A long while back my friend Donna Freedman asked me to write a list of the ten best Alaska place names for a City Smart Anchorage guidebook, which led to one of the most fun afternoons I ever spent in the Alaska Room of the Loussac Library in Anchorage. The City Smart Guides are, alas, no more, but here is the list of names I came up with.
1. Turnagain Arm. In yet another flop at finding the Northwest Passage, Captain Cook had to “turn again” here.
2. Denali. The tallest mountain in North America. Not McKinley, not Big Mac — Denali. De-NAH-lee. It’s a Tanaina word for “home of the sun” or “the high one.”
3. Alyeska. An Aleut word distinguishing the Aleutian Islands from the mainland, or “the great land.” ‘Nuff said.
4. Picnic Harbor. So named because during an October blow, the harbor is a picnic compared to beating through Chugach Passage.
5. Farewell Burn. Between Rainy Pass and Rohn on the Iditarod Trail, it is farewell to sanity as mushers suffering from dehydration and sleep deprivation begin hallucinating about white lights, crying friends, dead relatives and Hawaiian beaches.
6. Salmon. There are two Salmon Bays, one Salmon Bay Lake, two Salmon Berry Lakes, thirteen Salmon Creeks, one Salmon Creek Divide, one Salmon Creek Reservoir, one Salmon Flats, one Salmon Fork, one Salmon Fork Black River, one Salmon Island, one Salmon Lagoon, four Salmon Lakes, one Salmon Mountain, one Salmon Pass, one Salmon Point, one Salmon Ridge, seven Salmon Rivers, one Salmon Run, one Salmon Slough, one Salmon Trout River, and two villages named Salmon. And these are only the places in English.
7. Egegik. A village on Bristol Bay. The name is possibly derived from the Yupik word iguugek, meaning “his testicles.” I don’t know the story here, but there is bound to be one.
8. Killisnoo: A village south of Angoon. Corrupted from the Tlingit word kootsnahoo, meaning “bear’s rectum.” A close second for Number 8 was Anaktuvuk Pass, which means either “caribou shit” or “where the caribou shit.”
9. Taiga. The name of my father’s hunting and fishing lodge on the Kichatna River and the setting of the ninth Kate Shugak novel, Hunter’s Moon. Taigataiga means “bear shit” in some obscure Athabaskan dialect.
10. Dana Peak (north of Petersburg) and Mount Dana (northeast of Pavlov Bay). But of course.