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How The World Wags

Geographically challenged!
By Dave Kiffer


November 20, 2004

Ketchikan, Alaska - I have always wondered how other Americans can be so geographically and intellectually challenged when it comes to Alaska. They don't seem to know much about it and what they do know is - for the most part - wrong. When I was growing up, I had several cousins down in Seattle and even they couldn't grasp what Ketchikan was all about.

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"You live on an island?" one said once. "But is it surrounded by ice? I mean how do you get there?"

No matter how often I tried to explain that Ketchikan was just a little ways (by Alaskan standards 700 miles is a "little ways") up the coast and that it looked like a slightly wetter suburb of Seattle, it just didn't seem to register.

Later when I was at college in Los Angeles, everyone seemed to think that all we did up here was build igloos and chase whales in little skin boats. Sometimes, I'd just tell stories to string them along. After my freshman year, a good friend from Sitka came to the same school. He was a fine drummer and this sweet young Southern California lass who had eyes for him asked me how he got to be such a good drummer "way off in Alaska." I told her that he got his fast, strong hands by clubbing baby seals on the head during the annual fur harvest. She was horrified. I told her it was a joke. She didn't believe me. She never spoke to him again. My drummer friend was not amused.

Still later, I was working for a newspaper in Boston at the time the Exxon Valdez disaster happened. Several colleagues were concerned about the effect of the oil spill on my home town. These being relatively intelligent folk, I tried to explain that Ketchikan was nowhere near Valdez. It had little effect on them. Even when I explained that Ketchikan was about as close to Valdez as Boston was to Wilmington, North Carolina (give or take about 10 miles) it didn't seem to erase the image they had of my former towns folk standing up to their knees in oil goo and dipping blackened seabirds into vats of soapsuds.

I had pretty much given up trying to change the stereotypes and geographical misunderstandings of the Lower 48, until a couple of years ago, a visitor to Salmon City helped me understand that the real culprits are Rand McNally, Miller, and Demco. Yes, those renowned makers of maps that every school child in America is forced to memorize in elementary school geography.

A nice woman from Kansas stopped me one afternoon to ask how to get to the Downtown Post Office. Since I was standing by the Coliseum Theater, the large PO sign was just across the street (but that's another column for another time!). I directed her directly across the street.

"I'm very surprised that it is so cold here." she said. It was rare sunny summer day with the temps in the lower 70s, so I just figured it was cold compared to a summer in Kansas. "I mean, you being so close to Hawaii and all, I thought it would be warmer," she added.

This one stumped me. Even the most dunderheaded stereotypes (Alaska is the North Pole and we are all Nanooks of the North!) would never present Alaska as a warm place, somewhere near Hawaii. This was beyond incomprehensibly moronic. I guess I must have had a puzzled look on my face.

"On the map," she said. "It's right there on the map. Right next to Hawaii, just off of California."

I smiled and waved as she went into the Post Office to mail her post cards back to the "mainland." I wouldn't want to stereotype Kansas, mind you, but apparently the land isn't the only thing flat around those parts.

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Dave Kiffer ©2004

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