Our cartoonist's wife convinced him that if they ever wanted to see Alaska and the Northern Lights, they would have to go in the winter and they should do it before the kids got into high school. She was right and they did, spending a school year at the crossroads of Gakona Junction (so small it said "Welcome" on both sides of the sign), outside the village of Gakona (which means "rabbit" in Athabaskan).
The book's cover; "The Joads head north" and see a message in the Northern Lights. Actually looks like our van when first arriving at our cabin.
My Brush with Alaskan Humor or What's So Funny about Running into a Moose?
By David Mudrick, June 2007, revised February 2019
With selective memories of Gakona, AK - Until we lived there, I thought AK stood for Arkansas, but now I know it's the sound you make trying to draw your breath at minus 55 degrees F.
In May 2007 I received an email asking permission to use portions of my book, Too Far North: A Northern Cartoon Odyssey, in an exhibit of Alaskan sequential art (aka cartoons). We had produced it over twenty years before in Gakona, Alaska, with publisher friends Linda and Jeremy Weld, in the dead of winter. The exhibit was held in June 2007 in a small gallery between College and Ester, on the Parks Highway, "the road" that runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage. In the mid 1980s, this area would have been too small to call "podunk," especially in midwinter when there's not enough unfrozen liquid around to dunk anything, rich or po'. Nevertheless, I couldn't have been more honored, even if it were in the New York Museum of Modern Art. (Well, that's probably not true, but I don't have to worry about finding out.)
My wife and I, along with our then five kids, were wintering in Alaska to see the Northern Lights, with plans to return to Northern Virginia after the school year and spring breakup. As winter progressed, we needed to raise enough funds to stay fed and get home. I had been drawing cartoons for our friends' new bi-weekly news magazine, Copper River Country Journal, which they published through their company, Northcountry Communications, Inc. We decided to published the book, which was a collection of those cartoons and others. The cartoons were usually executed in ball-point pen on copier paper, by lantern light after the kids were asleep.
My greatest compliment at the time came from a Journal reader in Tok who wrote, "This is real Alaskan humor." If so, then, what is real Alaskan humor? Certainly, it runs the same gamut as any other humor genre, perhaps more often on the cruder side to meet the preconceptions of tourists. However, with the penetration of The Last Frontier by technology, just about anything can be had or viewed there, now, whereas when we were there, satellite broadcast was sometimes the only way to communicate. The satellite dishes were pointed almost to the horizon, which was a visual and visceral indication of just how far into northern latitudes we had come.
My cartoons focused on the more quirky aspects of rural Alaskan life as we experienced it. No, I never really saw a house made entirely of duct tape, but I suspect more than one exists. No, swans do not return for the summer in "S"s, but rather in the same "V"s as other migratory waterfowl. No, my kids never fought over the Sears catalog as a source of indoor recreation, but they did decorate the cabin with paper snowflakes and listened to the output of our home entertainment center, which consisted of an AM-FM clock radio that picked up two stations and a Fisher-Price cassette recorder. (The story of the gentleman phoning Sears to order a case of toilet paper, and when being asked for the catalogue number replying, "Lady, if I had the catalogue, I wouldn't need the toilet paper!" is probably anecdotal, but not too far off the mark.)
Alaskan humor reflects the same vagaries of the human condition found elsewhere, though Alaskans may be reticent to admit it. More than elsewhere, Alaskan humor must also pay homage to the larger population of two-, four-, and six-footed, pawed, clawed, winged or otherwise appendaged denizens of the state, not to mention the finned or flippered river and sea folk. Unfortunately, like mosquitoes, puns can exist that far north. Even more unfortunately, but unlike mosquitoes, puns do not die off in winter.
Having a moose in it doesn't make it Alaskan humor, although having a flying saucer cross the galaxy, only to run into a moose on "the road," just might. This also was the only way I could work road kill moose into a humor context, since those encounters were often fatal for both the moose and the occupants of the vehicle. To add insult to injury or death, you or your survivors wouldn't benefit from the windfall of moose meat. There was a list of indigent families waiting to get a phone call that their moose was available, perhaps 200 miles away in Talkeetna. We had more than our share of close encounters of the moose and caribou kind, and they were only a laughing matter after the fact, if at all.
Oh, yeah, the Northern Lights. We did see them. They can stay almost motionless for hours and then suddenly start dancing at breathtaking speed, so you have to decide in advance just how long you will stand there watching. Otherwise, your brain might freeze and you might forget to go back inside. We also saw them from the doorway of our north-facing latrine. The door was no obstacle to viewing as it had blown off in the fall during a week of 100-mph Chinook winds. Of course, when using the latrine in the winter, you have to let the seat drop hard first to remove the two inches of hoarfrost.
Springtime was another source of humor, when kids would measure the depth of ice-melt puddles by wading into them. The water was always at least a half inch above the tops of their "breakup boots." By that time we were packing to return home, and the nights were now too light to see the Aurora, but the local fauna springing back to life all around our cabin sounded like a Tarzan movie. On the drive back "outside," after surviving the winter with little more automobile trouble than a broken valve lifter, we experienced a cracked windshield and a flat tire within two hours on the Yellowhead Highway, the first major paved road we hit in British Columbia: Good ol' Alaskan, or maybe just northern, humor.
Sorry, but we had to include the above cartoon, which is not from the book and probably isn't real Alaskan humor, either.
For penance, here are some better things to think about:
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