Monday, October 29, 2012


The Last Frontier. The Land of the Midnight Sun. The Coldest State. The Frigid State. The Really, Really Cold State. Alright, I made those last couple up.

10. Lower Tonsina

Yes, there is an Upper Tonsina. They don’t call it that, though, do they? No siree. Upper Tonsina gets to call itself plain ol’ “Tonsina.” They think they’re kinda special that way.  Poncey bastards!

All I could find on this one was that “na” means “river” in Ahtna. I have no idea what “tonsi” means. As a matter of fact, I have no idea what “Ahtna” means (though it does appear to have "river" in it).

There is a Tonsina River, and LT lies right beside it. All of this is just a little east of Anchorage.

9. Flat

Named after the nearby Flat Creek, which I found in a gazetteer with the lovely explanation of “descriptive.” The town was originally called “Flat City.” Can’t decide which one I like better, “Flat City” or just plain “Flat.”  

Flat had a population of 6,000 in 1914. These days, not so much:

As of the census of 2000, there were 4 people, 1 household, and 1 family residing in the town.  (Wikipedia)

Further, “no plat was filed for Flat, and the town site rests on mining claims, so the existence of Flat may contravene the law.”  In other words, no Flat plat, no Flat!  Yikes!

Flat is kind of in the middle of nowhere, over in the western part of the state, between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

Flat, Alaska: where Wiley Post crashed (once)

8. Unalaska

I always figured the un-Alaska had to be Florida. 

A very reliable gazetteer on Alaskan names I found on the ‘net says that “Unalaska” means “this here Alaska.” It says nothing about how you say “that there Alaska.” I also found that an alternative origin is “near the peninsula.” I think I prefer that one.

Unalaska is also an island, in the Aleutians. It’s where Dutch Harbor, the largest fishing port in the US, is located (Unalaksa has over 4,000 people). Dutch Harbor is where they film The Deadliest Catch.

7. Napakiak / Napaskiak

Buda and Pest, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Winston and Salem. And now … Napakiak and Napaskiak. 

According to that very reliable gazetteer I mentioned before, Napakiak is home to the Napaiskak people, and Napaskiak is home to the Napakiakachak people. So, Napakiak and Napaiskak, and Napaskiak and Napakiakachak.  Napakiak, Napaiskak. Napaskiak, Napakiakachak. Got it?

The two are separated by the Kuskokwim River, which – you have to admit – is a pretty good name in itself. Both of the towns have about 300 people.

This is what they do for fun in Napakiak / Napasiak. I quote from the National Press Photographers Association website:

Vanessa Tahbone of Nome, Alaska grimaces while competing against Nicole Colbert of Napakiak, Alaska during the Ear Pull event at the 49th Annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics 2010 Games Friday afternoon, July 23, 2010 at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this event, there are two people sitting down facing each other with twine looped around each other's ear - right ear to right ear, left to left. The two begin a "tug-of-war" to see who the winner is. Best two out of three wins the match. There are times when the loop will slip off one opponent's ear - that person is the loser of that round. Each participant alternates each round using alternate ears. A game of stamina to pain, the victor demonstrates he/she can withstand pain, a trait sometimes needed to survive the harsh realities of the North.

6. Skwentna

I just like to say this one. Skwentna. Skwentna. Skwentna. Go ahead, try it yourself.

Skwentna is named after the Skwentna River, and “Skwentna” means “sloping ridge river” in Tanaina. So “Skwentna River” is actually a tad redundant. Especially when you speak Tanaina.

Skwentna’s main claim to fame is being on the Iditarod Trail. Population: 40. Location: a little northwest of Anchorage.


5. Kwethluk

Much like Skwentna, I can guarantee this one will become fixed in your brain for days. Kwethluk. Kwethluk. Kwethluk. See!

It means “river people.” Once again, the town’s named after a river. So, once again, we’re being a little redundant here, people! When one refers to the “Kwethluk River,” one is actually saying the “River People River.” And that not good grammer.

The town is not too far from where the river dumps into the Pacific. I count 700-some Kwethlukians.

4. Eek

Eek!  A village!

USA Today says it comes from an Eskimo word for “two eyes.”  It does not say, however, why a town would be named that.  What we want to know, USA Today, is how the heck it got that name.

Eek's got about 300 people, and is about 30 miles from Kwethluk (as the bush pilot flies, that is).

The Eek skyline, on a sunny summer day
(well, maybe spring)

3. Chickaloon

It has a really funny name. It was named after a local chief, Chiklu. It has a really funny name.  At one time, it was famous for its coal. It has a really funny name.

It's also got about 270 Chickalooners, and is just a little northeast of Anchorage.

The carrots are enormous in Chickaloon, Alaska!

2. Deadhorse

Deadhorse, AK, is known as The Town at the End of the Earth. It’s 300 miles above the Arctic Circle and almost on the Arctic Ocean. It’s basically an oil camp, with 25 to 50 permanent, and 3,000 temporary, inhabitants. 

It’s also the end of the line for the Dalton Highway, which begins 400-some miles away in Fairbanks. It’s the town’s sole connection with the outside world. It, and Deadhorse, have both been featured in Ice Road Truckers. In fact, the town was most likely named after a trucking company, Deadhorse Haulers. Where did that company’s name come from? Well, there are two theories:

  • The company’s first contract was hauling dead horses out of Fairbanks
  • Putting money into the company was about as productive as “feeding a dead horse”
I vote for the latter.

Welcome indeed!

1. Chicken

I have to tell ya, Chicken, Chickaloon, and Deadhorse were pretty much in a dead heat (get it?). That said, there was just something about naming a town after something so unprepossessing, so average, so unremarkable as a chicken that really got my attention. It’s like naming your little burg “Bathroom,” or “Plate,” or “Undershirt.” It takes a lot of guts. Or maybe just a severe lack of imagination. Anyway, it’s Chicken by a neck (sorry)!

Once again, you get your pick of theories:

  • It’s named after the ptarmigan, a common local game bird that early miners survived on [insert story about orthographically challenged miners here]
  • The gold nuggets there were so small they reminded said miners of chicken feed

Seven people live there year around today, busily fleecing money from the tourists. It's near the Yukon border, a couple hundred miles north of the Gulf of Alaska.

Honorable Mention:

  • B-o-r-i-n-g - Central
  • Short and sweet – Nome, Elim, Atka, Knik (Musher's Hall of Fame), Kake (pronounced like "cake"), Ekuk, Tok
  • Just a little out of place – Houston, Kalifornsky, Wales
  • Just a little off color – Beaver
  • Native American laughers – Naknek, Ugashik, Egegik, Ekwok, Chignik, Shungnak, Sleetmute, Kipnuk, Shageluk
  • Native American tongue-twisters – Chuathbaluk ("The Hills Where the Big Blueberries Grow"), Kwigillingok, Pikmiktalik, Ungalikthluk
  • Abnormal nouns – Sourdough, Platinum, Candle
  • Fun to say – Shishmaref, Savoonga (Walrus Capital of the World)
  • Just plain weird – Lime Village, Livengood, King Salmon, Elfin Cove, Funny River, Coldfoot (I bet!), Red Devil, Meyers Chuck, New Igloo, New Knockhock, Mary’s Igloo
  • I'd like you to meet – Nancy, Craig, Homer (world's largest comb collection)

Special Note:

I couldn’t end without mentioning this site, from the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. It focuses on the original Indian names of towns and geographical features, as well as what those names mean. It’s the source of classics like:
  • Ch'chihi Ken – “Ridge Where We Cry"
  • Qichi Qinghilneqt – "The Old Lady Made It That Far"
  • Bak’leghili Bena – “Something Is Clubbed in It Lake"
  • Dilhi Tunch’del’usht Beydegh – “Point Where We Transport Hooligan”
  • Chun El Duk'eldesht – "Where Arrows with Excrement Are Shot Down”


  1. Kanakanak and Tuntutuliak always catch the attention of those not intimately familiar with Alaska. The former is supposedly the only palindromic place name in Alaska. It was originally an orphanage which suddenly became very busy following the 1918 flu epidemic. The name is believed to derive from the practice of counting noses when conducting head counts at the orphanage.

  2. Those two are great! I'm guessing they weren't big enough to get in my atlas.

  3. Not impressed. Many indigenous names that you call "weird" accurately depict the lay of the land, the flora and fauna, the wildlife and the people of the area. I don't know about the english named places you mention here. Who knows? I'm still trying to figure out why a beautiful mountain in our area is named "McDonald" on the maps. Now THAT'S a weird one.

  4. Ah well. This thing is definitely non-PC. As a matter of fact, I've managed to offend Alabamans, Indianans, and now Alaskans too.