Reflections of a newly anointed sourdough

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

I was filling out a questionnaire the other day when I came across this one: "Would you consider yourself a Sourdough or a Cheechako?"

"Criteria for being a Sourdough is you slept with a bear, peed in the Mendenhall River and killed your television set. More importantly, been in Alaska 10 years or more."

I haven't slept with a bear (though I have awakened to find my tent encircled with fresh prints). Can't say I've peed directly into the Mendenhall. TV is moribund but still kicking. Been in Alaska 10 years? I stepped off the boat June 20, 1994.

It's official. I'm a sourdough. A real Alaskan. I'm in!

OK, so maybe I shouldn't pin my identity on a parenthetical joke in a questionnaire designed for the purpose of creating new combinations of hockey teams. But it hit me - I've been here a while. Maybe I'm finally gaining a little credibility. (Because we all know there is a direct correlation between one's length of Alaska residency and one's knowledge, insight, and caring about Alaska.)

It's true: My city skin is starting to molt. Last time we were in Boston my husband didn't clench the dashboard when I drove, and I don't think I honked the horn for more than five consecutive seconds. My brother says I talk too slowly and my mom accuses me of mispronouncing "Oregon" when I say it right. I'm losing my sass.

I never thought I would be here this long. I came to Juneau fresh from college, alone, alert and alive to experience and adventure. I glissaded down Lemon Glacier, attempted to cross the Chilkat Peninsula on foot, hitched a ride from Elfin Cove on a yacht (I bartered my way on with a fresh salmon). All of it enchanted me.

My two-month summer job stretched into a year. I found more reasons to stay, and another year went by. And so it went. It may not be a very self-directed way to lead a life, but Alaska is a pretty powerful external influence.

Yet the longer I live here, the more mundane and less "Alaskan" my life becomes. My haunts have shifted from unnamed peaks to well-trod places like the library, the bagel store, Costco. I haven't caught a fish in eight years.

Maybe this is part of getting older. I have made that one-way leap from child to parent. I have spun off my own nuclear family with attendant accouterments: house, car, computer, mortgage.

And while I may not be seeking adventure with the same intensity, I have eased into the rhythm of Alaska in more subtle ways. I mark the seasons by the burst of fireweed, the stench of spawned-out salmon, a dusting of first snow on the ridges, the pockmarks on Twin Lakes that herald the end of outdoor skating. I never fully expect to land in Juneau when my Juneau-bound jet takes off.

And I am slowly learning the contours of Alaska's social and historical landscape. I understand now why so many Alaskans see no conflict between loving the land and extracting as much of its resources as possible. I sigh at the misconception when my Outside friends ask if we really "get paid" to live here.

Like many Alaskans, I tend to migrate to the fringes. I'm drawn to the eddies that swirl outside the main current. Maybe it is this tendency, more than how many fish caught or peaks bagged, that defines the Alaskan character. Although we mock the tourists who ask if we take American money, they reinforce the sense of difference that is central to our identity.

In Massachusetts, the concept of a collective identity based on one's state of residency is laughable - there isn't even a word for it (Massachusettsian?). Alaska confers special status on its inhabitants, and this indefinable "Alaskanness" exerts as much of a pull as the grandeur of the landscape.

• Guest columnist Rebecca Braun is co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report.

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