Road to Alaska: Section III

Alaskan Humor and Wildlife

     Classic Alaskan joke:
      What is the state bird of Alaska?
      The Mosquito.
      When the people in the bar found out I was new, they almost fell over each other to tell me this joke. I didn’t get it at first, so they had to explain. “You know, ‘cause they’re so big.” Which still didn’t get a response from me, so they expanded on the story. “Well, you know, out in the middle of nowhere, in the marshland, there are so many of them and they are so big, they can actually kill a moose by sucking all the blood out of it.”
      “Are you serious?” I answered and then I thought, Could that be possible? I mean this is Alaska, and I have seen some pretty big mosquitoes. No, that can’t be true, it’s just an old wives tale, told to newbie’s. But it sounds good, and sometimes the best stories are the one’s that sound good.
      I found myself, retelling the same stupid mosquito joke, six months later, to someone who was new to Alaska.
      I guess that’s how urban legends get started.

      There is another joke, well, it’s not really a joke, more a piece of wisdom on the mentality of the people of Alaska, but it must be a joke, because the teller always finishes it up with a hearty laugh.
      “So you’re walking in the woods with your friend, and the only gun you have is a pistol. Suddenly a bear jumps onto the trail in front of you. It sees you and charges. How do you get away?”
      “Um, shoot the bear?” I answer.
      “No, shoot your friend in the foot and run.” This is where the storyteller laughs heartily.
      My face scrunched up in a scowl that said, why the hell would you do that?
      So the teller answers with, “a pistol will only get the bear angry, it won’t stop it, so the only way to get away is to make your friend run slower than you.”
      So that’s how to survive in Alaska.

      But I also found out, in a strange sort of way, the three things that are needed to survive in Alaska (other than a friend and a gun).
      During my first winter, working at the Captain Cook Hotel, I bartended small Christmas parties. One of the parties was a large family having their gift exchange. Each person brought one gift and they drew numbers to see who would pick from the pile of gifts in the center of the room.
      The gift theme for this year was: Survival in Alaska.
      The gifts revolved around two simple items: Alcohol and Duct Tape.
      And not just any alcohol, but Crown Royal whiskey, with its purple bag. I’m not sure how the bag helps to survive in Alaska, but the alcohol certainly does.
      Later, drinking in a bar after work, I relayed my newfound knowledge, and was told the third thing needed to survive in Alaska: blue tarps.
      I once saw a man who had repaired his winter books with stripes of blue tarp and duct tape. So I assumed that somewhere on his person was a bottle of Crown Royal.

      There was another Alaskan joke, and this one went like this: “What is the plural of Moose?” When the recipient looked dumfounded, the teller said “Meese, you know, like goose, geese…” and then laughed uproarisly.
      It is really not a funny joke, but after living in Alaska for a while, I found myself, usually while drunk late at night, repeating this, um, joke to other newbie’s, and laughing heartily when I told it.
      Maybe being that far north degrades you sense of humor.
      But, like the clichés say, there are moose in Alaska. I know because I got a present on Christmas morning. Standing on my third floor deck, looking out over the inlet, a moose quietly nibbled at the branches sticking through the snow in my front yard and I felt like I was in the opening credits of Northern Exposure.
      Moose are damn big. Weighing somewhere close to 1000 pounds. That’s 300 pounds more than me and my motorcycle combined.
      The first moose I saw was on the AlCan, on one of the infinite stretches where trees line each side of the road, and the motorcycle felt like it’s on a treadmill.
      I saw movement off to the left of the road, and a baby moose bolted from its hiding place out into the road. It was far enough in front of me, that I had to brake quickly, but was in no danger of hitting it. The baby looked confused and lost. It was about the size of a small deer, with legs that looked eight feet long, with pencil thin calves and huge knobbily knees that seemed to bend in both directions. Its hooves slipped on the hard road as it crossed.
      But once on the other side, it decided that it was better to be on the original side of the road, so it cut back and crossed in front of me once again.
      Then, it its confused state, decided that it was on the wrong side of the road again, and cut across in front of me.
      This time it was sure of where it wanted to go, and plunged into the trees and disappeared.

      At another point of the AlCan, a small herd of Buffalo cropped the grass by the side of the road. Their great shaggy chests and shoulders gave the impression of patient power, while the horns advertised imminent danger.
      There were no fences along the side of the road, and they all stopped and watched as I motored past.
      At a different time, a wandering bird joined my travels. I don’t know what type it was, but it was small and dark and it looked like the F-114 Tomcat had been designed from its silhouette.
      My speedometer read 75 mph when I noticed the bird flying along one foot from my left shoulder. I glanced at the bird, and the bird glanced at me.
      Its wings were swept back, and it did not flap, but just hovered there, next to me, at 75 mph.
      After ten seconds of this, I glanced at the bird again, and it returned my glancing look, and seemed to realize that I was not what it was looking for, banked hard to the left and disappeared over the trees.

      Once in Anchorage, I had a few more encounters with meese.
      Riding along the road that skirts the end of the airport runway, I saw a moose on the side of the road. I had my camera, so I stopped on the opposite side and trained my 200mm lens on it. Before I could snap a picture, the moose lowered its huge head and antlers, looked directly at the camera and snorted steam out its nostrils.
      It didn’t look like a sign of friendship.
      Later I was told that looking a moose straight in the eye is a sign of aggression.
      When a moose attacks, it will not usually use its antlers, but rear up on its hind legs and smack you with its huge, hard hooves. There was at least one person who had been killed this way, while I lived in Anchorage.
      I lowered my camera.
      The moose kept its head down and slowly walked along the other side of the road, snorting steam from its nostrils.
      I moved behind the motorcycle, put my camera away and my helmet back on.
      I was trying to decide if it was better to hide behind the motorcycle, or run to the group of trees thirty feet behind me, when a car came along the road. The car scared the moose, and it ran away in the opposite direction.
      Five minutes later the adrenaline left my body, and I stood on the side of the road quietly smoking a needed cigarette.

      One of my favorite moments. A moment where something so familiar crosses your path, but with a completely unexpected outcome. A reminder of how far away from the past life you are.
      One afternoon while riding on a quiet wooded road on the outskirts of Anchorage, a jeep passed me headed the other direction. The jeep flashed their lights. I mentally thanked the jeep for telling me there was a cop up ahead with a radar gun searching for speeders.
      I relaxed on the throttle and slowed down to 45 as I came over the ridge. There was no cop there, but a collection of moose by the side of the road.
      Useless fact #4,538, when a car flashes its lights at you in Alaska, it means there are moose ahead.

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Road to Alaska: Section IV

2 Responses to “Road to Alaska: Section III”

  1. Tanja says:

    Thanks, Ben. I needed to take a mental journey tonight and your blog was the perfect respite. I hadn’t checked in for awhile so I had some catching up to do. You are a good writer, as always, and you make me restless for some adventures of my own. I am looking forward to your next entry.

    Cheers,
    ~T