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What Time Do They Turn the Northern Lights On? Stupid Questions From Tourists in Alaska

I've had my moments of ignorance, no doubt, but admitting those moments doesn't help to suppress my amazement at the questions tourists ask in the 49th state. True, Alaska is remote and quite separate from the rest of the Lower 48 (as we call the Continental U.S. up here), but that doesn't excuse some of the outright bewildering questions tourists have. Following is a sample of some of the best. A few are Alaska tourism legends, and others are questions I've personally fielded.

  • Asked on a cruise ship: "What elevation are we at?"
  • "What language do they speak here?" (Actually not a bad question if the tourist was actually asking about Alaska Natives -- instead, they're forgetting that Alaska is part of the U.S.)
  • "Do you take American money?" (See above.)
  • "When do the bears/moose/caribou/salmon/eagles come out?" (Or better yet): "Will you make the bears/moose/caribou/salmon/eagles come out?"
  • Pointing at a small, random mountain in a range: "Is that Denali?"

Most annoying are the vague references to "they." Who are these "they," I wonder? Do these tourists think that a Wizard of Oz-like person stands behind a curtain and flips the Northern Lights switch to "on," or ushers the wildlife out as the train or tour bus roars by?

I'll close with a conversation I personally overheard on a bus in Denali National Park about a month ago. A woman and her husband sat behind me on the bumpy school bus, which stopped for wildlife and mountain views. The woman obviously had some depth perception issues, and possible hearing problems (demonstrated by the volume of her voice, which I will attempt to create here by writing in all caps).

Man: Look at Mt. McKinley! You can see the top of it over those mountains right there!

Woman: THAT'S MT. MCKINLEY? IT DOESN'T LOOK ANY BIGGER THAN THOSE OTHER MOUNTAINS.

M: That's because it's 100 miles away and those mountains are right here.

W: OH. (pause) WHY IS IT ALL WHITE? IS THAT SNOW?

M: Yeah, it's like, really cold up there.

W: WHY IS THERE SNOW ON IT ALL YEAR ROUND?

M: Because it's like, minus 10 degrees up there!

W: WHY ARE WE STOPPING?

M: Because there's a caribou right there! Look!

W: THAT LOOKS LIKE A WOLF!

You get the idea. The running commentary had me in tears the whole time, and I just wanted to trail this couple the entire tour for the entertainment value. How could a caribou ever be mistaken for a wolf? How can you not get that Denali doesn't look as tall as the mountains right in front of you because it's farther away?

These are questions I might never know the answer to.

Filed under: North America, United States

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