9 Essentials for Living in the Alaskan Bush

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A dog sled team training on the frozen Kuskokwim River

Now that we have lived here a couple years I find myself echoing some of the same advice to new teachers each fall. We learned the hard way, and I hope that the information I’ve collected here can help someone in the future avoid some of our mistakes. Albeit, most of our mistakes have turned into great stories, (like how you should ALWAYS choose priority shipping, or you will end up with a fridge containing only Jello and wild caught salmon) but they didn’t seem so funny at the time.

I’ve compiled a list of ‘essentials’ for anyone thinking of making the move to rural Alaska. Now, most of these I think would be pretty universal, but remember that Alaska is a HUGE state- and has a lot of diversity in its land. Make sure you do your research and ask questions about the specific location you will be moving to. We live in the Kuskokwim Delta of South West Alaska, and it is vastly different from say, the Northern Slope.

 

Essential #1: Good Quality Winter Gear

Don’t wait until you are here to get your winter gear. Cold weather comes early, and especially if you come from a more temperate climate, you are going to want that heavy coat sooner than others. Your winter gear needs to be from head to toe. Wind chills are intense and frostbite is a real threat. Think, Hat, Balaclava or face cover, Scarf, Heavy Coat (longer is better!), Snowpants or Snowskirt (my personal favorite!), wool socks and good snow boots.

If you haven’t had to buy good quality gear before, the price tags can be a little scary, but don’t skimp- try and shop sales, or if you know far enough ahead of time, see if you can get anything from last season. Online you can find great quality stuff from Lands End (my favorite) LLBean, or REI. There are also several stores in Anchorage that ship to the Bush and have a great selection.

 

Essential #2: Ice Cleats

Where we are at there is a ton of ice, and in the winter there is no plowing, so Ice Cleats are essential for walking anywhere in the village. We decided to skip the cheap elastic type pairs at a neighbor’s suggestion and got the heavy duty “Stabil-icers”. It has been worth every penny. They have held up great for two winters getting daily use. And when you have to go out and walk the dog multiple times a day they are a lifesaver. I had fallen several times in the week before they came in the mail, and not once since.

 

Essential #3: Good Rain Boots

The last clothing essential would be good rain boots. There is a lot of debate about brands, but really you just want to avoid the cheap pairs that will split after a few uses. It rains a lot in the spring (and right now in the fall!) and at least in South West Alaska that means mud- and lots of it. I literally only wear my rain boots and winter boots outside in Alaska. I have other shoes I keep at the school, but I avoid wearing them outside. Not everyone does this, but I have found I have to clean my shoes a lot less, and it is much simpler.

 

Essential #4: Blackout Curtains

Regardless of where you live in Alaska, there will be days where the sun is out longer than you want to be awake. Blackout curtains for at least your bedroom are lifesavers. I have them in every window in our apartment and try to close them before it gets too late, otherwise it is so easy to find yourself still awake and full of energy at 1am.

 

Essential #5: Candles/Lantern

Electricity isn’t always a given in the Bush. It can go in and out, and especially in the winter time you want to have alternate sources of light. We have multiple candles as well as a couple battery powered lanterns that have gotten a lot of use.

 

Essential #6: Extra Water

The water situation is different everywhere you go, but we have learned that it is important to have extra water at all times. We have piped water, but when things break it can be days before they are fixed or a part comes in. So we have containers with extra water for drinking as well as non-potable water for other uses.

 

Essential #7: Alaska Airlines Credit Card

While not strictly essential, you would be hard pressed to find someone out here who doesn’t take advantage of this card. Travel is expensive and airline miles are gold. In addition to miles you also earn an annual companion fare for only $99 plus tax. You pay an annual fee for the card, but it is more than worth it to us.

 

Essential #8: Amazon Prime

Another negotiable essential, but with recent changes to shipping rates for almost every company out there, Amazon Prime is becoming more and more my one stop shop for everything. Prime doesn’t guarantee two day shipping to us, but it does send priority, which means we get things in about a week if all goes well.

 

Essential #9: A Good Sense of Humor and Laid Back Attitude

Things are always in flux when traveling and living in the Bush. I was a serious type A personality prior to moving here, and it hasn’t always been easy, but relaxing my attitude and remembering to laugh has made this whole experience a lot more enjoyable.

 

Like I said before, Alaska is an extremely diverse state and not everywhere in the Bush is identical, so needs vary. What are some things that you have found to be essential? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

 

*I have not been compensated by any of the brands mentioned, I just seriously love their products! As with everything, you can take my opinions with a grain of salt.

Shopping and Shipping

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The closest grocery store in Bethel

The question I get asked the most about living in the Bush is “How do you do your shopping?” Without a major grocery store in our village, and the unreliability of goods at our small local store, I’ve had to get pretty creative in my food shopping.
Despite reading every blog I could find about living in Rural Alaska, I still made some mistakes early on that resulted in some weird dinners. When all you have in your kitchen is fresh salmon, Jello and some canned goods, you certainly aren’t going to starve, but meals can be a little disjointed.

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Expensive fruit in our Hub Town, Bethel

Now that I’ve lived here for almost two years, I’ve gotten into a good groove, and explored a lot of options. Some of them were really great, and others not so much. Which methods do I use the most?

1. Amazon Prime
The bulk of my everyday shopping happens on Amazon. Prime has been a lifesaver. We learned early on that if you don’t ship something via priority mail, it can take up to a month to get to you in the village, because it comes in by a hovercraft from Anchorage (no joke!). If you can wait, and plan ahead, you can save by mailing things yourself, but my Prime membership has paid for itself over and over again in shipping costs.
Just a note- two day shipping takes about a week out here, but it is still the fastest option.

2. Walmart.com
Walmart changed its shipping policy to now ship free if you buy more than $50 worth of items. I turned to them after Amazon took my favorite flour brand off of Prime. I was happy a friend told me about this, because it was a lifesaver- you get to pay Walmart prices, and they ship for free. I also bought some stuff for the baby, and a few basics for the kitchen. They shipped separately, but I got all of my orders in the span of a couple weeks, which is pretty good for out here.

3. Walmart Bush Orders
If you are spending some time in Anchorage, and have the ability to get to the Diamond Center Walmart (don’t make the mistake of going to the one near Benson and A street!), they have a really great service for those who live in the Bush. Basically, you fill your cart with everything you want, roll it to the back of the store, and the bush department takes care of the rest!
You can pay by card, or opt for cash on delivery. They charge a 10% fee to package everything for you, and you also pay for shipping. We’ve done this a couple of times, and I’ve been super happy with it. Now with the changes on Walmart.com shipping I might not use this as often, but it’s still a pretty solid option.
There are a few things they won’t ship for you based on USPS regulations, so double check those before you shop or throw those items in your airline luggage, but for the most part you can get anything you need!

4. Flat Rate Shipping- Canned Goods
We travel down to the Lower 48 to visit family twice a year. And during that time, I always make sure to have a big shopping trip for canned goods. I shop at Aldi where I can buy things by the case, and nobody looks at me too funny. My sister always likes to come with me because it amuses her when I debate about whether I want one or two cases of something. I usually spend about $100-$200 on canned goods that will last us until the next time we come home.
Then I pack them all into the flat rate priority boxes from the USPS. Based on weight, I really make out on this deal. Essentially it doubles the price of each can- but when you can pay discount supermarket prices, it is still cheaper than buying canned goods at the village store, or even in Bethel. I print my own shipping labels to save even more, and then schedule a pick up from the post office and I don’t even have to lug the boxes further than the porch- win!

5. Checked Luggage
When we travel on Alaska Airlines we get two free checked bags each as Alaska Residents (Yay Club 49!) so we usually have a tote or two with fresh groceries from the Lower 48 or Anchorage. You can also check a cooler in their frozen section, (we have a great one on wheels) and as long as they are under 50lbs, they travel just like any other luggage.

Not everything I’ve tried has been a great success. Some methods I’ve tried, but don’t really like:
1. Mailbox Groceries/Expediters
We used an expediter once- and I swear never again. It was by far the most expensive option we have tried. My husband bought some things in bulk at Sams Club in Anchorage. They don’t have bush orders the way Walmart does though. He purchased the items, they kept them at the store, and he arranged a pick up with an expediter after he left. Basically you pay someone to pick up your items, package them, and then you pay priority shipping on top of that. If you are really crunched for time, and need something that you can’t get anywhere else, it may be worth it. Expediters will shop for you too, if you aren’t in town. Of course there are extra charges for that as well. But if you need multiple things from multiple stores in Anchorage, it’s like having your own personal shopper!

2. Span Alaska Sales
It’s not that I don’t like Span Alaska; their customer service is amazing, they deliver fast, and they are Alaska owned and operated, but they just tend to be more expensive than other options. I usually check their paper catalog first and then compare prices online. If you want to save time it’s great for a big bulk order- especially since they include shipping in the prices already (except for frozen)- you are just going to end up paying a little more. Since I now am a stay at home mom, I have the time to dedicate to finding the absolute lowest price.

And of course I do still buy things at the local store when they are in stock, and I’m in a bind, or my husband will pick up fruits and veggies when he is at an inservice in Bethel and can hit the real grocery store.
I think about the days of just stopping in to the store quickly to pick something up for dinner after work when we lived in Philly, and I miss it a lot, but I’ve learned to plan ahead, and get a lot more creative and flexible with my cooking, so there are some upsides!

 

If you live in the bush, what is your favorite way to shop? Anything I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!