in Alaska.  Tok (pronounced Tōk), Chicken, etc.

Drunken Spruce:  Undernourished spruce trees that lean in sundry directions.  They are part of miles of undernourished spruce forests with trees hundreds of years old but looking like new plantings because they try to survive on “permafrost.”

Fireweed:  Vibrant magenta wildflowers that line the roads throughout Yukon and Alaska in the summer. It is the provincial flower of the Yukon, and locals know it as the harbinger of autumn. Blossoms move up the stem as the summer draws to an end.

Web AK definitions frost heavesFrost Heaves:  Roads and towns are built on permafrost, which melts and refreezes, creating havoc for engineers and keeping lots of summer workers busy. Frost heaves cause RVs traveling down highways at 55 mph to leave the pavement suddenly. Beware of frost heaves.

Glacial Flour:
Silt carried by millions of waterfalls throughout the area cascades down mountains and into rivers, lakes and fjords.  All emerald and aqua green waters get their enchanting, picturesque coloring from glacial flour. On the other hand, the Nenana River is ugly grey as it carries glacial soft silt down to the Yukon River.

Inukshuk: (or  “inuksuk”). The First People’s “Inukshuk” is a statue built of stones that, depending on the person giving you its history, is either, 1) to point the way from one place to another by: A) looking in the direction of its arms or B) by looking between the legs, or 2) a marker of a spot, like where to find the best caribou, or 3) since it is in the form of a man, it was to scare away critters. Take your pick.

Web AK definitions lateral moraineLateral Moraine:  Rocks and debris pushed aside by glaciers during the many Ice Ages, which ran from about 11,000 to 3,000 years ago, and probably earlier. There are also terminal moraines and others you’ll learn about as you travel the glacial regions.

Loony:  A $1 coin; a “tooney” is a $2 coin.  Folding money begins at $5. Most other Canadian coins are easily confused with U.S. coins.

Lower 48:  The rest of the United States.

Mukluks:  High boots designed and insulated for arctic wear, mostly made by natives from animal skins and fur.

Muskeg:  Mushy land through which the U.S. Army slogged to build the Alaskan (Alcan) Highway.

  (or “musk ox” or “muskox”) Very weird-looking creatures raised for their fine wool.

Northern Lights:  Also called the “aurora borealis.” A phenomenon of nature that is said to be glorious, but since it happens when it is dark, which means in the winter and, therefore, too cold for comfortable RVing, it would probably be wise to fly up to Alaska and stay in a B&B or hotel to see it. And that brings up the concept of “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” It takes a while to get used to walking outside at 1 a.m. on June 21 and seeing your shadow, but it’s part of the wonder of this land. South of the Equator, there is the “borealis australis.”

Web AK definitions northern lightsPeduncle Slap:  When a whale comes out of the sea, as the last third of the whale hits the water, it makes a loud “peduncle slap.” A very useless bit of information learned from a boat skipper.

Under the surface of much of the earth is frozen organic material that has been there since the Ice Age. At Destruction Bay, Yukon, it goes down about 160 feet. Tough to build and maintain an RV park in those conditions.

Pigeon Guillemot: One of many strange-named birds that are common on Alaskan water. Another was the kittiwake. And speaking of birds, Bald Eagles are everywhere and always impressive.

Pigs:  Internally powered cylinders that are inserted into the Alaska Pipeline at pumping stations to clean out the insides of the 799-mile-long engineering marvel.

Web AK definitions Ulu knife’64 Earthquake: On Good Friday 1964, an earthquake measuring 9.2 changed the geology of Alaska, compounded by three tsunamis. The waterfront of many cities disappeared into the fjords and bays. Towns were leveled and roads disappeared. First Nation People were rescued by military and police forces, bringing about major changes in their cultures. Films showing the devastation are horrifying.

Ulu: How have you lived all your life without one of these native-perfected knives? It slices, it dices, it fillets fish, it makes an excellent gift for folks back home, who have lived their whole lives without one. There are 2.5 gift shops per tourist in these remote lands, all with “ulus” for sale, and don’t forget the handcrafted bowl that goes with it.

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