Will the real Alaskans please stand up?

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2007

More than 20 years ago, the Alaska Airlines plane that contained my whole life touched down in Sitka under a flawless November sky. Tatters of gilt-edged clouds skimmed over the western horizon, and a light breeze, cool and delicately scented with spruce, came down from precipitous coast mountains. The darkening cone of Mount Edgecumbe rose from a languid sea, and the entire breathtaking scene was idyllic.

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We were finally here. After a long backtrail of living in the wild places, my wife and I had come to the wildest, a genuine frontier where living your dreams was still possible. Now, with only $300, no job, no home and a baby on the way, we were stuck. We had to make a go of it.

But we were young, incredibly naïve, and determined. Besides, how bad could it get? Even the weather was cooperating, putting the lie to what had been reported about notorious Southeast Alaska. Well, where was all the rain?

For the next full month, a chilly downpour fell from a low gray sky, where winter darkness never gave way to more than an uneasy twilight. Because of our pets, we were evicted from our motel room after the first night, and wound up staying in a variety of interesting places, from an unoccupied, permanently-moored fishing vessel to a church nursery. When we finally landed our first tiny trailer home six months later, 80-knot winds pummeled it from seaward while on the inside, voracious mold devoured our scant possessions. We learned hard lessons about cold, poverty, and the humility necessary to accept a helping hand. We never would have made it without the kindness of folks who had walked their own hard miles. That first winter was tough, lingering, depressing.

It took 'till summer for the obvious to finally sink in. Leaning elbow-to-elbow on the rails of a small bridge overlooking Starrigavan Creek, we watched the waters darken with spawning salmon. The day was warm, wonderfully sunny, and special in a way that only Southeast Alaskans can understand. A sudden, unexplainable something clicked, and with a knowing smile we exchanged glances.

The words came of themselves.

"We're sourdoughs."

Suddenly, there was a purpose to the previous winter's hardships, signifying a personal transformation that would stay with us for life. At that moment, the bridge to the Outside was a wreck of smoldering ruins, and we wouldn't have gone back even if we had money to leave. We were Alaskans now.

That used to mean something. To a lot of us it still does. But the newest top layer of the pseudo-Alaska social strata hasn't got a clue. To them, "sourdough" is just bread, a quaint little recipe from the north, the mainstay of now-antiquated loggers and bandy-legged prospectors with oversize beards. Never having experienced the hunger, privation, the daily struggle of making a living here, these summertime transplants come with extended wallets to build mini-fiefdoms, houses more suited to nobility than to the average Joe who barely gets by on the income from his two business licenses. They've never seen a February whiteout, snuffed gunsmoke when they've shot their own meal, or made it through a dark, heavy winter wild with perpetual rain. They're here for the few best sunshiny weeks of the year, then back down to wherever it is they've come from. Indulging their real estate whims, they force land prices artificially high, shut out lower wage earners who long for their own homes, and cause escalating property taxes to take just a bit more substance from the struggling folks who actually live here year round. Worse yet, they bring their California or East Coast ideas and sneer when the yokels don't conform.

Then they wonder why they're not wanted.

These folks need to get a life, a local one. They need to wear Carhartts and paks like the rest of us, tote rifles into the Bush, buck logs for the woodstove, fall in love with the land, stay through the winter.

Then maybe "sourdough" will mean more than a store-bought chunk of bread. Maybe then they'll know what it is to be one.

• Kevin Reeves is a freelance writer living in Haines.

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