Monday, June 18, 2012

Down East Dispatch: Notes from the Homesick Alaskan

Notes From A Homesick Alaskan: Down East Dispatch
By Jamie Smith
(Unedited version of essay appearing last Sunday in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

     In 2011 I journeyed out of state looking for work, adventure and a fresh start on life. In other words, following a woman. Now after an extended, year-long hiatus exploring coastal Maine, we’ve migrated back home, North to Alaska. Fortunately Homeland Security looked the other way, the passports were still valid, and our pickup truck still had its iconic license plate from the Gold Rush Centennial (the historical one depicting a stream of people also leaving Alaska). Now while this plate pretty much gives one carte blanche to drive like an idiot everywhere across America, it came particularly in handy in the town of Bar Harbor, especially when you were the sort of driver who somehow kept getting lost on an island.

     This was one among many endearing traits that quickly made this transplanted Alaskan stand out like a beached and beleaguered Beluga. Courtesy of Sarah Palin, to many folks in the Lower 48, now the popular stereotype of someone from the Last Frontier is not just that of a deranged, armed and alcoholic Unibomber character. While I didn’t pull in nearly as much in speaking fees as the former half-term Governor, I did often find myself acting as a defacto ambassador, constantly apologizing on behalf of the majority of Alaskans for her television show, Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. That or someone always wants to buy you another beer because that’s actually what life is really like in Maine, except instead of Ted Nugent they have Steven King.

      It was especially easy to fit in around that neck of the woods because Maine is a region where the males of our species can still be observed in their hairy phase (it being the Southern-most extent of its natural range). Besides sporting traditional Carhardt and flannel plumage, another standard fashion accessory seen while strolling around downtown were the ubiquitous pairs of knee-high rubber boots. But unless you had just been kicked out of the house, these weren’t referred to as “breakup boots,” but they were usually accompanied by a familiar scent of lingering eau de fish (which, like in Alaska, will also probably get you kicked out the house).
      And, much like the arctic, Maine people also displayed layers of blubber, which has crucial insulating properties protecting large mammals from inclement weather. This might also have something to do with the fact that even though Alaska ranks nationally as number one in per capita consumption of ice cream, there was no comparison to the number of businesses offering home-made confectioneries in Maine, often within easy waddling distance from one another.

  After living for over two decades in the Interior, I thought I knew the concept of “cold,” having earned enough cabin-cred to play poseur Sourdough and go toe to toe with any salty dog who dared to complain about what passes for “winter” in New England. But when the reality of this phenomenon called “wind-chill” first cut through my clothing and I whimpered like a puppy left alone outside at night, and consequently found myself adopting another regional custom: simply complaining about the weather, regardless of how good or bad it was.

     Researchers now think that the sound of running water is the trigger for beavers to begin building their dams, but all I know is that personally being anywhere near the Atlantic coast will trigger the instinctual drive for an Alaskan to quickly find a nearby bush. Given the demographics of Maine’s aged population this helped explain the numerous Port-A-Potties that dotted Acadia National Park. And speaking of barbaric customs, the ex-cabin-dweller’s habit of simply going off a convenient porch is a definite no-no, especially in a place where people will actually hold it until they reach a trailhead bathroom.

     Now along with being the oldest state in the nation, Maine is also the absolutely whitest state as far as residents go. This not withstanding my being definitely the palest person anyone had ever seen, which had the advantage of making it much easier for the search parties to locate the lost Alaskan’s body. Not that hiking was anything near what we’d call “wilderness”: in fact after climbing the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard (Cadillac Mountain at 1,529 feet) I was rewarded with stunning views from a parking lot and gift shop. Where, yes, there was more ice-cream.

     Besides complaining about how hot it was in December, I found out the ultimate faux pas in the culinary crown jewel of New England was committing the cardinal sin of passing on more lobster… because it “just isn’t as good as King Crab.” However I did discover one novel cure for the homesick Alaskan was to buy artificial lobster… which is actually made from good ol’ Alaskan Pollack - I guess it’s true that anything is edible with enough butter. Not to mention there’s something else called “flounder,” which I guess is something like a baby halibut. And don’t get me started on what passes for moose and bear in Maine, but I guess size isn’t everything. Unless you’re talking about mosquitoes, which now I’ll gladly take any day after the nightmare of picking off the innumerable ticks every time we’d leave the house. But as it turns out, the symptoms of Lyme disease include headache, muscle pain and fatigue, plus depression and brain damage, are virtually indistinguishable from living through a normal Alaskan winter.

     And so, having experimented with the great Alaskan Bungee Cord experience of moving somewhere else, it’s good to be home. 

     Now I’m going to Hot Licks.

Jamie Smith’s cartoon feature “Nuggets” has been appearing in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner since 1988. A collection of his Maine work “Bad Clams” is available online through He will be giving a show & tell of recent works on Friday, June 29th from 6-7pm at the Literacy Council of Alaska (517 Gaffney Road, Fairbanks AK (907) 456-6212.


  1. ... and I would add the most welcoming buncha cartoonists I've ever met!

  2. The low tide sea urchin had coffee squirting out my nose.
    Good job,
    And we still miss you very much,
    Jeff and family

  3. Thanks Jeff - I hope it was decaf!
    But seriously, here's hoping for a return visit sooner than later - when fame & fortune is bestowed upon me I shall most definitely purchase a "winter" home in that neck of the woods!