I'm assuming NORTHERN EXPOSURE reruns were inaccurate.
February 11, 2009 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Seeking information about the mundanities of day-to-day life in the Alaskan Bush region.

I'm writing a general-information-type article on life in the Alaskan Bush region, and I'm looking for info on the kinds of things that are accepted as common-knowledge, "the way we do things here" kinds of details that wouldn't be common-knowledge for anyone in the lower 48 -- for example, I've heard that it's frowned upon (or even illegal, in some places) to not pick up hitchhikers, because it'd be a matter of life and death to someone whose car broke down, say. Or, info like "no one has a septic tank because of the permafrost" or "mail delivery is once a week because it's so remote", etc. is also what I'm looking for.

This is for an audience of high school students in Scranton, PA, if that helps; it's to accompany a production of a play set in the area, and is one of four articles I'm writing.

I'm researching in other corners as well, but data points from current or former Alaskan MeFites would also be good. Or if anyone knows of a blog from someone adjusting to moving there, that would also be what I'm looking for. Thanks!
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Getting groceries seems like a bit of an effort.
posted by mikepop at 8:07 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the blog of a veterinarian who lives near Anchorage -- pay special attention to a series of posts in that blog about the Knik 200, which is a precursor race to the Iditarod. There's also a blog about living in Tok, Alaska.

I'm trying to scare up a link I read yesterday or the day before about some of the violent winter weather they've had this year in Alaska, which caused things to freeze over two months before normal, but I'm having problems finding it in my feed reader.
posted by SpecialK at 8:14 AM on February 11, 2009

Coming Into the Country, while very dated, is considered a very good source of material on the Alaskan Bush.

While far from a source of how things are today, it provides a good picture of the mindset and may be useful in your research.

Good luck.
posted by Danf at 8:43 AM on February 11, 2009

Three books, perhaps outdated: Joe McGinniss's Going to Extremes (nonfiction, published in 1989 my god that's twenty years ago); T.C. Boyle's Drop City (fiction, published in 2003 but set in the early 70s); and Natalie Kusz's Road Song (a memoir pub'd in 1991 and set in the 1960s, IIRC).

The McGinniss and the Boyle are great reads just for fun, even if they don't help your students. Kusz's isn't as good, but you might be interested to know she gets attacked by starving sled dogs at one point.
posted by scratch at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2009

it's to accompany a production of a play set in the area


"Bush" can mean a lot of non-urban Alaska. Do you specifically mean somewhere in the North Slope?
posted by D.C. at 9:18 AM on February 11, 2009

The post mikepop linked to and the blog about Tok are EXACTLY the kinds of things I was looking for; more of that, please!

(scratch, I have indeed read Drop City, but I didn't find it had as much just-the-facts kind of info.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:20 AM on February 11, 2009

"Bush" can mean a lot of non-urban Alaska. Do you specifically mean somewhere in the North Slope?

The play doesn't specify, exactly...the script simply says "In the state of Alaksa, in the middle of nowhere." The action takes place entirely inside a cabin, and has little to do with Alaska as such as it does with the coming-together-of-the-two-strangers-brought-together-by-fate-yadda-yadda.

"Life in Alaska" is one of my topics largely because the two characters have a bit of back-and-forth early on where the woman (who got lost driving) says she'll call a tow truck for her car and the man laughs at that suggestion (a "oh, that's just NOT going to be a possibility up here" kind of suggestion). I do know that there's a huge range of degrees of "settlement" in rural Alaska, and will indeed mention that; but really, whatever would make a 16-year-old in Pennsylvania go, "...damn, really?...." is what I'm looking for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on February 11, 2009

Here's a blog from a guy who lives in Nome. Some good stuff on there. This blog is by a woman who lives in Juneau, which is SE Alaska and not what you would call the bush, but there are a lot of links to other Alaskan bloggers on her page.
posted by otolith at 9:34 AM on February 11, 2009

Alone in the Wilderness is probably an extreme example, but is a pretty fascinating look at really living out in the bush.
posted by electroboy at 10:09 AM on February 11, 2009

Here are a few blogs from Barrow, which is in the bush (i.e. not reachable by road):

A Presbyterian minister in Barrow. It's kind of ... pastoral ... but there are some interesting tidbits.
A scientist in Barrow
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:22 AM on February 11, 2009

I'm a former part-time resident of a small unincorporated town in southeast Alaska, and I've seen quite a bit of southern Alaska. That's not the bush by Alaskan standards but some of the information may be helpful.

In the small town I lived in there were no roads to civilization so goods arrived in two ways - boats and planes. Shipping things via plane is priced by weight and was prohibitively expensive for anything more than a case of beer, bottle of booze, very small piece of equipment, or a very occasional fresh ingredient for a celebratory meal. Markets in larger nearby towns will deliver to their local airport for a fee and for another fee smaller airlines will deliver goods along with passengers. Otherwise, "the barge" came once a month during summer months, packed with everything from non-perishable groceries to automobiles and appliances. The barge came less frequently in the other seasons. The goods would be offloaded at the pier and lined up along the road where each recipient would pick up their stuff. No sign-offs or such but theft was unheard of. Most people in town would order things for delivery on the barge and you could see most of the town at the pier the day the barge came in.

The biggest thing that is different in Alaska is that self-sufficiency is both an ideal and a necessity. People generally fish and hunt, but may focus on one and trade for the other. Big freezers are commonplace, but smoked meat and fish and pickled vegetables are also common. In a town without a plumber or electrician or automotive garage, you either do such work yourself or exchange services with someone that has those skills. With one R.N. in town and even an X-ray machine a plane ride away, nobody goes to the clinic for a simple fever or sprained ankle. Planes don't fly in bad weather, so emergency evacuation is never a certainty.

The next biggest difference in Alaska is the live-and-let-live attitude coupled with a community spirit and concern for one's neighbors. That relates to things like building additions or out-buildings, parking junk-cars in the yard, interpersonal relationships and everyday personality quirks and habits. Like any town where everyone knows everyone's business, you try to turn a blind-eye if possible. Which is not to say gossip isn't rampant, but that gossip is less anonymous and if you talk about your neighbor, you invite talk about yourself.

The idea that one must pickup hitchhikers is false, but in practice hitchhiking is unnecessary because if a local passes they'll ask you if you need a lift if they have room. That is especially true of locals passing adult locals, most folks are content to let tourists and kids walk unless weather is really bad.

Mail came daily via plane and a letter sent from the lower 48 would only take an extra day or two than if sent to an equally distant and somewhat remote town in the lower 48. Standard USPS mail was always faster than FedEx and UPS.

I don't read it, but I found the following blog you look into: The Real Life of an Alaskan Bush Teacher
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:39 AM on February 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

I realize that I downplayed the fact that you can also pay a jack-of-all-trades for plumbing work or welding or similar services that are professional trades in the lower 48. You might even fly in a professional from "town". But bartering, even I-owe-you-one bartering, is commonplace. It is always good to have a positive balance of favors on credit with the locals.

And while fish can be and is bought from commercial permit holders, selling subsistence fish and game is illegal and generally frowned up, but bartering is very acceptable.

Finally, Alaskans generally have certain level of contempt for the federal government for a number of reason, chief among because more Alaskan land is under federal management than any other state. Again generally, the more local the governance, the more likely it is to be trusted to balance the needs of the community with the unique environmental situation of Alaska.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:11 AM on February 11, 2009

17 year Alaskan here, part of that time 'in town' (i.e. on the minimal road system) and part of it in the Bush.

Nthing McGuillicuddy, with a few exceptions that aren't true except in SE Alaska. Here are another few quirky things you might be able to use:

No fireworks on 4th of July -- fire danger plus no darkness in the summer. But definitely fireworks on New Year's Eve. We buy 'em in July and hold 'em until then.

You can almost watch plants grow in the summer in Alaska's Interior... as in up to an inch or more per day (no darkness). But everything they're gonna do, they have to do in 90 days -- that's all the growing season we have. Huge, world-record cabbages, etc. (check out the Alaska State Fair records).

Lots of us never buy fish -- we collect them ourselves through what's called 'personal use' fisheries. $10 for a permit gets us 15 salmon for the head of household plus 10 additional for each family member. We use a 4' wide net and scoop them from the river.

Permanent Fund Dividend -- In Alaska, unlike all other states, the natural resources are owned by the people of the state, not by the state itself. A percentage of the income from the sale of our natural resources is returned to the people directly each year in the form of a dividend/check. It's ranged from less than $1000 per person to more than $2000 per person, and that includes all your dependents too. Don't get too excited, because you'll need all that money to pay the extra fuel bills and grocery costs.

Snow and cold -- In the Interior where I live, there is little wind and the snow is so light and fluffy you can brush it off the porch. It builds up on the power lines almost 5" or so before it falls off. It's a 'dry cold', which means you can easily handle -30 with the right clothing as long as you keep your lips, ears and fingers covered. I'm colder in Seattle at 20 above than in Fairbanks at -40.
posted by northernlightgardener at 10:50 PM on February 11, 2009

This is all a great help. Thanks to all!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on February 15, 2009

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