During Alaska’s brief summer it is sometimes hard to tell who is a sourdough and who isn’t. While it’s balmy out, clever resourceful tourons and cheechakos are usually able to fake it enough to blend in with the experienced Alaskans. As long as they don’t start talking, that is.
Once they open their mouths, they give themselves away. Inevitably, they’ll blurt out a telltale question like “Do you think we’ll make it back before dark?” Or they might refer to a “woodchuck” they spotted near a highway turnout, or the “huge crow” they saw in a “pine tree”. Often it will be place names that they fumble. They’ll mention returning from Anchorage via the “Tock” Cut-off, or brag about the halibut boat they chartered out of “Val Dezz”.
But assuming they have sense enough to limit their conversation to terse monosyllabic grunts, their behavior can uncannily mimic that of a true sourdough. After all, sourdoughs, like cheechakos, do spend Federal Reserve Notes at the store. Sourdoughs laugh and sneeze and scratch their chin just like a touron might. Everybody, sourdough and non-sourdough alike, wears pants and drinks Coca Cola and carries a cell phone. So, if during July, for instance, you spotted two strangers walking toward you, and somebody challenged you to identify which one was the sourdough and which one wasn’t, you might be hard pressed to do so.
The thin mask is jerked off, however, as soon as winter hits. A person who has never experienced authentic sub-arctic weather simply cannot fathom it. They have no reference point by which to process it. They may have read all the Jack London Books or National Geographic articles they could get their hands on. They may have watched all the television specials that were ever produced on the subject. They may even have pored over reams of meteorological data and consulted every blog and Wikipedia entry that they could Google. Still, it is impossible for such people to be prepared for Alaska’s winter, and as a result, they will miserably fail to believably feign nonchalance toward it once they find themselves immersed in its cold reality.
You see, there are certain skills–little tricks–that one picks up to compensate for the gaping ragged chunks of dignity that ice, snow, howling winds and fifty below temperatures rip out of one’s comfort zone. In order to survive, a sourdough has learned to broker a humble truce with the elements. Compromising where he must, and improvising where he can, he acknowledges that he must play by Jack Frost’s rules or be mercilessly destroyed. A cheechako has not yet come to grips with this humbling reality.
As a result, when it comes to winter, a newbie will tend to make one of two mistakes. On the one extreme, some cheechakos assume that sourdoughs are wimps who like to lie a lot. Convinced that Alaska can’t possibly get as cold as we claim, they figure we are either exaggerating or pulling their leg when describe such experiences as having our upper and lower eyelashes freeze together from the ice balls formed when we exhale. They just know that it is impossible to get frostbitten fingers from merely not wearing gloves during the five minutes it takes to fuel up their car at the self-serve gas station. This naivete proves to be their undoing. I can’t count the number of cheechakos I have found at the service station, dead as an icicle, still standing upright with their hand frozen around the gas pump nozzle and their eyes welded shut with ice balls. The look of incredulity on their face is enough to make a grown man break down in “I told ya so’s”.
On the other hand, certain other cheechakos assume that Alaskans are simply tougher than outsiders, and that the shortcut to sourdoughood can be achieve by pretending that the cold doesn’t bother them. Consequently, it is not uncommon during a cold snap to find the ground littered with the stiff carcasses of cheechakos who have succumbed to their own misplaced sense of bravado. Ironically, if you brush the frost from their lifeless faces you will find that most of them will still have a plucky grin frozen onto it.
This brings me to the first secret little trick that a sourdough learns early. It’s called long underwear. Since long underwear is by nature–well–underwear, it can’t be seen. Thus the secret factor. It’s not that sourdoughs are trying to keep it a secret particularly, it’s just that modern people have been trained not to discuss that category of their wardrobe. So cheechakos don’t have any way to know what they’re supposed to be wearing under there. The poor shivering cheechakos suffer under the impression that we, like them, are wearing nothing but goose bumps and skimpy cotton skivvies under our blue jeans.
That we sourdoughs should let such a thing happen is an outrage, really. Think about it. People comment about each others’ clothes all the time: “Nice hat.” “I love your tie!” “That skirt looks nice on you.” “Where did you get that jacket? It’s really sharp.” Yet, when is the last time you met somebody in a restaurant or at church and jovially called out the following exchange?
“Hey, Frank, good to see you! What are you wearing these days, boxers or briefs?”
“Are you kiddin’, man! It’s November! I’ve been wearing my Under Armour long-handles for at least a month.”
“Under Armour, huh! Well, that high-falutin’ Cabela’s stuff is OK, I suppose, if you can afford it, but why mortgage your house to take out a loan for underwear when you can just go to Value Village and pick up some good old brown polypropylene. Military surplus. The baggy kind with the little lint balls all over them that always smell like dirty laundry no matter how many times you wash them.”
I think the world would be a better place if more people could have frank discussions like that. That’s why for many years now I’ve been a tireless outspoken advocate of removing underwear from the list of taboo conversational subjects among polite company. If more Alaskans would have the courage and compassion to begin to open dialogues about their underwear choices, I believe we could avoid hundreds of hypothermia and frostbite cases each year. We might even save some lives.
Then again, maybe not. I suspect that many cheechakos are aware of the existence of long underwear, but refuse to wear it, because they haven’t mastered the second trick in the sourdough’s winter survival bag—fashion immunity. One cannot be addicted to high fashion and hope to survive in Alaska’s winter. Especially if one is a female. For some reason that I have never quite understood, female fashions tend to expose skin rather than to cover it. This is quite self-defeating, seeing that the ability to survive sub-zero temperatures is inversely proportional to the percentage of the epidermis that is exposed to the ambient air. I suppose that the female leg can be attractive under the appropriate circumstances, but I have never personally admired a female leg that was beet red, with white blotches and bright purple knees.
So, a sourdough learns to be immune to the snobbish and impractical demands of fashion. After, all, isn’t fashion invented in places like Paris and San Francisco? If I wanted to be fashionable, I’d move to one of those places. On the other hand, if fashion designers worked out of Delta Junction or Fairbanks, you know that all the supermodels would be strutting the catwalk in bunny boots and Carhartts and wolverine fur bomber hats.
Speaking of bunny boots, sourdoughs understand that proper winter footwear provides more advantages than warmth alone. The importance of choosing a boot with good traction is incalculable. For every cheechako I have found frozen at the gas pump or toppled over beside the sidewalk wearing little but a plucky grin and a stiff upper lip, I have encountered dozens who were performing acrobatic break dancing routines on an icy walkway. Such routines are typically spectacular but brief. Generally the only folks who appreciate such a performance are orthopedic surgeons.
Sadly, it is sometimes difficult for even a sourdough to identify whether the soles of a new pair of shoes will have good traction or not. I have bought shoes with treads that looked like a banana peel yet amazingly, they stuck to the ice like Velcro. Then there have been those that looked like their bottoms had been carved out of an X-treme ATV tire. However, they might as well have been skis, for all the traction they provided. Alas, a cheechako has never learned about the fickle nature of footwear manufacturers. Instead, he will naively trust whatever the company says about the aggressive traction characteristics of their latest product. A sourdough, however, wisely distrusts all shoe and boot manufacturers. What would somebody in Taiwan know about walking in my driveway, anyway? No, a true sourdough keeps from fracturing his coccyx by relying on an old Forty-Niner technique called the Ice Scootch.
You see, back when Forty-Niners were digging up the Alaskan and northern Canadian landscape like gophers, there was no such thing as Vibram soles. Their boot treads came in two varieties: smooth leather and smooth leather with hobnails. The problem was that the business owners in places like Skagway and Dawson City took a dim view of customers scraping and scratching across their expensive hardwood floors with hobnails. So hobnails were banned in any place where a prospector might be inclined to blow a poke of gold dust on a weekend.
Needless to say, this created quite a dilemma. At first, the Forty-Niners, like modern cheechakos, tried to step outside onto the icy street and set off with their characteristic long stride. That didn’t work out very well for them. A long stride requires the strider to stretch his leg out in front of him, plant his heel, roll forward onto the ball of his foot and then push off with his toes as the heel of the opposite foot is being planted for the next step. That’s fine and dandy on gravel or meadow grass, but on ice, such an ambulatory technique results not in a mile-eating pace, but in an instant somersault. Sometimes they would somersault backwards immediately at the heel plant. But usually they would somersault forward during either the ball of the foot roll phase or the toe push-off phase. This is the reason why all those old prospectors wore a hat with a brim that was smashed flat in the front. It also explains the disproportionate number of missing front teeth in the prospector population of the era.
Happily, those who survived to become sourdoughs developed the Ice Scootch walking technique which has been preserved virtually unchanged to this very day. Mastery of the Ice Scootch could literally render Alaskan orthopedic surgeons obsolete. Here, then is the technique. Instead of moving the feet back and forth, move them up and down, sort of like the way you use a toilet plunger to unclog the commode. Carefully. Very carefully. Plant the entire right foot–heel, instep, ball and toe all at once. Once it is planted do not move it or slide it in any way until you are ready to pick it straight up again for the next step. Do not shift your body weight forward or backwards by more than .005 degrees. Now, while your right foot is planted, very slightly ease your weight sideways until it is balanced directly over that foot. Next, lift the left foot that you have just shifted your weight from. Remember, straight up! When it comes back down, it should be incrementally forward of its last position. Now begin the process of shifting your weight back to your left foot. Repeat the process, alternating feet. If you now are walking like a cross between the Michelin Man and a tactical SWAT team member, Congratulations. You have just graduated to sourdough status!