For the traveler: Alaskan vocabulary words

It has recently come to my attention that people from Alaska have a number of words and phrases that seem to be somewhat unique to the state.  These words, the meanings of which are quite obvious to Alaskans, may leave others confused and bewildered (take, for example, that time when I exclaimed happily to my college roommate that there was termination dust on the mountains).   To anyone planning a trip to Alaska, be on the lookout for these words and phrases, presented below in no particular order.  Some words and definitions haven been taken from this article, and some words are things that are not necessarily Alaska-specific, but arctic-specific.  In any case, here are a selection of words that I grew up with, that don’t seem to be so well-known to others.

Permafrost:  Ground, from about 2 to 5 feet under the surface, that is frozen year-round.  (Don’t other people know about this?  Doesn’t everyone learn about this in ecology class or something?  Like in third grade when you learn tundra, savannah, rainforest, permafrost…)

Tiedown:  A parking place for an airplane, with ropes strategically fastened to the ground that must then be tied to the airplane’s wings and possibly tail.

Avgas:  Airplane fuel.  You call the truck and they come to your tiedown.

Flightsuit:  A one-piece sort of jumpsuit-looking garment worn by some aircraft pilots (like my dad), made out of fireproof material and absolutely covered in pockets, which are generally stuffed with all sorts of emergency survival gear (see Survival Suit).

The Difference Between Classic (also called Diagonal) and Skate (also called Freestyle) Cross-Country (also called Nordic) Skiing:  Oh, just Google it.  They’re, like, entirely different things, requiring different skis, poles, boots, and wax.  From a 1996 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

“Skating is just so much different than regular cross-country skiing,” says Darcy McNamara of Carnation, who skate skis regularly with her husband, Joel. “It’s the difference between kind of slogging along and dancing or flying.

“You glide a long way. You go fast.”

Kickwax:  This is valid anywhere where cross-country skiing is in, but still, I get looks when I say this.  It’s wax that you apply to a small portion of the bottom of your “classic” or “diagonal” cross-country skis (they’re the same thing) that allows you to glide forward, but not backward, making the kicking motion of classical skiing extremely effective.  You grind it in with a cork.  There is a different color of wax that corresponds to each temperature, and using the wrong one can cause a lot of problems.

Klister:  For the cross-country skiers out there.  In Norwegian, the word literally means “paste” or “sticky.”  This is the stickiest, softest, weirdest kind of kickwax available for cross-country skiers, generally used only in extremely warm snow conditions.  Best if applied using a hair dryer, and a terrible mess if it comes in contact with ANYTHING except the bottoms of the skis.

Xtra Tufs:  A Google Image search would be helpful here.  “Alaska’s Boot”, one website says.  Neoprene boots that can withstand just about anything.  Sort of a staple of Alaskan outdoor gear.

Hip Boots (also called Waders):  Rubber boots that extend all the way up to the hip, and sometimes the waist, to allow fishermen/boaters/floatplane pilots/etc to stand in fairly deep water without getting wet.  If you can stand in deeper water, usually you can catch a bigger fish.

Helly Hansens:  As in “my Helly Hansens”.  While this brand manufactures a variety of products, this phrase generally refers to extremely durable, extremely waterproof raingear.  From Wikipedia, Helly Hansen “has become popular in all levels of industrial workwear, survival and rescue outerwear”.  Handy for some aspects of Alaskan summer.

Carhartts:  Another staple of Alaskan clothing.  Extremely durable work clothing, initially used by railroad workers.  The most typical is the camel-colored work pants, usually covered in dirt or paint or motor oil.

Glacier Glasses:  Essential.  High-quality, polarized sunglasses that extend all the way around the eye (instead of just in front of it) so that on a glacier, the wearer will not go snowblind.

Snow Blind:  When the brightness of the light reflecting off of wide expanses of snow causes damage to the eyes.

Bear Spray:  For those who do not wish to carry a gun, but who still wish to be somewhat protected, Bear Spray is for you.  It’s like Mace, but stronger, and for bears.  It comes in a red canister that you can attach to your belt, and a glow-in-the-dark safety switch.  Do not spray it on yourself hoping it will deter them, as you will probably end up in the hospital.  If attacked by a bear, spray it directly in the bear’s face.

Floatplane:  Apparently, called  Seaplane in other parts of the world, which is silly because you can land on so much more than just the sea.  Usually a small, personal aircraft mounted on two pontoons under the fuselage, which allow the aircraft to land, take off, and park on lakes, rivers, oceans, etc.  Although extremely convenient, they weigh down the plane and cause it to go slower.

Super Cub (Commonly referred to simply as a Cub):  According to Wikipedia, the Piper PA-18 Super Cub is a two-seat, single-engine monoplane.  Basically, a tiny little plane that can zoom around pretty much anywhere due to its size.

Beaver:  Another plane that you can fit a few more people in – very unique in its shape and what it sounds like when flying.  Wikipedia says: “The de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver is a single engined, high wing, propeller-driven, STOL aircraft developed by de Havilland Canada, primarily known as a bush plane.”

Cessna: A brand of small airplane that many Alaskans own.

Studs: Studded tires, or “snow tires”, that keep your car from sliding on slippery winter roads but end up causing extreme damage to the pavement itself. It is illegal to drive without these in the winter, as you will probably last about four minutes before sliding into a ditch (see Ditch Divers). It is then illegal to drive with them once summer comes along, as roads and highways are already left with deep grooves in them, which tend to jolt cars around in directions they don’t plan on going.  Also the reason for Two Seasons.

Rollerskiing:  You can see this other places as well, but it’s more of a thing here.  Cross country skis, only shorter, on wheels, with no way to brake whatsoever.  You still wear ski boots and use poles, your heels still aren’t attached to your skis, and for some reason I have never seen anyone in Alaska rollerskiing with more protection than a bike helmet. Rollerskiers often frequent popular roads with lots of traffic and trails where bears roam, making this probably one of the most hazardous sports out there (in my opinion).

Blue Tarp:  You know, the Alaskan essential.  To cover your boat, your wood pile, and all that stuff that might get damaged by loads of snow and rain.

Pixie:  The classic fishing lure for salmon, dolly varden, or anything really.

Chinook:  King salmon.  There’s also the Chinook Wind, which is a warm wind in the middle of the winter.

Williwaw: A sudden, extremely powerful gust of wind that can take down a whole mountainside of trees.

Humpy:  Pink salmon, the easiest to catch and worst-tasting.

Sockeye:  Red salmon.  Delicious!

Coho:  Silver salmon.  The next best thing to king.

Tundra Tires:  Big wheels affixed to small aircraft that allow them to land on the tundra, on the beach, in a field… pretty much anywhere.

Hoarfrost:  The most beautiful thing about the winter.  Wikipedia says  “Hoarfrost refers to the white ice crystals, loosely deposited on the ground or exposed objects, that form on cold clear nights when heat losses into the open skies cause objects to become colder than the surrounding air”.

Pledge:  Yes, the lemon-scented hardwood floor cleaner in the aerosol can.  But what is it used for by nearly all Alaskan bush pilots?  Cleaning the windows of their planes.  I kid you not.  Apparently it’s the best thing for the job.

Headnet:  A hat with mosquito netting descending around the brim, so you can survive that camping trip.

Survival Suit:  Man, do my parents have stories about these. According to Wikipedia, a survival suit is “a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water, after abandoning a sinking or capsized vessel, especially in the open ocean. They usually have built-on feet (boots), and a hood, and either built-on gloves or watertight wrist seals”.

Outside:  Anywhere outside Alaska.  “Going Outside” means leaving the state for any reason.

Lower 48:  The states south of here, except Hawaii, which is oddly not mentioned.

Cheechako:  A newcomer to Alaska.

Sourdough:  Someone who’s been in Alaska for a very long time.

Cache:  Pronounced like cash.  This is a tiny cabin used to store food and supplies, elevated far out of reach of animals, and accessed with a ladder.

Ice fog:  A cold winter fog made of ice particles that sparkle magically in the sunlight.

Ice worm:  Tiny worms that live in glacial ice.

Snowmachine:  Our word for snowmobile.  I don’t know why, but we definitely do not say snowmobile.

Musher:  Someone who drives a dogsled.

Permanent Fund, or PFD:  Money we get for living here because of our wealth of natural resources.

Ulu:  A native Alaskan knife, in a sort of half-moon shape.  Good for everything.

Moose Nuggets:  Moose poop, which is oddly quite popular with tourists when made into jewelry and other strange things.

Mukluk:  I honestly grew up thinking that this was a basic, universal component of the English language, but apparently it isn’t.  Mukluks are warm fur boots, usually knee high.

The Bush:  Everywhere in Alaska that can only be reached by boat or plane, including villages, mountains, valleys, islands, etc.  Really, this refers to almost our entire state, including the capital, Juneau.  We don’t have many roads.

Termination Dust:  The first visible dusting of snow seen on the tips of the mountains, and perceived by everyone as a warning of the incoming winter.

Cabin Fever:  Usually during late winter, when everyone goes crazy from being inside too long.  Winter sports enthusiasts, I believe, experience this to a lesser degree.

Ditch Divers:  When the drivers of 4-wheel-drive cars assume that they can drive however fast they want on snow and ice, and go catapulting into the ditches on the side of the road.  What I see most are huge SUVs and pickup trucks, especially the first day it snows.  The highway is lined with’em.

Arctic Entry:  A pre-entry to your house where you can take off all your wet, slushy, dirty, muddy outdoor clothes before entering your house.  This also keeps the house itself a lot warmer since it’s harder for heat to escape with 2 doors.

Bug Dope:  Mosquito repellent in any form.  It’s a huge issue here.

Combat Fishing:  Casting a fishing line where 1500 other people are doing the same thing at the same time. Oh, and you only have 12 inches between you and those on either side of you.

Breakup:  Our word for springtime. When all the snow and ice melts all at once, creating a disastrous mess of the roads and general scenery for a few weeks.  Slushy and wet, marking the end of winter.

Sundog:  A rainbow circle around the sun on extremely cold days.

Bunny Boots:  Huge, clunky, white rubber boots that will keep your feet warm to -65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heater Plugs:  An electrical plug coming out of the grill of your car, that you can plug into a power outlet to keep your engine block warm overnight – ensuring that your car will still start in the bitter cold.

Fireweed:  A brilliant magenta weed/wildflower that grows all over the place and turns bright red in the fall.  It may be a weed, but everyone loves it.

Dip Netting:  Holding a net in a river and waiting for a fish to swim into it, which is surprisingly successful, especially with Hooligan fishing.

And now I wonder – do other places have No-See-Ums?  Is that an Alaskan word?  We don’t really know.


3 thoughts on “For the traveler: Alaskan vocabulary words

  1. Hello!

    Nice and useful post. I’ve got a question for an alaskan person… What does pee wee mean? Is it like “small” or something?

    Oh, and what’s a Herring (not a fish)?

    Thanks a lot!

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