America's last true frontier, Alaska is, by a very wide margin, the largest of the 50 states
. The next competitor for the title, Texas
, is less than half its size. If it were overlaid over the contiguous 48 states
, then Anchorage, its largest city, would be in Missouri; Barrow, its northernmost town, would be in Minnesota; Ketchikan, its southernmost, would be in Florida; Nome would be in South Dakota; Juneau, the state capital, would be in Georgia; and the Aleutian Islands would stretch all the way into California
. Bottom line: Alaska is flippin' huge
But Alaska is also very sparsely populated. As of the 2010 census, there were just over 710,000 human beings living in Alaska, making the state the fourth least-populated in the nation, only North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming having fewer people. Please note that this comes after
a huge population surge (with many immigrants coming in from Washington, Oregon, and California for economic opportunities) -– in the 2000 and 1990 censuses, Alaska was firmly the second-smallest state by population, just barely ahead of Wyoming. More than half of those people live in only one tiny corner of the state: the Anchorage metropolitan area. The state has, by far, the lowest population density in the country. Part of this likely has to do with the fact that most of Alaska is either frozen tundra or forbidding mountains
, something of an American version of Siberia, with only the coastal regions in the south being really hospitable.note
The lowest temperature ever recorded in the U.S., –80 degrees Fahrenheit
(–62 Celsius), was taken in Prospect Creek, Alaska, on January 23, 1975.
Alaska was the first place in the Americas that human beings laid eyes on, as the last ice age lowered sea levels enough so that a land bridge, known as Beringia, formed between Alaska and Siberia.note
The people who crossed Beringia are the ancestors of all the aboriginal tribes of North and South America, from the Iroquois and the Sioux
to the Aztecs and the Inca
. Some of them, of course, stayed in Alaska, living off the ample supplies of fish in the waters off the state's long coastline. Collectively, they are known as the Alaska Natives, a group that encompasses the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, the Aleut, the Yupik, the Alutiiq, the Gwich'in, and the Inuit.
The first Europeans to lay eyes on Alaska were the Russians in 1741, who colonized it for the same reason that everybody else in Europe wanted a piece of the Americas: getting rich. Specifically, the Russians were there for the fur trade, and claimed an area that includes much of the Pacific Northwest
. As the U.S. and Canada expanded west, the Russian claims were pushed back to the present-day area of Alaska. The colony was never very profitable for Russia, and was increasingly under pressure from Canada and its British protectors, so when the Americans came knocking at their door in 1867 asking to buy it from them for the cool
sum of $7.2 million, the Russians were happy to oblige. The purchase of Alaska was highly controversial initially, with many people calling it "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox" (after Secretary of State William H. Seward, the man who organized the purchase) and viewing it as a worthless wasteland that America would find no better use for than Russia did.
In time, however, America would soon realize just what a great deal it had gotten. Some 30 years after the purchase, a series of gold rushes in both Alaska and, more importantly, in the neighboring Yukon Territory of Canadanote
turned the area into The Wild West on ice!
, allowing it to gain enough people to be incorporated as a territory in 1912. After that, the Aleutian Islands were the site of the Aleutian Islands Campaign during World War II
(and the only part of the United States to be invaded
during the war). Known as the "Forgotten Campaign", because it was overshadowed by the simultaneous Battle of Guadalcanal, this chapter of WWII made up in bloodshed what it lacked in significance; After a gruelling and savage winter war that rivalled even the Eastern Front in brutality, the Japanese ended it all with an unexpected mass Banzai charge, one of the largest in the Pacific, which split the American lines into pieces and resulted in a day-long hand-to-hand melee until the 29 Japanese survivors finally surrendered.
Alaska's true value, however, was completely unforeseeable to the 19th-century Americans, and only became obvious in the late 1940s: Ladies and gentlemen, imagine Soviet
Alaska. The West really dodged a bullet on that one, no? Anyway, with the onset of the Cold War
, Alaska became the cornerstone of America's defense against Soviet bombers
. The two wars, and the resulting military investment, caused a population surge in Alaska, allowing it to be inaugurated as the 49th state in 1959, followed by Hawaii
a few months later.note note
The two moments that defined Alaska's modern existence were the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and the completion of the Alaskan Pipeline in 1977 to bring that oil to the rest of the country. Oil money transformed Alaska from a backwater to one of the richest states in America, and the state has set up a permanent fund to invest some of its oil revenue for the benefit of the people. Every Alaskan receives a dividend (of varying amounts-2011 was $1281; 2012 was $878), meaning that a family of four has a guaranteed welfare check of about $5000... which just about makes up for the substantially higher cost of living. While it's gotten better in Anchorage and, to a lesser extent, Fairbanks, prices for basic goods are still ridiculously expensive in most of the state, due to the isolation of many towns and the harsh conditions making freight transport quite difficult
And now, for the part you've been waiting for. Sarah Palin
. Yes, she spent a little more than two years as the governor of this state. Now let's keep discussion about her to a minimum, all right?
Some fun facts:
- The capital of Alaska, Juneau, is the only state capital located on an international border (the Canadian border, not the Russian one),note and is one of the state capitals that cannot be accessed by land.note To reach Juneau, you must fly or take a boat in.
- Considering that Juneau is many hundreds of miles from Anchorage and its environs (the state's major population center), along with the whole can't-drive-there thing making access very inconvenient, there have naturally been several votes to move the state's capital to either Anchorage or some town close to it. The capital remains in Juneau, however, because no one is willing to pay the extra taxes it would take to relocate the government.note
- It is true that, in much of the state, nighttime can go for several weeks in the winter, and daylight can do the same in the summer. However, "six months of light, six months of darkness" is something of an overstatement. In Barrow, which is basically the worst-case scenario, the sun doesn't officially rise between about November 20 and January 20. However, locals still get about three hours of twilight per day. The opposite is true around the summer solstice, where even in Anchorage the sun doesn't completely vanish from view for several weeks.
- Alaska has more registered pilots per capita than any other state. In a place where the navigability of the roads is often in doubt, and some places just don't have roads, and still other places are islands, this is very much justified.
- On a related note, the terrain in southwestern Alaska is so unpredictable that delivery service to the villages is often conducted by hovercraft.
- Unlike the other 49 states, not all of Alaska is organized into counties (or "parishes" as in Louisiana, or "boroughs" as in Alaska itself). In the "unorganized borough" covering more than half the state, the only local services are municipalities and school boards, with everything else handled directly by the state or by the tribal government.
- The tallest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley (or Denali), is in Alaska. This mountain incidentally has one the tallest base-to-summit heights in the world (Everest, for one, may have a much higher summit, but its base does not begin until at least 15,000' above sea level).
- There is a town west of Fairbanks called North Pole, which is the official-unofficial place the United States Postal Service sends all the children's letters to Santa Claus. This has been embraced by the town, with North Pole becoming a bit of a Stepford Suburbianote where the entire town is Christmas-themed and 6th graders are required to help answer letters to Santa.
- Incidentally, North Pole is nowhere near Barrow, the American town closest to the actual North Pole.
- Less than 1% of Alaskan land is privately owned. The rest belongs to either the national government (~65%), the state government (25%), or one of twelve Native corporations (10%).note
- The final shot of The American Civil War was fired off the coast of Alaska. CSS Shenandoah was a commerce raider with the job of harassing, disrupting, and destroying Union supply ships. During the summer of 1865, they had been working the Bering Sea attacking Union whaling ships; in August 1865, they were informed by a friendly British crew that the war was over and the Confederacy dissolved. The crew of the Shenandoah knew that if they surrendered to the Union, they'd be given a perfunctory trial and executed for piracy, despite the fact that the Union and all major naval powers had ships just like theirs.note Instead, they sailed west around Asia and Africa, finally debarking in Liverpool.
- Towards the end of World War II, the United States designed and began to build the Alaska Class Large Cruisers. These ships, which were scaled up Cruisers rather than slimmed down Battleships, were intended to be dedicated "Cruiser Killers" (a similar role as envisioned for the Battlecruisers). Cruisers were traditionally named for cities, and Battleships traditionally named for states. Being in-between, the Large Cruisers were to be named for US Territoriesnote
- The Yanks with Tanks have several bases in Alaska, but the most notorious is Shemya, a radar and refueling station miles from anywhere on a tiny island. This place is basically the closes the US Air Force can get to actually reassigning people to Antarctica. During the Cold War, missile launches were tracked from Shemya; there was supposedly a tradition that, when you left Shemya for good, you had to take a rock with you, so that one day there would be no more island left and nobody would need to be sent there.
- Although Sarah Palin's claim that she could see Russia from her house was actually a Beam Me Up, Scotty!, Alaskans living on Little Diomede can see the Russian island of Big Diomede.note
Alaska in popular culture:
- A lot of Jack London's stories, such as Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Batard, take place in Alaska.
- Into The Wild.
- In Twilight, the Cullens are stated to have lived in Alaska before moving down to Forks.
- Julie of the Wolves.
- The 2009 short story "New Archangel" by Desmond Warzel takes place in Sitka at various points in Alaskan history.
- In The Heroes of Olympus, it is literally "the land beyond the gods." It is also where the titan Alcyoneus has his lair.
- The Yiddish Policemens Union by Michael Chabon is set in an Alternate History where, during World War II, the U.S. settled Jewish refugees from Europe in Sitka, Alaska, turning it into an autonomous state for sixty years. By the present day of 2007, the lease is about to expire, with the evangelical U.S. president hoping to resettle the Sitka Jews in Palestine.
- The Kate Shugak mysteries by Dana Stabenow. Shugak is a Private Detective operating out of the largest national Park in Alaska.
- Folk singer-songwriter Jewel is from the town of Homer. (She wasn't born in Alaska, but then again, not many of its residents are.)
- Marian Call makes her home in Alaska (though, like Jewel, was not born there). Very much One of Us, as her music usually contains themes from geek culture, especially from her album Got To Fly (which even has a Nerd Anthem).
- In the Fallout universe, Red China invades Alaska for its increasingly valuable oil supplies, precipitating World War III between them and the U.S. The Fallout 3 DLC Operation Anchorage allows you to play a virtual reality simulation of the U.S. Army's liberation of Anchorage.
- In the Soviet campaign of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, the Allies make their Last Stand at Point Hope, Alaska.
- Abigail Black from Clive Barker's Jericho is from Fairbanks.
- In Shattered Union, the Russians invade Alaska after the U.S. collapses. The final mission, after you reunite America, has you invading Alaska to drive out the Russians. Despite it being the largest map in the game, it still only covers roughly a fifth of the state.
- In Metal Gear Solid, Shadow Moses Island is located in the Aleutians while Solid Snake lives near Twin Lakes.
- The Memetic Mutation "series of tubes" came from a gaffe made by Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, who has an airport named after him in Anchorage.
- In the Futurama movie, Bender's Game, Mom has a dark matter mine operating out of Alaska.
- It is implied later that Mom hails from Alaska.
- On an episode of Ugly Americans, Leonard briefly works in a cannery in Alaska.
- In the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero episode "The Great Alaskan Land Rush", a COBRA-sponsored buffoon shows up with a counterfeit "Great Seal of Alaska", an artifact lost after the 1867 handover of Alaska that purportedly gave its owner control of said territory. The Joes set out to find the real Seal and encounter both a COBRA battle group sent to stop them and a group of descendants from the shipwrecked Imperial Russian steamer that carried the Seal.
- "It was an ALASKAN BULL WORM!"
- The Pixar short film "Knick Knack" stars a snowman trapped in a snow globe with "Nome Sweet Nome, Alaska" written on the base.