Back in the day anyone who had not spent a full winter in the north-country was referred to as a “cheechako”, basically a synonym of “green horn” or “tenderfoot”. Although heard less frequently in casual conversation, today the term refers to anyone who has a “Lower-48 attitude” about a given issue or topic of conversation. For example, if someone were to say “Hunting should be outlawed in Alaska.”, some old sourdough will reply “They ought to declare an open season on cheechakos like you.”
“Sourdough” is another term that’s been modified since the early twentieth century. Historically a sourdough was anyone who had spent at least 1 full winter in Alaska. Today it refers to any Alaskan who has been in the State more than 1 winter and does not have a Lower-48 attitude. Thus the guy who thinks we need a streetlamp on every corner and a stop light at every mile will not be considered a sourdough even if he’s spent nearly his entire life in Alaska.
It is almost an unwritten rule that when discussing matters of importance one must preface a statement of opinion by establishing his or her credibility. This is done by stating one’s sourdough status. For example, in debating a new construction technique pioneered in another state, an opponent may state “I’ve been in Alaska for twenty-three years and I’m tellin’ ya, it just won’t work up here. This ain’t the Lower-48, ya damned cheechako.”
OF course ‘the Lower-48’ refers to the contiguous States of the Union. Many hard core Alaskans refer to rest of the nation as the “Lesser-48”, especially when discussing political issues. For example, during a debate on whether or not a law similar to one passed in any of the other states should be passed in Alaska some damned cheechako is likely to say “Well, if it’s good enough for California it ought to be good enough for Alaska” at which point some old sourdough will say “I’ve been livin’ in Alaska for the past forty-seven years and I don’t give a hoot how they do things in the Lesser-48, it just won’t work up here and if you think it’s so damned good back there why don’cha just move back, you damned cheechako.”
If the alleged ‘cheechako’ is particularly astute, s/he may counter with “Aw for cryin’ out loud, when’s the last time you were Outside?” In this context, the term ‘Outside’ refers to anyplace that isn’t Alaska. Those Alaskans who can afford it tend to travel Outside fairly frequently, and though the Lower-48 is a popular destination, going Outside doesn’t necessarily refer to traveling to the Lower-48. One might choose Hawaii or Mexico or the Bahamas or Belize or many other Outside destinations that are not part of the Lower-48.
In addition to ‘sourdough status’, credibility can also be defined by residence. Those who reside in the ‘bush’ have more credibility than those who reside in ‘rural Alaska’, who enjoy infinitely more credibility than those living in ‘urban Alaska.’ The bush refers to anyplace that is not accessible by road. Rural Alaska refers to road accessible regions of Alaska lying outside of our urban centers of Juneau, Fairbanks and Los Anchorage.
Although not accessible by road, Juneau is the seat of evil, the state capitol populated primarily by politicians, bureaucrats, functionaries and other ne’er do wells. Fairbanks is the industrial hub of the Interior, primarily a blue-collar city most notable for hard laborers, strong whiskey and cold-hearted prostitutes. More than half the population of Alaska lives or works in Los Anchorage, the northernmost suburb of Seattle and a city whose only saving grace is that it is located just a short drive from the real Alaska. I’m afraid that most residents of Los Anchorage will be considered damned cheechakos no matter how long they may technically live in Alaska.
I’ve written frequently of the changing season recently, and perhaps some discussion of seasonal terms is appropriate here. Obviously our seasonal changes have little relationship to the calendar, and we tend to define the seasons more accurately and colorfully than ‘spring, summer, fall and winter’. Although some claim we only have two seasons (winter and construction) in Alaska, we actually do have more.
“Break-up” occurs when the melting ice breaks up and starts flowing down the rivers. This is usually followed anywhere from a few days to a few weeks by “green-up”, when leaves start showing on the deciduous trees and bushes, and ground cover starts growing. The time between ‘break-up’ and ‘green-up’ is frequently referred to as ‘mud season’. Following green-up we enter ‘skeeter season’, the time of year varying from 3 to 5 months in which we are visited by the Alaska State bird – the mosquito. During skeeter season only a cheechako would wear ‘mosquito repellent.” Sourdoughs use ‘bug dope’, and purchase it in one or five gallon economy size containers.
The most important sub-division of skeeter-season is fishin’ season, which can be further sub-divided into the categories of commercial fishin’ season, susbsistence fishin’ season and sport-fishin’ season. During the fishin’ seasons officers of the Alaska State Troopers Wildlife Troopers Division become known as the “fish cops”, mostly because that’s a lot easier to say in a hurry, as in “Hey, you damned cheechako haul in your line before the fish cops show up.”
On the heels of fishin’ season we have ‘huntin’ season’ during which time the officers of the Alaska State Troopers Wildlife Troopers Division are magically transformed into the ‘game rangers’ for the same reason. It makes it quicker for a sourdough to holler “Hey, you damned cheechako you better put a plug in that shotgun before the game rangers show up.”
As huntin’ season is starting to wind down in most of Alaska we can start looking forward to ‘freeze-up’, the transition between autumn and sure enough winter. Freeze-up marks the start of winter and is commonly signaled by ‘termination dust’, the first light dusting of snow on the mountain and hill-tops.
From break-up through feeze-up the most common vehicle used for back country travel is the ‘four-wheeler’. Only a cheechako would refer to a ‘four-wheeler’ or old ‘three-wheeler’ by the Lower-48 term “ATV”. In Alaska ATV is what you use to watch the latest episode of “Ice Road Truckers” or “Tougher in Alaska”.
Once the snow flies those Alaskans who aren’t smart enough to run sled dogs turn to “snowmachines” or, in the ‘bush’ to “snow gos” for transportation. Only a cheechako from the Lesser-48 would refer to a snowmachine as a ‘snowmobile’.
Of course those of us who are either more traditional or more enlightened run ‘sled dogs’. Those of competitive spirit compete in sled dog races. Cheechakos sometimes get a bit confused about this point. We do not run or race dog sleds ‘because the sled won’t go very far nor very fast without the dogs. The dogs do the running or racing. So, if you don’t want to be considered a damned cheechako, remember the term “sled dogs”.
The humans who are permitted to travel with the dogs are called ‘mushers’ or ‘dog mushers’. That is because many, many years ago most of the people who ran sled dogs were French Canadian voyageurs and used the French word “marche” to signal the dogs to go. Since most of the damned cheechakos pouring into the north didn’t speak French they mispronounced it “mush”, and those who run dogs became “mushers”. To review – mushers mush sled dogs while mush-brained cheechakos ride dog sleds only when they aren’t driving snowmobillies (or something like that).
If that isn’t confusing enough, let’s consider the difference between “native Alaskan” and “Alaskan Native”. A native Alaskan is someone born in Alaska, but an Alaskan Native is a person of aboriginal ethnicity, either Aleut, Indian or Eskimo. There are lots of native Alaskans who are not Alaskan Natives, but very few Alaskan Natives who are not native Alaskans. Using the politically correct terminology of the Lower-48, we can say that Alaskan Natives are Native Americans but native Alaskans are not necessarily Native Americans, event though they are American natives.
Even if all that leaves your brain feeling like mush, it won’t make you a musher, but it may help clarify some of the nuances of Alaskan American English. (Okay, I’ll stop now)