PALMER, Alaska—More than the giant bunnies and sprightly baby goats, the mammal that drew the most enthusiastic crowd at the Alaska state fair was a dead harbor seal.
On a Saturday afternoon last month, in a small agricultural town 40 miles north of Anchorage, a group of rapt onlookers gathered around a tent in the rain to watch Phyllis Lestenkof skin the seal’s carcass.
It took just four cuts with a crescent-shaped blade for Lestenkof to sever the first flipper. Next came the other three, and then off came the seal’s head, with its coarse white whiskers and adorable little snout. Finally, Lestenkof, a 41-year-old Inupiaq Alaskan who has been butchering seals since the age of 4, gripped a handful of blubber and began to slice off the skin.
Slivers of freshly carved meat sizzled for a long while in a cast iron pan, and then morsels were passed around to spectators. It tasted unbelievably tender, like the reddest steak, with a whiff of fish in the fattier bits. Those who enjoyed the samples with me spanned a wide range of cultural affinities, including a man wearing a baseball cap that read “stand for the flag, kneel for the cross” and a young woman whose own hat said “bras suck.”
Insofar as any state fair purports to reflect its stated territory, the Alaska state fair is an incomplete, imperfect mirror. But it’s as good a place as any to get a feel for this complex election season in the Last Frontier, at a time of political change in the state.
This month, Democrat Mary Peltola bested Sarah Palin in a special election for Alaska’s one House seat, becoming the first Alaska Native in Congress and the first Democrat to win the position in 50 years. But that seat is once again up for grabs in November, and contentious races for governor and a U.S. Senate seat are also underway. All are being decided using a new voting system, in which everyone who wants to run for office does so together in an open primary. The top four vote-getters advance to a ranked-choice general election.
This system leaves ample room for surprises—especially in Alaska, where there are more independent voters than Republicans and Democrats combined. The special election started with some 48 candidates, one of whom was a democratic socialist whose legal name is Santa Claus.
[Read more about Santa Claus and the other 47 candidates who ran for this seat in June.]
After the slate of candidates was whittled down to four, Alaskans voted again. They could choose whether to rank one, two, or three candidates, in order of preference.
I met multiple voters in the state who ranked, as first, Palin or businessman Nick Begich, who is endorsed by the Alaska GOP, and then ranked the Democrat, Peltola, second, citing individual preferences that defied ideological reasoning. (Fish is a pretty big issue across party lines, for example.) Peltola will finish out the last few months of the current congressional term, and whoever wins the November election—which features all three of the same candidates—will take office for a full term in January. With a Libertarian likely added to the ballot in November, there’s no telling how the rankings might shake out.
At the fair, an Alaskan couple who identified themselves as independents stopped by a campaign booth for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a three-term incumbent running against a Donald Trump–endorsed challenger. Linda Mattes-Golding, 67, and husband Richard Golding, 69, both plan to vote for Murkowski in November, they said.
“I don’t agree with everything she’s ever done. However, she is one of the few senators who is willing to work across the aisle,” Mattes-Golding explained, citing her approval of Murkowski’s support for abortion rights. Golding added: “She was also willing to stand up against Trump when she thought he was wrong.”
Seated in a folding chair with a well-behaved macaw perched on her shoulder, Sheila Pontier, 49, offered a different view. “Lisa Murkowski has turned into a shitshow. She needs to go,” Pontier said. She supported Murkowski in the last election, but has since been “disgusted” by the senator’s opposition to Trump and his agenda. “I think the perfect candidate for Alaska really needs to understand our issues and being in Alaska, but they also need to be 100 percent Republican and hardcore like Trump is.”
Pontier was staffing a tent that offered photo ops with swine from Alaska Potbelly Pig Rescue, a nonprofit she founded in 2019. “I just saw a need,” she said. “There are just so many unwanted mini pigs out there.”
Visitors at another booth mounted a taxidermied moose for a photo-op, while others donned fur coats and posed on an old-fashioned sled with a pair of live huskies. With the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains towering in the distance, kids crafted souvenir stuffed animals at the “Make a Moose” stall, an attraction begging for a Build-A-Bear copyright infringement suit. Fairgoers of all ages had spangles applied to their faces by a person claiming to be “Alaska’s first-ever glitter artist.” There was also a “Damsel in Defense” fair booth, which sold pepper spray, “hermergency kits,” and purses designed to conceal a firearm.
In addition to stalls selling standard fair fare—funnel cake, kettle corn, cotton candy—the region’s bounty showed up in salmon dishes, crab bisque, and “quesa-deer-as” stuffed with reindeer sausage. It was clear that, in a place where August means 55-degree weather and a constant drizzle, state fair vendors have a lot more menu leeway than they do in warmer locales: Some fairgoers in down jackets and XTRATUF footwear (it is impossible to overstate the popularity of these boots in Alaska) hunched over steaming portions of ramen and Hungarian mushroom soup in bread bowls.
As afternoon turned into evening, the wind at the fairgrounds whipped up, sending splinters flying from the chainsaws at the lumberjack show into the eyes of spectators in the stands. A group of goth teens eating sugar-covered poffertjes strolled past a crisis pregnancy center van advertising onsite ultrasounds. Chris Janson’s country rendition of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—for some of us, a heresy—wafted from a concert stage.
The day I visited the fair was sponsored by the mining industry, one of the major pillars of the Alaskan economy. The theme announced itself primarily through complimentary swag, such as drawstring backpacks that declared “Alaska Mining Rocks” and bumper stickers that read “Mining: The Family Farm of the North” and “If it Can’t be Grown, it Must be Mined.” (To engender goodwill among the next generation of Alaskan decisionmakers, representatives from the state’s only active coal mine distributed toy pickaxes made from foam-finger material.)
It was a reminder of one of the central dichotomies of Alaskan politics—one that Emily Forstner, 62, a volunteer at Big Cabbage Radio, a local community station named for the larger-than-life vegetables that thrive in the 20-plus hours of sunlight Alaska gets in the summer months, spoke about after visiting Murkowski’s booth.
Forstner said that resource extraction provides Alaska with essential tax revenue and jobs, but she wants government officials to strike a careful, sustainable balance with environmental stewardship. (On her special election ballot, Forstner ranked Peltola first, followed by Begich and, in the last slot, Sarah “drill, baby, drill!” Palin.)
As an extraction state, Alaska is “kind of like a prostitute,” she said. “You have to sell your wares, but you have to take care of yourself really well so you have something to sell.”
Back at the seal skinning demonstration, after the samples were depleted, Lestenkof and her fellow butcher divided the remaining raw meat into Ziploc bags and distributed them to the elders in the crowd.
June Pardue, a Sugpiaq elder in the audience, eagerly accepted a portion. Seals are cherished for their iron-rich flesh, she said, as well as their blubber, which is cooked down into oil and used to dress meat, coat berries, and soak leafy greens. Asked about the condiment’s flavor, she grinned and intimated that there was nothing quite like it. “Bacon grease tastes like bacon grease,” she said. “Seal oil tastes like seal oil.”