Alaska Set to Celebrate 50th Anniversary Alaska became the 49th American state on Jan. 3, 1959. But the state has already begun celebrations to mark June 30, 1958, when the U.S. Senate passed the Alaska Statehood Act. And with fewer than 1 million people, the state is in no danger of losing its unique flair.
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Alaska Set to Celebrate 50th Anniversary

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Alaska Set to Celebrate 50th Anniversary

Alaska Set to Celebrate 50th Anniversary

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And before Alaska's half-century festivities got into full swing, one of our very own visited the state for the first time. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg brought back this postcard.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Things you learn in Alaska: Use Styrofoam in your outhouse, and if it's blue Styrofoam, it won't get cold. Pay a lot for gas, even though people say you could stick a straw in the ground and just sip it up. You'll learn that reindeer, Rudolph included, are really domesticated caribou.

In Alaska, there is all kinds of wildlife and all kinds of wildlife stories.

Former State Representative SALLY SMITH (Former State Representative, Alaska): One of the better stories is about an eagle in southeast Alaska that had a salmon in his talons.

STAMBERG: This is Sally Smith of Juneau.

Former State Rep. SMITH: And took off as an Alaska Airlines jet took off, but he dropped the salmon on the windshield of the jet, cracked the windshield, and they had to make an emergency landing. I can imagine the report was - we crashed into a fish.

STAMBERG: Do you have any parachutes?

Unidentified Man (Pilot): No.

STAMBERG: On a twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain, a few of the eight passengers were nervous, but the ride was smooth; visibility good.

(Soundbite of airplane)

Unidentified Man (Pilot): We're just crossing the Arctic Circle right now.

STAMBERG: That may be, but it looks exactly like what we've been flying over for at least the last 10 minutes.

No dotted line to mark the actual Arctic Circle, just soft mountains - brown, streaked with occasional snow. But most astonishingly, piercing the millions of acres of spruce trees, centuries-old and untouched by human hand, the silver streak of the trans-Alaska pipeline, snaking through the wilderness for 800 miles, from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

Back in Fairbanks, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Captain Ken Kersinger steers the four-decker riverboat, Discovery, along the Chena River.

Tourists always ask Kersinger how he — anyone, really — can bear to live in a place that gets so cold for so much of the year. Sometimes, Captain Kersinger wonders, too.

Captain KEN KERSINGER (Riverboat Discovery, Fairbanks, Alaska): The global warming, I say, bring it on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: The weather is always on their minds in Alaska. At the Fairbanks farmers market, Jodie Gowans says with just a 90-day growing season, it's too early for their famous giant cabbages.

Ms. JODIE GOWANS (Fairbanks, Alaska): We don't usually put most things in the ground until about June one. And they're not mature, things like cabbages, until August, and some of them, gourds and things, are September. But by then, we're already getting frost again.

STAMBERG: They grow flowers and vegetables in greenhouses, but the cost of heating oil has gone so high, Jodie says a lot of people are firing up their greenhouses later than usual.

On the other side of the market, Betty Bailick cuddles one of her 21 grandchildren or seven great-grandchildren. Betty is selling what appear to be long, flat, flannel-covered serpents - but no.

Ms. BETTY BAILICK (Vendor, Fairbanks Farmers Market, Alaska): They're filled with wheat, and you microwave them and put them on your cold, achy body, or you can freeze them and use 'em if you need to ice, and I need to ice my neck. So I ice my neck and heat my feet, and somewhere in the middle, I'm happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Betty Bailick drives to the Fairbanks Farmers Market from her home in North Pole - the city, not Santa's place.

Ms. BAILICK: Well actually, Kris Kringle lives across the street.

STAMBERG: Is that so?

Ms. BAILICK: That is true. He just had to change one letter in his name, and it's Kris Kringle.

STAMBERG: She says her Kris Kringle got dressed up as Santa one year and delivered pizzas.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Most of those I met who live in Alaska first went there for a week, or a month, or the summer - and never left.

Former State Rep. SMITH: I started out as a desk clerk in a hotel, and this has definitely been the land of opportunity.

STAMBERG: Sally Smith spent three terms in the state legislature, ran various benefit programs and was mayor of Juneau. She says there are loads of places in the U.S. where you can make a difference, but this place is different.

Former State Rep. SMITH: Because Alaska is a spirit. It's a state of mind, and the spirit is just more prevalent here.

STAMBERG: They are individualists, second-chancers, sometimes. They don't like to be bothered with rules and other people's restrictions, but in Alaska, among these loners, there's a real sense of community.

Former State Rep. SMITH: We go our own ways; we come together, and there's a sense of I think maybe of building something. So each of our talents will be pooled with another independent person's talents, and we grow something we couldn't have as individuals.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The state of Alaska, population under 700,000 hardy souls and a half-century old come January. It'll be cold, then. Seems fitting. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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