Greetings, everyone– I’m Northern Lights Ned and I’m here to remind you that there is a science to your Alaskan Adventure. Today we are going to discuss some of the most popular misconceptions about Alaska…and FLIP them around! Alaska is a grand and mysterious place famous for the Alaskan tall tale that blurs the lines between fact and fantasy. Many of these tall tales have lent themselves into myths that many people take for fact. Before heading to Alaska on your own Alaskan excursion, let’s discuss the truth behind some of these blurred blunders.
1. Alaskan People Live in Igloos and Drive Dog Sleds
This is a fun mental image of Alaskan people, however the reality is that modern Alaskans live in homes and residential areas very similar to those all across the rest of the United States– complete with heat and electricity! While Igloos did exist in the past, and were typically used as temporary shelters by native people during hunts– they are not used as primary dwellings as some cartoons would suggest.
The majority of Alaskans also drive the same vehicles that you would find in the “lower 48”– although you will likely see more 4×4 trucks and all-wheel-drive cars because they handle much better in the snow and icy road conditions. Certainly there are plenty of folks that drive dogsleds, but most are training for major dog mushing events such as the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.
2. The Northern Lights Can be Simply “Turned On”
This is a myth that is a favorite among locals! Unfortunately no, we are unable to flip a switch to turn on the aurora borealis for our guests– although we certainly wish we could. They are amazing and we wish we could see them every night as well! The northern lights are a natural phenomenon, and while it may seem unsettling to not have a complete guarantee that you will see them during your trip– it is that uncertainty that makes it much more special when you do see them! That being said, we would turn them on for you if we could!
3. You Will See Polar Bears, Whales, and Penguins While Visiting Interior Alaska
No, no, and sorry again– no. Fairbanks and the rest of the Interior of Alaska has great majesty and many chances to see the northern lights, see wildlife, learn about our culture and ways of life, and experience many fun adventures– but polar bears, penguins, and whales are not on our list. Alaska is an extremely large state, and if it were laid directly on top of the continental United States, Interior Alaska would reside in the Midwest…Oklahoma, more specifically. For polar bears one would need to travel far above the Arctic Circle– check out some amazing tours from Northern Alaska Tour Company. If you are in search of whales, travel to the coasts– either South Central Alaska, or even the Arctic Ocean on Alaska’s northernmost coast! As far as penguins go, you would need to travel to the south pole because they don’t live anywhere in Alaska!
4. You Can See Russia from Interior Alaska!
Bless Sarah Palin for putting Alaska on the map during the John McCain presidential campaign of 2008. Her media sound-byte– and subsequent barrage of comedian banter– about being able to see Russia from her house spread faster and wider than an Alaskan forest fire! While, yes there are a very few locations in the westernmost coasts of Alaska that are very close to Russia (55 miles at the most narrow), Alaskans who live outside of those few locations (which is the vast majority) are unable to see Russia.
5. Alaska is an Island Located Next to Hawaii
It’s time to fix another geography myth! In an effort to express all of the United States on a map, almost all maps depict Alaska and Hawaii as insets to the lower left of the map– just off the western coast of Mexico. A common geography error is to believe that this is where Alaska is truly located. In a true-to-scale map of North America, it is much easier to see the incredible distance between Alaska and the rest of the continental United States– about 1,500 miles between Alaska and Washington state!
6. It’s Always Cold and Snowy!
Another comical image of Alaska is akin to the ice planet Hoth from Star Wars. Given Alaska’s size, many ecosystems are represented from rain forest to desert to tundra! While the far north certainly has cold temperatures for much of the year, the rest of Alaska is rather temperate and even HOT in the summer! Here in the Interior, we are generally the coldest spot in Alaska for the winter– dipping down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit– and the hot spot in the summer– with temperatures rising to above 80 degrees Fahrenheit!
7. What? Why Does Alaska Have so many Electric Cars?
Most, if not all vehicles in Interior Alaska have an electrical cord coming out of the front– but no, we are not on the cutting edge of electric car technology. These cords are attached to oil pan heaters and engine block heaters which make a car “winterized.” In the extremely cold temperatures, it becomes crucial to plug in these accessories because the vehicle may not start otherwise. While oil does not freeze, it does “gel” and thicken at cold temperatures. When a winterized vehicle is plugged in, it keeps the oil and engine at a reasonable temperature and ready for safe and comfortable winter driving!
8. Alaska Uses Its Own Currency and US Postage Stamps are Unusable
Alaska is– and always will be– a proud part of the United States of America. Therefore, we use American money. There is no need for visitors with American money to exchange at all. Better still, all domestic stamps and mailing supplies will work in getting all those fantastic souvenirs and gifts home to those who live in the continental United States and Hawaii!
If you are sending gifts and souvenirs back home, keep in mind your home nation’s rules about what you may or may not be able to send home. Also bear in mind that mail may take a bit longer to arrive than you are used to!
9. There are No Large Cities in Alaska
While the total population is rather small in Alaska– the majority of Alaskans live in three major metropolitan areas: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Yes, there are many, many small communities all across Alaska, but the cities in Alaska provide many of the creature comforts that you would find in any mid-sized city across America. There are plenty of department stores, restaurants, and services in these areas, so you don’t have to “rough it” here in Alaska unless you really want to!
10. The Different Cities and Alaskan Destinations are Pretty Close to Each Other
There is quite a bit of pavement between most Alaskan towns, and some are not even accessible by road! Fairbanks is about 120 miles from Denali Park, 350 miles from Anchorage, about 650 miles from Juneau. Whether you are traveling by car, train, or plane it will take some time to arrive at your destination. Thankfully there is incredibly beautiful scenery along the way!
11. There are 10 Men to Every One Woman in Alaska
It is a common myth– and certainly may have been true during the Gold Rush days– that men outnumbered women here in Alaska ten to one. This has spurred the famous quote for women that are dating men in Alaska: “The odds may be good, but the goods are odd.” Nowadays, men still outnumber women, but it is only by a very slight margin– about 1.1 men to every one woman. That being said, there are more female graduates of the University of Alaska system, and many of Alaska’s professional industries reflect a balance of women and men.
12. There is Nothing To Do– and Everything Closes Down in the Winter Months!
Our last myth to debunk today is the common misconception that Alaska is only open visiting from May to September. Nothing is further from the truth! Winter brings a whole new level of excitement and practically a whole new destination to visit! One of the most exciting attractions include the northern lights! When the snow comes, so do many of the outdoor winter adventures such as skiing, snow-mobiling, snow-shoeing, ice fishing, and dog mushing! For those visitors that appreciate the warm indoors more than being outside, Fairbanks has many options for you, too! Check out the article written by Borealis Betty called “top things to do in Fairbanks while waiting for the northern lights.” Another great resource is our premier local visitors bureau, Explore Fairbanks (www.explorefairbanks.com). There is always fun experiences to be had here in Interior Alaska!
I am glad that we could add a dash of scientific truth and debunk some common myths and misconceptions about life in Interior Alaska and visiting our majestic state. As we say here in my lab– when we understand how it all works, Alaska is all the more grand! Enjoy your visit to Alaska!
-Northern Lights Ned
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