PFDs and Full Freezers

A full freezer is a happy freezer!

Almost 100 pounds of meat flew in on a tiny bush plane this weekend, with our name on it! I was excited to receive our first PFD this year. The PFD (Permanent Fund Distribution)is money given out each year to every qualifying Alaska resident. It stems from the fact that Alaska is an owner-state, and each resident receives benefits of profits off the land. Oil money goes into the fund and dividends are distributed yearly. You have to have lived in Alaska for at least one full calendar year, and be able to prove your residency before applying. So for teachers who move in August, it takes until your third school year to actually receive any benefits.

Many Alaskans (especially out in the bush) hunt, so their main supply of meat is wild game including moose and caribou among other things. Neither my husband or I hunt, (although he always talks about wanting to go- he just has to find the time!) so we either bring meat in with us in frozen luggage on Alaska Airlines, or we have to order it from a store to be flown in freight. This is an expensive option, as you have to buy in bulk, but it is certainly easier than packing and hauling coolers from the East Coast or Anchorage when we are visiting.

Last year I ordered from Span Alaska, and while there was no problem with that order, I found that ordering from Mike’s Quality Meats in Eagle River was cheaper. For those interested in numbers I have included the invoice below:

Yes you read that right. Shipping and handling is more than half the cost of the meat itself. Welcome to the Alaskan bush. Overall, I was pretty happy though. We got a large variety of meat for about $4/lb, and they gave us a bigger turkey than what was listed on the order form. Thanksgiving will be good this year!

The absolute best part of this though? I placed our order on Thursday when the PFD’s were distributed, and it arrived- wait for it- SATURDAY. Like, in the same week! It was at least a two week wait with Span Alaska, and ordering anything from Amazon is at least a week, sometimes up to a month for larger items. I couldn’t believe it when we got the call that our freight was on it’s way to the village.

When we decide to move back down to the Lower 48, it’s going to be nice to just walk into a grocery store and pick up whatever I want for dinner that night, but I do think I will miss the great feeling of having a full freezer. It’s like having the grocery store right at home! Do any of you shop in bulk? What is your favorite part about it? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

 

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!

Home Inventory

I was inspired today when reading a blog post from the awesome Cunningham Family in Bush Alaska Blog. That family has been living in the bush for several years and I am an avid reader, always hoping to glean tips from them! Today she talked about taking an inventory of household items so that they knew what they would need after summer break. I had not thought of that, but it is brilliant! There is no way that I’m going to remember what I have in my pantry here after two months away.

So I quickly flipped over to google and tried to find a good template. Unfortunately, although I found many beautiful templates, none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Fortunately, I know my way around Excel, so I hunkered down and started formatting what I would need. All of my stage management skills are paying off on this one!

Inventory start

This is the start of my home inventory. Over the next couple months I will be filling out each section. What you can’t see are my sections for Office Supplies, Pet Care, and the ever-important Misc section for the things that don’t fit elsewhere! I’m confident that this will help so much when planning our Bush Orders and shopping trips in Anchorage in August. I even put a column for how many we will need to buy, so half of my shopping list will be done before I ever have to worry about it.

I would be happy to share my completed template with anyone else who needs one. You can find the file on dropbox for download here. To add more rows in any section simply click in the section you want to add to Click HOME > INSERT > INSERT SHEET ROWS as many times as you need.

I hope you enjoyed the inventory! Have you ever done a home inventory before? How did you organize it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Home for the Holidays

The snowy view out our window in Central New York over the holidays. There was more snow there than in Alaska!

The snowy view out our window in Central New York over the holidays. There was more snow there than in Alaska!

It has been a while since my last post, and I apologize. I really intended to write more over the holidays, but I was much busier than I thought visiting family and finishing my NaNoNovel (more on that later!) I visited family on the East Coast in the Lower 48 for just over a month during the holidays. It has been exciting and overwhelming all at once. I didn’t realize how I had gotten used to the slower lifestyle in Alaska until I touched down in Anchorage. Don’t get me wrong- I walked straight to Starbucks and ordered a Venti Eggnog Latte and couldn’t have been happier about that- but I was also super aware of the fact that there were more people in the airport than my entire village.

I left Alaska about 10 days before my husband and flew to Syracuse New York with our dog. I think I was more stressed out about her flying for the first time than I was about the 24+ hour trip. I actually had to leave our village on Monday afternoon, visited the DMV to get my Alaska Driver’s license and then I checked into my hotel with the puppy. Our flight the next morning was the first one out of Bethel, which was why we had to go in the day before. A charter from the village wouldn’t be able to get us early enough. Logistics are complicated out here, and I can’t wait until we own our own 4-wheeler and can drive around ourselves. Anyway, I left the village on Monday afternoon and after 5 planes, 2 taxi rides, 1 airport train, and another airport bus transfer I arrived in Syracuse New York where my mother was waiting to pick up me and the dog.
They lost my luggage, but considering the fact that the dog and I were safe, and we had missed the blizzard by a couple hours I was totally okay. My mother drove us to The Gristmill, a truck stop diner that I love. Real eggs, hot chocolate, bacon, sausage never tasted so good.

I gained back all the weight I had lost in Alaska by going back to eating fast food. It’s interesting how I crave things while I’m away and can’t have them, but then they seem like so much less of a priority when I can just hop in my car and be there in five minutes. Regardless I ate far more fast food than I should have, and it was interesting to actually feel how it affected my body. I felt sick after some of my old favorites. Something I couldn’t get enough of though was espresso. I miss that so much while I am in Alaska, and while I have some instant, it just isn’t the same. Too bad espresso machines are so super expensive!

Spending time with family was wonderful, and made me realize how many people read my blog (beside just my mom!) So now I will have to play catch up, and make sure I keep writing.

Bradley Family Photo during Christmas

Bradley Family Photo during Christmas

Smith Family Photo Then and Now. We are only together twice a year if we are lucky because we are scattered all over the country, so my Dad thought it would be cool to take this photo!

Smith Family Photo Then and Now. We are only together twice a year if we are lucky because we are scattered all over the country, so my Dad thought it would be cool to take this photo!

Christmas was wonderful, and I got to spend time with lots of my family, both in PA and NY. Logistically, things are more difficult nowadays, but I wouldn’t trade the time for anything. The break also included my birthday on New Year’s Day. Normally, I just have some friends over at home and have a small party there, but this year was different. I don’t really have a place that is my own on the East Coast, so I decided that for the first time in my life (other than the very first year!) I would venture outside of my home on New Year’s Eve.

A montage of wonderful moments from a wonderful night spent with- you guessed it- wonderful people!

A montage of wonderful moments from a wonderful night spent with- you guessed it- wonderful people!

I’m glad I did. I got together with some of my oldest friends from childhood and my sister and husband and we went to the casino. It was overwhelming and fun, and we had a great time- even sprinting outside from the car to the door without coats in the frigid weather.
I feel so blessed to have such amazing friends and family. Everyone took the time out of their busy schedules to meet with us, and talk for a while made me feel so at home. Thank you.
We also got some good shopping done and mailed it all back so it was here when we arrived back in Napaskiak. I was literally hauling cases of canned goods into our cart to mail flat rate back to the village. I am planning a blog post or two about what grocery shopping is like in the bush, so just wait.

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Returning to the village on January 13th there were fireworks for Russian New Year that had been delayed. They were beautiful in addition to the bonfire that everyone came out for down by the frozen river. It seemed to be the perfect end to our vacation. Nathan is back to school this morning, and I am back to the daily writing as well. Stay tuned!

Anchorage Adventures- Shopping and Shipping!

We had a bunch of things on our to-do list for our three day stay in the city and shopping for groceries was a big item to check off our list.
We decided to stop for a couple of days in Anchorage before we flew all the way out to Bethel and then subsequently our village. We were fortunate enough to have friends in the city that we could stay with for the weekend, because hotel prices are really high, or shady hostel-like conditions. Arriving at 1:30am we took a cab to our friend’s house and then back to the airport to pick up our rental car in the morning when Avis opened. Anchorage isn’t really a town you can get around on with public transit, we planned on getting a lot of groceries, and had about 80lbs of luggage to hang onto until we could check it on our next flight.

Shopping was more stressful than I had anticipated. I planned on doing a bush order from Walmart- I had heard that you just took your shopping cart to the bush order desk and they added a flat fee of 10% onto the bill plus postage. When we got to the Walmart I headed over to customer service, and found that the guy there didn’t know anything about bush orders and said he didn’t do them. There was a sign with a phone number so I called them and got connected with the bush order department all the way down in Ketchikan (in the south east down past Juneau). After talking with the guy on the phone he told me it was just him in the bush department and I could just tell him what I wanted over the phone and it could be processed. The idea of buying all of our start up groceries without seeing them myself stressed me out even more, so we decided to go to plan B and head to Sam’s Club, buy things in bulk and ship them out ourselves.

Nathan with the Cart from Sam's Club- Yay for bulk shopping!

Nathan with the Cart from Sam’s Club- Yay for bulk shopping!


It turns out that there are multiple Walmarts in Anchorage and we just were at the wrong one for bush orders. The one in the Diamond Plaza does let you shop the way I had heard. In the end it worked out okay though because by shopping at Sam’s Club I could buy in bulk and that saved me money. It also forced me to get a membership. Now I should be able to do bulk bush orders with them over the phone.

Overall we spent about $700 in bulk groceries and personal care toiletries, etc. The hope is that these will last us until Christmas. It isn’t an exact science, and I tried to plan the best I could but it is hard to judge exactly what we will need because I haven’t ever had to cook every meal at home before. Nathan and I fell into bad habits of just going out to eat when I didn’t feel like cooking, or when traveling between jobs. That time is definitely in the past now; I don’t have the excuse of working multiple jobs that’s for sure!

Just to be safe because we are getting close to the limits on the credit cards, we bought some gift cards at Sam’s Club. I could use my store credit card to buy these, so essentially just borrowing cash against a card that I wouldn’t have been able to use anywhere else. This experience has been so much more expensive than I originally thought, and we haven’t had a full paycheck in about three weeks. Nathan gets his signing bonus when we arrive, but it has essentially already been spent. I can budget and make it work, but things are tight.

It was then time to pack all of our purchases into totes again and take them to the post office.

Packing up our Shopping goods in Anchorage.

Packing up our Shopping goods in Anchorage.

The best thing I found out was that there is a post office by the airport (on Postmark Drive) in Anchorage that is open Every. Single. Day. Until like 11pm. That is amazing. We had finally hit on some luck, in the fact that we didn’t have to scramble on Friday night to get packed and arrive during limited Saturday morning hours.

This ended up serving us very well. A word to anyone attempting this move- liquids weigh so much more than you would think. A large bottle of shampoo is about 4.5lbs, and takes up very little space. So you end up packing a lot of weight into a much smaller space then when shipping things like clothing or small kitchen stuff. Of all of the totes we had shipped previously we hadn’t really come too close to the weight limit of 70lbs the USPS set. Even with 27 gallon totes we were underweight, so I thought it was almost impossible to hit the weight limit in the 18 gallon ones. How wrong I was. We had four totes total that we brought to the post office on our first trip, and only one of them was under 70lbs. Our heaviest was 96lbs! The other two were only 1.5lbs overweight, so we left to re-pack and figure it out.
Buying another tote and dividing up the purchases solved our problem. We were also able to send out our winter boots this way. The post office guys laughed at me as I cheered when each tote came in under the 70lb limit on our second attempt. They were really good humored, and asked us all about where we were going and guessed correctly that Nathan was a teacher. All in all we paid about $100 to ship all 5 totes that were around 60-66lbs a piece. So if you have been reading from the beginning you can see how much cheaper it was to ship from Anchorage- this was a big relief this far in the game. The estimated arrival day for our boxes is Wednesday which is great news because that is the day we will arrive in the village after orientation. Of course everything is weather permitting out here, but we will keep our fingers crossed.

Now the only groceries left to buy will be some fresh vegetables/fruits and frozen meat to get us started in Bethel.