AHS Blog

Mapping Alaska

Date Posted: November 20, 2013       Categories: 49 History
By Susannah Dowds
Note: The exhibit “Mapping Alaska” is now on display in the Ted Stevens Gallery at the Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The story of this exhibit starts with a pair of shoes. Last April, toward the end of the semester I came home after an exhausting day to find that my roommate’s new dog had gone up to my room and chewed:
1. The pump to my air mattress
2. A pair of gloves
3. Worst of all one just one of my Sacha London black stilettos. I found a little gold buckle in the living room, and various pieces of black satin in a trail to the kitchen.
My first thought was that this dog needed to go to the pound—but my second thought was:
“Oh thank goodness he didn’t touch my Xtra tuffs.”
This was the story that I told people back home in Haines, and more often than not it got a laugh; but the tale of the mangled stiletto also demonstrates how important it is to have the right footwear in Alaska. Fishermen in southeast put on a pair of Xtra tuffs, while workers in the interior have depended on bunny boots and even here on campus when the thermometer reads 20 below students cannot walk around in anything less insulated than snow boots. Without coats and boots and hats and gloves the Alaska elements could be life threatening. Climate shapes daily life in Alaska, and regardless of maps or GPS, each Alaskan has an intimate relationship with the weather outside.
While most people associate Alaska with harsh weather, for several years after statehood Americans both in Alaska and the lower 48 had difficulty understanding how Alaska fit within the geographic context of the rest of the United States. After all, at the nearest point Alaska is 500 miles removed from the contiguous states and 1/5 the size of the rest of America.
After Alaska attained statehood in 1958, cartographers struggled with this new northern state, ultimately deciding to place Alaska in an insert south of California. A 1958 title in the New York Times read “Alaska as State no Map Problem,” with the subtitle “Cartographers Aim to Keep it an Inset Off West Coast, but with New Coloring.” The article continued, correctly supposing that Hawaii would join Alaska in a box the following year.
USGS Map US10A, 1975, USGS

Maps of the United States included the detached 49th and 50th states until 1975 when Senator Ted Stevens spearheaded an effort to create the first USGS map displaying an accurately proportioned Alaska in the Arctic Circle and Hawaii in the Central Pacific. Following the release of the USGS map US10A, the office of Senator Stevens sent copies to every school in Alaska. Teachers across the state responded with requests for duplicates so that students would understand Alaska’s location within the United States.
Of course, modern maps of the United States still commonly show Alaska and Hawaii in various disembodied boxes and misunderstandings about Alaska’s location still exist. In 1975, a fifth grade student from Massachusetts made a bet with her friend that Alaska had a capital city, her friend did not think so. To settle the matter she wrote to the office of Senator Ted Stevens who verified that Alaska did indeed have a capital city, through some Alaskans were campaigning to move it from Juneau to elsewhere. Vicki from Massachusetts won the wager. The debate about Alaska’s capital continues today, but more recently, the Alaska Geographic Alliance is agitating for an alternative map of the United States with Alaska in the forefront and the contiguous states in a box.

“Mobile office of Sen Ted Stevens” in front
of Bridal Veil Falls, Valdez. Photo from
Ted Stevens Papers Collection.

An accurately proportioned map can easily communicate the position and size of a state, and some geographic features like mountains, coastline and rivers. But another aspect of Alaska that often is overlooked is geographic diversity. Much to the chagrin of Texas, Alaska is known for being the largest state in the union, but it is hard to explain that Fairbanks is different from Dutch Harbor, which is much different from Barrow, which is much different from Seward.

Subsequently in this exhibit I wanted to communicate geographic diversity. I felt so lucky to be able to work with the very enthusiastic and talented Angie Schmidt at the Alaska film archives who put together a collection of film clips that show various maps of Alaska in addition to clips of Alaska scenery. In a campus full of students from various parts of the state I hope that those who walk through the gallery will be able to recognize something from home.
I also wanted to communicate regional differences through photography. Last summer and this fall I asked Alaska youth pre-K through high school to submit photos showing what their area looked like. I was fortunate to be able to travel to schools in Gustavus and Haines to do a quick geography and photography lesson before we sent the kids out with cameras. In all we had about 50 photo entries from schools in southeast and south central and 10 were selected for the display. I hope to visit more schools as the year continues so that the gallery can rotate photos throughout the school year.
Paraeuchaeta barbata is a copepod or a small crustacean
found in the water column of the Beaufort Sea. Photo by
R. Hopcroft
Geographic familiarity also extends to the university level, and Alaska is full of undiscovered research possibilities, modern technology, GPS especially, has revolutionized how we chart remote areas. I talked to a couple of scientists at University of Alaska Fairbanks who send me some pretty spectacular photographs of their research. One came from Dr. Chris Larsen who monitors over 150 glaciers across Alaska and another came from Caitlin Smoot, a fellow graduate student who is working with Dr. Russell Hopcroft to investigate marine life in the Beaufort Sea.
When I was writing up the labels about both research projects, I learned a lot more about the sciences than I would have otherwise, yet learning outside of my comfort zone is my favorite thing about museum work. To put together an exhibit or a program museum professionals are constantly learning. In addition to my graduate course work in Alaska history I have also learned about geodesy, the benthic zone and DGPS.
Of course the research mentioned above uses highly specialized GPS applications, but in reality really we use GPS every day. One popular GPS recreation activity is geocaching. Essentially geocaching is a treasure hunt where individuals hide caches and then register the latitude and longitude online so that fellow seekers can find the location. Visitors to the cache write their name in the logbook and maybe exchange a couple of trinkets. A search for a geocache is like a mini adventure with an updated compass and a digital treasure map.

While familiar landmarks remain guiding features, maps and new technology are changing how we view our surroundings. Photographs and film can instantly remind someone of home while GPS readings can pinpoint glacial changes and geocaches. But whether you travel by plane, by boat or by car—in Alaska, it’s always advisable to bring the right pair of shoes.