SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

A name is a name is a name



September 29, 2016
Thursday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
The other day I was flying into Anchorage.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

Yes, in a plane.

Anyway, it was a lovely sunny day and there was a marvelous view to the north of the tallest peak in North America. Actually, it had been a lovely flight all around that also included scenic views of Mt. Logan and Mt. St. Elias, the second and third highest peaks in these here parts.

At least I assumed that's what those peaks were on the right side of the plane. There were thick clouds up to 15,000 feet and we passed a couple of rock edifices sticking above them right about where Elias and Logan would normally be. Fortunately, there is not a large wall between them, yet. Not sure the Canadians could afford to build it.

It was probably them because there are not too many other 18,000+ foot rocks around. But it's interesting how we pay those significant mountains so little attention. St. Elias isn't much thought of because it is pretty remote. You can only really contemplate it from Yakutat and if you are in Yakutat you are too busy running for your life from the bears and the mosquitos to appreciate the giant mountain just 15 miles from the shore, except when you look at its glistening summit and wonder if the mosquitos and bears would follow up there.

And I get that Logan is kind of forgotten because, well, it's Canadian. There could be a 35,000 foot mountain in Canada and we wouldn't give it much heed, because, well, it's Canadian. eh? Even the Canadians wouldn't make a big deal, even if it were the tallest peak on the continent. They would just quietly nudge us and say. "ours is bigger, eh?" Logan is only about 800 feet shorter than the tallest mountain in North American and geologists say it has the biggest base circumference of any non-volcano out there. Leave it to a Canadian to have the biggest bottom out there. Just kidding. Do not come to come to my house and sing "Oh Canada" into the wee hours.

Which reminds me. I read recently that the good folks in the Yukon Territory are concerned that residents don't really following the Canadian dual language rules. Those are the rules that - in order to appease the Quebecois - require everything to be done in both English and French. It's a fine rule, except when you pick up a ketchup packet in Le McDonalds and see it is marked "Ketchup/Ketchup."

Anyway, it's not just the Yukoners that aren't playing along. Pretty much any province west of Quebec or east of Quebec has the same attitude. I remember watching a group of Prince Rupert-ites sing "Oh Canada" a few years back. They belted out the first chorus, which was in English. They mumbled through the second chorus, missing about three quarters of the words as it was in French. Then they belted out the third chorus, in English naturally.

But I digress.

Anyway, I tapped my seat neighbor on the arm and pointed to the Great One. "There's Mount McKinley." I said.

"Wait," he replied. "Don't you Alaskans call it Denali?"

Well, yes. Yes we do. Sort of.

I know that it has been politically correct in Alaska to call Mt. McKinley "Denali" for a couple of decades at least. Because that's it's real name, right?

After all, the Koyukon people called it that for millennia, long before an Anglo prospector decided to name it after a President in 1897. And as we Alaskan's are fond of saying, it's not like William McKinley ever had a danged thing to do with Alaska before or during his presidency. He might have after, but as historians know there was no after.

In fact, his campaign slogan in 1896, "Patriotism, Protection and Prosperity" was decidedly NOT Alaskan Centric.

In general Alaskans are only really patriotic about Alaska. We pretty much hate everything about the United States. Except, of course, the 35 percent of our state economy that comes directly from the federal government.

As to prosperity, as much as we like the good times, we wouldn't be Alaskans if we didn't fetishize the bad times. We talk about our "busts" as if they were booms in disguise, we brag about just how miserable it is to live here And, oh, the weather. Remember that gorgeous summer a few years back? No, but we remember all the terrible storms as if they were tattooed on our brains.

And if protection was an issue, Gore-Tex would be on the Alaska State Seal. Nuf said.

But back to McKinley, his re-election slogan, in 1900, was perfect for a re-election campaign and could also be a slogan for Alaska vis-à-vis the rest of the world, "Let Well Enough Alone."

Which was exactly what a couple of generations of Ohio politicians kept saying every time the idea of renaming the mountain - and its national park - came up in recent decades.

But finally, after political debate lasting eons and at the same pace one millimeter pace the mountain gets taller each year - the park was renamed Denali in 1980. Then after more glacial, continental drift politicking lasting 35 years, the mountain was renamed by President Obama last year.

And yet, here I was calling it by its "colonist" name.

I plead guilty. Primarily because after calling it that for half a century, it's kinda hard to stop.

You see, I have finally reached that point where my brain is just not processing new information all that well, and I am falling back (Spring Ahead, Fall Down!) onto old patterns of thinking because, well because that's all I seem to have access to in my brain some days.

For example, the other day, I said that a particular grocery item was probably at "Sea Mart." Not for about twenty five years, it hasn't been. But that didn't register until the person I was talking to gave me the funny eye squint.

So I had to explain that the store currently called Safeway was formerly known as Carrs. And Carrs was formerly known as Sea Mart. And Sea Mart was formerly known as Wingrens. And Wingrens was formerly known as Piggly Wiggly. And so on, and so forth. It's worse that the "Begatitudes" in the Bible.

Actually, Wingrens was not formerly known as Piggly Wiggly. But Paul Wingren did work at Piggly Wiggly before opening his own store in Ketchikan. And I just like saying Piggly Wiggly.

Getting back to Denali, it's not just the new name that isn't sticking in my brain. It's the new height. When I was a youngster, I used to memorize the heights of big mountains. No, I don't know why. It was just something to do.

And it did come in handy during a college geology course when the professor tried to stump me by asking the heights of several important mountains and I knew them all. I'm sure the other students in that class thought I was some sort of Orologist freak.

Anyway, it's not like the name of Mt. McKinley was the only thing that has changed recently. Those techie dudes have used a super duper GPS to figure out the height of the mountain is 20,310. Or about 10 feet less than the number, 20,320, that had been accepted since the 1950s.

Since I spent so much time all those years ago committing 20,320 to memory, it is danged near impossible to readjust my mental altimeter and make the switch.

Besides, I tend to see those mountain heights as being a little flexible anyway. There's always a bunch of snow blowing around on those peaks and the heights can go up and down because of it.

My favorite one of those is the real big one, Mount Everest, which has had its height change several times in recent years simply because there tends to a lot of snow up there. At any rate, I'm not sure my frostbitten toes and air deprived lungs would care all that much whether the height is 29,028 or 29,035. It's still a lot higher than K2. And McKin....err, Denali.

Everest, of course, is also named after some long dead white guy as well. although in Sir George Everest 's (pronounced eve-rest, as opposed to ever-est) defense he objected to having the mountain named after him.

Still the traditional indigenous names of Sagarmāthā (in India) and Chomolungma (in Tibet) do not roll of the tongue like Denali, so I suspect we will always have Everest.

And, no, even though we live in highly political times, my inability to stop calling it Mt. McKinley is not some sort of protest.

When the President announced the name change last year. Alaskans almost uniformly cheered. I say almost because there are some Alaskans who hate everything the current president does.

As a result, in this case, they found themselves having to complain about something they actually agreed with. Because, well just because. We Last Frontier folks are stubborn that way.

The federal government is always wrong. Even when it's right.

It doesn't get any more "Alaskan" than that.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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