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10 Terms You Should Know Before Visiting Alaska

Patrick Rides On in Alaska | © Greg Powell
Patrick Rides On in Alaska | © Greg Powell
Even if you’re only in Alaska for a little while, you don’t want to sound like a cheechako. Not sure what that is? Read on and you’ll be a sourdough in no time.

Sourdough

While Alaskans do have a fondness for sourdough pancakes, more often than not, this term is used for someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Land of the Midnight Sun. How much time it takes to achieve that status is contentious. Some say after a full year, newcomers have graduated to sourdoughs. Others claim there’s a checklist of accomplishments one must undertake before earning the title. And others say it’s more of an existential transformation over time.

No, not that kind of sourdough © Bailey Berg

Cheechako

Originally used as a title of a newly arrived prospector in the gold rush era, now the term is applied to anyone who hasn’t spent a full year (or a full winter) in Alaska.

Snowmachine

There are few things that will identify greenhorns as newbies faster than the use of the word “snowmobile.” In America’s Icebox, the machine you use to drive through snow is called a snowmachine.

North Pole

To much of the world, the coordinates for the North Pole are a latitude of 90.0° and a longitude of 0.0°. In Alaska, it’s 64.7511° N and 147.3494° W. The former is the geographical North Pole, the latter is for North Pole, Alaska, a city of just over 2,000 people roughly 20 minutes’ drive from Fairbanks. It’s also where, if you send a letter addressed to Santa Claus in the U.S., your mail will be sent.

Letters to Santa in North Pole, Alaska © Bailey Berg

Breakup

We’re not talking about romance here. Breakup in Alaska is practically a synonym for early spring. It’s the time where river ice breaks up and start flowing. It’s also when the ground thaws and snow melts, leaving massive standing puddles everywhere. Expect many potholes and perpetually dirty cars from the beginning of breakup until summer.

Expect big puddles in breakup season © Bailey Berg

Lower 48

Simply put, it’s the contiguous 48 states (all of the states minus Alaska and Hawaii). Another synonym is “Outside,” as in, anyone from outside of Alaska.

PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend)

After the discovery of oil in Alaska, the Permanent Fund was established. It states that a portion of oil money needs to be invested into a fund to help future generations when oil is no longer harvested from Alaska. Each year, part of the earnings are divvied up between residents in the form of a check (in 2017 it amounted to $1,100 for each person who had lived in Alaska the entire previous calendar year). You’ll know when the checks are deposited in the fall – suddenly every business in town has a PFD sale.

Subsistence

Usually refers to subsistence harvesting – hunting, fishing, and gathering food and natural resources. It’s been a central part of Alaska Native cultural traditions for centuries.

Salmon are a subsistence food in Alaska © Bailey Berg

Running

If someone says “they’re running” it’s either a reference to someone out for a jog or (more likely) that the rivers are thick with salmon heading upstream to spawn. When the fish are running, you’ll see eager anglers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for a bite. When there’s the high density of humans, too, it’s called “combat fishing.”

Termination dust

The first snow of the season usually starts in the mountains. It may be raining in town, but the temperatures at the peaks are lower, so they’ll get a some fresh powder, instead. Locals will say that first visible sign of snow in the mountains is the signal that summer is over and winter is coming.

Termination Dust sits atop the mountains in Anchorage © Bailey Berg