Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has emerged as one of the most fascinating and polarizing figures in American life. Just last weekend, she made headlines by recalling that when she was growing up, her family crossed the border into Canada to use government-run health care. Despite Palin's star status, are there little-known facts about her? You betcha.

1. Palin inspires both positive and negative nicknames like few other people in modern history. The names include Sarah Barracuda, Caribou Barbie, Disasta from Alaska, Wasilla Godzilla, Thrilla from Wasilla, Moosealini, Dick Cheney in Lipstick, Dan Quayle with an Up-do, Snowjob Squareglasses, June Cleavage, the Pit Bull with Lipstick, Hockey Mom and the Quitter on Twitter.2. Sarah Heath (later to be Palin) learned to shoot a firearm at age 8 and hunted for rabbits and ptarmigans. What's a ptarmigan? It's a type of grouse whose name comes from Scottish Gaelic and is pronounced TAR-migan, with the "P" silent.

3. Much has been made of Palin leading her Wasilla High School basketball team to the state championship. Though she was certainly an important part of that team, her state tournament performance was limited. Suffering from an ankle injury, she scored only nine of her team's 170 points in the three tournament games.

4. Part of Palin's popular appeal is her willingness to risk humor in public. While campaigning at a North Carolina bar in October 2008, a patron handed her his cell phone and urged her to say hello to his wife. Palin asked the wife: "Libby, why is your husband here drinking beer without you?"

5. At the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Palin accepted the vice presidential nomination with a speech declaring, "I told the Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' for that Bridge to Nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, we'd build it ourselves." But Palin was once a solid supporter of spending more than $200 million in federal funds for the bridge linking Gravina Island with the town of Ketchikan. Like others, Palin backed off when the political heat got intense.

6. Palin never tried to establish her foreign policy credentials by saying, "I can see Russia from my house!" That was actress Tina Fey, doing a parody of Palin on "Saturday Night Live." Palin had merely cited Alaska's proximity to Russia -- and trade missions between them -- in a discussion about foreign policy experience. But Fey's impersonation was so spot-on that some people attribute the remark to Palin.

7. When Sarah and Todd Palin eloped, they forgot to bring any witnesses to the courthouse in Palmer. So two witnesses were recruited from the nursing home next door, one in a wheelchair and another using a walker.

8. A few years ago, Palin set up a marketing and consulting firm, but it hasn't done business. She called it Rouge Cou -- playfully using the French words for "red" and "neck." But in proper French, "red neck" would have been cou rouge, with the adjective coming after the noun.

9. Palin does not particularly like cats but is fond of dogs. While governor, she named her pet bloodhound AGIA, an acronym for the Alaska Gasoline Inducement Act.

10. The Palins picked unusual names for their five children -- Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig. Their first-born, Track, got his name because it was track season. Palin joked that if it were basketball season, he would've been Hoop, and if it were wrestling season, he would've been Mat.

Sources: "Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin" by Lorenzo Benet, "Sarah" by Kaylene Johnson, "Going Rogue" by Sarah Palin, wickedlocal.com and Tribune news services.

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mjacob@tribune