My wife is turning 50 today, and as often happens with milestones such as these, family and friends have been busy digging out old photos to share. As I rummaged through my closet this morning lo and behold I found the first photos I ever took of her, from June of 1988. She had just arrived in Alaska for the first time a month earlier, and clearly… she was a Cheechako.
Cheechako is a term Alaskan’s often use to refer to folks who are visiting or have recently arrived in Alaska, usually “from the lower 48”. If you come and visit our great state and someone calls you a Cheechako, not to fear, it is a term generally used in good fun. Sure, you may not know what “bunny boots” are or 101 uses for duct tape, but you are welcome just the same.
Back to those pictures. They were taken at the original Birdhouse Bar, a true Alaskan bar that was located in the little town of Bird Creek, on the highway between Anchorage and Girdwood. The bar was situated in an authentic circa 1903 miner’s cabin, which over time had sunk haphazardly into the surrounding terrain. This all had left the floor quite slanted and difficult to navigate, especially after a few beers. It had a number of interesting traditions, such as encouraging patrons to leave a dollar bill, driver’s license or article of their underwear stapled to the ceiling. The one Bird House tradition reserved just for Cheechakos was the “calling of the Ptarmigan” which, by the way, is the official Alaska state bird.
To call the Ptarmigan, the unsuspecting Cheechako would ask the bartender for the “Ptarmigan Whistle”, which was actually more of a circular brass horn that pointed back at the person blowing it. The Cheechako would then stick the Ptarmigan Whistle out a nearby window and blow with all their might, hoping to attract a Ptarmigan or two. At this point the Cheechako would discover what all the “Sourdoughs” in the bar already knew… that the whistle had been filled with flour, set to explode back in their face.
Sadly, the original bar burned to the ground in 1996. A local establishment, Chilkoot Charlie’s, has set up a replica in Anchorage, worth a visit for the adventurous, but of course just not quite the same.