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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; 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 people living in Alaska, making the state the third least-populated in the nation, ahead of only Vermont and Wyoming. And 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. (Although in the future, Global Warming may push the line between "cold" and "oh god this is fuckin' cold!" further north, making the state more welcoming to new arrivals.) The lowest temperature ever recorded in the US, -80 degrees Fahrenheit, was taken in Prospect Creek, Alaska.
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. The people who crossed Beringia are the ancestors of all of 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 US 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 Britain and Canada, 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. At the turn of the century, a series of gold rushes in both Alaska and, more importantly, in the neighboring Yukon territory of Canada 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 a few minor battles during World War II (and the only part of the United States to be invaded during the war), and 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 months later. (If only it had come in before Oklahoma and Arizona. Then it could've been called "AK-47"!)
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 sent 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 over a thousand dollars a year from the fund, 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.
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.), and is the one of the two state capitals that cannot be accessed by land. To reach Juneau, you must fly or take a boat in.
- 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 overstatemen. 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 drivability of the roads is often in doubt, this is very much justified.
- Unlike the other 49 states, not all of Alaska is organized into counties (or "boroughs," as Alaskan counties are known). 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.
Alaska in popular culture:
- The graphic novel and film 30 Days of Night is set in Barrow, and fails geography spectacularly with its portrayal of the town and the surrounding North Slope.
- The brothers Cyclops and Havok from X-Men are originally from Anchorage. They still have love for the area and returned a couple times during sabbaticals from superheroing.
- Michael Pointer AKA Weapon Omega (from Omega Flight and Norman Osborn's X-Men) is from North Pole, Alaska.
- No big surprise that the G.I. Joe named Frostbite (real name Farley S. Seward) is from Galena, Alaska.
- The extreme sports comedy Out Cold is set at an Alaskan ski resort.
- The film Alaska, a Kids Wilderness Epic.
- The Simpsons relocate to Alaska in The Simpsons Movie.
- Much of The Proposal was set in Sitka, Alaska (though filmed in Massachusetts).
- The Grey is about a group of Prudhoe Bay oil workers who get stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash.
- The Fourth Kind takes place in Nome. It was actually filmed in Bulgaria and British Columbia, and it shows.
- 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.
- Northern Exposure.
- Sarah Palin's Alaska.
- In The Event, the government is holding the aliens at a secret base in northern Alaska.
- Deadliest Catch.
- Seasons 3 and 4 of Ice Road Truckers.
- Flying Wild Alaska
- The X Files has the season 1 episode "Ice", and homage to The Thing takes place in isolated Alaska.
- Will Riker was (will be?) born in Valdez, Alaska (in the year 2338).
- An episode of River Monsters took place in Alaska, even had a rather unnerving run-in with a grizzly.
- Gold Rush
- Ax Men features one crew harvesting timber on several different islands in Southeast Alaska in seasons 4 and 5.
- 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 US. The Fallout 3 DLC Operation Anchorage allows you to play a virtual reality simulation of the US 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 US 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.
- 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.