Yukonomist: Trouble brewing on the Alaskan front

Alaska wants to replace its state bird with the raven

It may be time to resurrect the Klondike Defense Force.

The Alaskans are thinking of stealing the Yukon’s territorial bird.

Subversives from Fairbanks have proposed icing the state’s current bird, the tasty willow ptarmigan, and replacing it with the wily and resourceful raven.

The Klondike Defense Force leapt into the fray in a similar situation fifty years ago, when Edmonton came up with its ridiculous idea to call its municipal festival “Klondike Days.” Festival organizers claimed this was in honour of Edmonton’s place as a jumping off point for Klondike stampeders.

Celebrating the poor judgment of the less than two per cent of stampeders who went via Edmonton and ended up spending up to 18 months slogging to Dawson never seemed like a fun party idea to me.

Edmonton may be one of the top ten provincial capitals, but decades of ridicule over celebrating someone else’s heritage did its reputation no good. The city finally caved in and killed the Klondike Days brand in 2006.

It’s now known as K-Days. This may be lame, but at least Edmonton is as entitled to the letter K as any other place.

But back to Alaska and the raven. I can see why some Alaskans aren’t too keen on the willow ptarmigan. There’s a reason why few sports teams are named after a critter that looks best roasted and on a plate beside Yukon (or Alaska) cranberry sauce. Even its latin name is slightly silly sounding: Lagopus lagopus alascensis.

The raven’s scientific moniker sounds edgier: Corvus corax.

The pro-raven movement has also said some hurtful things about the willow ptarmigan’s intelligence.

Its defenders point out that it is seen all over Alaska and is more loyal to the state than migratory birds (although the same can be said of the raven). It’s also a foundation of the food chain, which is very important but, again, not conducive to sport team names.

You can also have some fun with the ‘pt’ sound. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that the staff of legendary Alaska Senator Ted Stevens had a softball team called Pted’s Ptarmigans. And they say that the ptarmigan is not being stupid by sitting still and letting you get close enough to harvest it with a shovel. It is actually cleverly playing the odds, but you don’t realize it since you don’t know how many camouflaged ptarmigan you have stupidly walked right past.

The Anchorage Daily News has come out in favour of the insurgents: “Ravens are, after all, emblematic of Alaska and the way we see ourselves: Shrewd. Seemingly unconcerned by even the bitterest cold. Fun-loving. Social. Loyal. Adaptable to all circumstances.”

All of this takes place in the context of a long history of Yukon-Alaska rivalry. It started back when the Americans bought Alaska, but the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to take years to notice which side of the border some of its posts were on.

The Alaskans came out on top during the 1905 border dispute, ending up with Skagway.

They tend to win more Arctic Winter Games medals. They managed to shed territorial status, get rid of their income tax and legalize cannabis first. And they have successfully squatted on our true time zone for years. They also scooped the “Last Frontier” slogan for their license plates.

What were we supposed to do, put “Second to last frontier” on ours?

We, on the other hand, have healthcare, a transfer payment that is way juicier per person, and never really wanted that time zone anyway. Most Yukoners are also probably fine in how the national leader sweepstakes have turned out.

Despite how fun it would be to revive the Klondike Defense Force and launch a jingoistic social-media campaign, I am willing to cut the Alaskans a bit more slack than Edmonton. Ravens live in Alaska, too. They are smart enough, after all, to cross the border without getting tangled up in customs. And the last thing we need is to be cut off from camping in Skagway and Haines if things escalate.

So I think we should propose this deal to them: If the Alaskans will share their Permanent Fund, we’ll share the raven.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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