Two (Not Six) Degrees of Separation in Alaska!

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a game based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, that any two people, located anywhere in the world, are only about six acquaintance links apart. The objective of the game is to name any actor, actress or Hollywood personality and connect them to Kevin Bacon in less than six iterations. The premise is the “small world phenomenon” – a theory that human society is a lot smaller than most people think, that individuals, total strangers at opposite ends of the earth, have more in common than they realize. The theory proposes that we can typically find some type of connection, some level of commonality, by a relatively short path. Mathematicians and political scientists who have studied the phenomenon suggest that the average path length was around six – hence the phrase “six degrees of separation.”

From my experience as a life-long Alaskan, if you’re from Alaska, or spent any time living in Alaska, the number of iterations for establishing a common bond or connection between another individual is significantly less. If you live in Alaska and can’t make a connection within two iterations, you’re not a local!

So, why do I think that everyone here can connect to someone else in two or less iterations? Because, evidence of it happens all the time!

My variation of the Six Degrees of Separation, call it the Two Degrees of Separation, is largely based on my own experience from living the majority of my life in Alaska. It seems to take two forms. The first is the straight forward “I know someone who knows someone who knows you or knows someone who knows you.”

One of my favorite experiences occurred when I was in college in Tacoma, Wash. I was at a shopping mall and pulled in next to another car with Alaskan license plates. Two co-eds got out of the car. I introduced myself, told them that I was from Anchorage, and asked where in Alaska they called home. They said Kodiak. I mentioned that I have an aunt and uncle in Kodiak, provided their names, and asked the girls if they knew them. One of girls gives me a strange look and said, “That’s my aunt and uncle.” We determined that my aunt married her uncle, so although we weren’t related to each other, we did share the same aunt and uncle – back in Alaska!

On a business trip to Washington, D.C., I visited a random restaurant in Georgetown. While waiting for my table, I struck up a conversation with another gentlemen who was also waiting. He mentioned that he was joining an Anchorage politician for dinner that night. I recognized her when she showed up; she’s the representative from my district who I’ve met several times.

The second form of “Two Degrees” is more of the “small world phenomenon” variety – running into people you know, in some cases who you haven’t seen in years, under near impossible odds.

Years ago I took my sons to Disneyland in Los Angeles. We had an extra day to kill so we drove to Sea World in San Diego. While watching the killer whale show, my wife saw a couple and their kids and told me, “We know them.” The husband and I had worked together at an Anchorage engineering firm. He and his family moved to San Diego three years earlier and had never been to SeaWorld. That morning, he and his wife decided for no particular reason to take their kids to SeaWorld – the same day that my wife and I, on a whim, decided to take our kids to SeaWorld.

Several years later, a friend and I decided to spend two weeks floating a river in a remote area of Alaska. We had been on the river for a week and had yet to see another person. Suddenly, a raft floated around a bend in the river. Seeing us, they paddled to shore. The party included my neighbor from college (in Tacoma) – who I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. He was floating the river for his job to determine whether the river should receive a “wild and scenic” designation. The area was so remote that we never saw another person the rest of the trip – yet I still managed to run into someone I knew!

Why does this seem to happen more frequently for people who either live or have spent some time in Alaska? Anchorage has a population of just under 300,000 people, but it still has that small town feel, especially for people like me who were raised in Anchorage. Also, given our size, the professional community for a given profession or trade is not that large. For example, if you’re in the A/E or construction industry, it’s very easy to make a connection to someone in one or two iterations. And if you grew up here and find someone who also grew up in Anchorage, it’s pretty easy to find that common person who, if you don’t know them directly, you’ve at least heard of them.

Alaska also has a decidedly transient and mobile population. With several large military bases and a strong oil industry, families are constantly rotated in and out, making connections while they are here and taking the possibility of future connections with them when they leave. Alaskans frequently travel “outside” for vacations, especially to warmer destinations like Hawaii and Mexico. So, it’s fairly common to run into other Alaskans escaping the winter on beaches and golf courses in these tropical locales. And, as most flights to and from Alaska route through Seattle, it’s pretty common to be seated next to someone you know or someone who knows someone you know.

It also helps, as in my case, to come from a rather large Alaska family. My grandmother was one of 16 and had 14 children of her own. I’m constantly running into cousins, distant cousins, and friends of the family. Sometimes I’m not sure what their name is or even how we’re related, but I know I’ve seen them at past family events. When I fly out to the Bristol Bay area or Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where my family is originally from, it is easy to meet people who are either related or know of our family.

Being raised in Alaska, in a large and extended family, and working in a somewhat tightly knit profession, creates many opportunities to create a connection with someone in one or two iterations. But connections can’t be made without communication. And maybe that’s why it seems pretty easy for me – I’m a talker! I’m interested in people, what they do, where they’re from, and what brought them to Alaska. And in the course of getting to know these people, you sometimes find that you have more in common than you realize. Two Degrees of Separation? You bet! I’m a local!