Palin Exposes Real Northern Exposure for Alaska

If Hollywood is to be believed, all that northern exposure has made the people of Alaska a little quirky. They alternately befriend and battle bears, become paranoid insomniacs during the endless days, seek solace in the wild -- and, oh, the men grow in trees.

Before Republican presidential candidate John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, a lot of what people in the lower 49 states knew about Alaska came from books, movies and television shows. Palin's nomination for vice president has shined a spotlight on a place pop culture has long portrayed as strange and eccentric.

"I don't think there's any more quirkiness here than elsewhere," said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "People are looking for an explanation for why people are living in Alaska. Why would people go live in a place with a very long winter and darkness? What would drive people to live there? They must be a little bit strange and different than the rest of us."

But actress Janine Turner, who portrayed Maggie O'Connell on the 1990s CBS series "Northern Exposure," sees a lot of similarities between her character and the Alaska governor.

"I was just thrilled by her nomination," said Turner, who is a Republican. "Because of my fondness for 'Northern Exposure,' when I heard she hunts caribou, I thought, 'Oh, wow, she's cool.' I'm more than very proud of Maggie O'Connell and very proud of our new candidate."

Turner's character was a socialite who moves to Alaska and learns to shoot her own deer and fix her own toilet. "Maggie was a go-getter, self-reliant," she said. "She made her own decisions, executed her plan. And she was a survivor and an outdoorsy girl. I think the governor appears to have all those qualities."

Turner admitted she's never been to the state but has heard stories about the state from her pilot father.

"Alaska seems like a pretty tough place to survive," she said. "So, in order to survive, she would have to be a tough cookie to begin with. She's beautiful, intelligent, with a great family. She's sort of my idol, in a way. I love the way she just sort of goes out and takes charge and makes decisions, running a town as mayor, then running the whole state as governor."

Alaska's Frontier and Tourism

One question that Palin's nomination has raised is whether all Alaskan parents give their children unusual names. Palin's children are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig.

"Most kids are named Mary and Tom, no different than anywhere else," Haycox said with a laugh. "You find weird names all over the places. I doubt if you would find a higher preponderance here."

Indeed, the top baby names in Alaska last year, according to the state's bureau of vital statistics, were Aiden, Ethan, Alexander, Logan and Michael for boys, and Isabella, Madison, Emily, Abigail and Ava for girls.

While Hollywood has glamorized the untamed Alaskan frontier in films such as "White Fang" (1991) with Ethan Hawke, "The Edge" (1997) with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, and Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2007), the majority of Alaska's nearly 700,000 residents live an urban existence.

"The reality is 70 percent of Alaska is urban," Haycox said. "Most people live lives essentially indistinguishable than lives anywhere else."

Haycox said the most common remark made by the 1.5 million tourists who arrive by plane and cruise ship each year is, "This place looks like the place I just left."

Except, moose really do cross the road, like they did in "Northern Exposure." And it's not uncommon for city dwellers to encounter bears and sometimes be hurt by them. And yes, the winters are cold, though no colder than some other cities. It's the length of the winters and the five hours of daylight that people have to adjust to.

"You have to get used to that, but so do people living in Seattle where it rains all the time," Haycox said. "You adapt. People here look at the trade off, which is the exhilaration of the light in the summertime. Any time you want, you can be outside."

That's because the sun does not set for weeks during the summer in Alaska. In the film "Insomnia," from 2002, Al Pacino's character, a cop from Los Angeles, suffers from insomnia because of the endless daylight and becomes increasingly paranoid throughout the film.

"I don't think a lot of daylight induces insomnia," Haycox said. "It's really an invention."

Alaskan Pride

Nor do men grow in trees, like the title of ABC's recently canceled "Men in Trees," starring Anne Heche, implied. The show was inspired by the famous Alaskan myth that there were 10 single men for every single woman and given credence by Oprah Winfrey when a dozen Alaskan men appeared on her show in 1989.

It's yet another pop culture stereotype that has Alaskans chuckling rather than bristling.

"Everybody likes the cache that comes with being thought of as unusual when they 'go outside,'" Haycox said, using the slang for the lower continental states. "People take great pride in being Alaskan. So if you go outside and you don't have good bear story or good small airplane story, then you're no good at all."