14 Alaskan Vocabulary Words

Meghann Riepenhoff. Littoral Drift Nearshore #209, 2015. Sixty-three dynamic cynotypes. 133 x 216 in.

1. Mount Denali. The subject of a postcard photograph to send home as a misleading boast of an adventure you haven’t yet had.

2. Outhouses. When nature calls, half the town uses something older than a telegraph to answer.

3. Hoarfrost. For every cliché́ uttered about wanting to freeze a perfect moment, here is the wish granted: the crystal tree branches hanging low, as though mid-swoop toward the ground, turned from bark to a brilliant Swarovski waterfall.

4. Blubber. A layer of insulation donned by the sea life but just as easy to don yourself, should you choose to not be active outdoors in negative temperatures. When in Rome. . .

5. Daylight. At first a coquettish thing, leaving you bit by bit, and returning in the same way, manipulatively and successfully making sure you don’t take her for granted.

6. Darkness. Despite technically behaving in the same way as daylight, Darkness uses the slow coming and going to menace, intimidate, haunt.

7. Northern Lights. . . . Or maybe that’s not what Darkness is up to at all.

8. Permafrost. The unseen foundation, frozen beneath the ground. When inadequately cold winters cause it to thaw, this subsurface support buckles, and the land ripples like a mirage from desert heat.

9. Scales. These cannot be found on lizards and chameleons, as in other regions. But when the sun takes extended leave, and the moisture in the air with it, they appear on legs, elbows, hands, the cracked pale pink flesh around the teeth that used to be lips.

10. Distance. In former contexts, it was a half-day car ride for a summer vacation taken once a year, in part due to the hassle of travel. Now, it is not batting an eye at the easy ten-hour drive from Homer to Fairbanks.

11. Salmon. Large, meaty fish. It is hunted with lines, and your body welcomes the fatty flesh—iron, mercury, protein all—with a few savored bites and a gulp.

12. Layers. This is the extent of helpful advice the locals will give you if you ask how to survive negative forty or endure six months of winter.

13. Coffee. This is the follow-up advice you get if you really press for more. The ubiquity of the tropical bean makes it seem local to the area, as though it could grow next to the cabbage and chard and other hearty plants.

14. Bragging Rights. What you assumed you would get in coming here, but now, you’re not so sure. You can always be more Alaskan, and the longer you live here the more sure you become that you’re just about the least Alaskan someone can be. What does it even mean to be Alaskan? Is it something you can list out and define? You could try. . .

Sarah Small recently received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she served as the editor in chief of Permafrost Magazine. She currently lives and works in State College, Pennsylvania.