My primary motivation behind our family vacation to Alaska was to visit my good friend in Bethel.
Bethel is legitimately “bush Alaska”. There are no roads in, the river is accessible from the Pacific Ocean only in summer, and Alaska Air flies 3 times daily…the only real connection to the outside world. Bethel is the hub for all of the small villages in Western Alaska, so although it’s small and relatively disconnected from the world, it has a lot to offer. There is a large grocery/everything store, the Alaska Commercial.
There are plenty of restaurants and they all deliver (I guess nobody likes to cook for themselves!). You can grab a taxi to anywhere in town for $5 per person, and there are taxis everywhere (I guess no one wants to pay to ship a car in!). There’s a fantastic pool, a large community center and the Yukon-Kuskokwim hospital. Krystle works at the hospital…so really it was my reason for being there!
The thing that shocked me about Bethel is that there is not much industry. There’s a small amount of commercial fishing, other than that the government is the largest employer. There are no homesteads, as it is all tundra, so there’s no farming or ranching. There’s no mining, no forestry (no trees!), and no other industry to support the 6000 people living in one of the larger cities in Alaska.
The small villages in the surrounding areas make sense. They’re mostly Native population who’s families have inhabited the land for generations. Bethel was originally one of these small villages. It’s location makes it accessible by barge, and it once housed a military base making it the hub for the entire area. The YK hospital where Krystle works is the second largest employer in Bethel. The first is the school district. All US government funded. Most of the population for which the hospital and school district support are also government funded, with some supplementary subsistence fishing, hunting and berry picking. It’s an entire town, in the middle of the tundra, supported by the government! And it supports villages that are supported by the US government. That’s a lot of tax dollars at work. I don’t want to downplay the subsistence aspect of life as it is incredibly culturally important, and makes this area of the continent unique.
Bethel is one of the coolest places I’ve travelled to! It sits on top of Tundra, and then Permafrost, and then bedrock somewhere down below. Because of this the houses don’t have foundations and are all on pilings. There are roads, some paved & some gravel, but due to the instability of the tundra the walkways around town are raised, wooden paths.
You don’t really want to walk around on the tundra, it’s squishy, uneven, and there tend to be a lot of mosquitos!
Some of the smaller villages surrounding Bethel are made up solely of wooden walkways. There are no paved roads, and everyone just gets around on Quads and Snowmobiles (snow machines for you Americans!). Luckily, Bethel has roads…and cars! Some of the roads are paved, many are gravel, but they are roads none-the-less. They are also the best maintained gravel roads I have ever been on. The Alberta government could definitely get a lesson on gravel road maintenance from the crews in Bethel.
The centre of town has city water, but all of the pipes are run above ground due to the permafrost.
Most of the houses are on the tank system (including where we stayed). The tank gets filled & the sewer emptied on a pre-determined basis, which at Krystle’s house was every 2 weeks. Going from 2 people to 6, for 5 days, can take a toll on the water situation. The girls quickly learned the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” rule. We had to extend it to ‘tiny turds’ not being flushed or Kacela would have flushed that toilet 5 times a day and used up all the water! They learned quickly and were pretty good with water conservation. Unfortunately this did not extend itself back home!
One quirky “Bethel’ism” is that the dumpsters are all painted. I thought it was funny on the first day that Krystle gave me directions like “turn right at the dumpsters”, however they do stand out! You gotta love small town directions.
We were lucky enough to get the whole Bethel experience; salmon fishing, fish camp, 4th of July celebrations, a tundra walk, shopping at the AC, smoking meat on the Traeger, “flying” Uncle Jarod’s plane! It was neat to experience such a different way of life in many respects, and still be in the USA.
For more in Bethel check out my posts on salmon fishing in the Kuskokwim and our visit to Fish Camp.
A few random things I learned in Bethel:
– We waste a LOT of water at home. I like to think that I am conscious about the amount of water that we use, however being put in a situation where I actually paid attention to it…I really am not that great with water conservation.
– Truffle Salt on popcorn is the greatest combination anyone has ever invented. Period. Calais had her first mouthful and said “we don’t have popcorn like this at home…we just have butter and salt”. Kacela had 2 bites and then stole the bowl and took it to devour on her own. Best. Thing. Ever.
– I need to downsize my 13″ MacBook Air to an 11″ MacBook Air!
– Sea Foam fixes everything with a motor. If you live somewhere cold, buy yourself a can of Sea Foam and lube up your vehicle.
– Groceries in Northern Alberta are expensive! Bethel prices are higher than Anchorage, which is higher than the lower 48…and we weren’t sticker shocked with Bethel prices! Sure some things cost more compared to home, but not significantly so!
– Randy needs a Green Mountain Grill…I would never have to cook again because he would smoke everything!
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