15 Things “Northern Exposure” Got Right about Alaska

15 Things

My wife Michelle was born in Anchorage, attending high school at Bartlett High.  At about the time I was attending college, when the show “Northern Exposure” started to air, she was splitting her time between Anchorage in the summer and the school year in college in Austin.  She doesn’t like “Northern Exposure,” maintaining adamantly that it was an inaccurate depiction of life in Alaska.  Her chief complaint? Bagels. She found the notion that Alaskans would not know what a bagel is in 1990 (the year the show began) a bit preposterous.

On a very technical level, I can agree with her a little bit.  There were many instances where Maggie O’Connoll, landlord and bush pilot, would describe flying in one day to locations that would be severe FAA violations (too many hours in one day) if they were even remotely physically possible. There is no Tlingit community that is connected via the road system to Anchorage.  If you recall, most of the Alaska Native characters in the show (Marilyn Whirlwind and Ed Chigliak being chief among them) were Tlingit, and Dr. Joel Fleischman caught a bus ride that took him from Anchorage to the fictional town of Cicely.

But setting aside these technical flaws, there are many things that the show got right about the spirit, way of life, and characters that make Alaska the wonderful place that it is.

1.  Law Enforcement is Sometimes a Long Ways Away, and it’s Not a Sheriff.  Okay, I am going to start with a more esoteric point, but I think it’s an important one. Alaska is not organized into counties, but “boroughs.”  (This is another factual point that the show gets correct, by referring to the local government as boroughs.) In many shows and movies (“30 Days of Night” among them), local Alaska law enforcement is depicted as a sheriff, and they are always nearby.  There are no sheriffs in Alaska. In “Northern Exposure,” for those rare incidents when law enforcement is needed (the annual theft spree involving objects along a theme – i.e., useless appliances), law enforcement is over a day’s drive away and comes in the form of an Alaska State Trooper (Officer Barbara Semanski, who eventually falls in love with Maurice Minifield).

2. Gay Couples Owning a Lodging Establishment in Small Town Alaska. A few seasons into the show, Erick and Ronald move into town to renovate an old house and turn it into what would eventually become a very successul bed and breakfast.  Maurice, the ultra-conservative ex-Marine former astronaut, is very friendly with them at first because he learns that Ronald is a former Marine. His friendliness turns to disgust when he learns that the two new comers are a gay couple.  Given the fact that Alaska is a very politically conservative state – it was, after all, the first state in the country to amend its constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal – this might seem like too much of a suspension of disbelief to accept.  Yet, the storied McCarthy Lodge in downtown McCarthy, Alaska, population 28, was at one point owned and operated by a gay couple (Pete McCarthy, The Road to McCarthy).

3. Obsession with Spring Breakup. In the show, there is an entire episode dedicated to spring breakup, when the river’s ice finally breaks up and lets loose, signaling the onset of spring. People are antsy, Holling wants someone to agree to a fistfight with him (Officer Semanski was happy to oblige), Joel and Maggie have wild sex, and the show concludes with a naked run of the men down mainstreet. While I am not aware of any naked runs in the state, I know we are obsessed with breakup. In fact, the only lottery in the state – the Nenana Ice Classic – is dedicated to the very moment when that breakup occurs on the Nenana River.

4. The Sweat House.  In several episodes, Ed Chigliak partakes in a sweat with his elders, often seeking advice from dating to becoming a shaman. For the few instances where a non-Native partakes in the sweat, the show depicts the steam as being too hot for the visitor. The social aspect of taking a sweat is a very real and pervasive part of Alaska Native life out in the village. For the Yup’ik, the “maqiq” or “sweat” is a very social enterprise, with traditional uses ranging from spiritual to practical (used for getting clean). And the Yup’ik take their maqiq very, very hot. One sweat I participated in at a sweat house in Dillingham reached 260 degrees.  Another one I joined later was even hotter – fortunately, that sweat house did not have a thermometer.  I really didn’t want to know.

5. Culture Around the Aurora Borealis. In one of my more favorite episodes, everyone in town is having other people’s dreams, courtesy of the magic of the aurora borealis.  Japanese tourists are visiting Ron and Erick’s B&B to make love under the Northern Lights.  And, Marilyn tells Joel that you can manipulate the aurora by whistling at it.  That Japanese tourists come to Alaska in droves in the winter and visit the Arctic region to view the aurora borealis is a solid fact. There is some dispute, however, as to the motivation behind the visit.  Some agree with the notion that the Japanese believe that conceiving a child under the northern lights will bring good luck, others claim the visits are merely because the Japanese love to travel the world to view unusual landscapes and phenomena. The Alaskan obesession with the aurora borealis has always been there, and has increased dramatically with the advent of social media. Various Alaska Native cultures believe many things about the aurora, including the notion that you can whistle at the aurora and make it respond to your tune.  My favorite belief, though, is held by the Nunamiut: They tell their children that if you go outside without your hat when the aurora is out, it will chop off your head and play with it like a ball.

6. The High of the Midnight Sun.  When Dr. Fleischman first experiences the long (and in some parts of the state, endless) days of summer, he goes for a week without sleep, rather hyperactively coaching the town basketball team for an upcoming showdown – only to crash before the game and sleep for four days.  The medical benefits of getting a Vitamin D boost from the sun are certainly well-known.  But there is such a tangible, psychological benefit of having so much sun, you can get off from a day’s work, go hike a mountain for a few hours, and still have sunlight when you get done.  The added ability to get physical activity and enjoy life outdoors is certainly something that we Alaskans take advantage of.

7.  Quirky Characters, Big Small Town.  The mythical town of Cicely, Alaska, was built around a cadre of random characters: the young Tlingit man who dreamed of directing independent films and would later become a shaman (Ed), the city doctor thrown into a world he never could have imagined (Dr. Fleischman), the ex-Marine ex-astronaut with a grand vision for economic development in his small corner of Alaska (Maurice), the retiree who left behind the crazy life of Wall Street to settle down in a quiet town and live off the land as a trapper (Walt), the former local beauty queen who settles down with an older man (Shelly).  And that’s just a sample.  But Alaska is full of real people who are just as varied.  Its history is replete with people who are escaping some other life, who have had big dreams of developing Alaska’s resources, who didn’t know what they were getting into when they took a job in some village in the bush.  And, like “Northern Exposure,” no matter where you have been and where you live, you get a sense that you are more connected to people here than any other place you have lived.  Even if you live in “Los Anchorage” as some folks call Alaska’s largest city.

8. Rolling with the Punches. Shit happens in Alaska, and you have to just be able to accept it and move on. There is the episode where Ruth Ann and Walt are transporting a set of antique display cases back to Cicely and the truck breaks down, forcing them to eventually cut up the cabinets for firewood.  There is the long lesson over five seasons where Dr. Fleischman slowly learns to embrace his situation and accept life in small town Alaska, often clawing and biting in resistance against it. And there are countless episodes that illustrate that life in Alaska can be unpredictable, and you can only prepare so much for contingencies; things just happen and there is nothing you can really do but embrace them when they confront you.  Otherwise, life can be rather miserable up here if you expect planes to run on time or expect the weather to cooperate or demand that your power be on at all times.  The list is endless.  This show so wonderfully illustrated the spirit needed to deal with such adversity.

9.  Bears and Moose do Weird Shit.  There was the episode where a bull moose in rut dry humps Dr. Fleischman’s truck to death. And then there was the episode where a bear coming out of its winter hybernation falls in love with Maggie.  And of course, the iconic moose wandering around “downtown” Cicely, looking around at all the moose antlers adorning building doors with a certain amount of trepidation.  Even in Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage (population 265,000), every human habitation is constructed in an area that was, until rather recently, wild habitat. Anchorage has an extensive network of streams, green belts and valleys that create robust wildlife corridors.  Wildlife comes and goes rather freely, sometimes even in the heart of downtown.  With the heart of the municipality, and area locally known as the “Bowl,” I have seen moose, black bear, coyote, lynx, red fox, and countless assortments of shorebirds and waterfowl.  And animals tend to do some strange stuff when confronted with human contraptions.  Bull moose have been found walking around with Christmas lights hanging from their antlers.  Moose do frequently disrupt traffic by ambling around in the streets. There was a brown bear last fall going around tearing up garages in the Anchorage hillside, apparently looking for a suitable denning spot. On the rare occasion we have hot summers, moose have been known to take advantage of kiddie pools to cool off.  The list is endless.

10. People do Weird Shit. Perhaps one of the more iconic moments of “Northern Exposure” is when Chris-in-the-Morning flings a piano across a lake using a trebuchet.  While his original vision was to fling a live cow, he had to change plans when Ed told him that Monty Python had already accomplished that vision in “The Holy Grail.” That was just a sample of the weirdness that people did in the show.  With the numerous reality TV shows currently based in Alaska, it’s easy to see this on a regular basis.  But here are just a few real world examples.  This last winter, Fairbanks residents were shook by an explosion that caused damage to several houses.  What’s more strange, that it was caused by a licensed explosive dealer who was essentially playing around or that the grand jury dismissed the indictment against him because they didn’t believe any criminal activity had occurred? There used to be a colorful character named “Wild Bill” who lived out in the Mat-Su Valley who famously threatened a state judge that a buddy was going to fly a plane into the court house, and later spent his days driving around a van with placards and a loudspeaker, declaring that lawyers were in bed with satan or were vampires, and various anti-government slogans. And then there are some more well-known characters, like Chris McCandless who many Alaskans believe was just insane or Timothy Treadwell who thought brown bears were just cuddly, fuzzy people (and many Alaskans believe just committed suicide by bear).

11. City Folk Don’t Quite Get It.  Aside from the fish-out-of-water Dr. Fleischman who never really chose a life in rural Alaska, there was also his replacement Dr. Capra who naiively thought that moving from Los Angeles to the Alaskan wilderness would be cool in concept but never really thought about the consequences.  And then there was British rocker Brad Bonner (played by Adam Ant) who shows up in Cicely thinking he was in Sicily, Italy, and mistakenly thinking that a bunch of Tlingit drummers would want to rock out with him.  Alaska is not a theme park with First Aid stations, toilets, food stands, or any other of the amenities available in more controlled natural (or faux natural) environments.  You cannot expect to make a moose your friend by giving it a muffin (older woman actually tried that in Denali National Park, according to a friend who worked there).  Cell phones don’t work in most of the state. Yes, we do take U.S. currency here.  No, we don’t live in igloos. When the park ranger says don’t approach the wildlife, it is for a good reason.  Getting closer to that brown bear out in the backcountry so you can take a close up shot with your diddly camera is not worth your life. There are just countless examples illustrating that Alaska is a serious place, and many of its visitors just have no clue how serious it can be.

12. Stop Sign as a Symbol of Government Intrusion. Later in the series, there is a mayoral race that hinges over the installation of a stop sign at a corner in town. The existing mayor sees it is a public safety necessity, the challenger as overreaching government intrusion.  The challenger wins.  Once in New Jersey photographing a wedding, I overhead a conversation where people were talking about the latest actions by the local zoning board in putting controls on a development project.  “Thank God for the zoning board,” one person said to sounds of approval.  In contrast, Alaskans despise government authority, especially new government authority.  The town of Wasilla, loathe to enact anything remotely resembling zoning laws, is a shrine to strip mall sprawl hell. And sometimes, this dislike of government presents in extreme ways. Schaeffer Cox became so furious with government intrusion that he formed a local militia and plotted to kill judges, State troopers and other government officials until he was caught, convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison. When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed in 1980, it provided for 43,585,000 acres of new national parklands in Alaska and added 53,720,000 acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System. It is the foundation of a lot of the tourism economy in modern-day Alaska.  It also led to widespread disdain, hatred and threats directed at National Park Service employees.  In Fairbanks, locals burned Jimmy Carter in effigy.  In Seward, local businesses posted signs prohibiting park rangers from entering. The towns of Eagle and Glennallen each proclaimed opposition to the parks and even offered to shelter anyone from federal authorities who was willing to violate new park regulations.

13.  Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Yes, you heard me, the show got it right about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. In one episode, old timer and trapper Walt wanders around town with a lighted visor in order to stave off the effects of SAD, only to develop an addiction to the intoxicating light.  Chris develops a massive Christmas light art display in order to bring some light to the long darkness.  As far south as Anchorage, there are only about six hours of light a day at the winter solstice. But in the farther north communities, especially those above the Arctic Circle, there are days, even weeks of darkness. In the community of Barrow, there becomes a point where the sun sets in the winter and does not again rise above the horizon for 65 days. Not surprisingly, the rate of SAD among residents of Alaska is approximately 10%, compared to only 1% for southern states in the Lower 48.

14. Bush General Stores Don’t Carry Bagels. I am sorry, but I have to disagree with my wife on this one. While it may have seen absurd to her in 1990 for the show to suggest that Alaskans would not know what a bagel is, she had, after all, grown up in the state’s largest city and had attended college at the University of Texas-Austin.  She was familiar with bagels because of her rather cosmopolitan upbringing.  Yet, in the show, it is a general store owner in small town Alaska who doesn’t know bagels. Dr. Fleischman walks into Ruth Ann’s store, asks if she has bagels, and she responds, “What’s a bagel?” But I’ve been to a few general stores out in the villages, some twenty years after the show aired, and they don’t carry bagels.  And I would bet that if I asked an old timer who had grown up in the bush (and didn’t watch TV) what a bagel is, they would probably not know.

15. Alaska can be a Spiritual Place. Maggie falls in love with a brown bear who takes on a human form resembling a Nordic god.  Ed leaves this Earthly plane to fight against a Kruk, or demon, on a mountain in an alternate universe in order to heal a patient. Dr. Fleischman leaves Cicely by way of a magical Arctic portal that takes him back to Manhattan. Some of these are rather literal expressions of the spiritual sense of wonder that many people experience in Alaska.  Like it or not (I am an Agnostic), I frequently have people use words like “God,” “Glory,” “Creation” and others when commenting on my photos of Alaska on Facebook. Many Alaska Natives describe a deeply spiritual connection to their land, waters, fish and wildlife. When out in the backcountry, if you open yourself up to the greatness of Nature, there is an unmistakable sense of connection to something vast, wonderful, mysterious and eternal.  And if you happen to be out and its dark and the skies are filled with the aurora borealis, then that connection is amplified. It takes a special sort of emptiness of the soul to not feel a deep, meaningful connection to something when you are embraced by Alaska’s wildness.

3 Responses to “15 Things “Northern Exposure” Got Right about Alaska”

  1. Susan Gainen Says:

    Thank you! Although I’ve only been there twice, this post makes me homesick for Alaska.

  2. Penelope Says:

    I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, before it was a state. I have been back a couple of times, and although I live in New Mexico (what could be more different in terms of terrain?) I still consider my self Alaskan. Even though the show got some things wrong, seems they got a lot more right. I loved the show because I love Alaska. I climbed a mountain, mushed a dog sled (solo) and traveled to many remote villages with my job. I wish there were more shows based in Alaska!

  3. Ghille Says:

    I’ve been a “wannabe Alaskan” most all my life. And, I also adore Northern Exposure (own the whole series!) When I got my first computer in the mid 90’s…I “created” my email addy norther@att.com…. and have used variations on that theme through the years when changes were needed. Presently my “handle” part of the email addy is norther_most !

    Obsessed…I think so!

Leave a Reply