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Pink sky in January in Interior Alaska

Many Alaskans live in rural communities of less than 100 off the road network. This post describes the way grocery shopping works in rural Alaska. When living in the bush grocery shopping requires preparation beyond a shopping list. Read why it is different, what it means, how it works and what causes the quite different lifestyle.

Contents
  1. Shopping situation in Alaska rural areas
  2. What’s a bypass mail service
  3. Rural shoppers prepare for shopping in Town
  4. Shipping home the goodies
  5. Baggage full of perishable food
  6. What’s a Bush shipping departments?
  7. Why Do Interior Alaskans with Roadnet Access Bulk-shop?
    • Food Transportation Is Vulnerable at the Last Frontier
    • Natural Hazards Foster the Bulk-shopping Mentality
  8. Wrapping Up Bush Grocery Shopping
  9. What I wore

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.

In various posts, I mentioned casually that on long weekends, during special events like the Tanana Valley Fair, Independence Day, Inaugural Ball or Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, the local grocery stores are swept empty. On those weekends and/or special occasions, people from the rural areas come into “Town” to participate in the events and use the opportunity for shopping. Today’s post describes grocery shopping by people from rural areas that they proudly call the “Bush.”

Shopping situation in Alaska rural areas

In the rural areas, the choice of merchandise is very limited, especially when the village is off the road network and can only be reached by air or water. People are happy about whatever the store has because it means they can have it at all. Furthermore, prices are high due to shipping and storage costs as well as lack of competition.

What’s a Bypass Mail Service

The majority of the rural grocery stores use the USPS “Bypass Mail Service” to get their supplies of frozen meat, and people vegetables, chilled and dry groceries, and when it comes to durable fruits like apples they are happy to have them at all even when the apples have some ditches. Bypass mail service exists to almost all rural villages. It is fast and costs less than air freight. Furthermore, it is delivered right to the stores’ or addressee’s front door.

For supply to count as bypass mail it has to have a minimum total weight of 1100 lbs (~499 kg). To get an idea about what this mean: The typical weight of an American family’s weekly shopping cart is about 325 lbs (147). The rural stores often use an approved bypass mail contractor. Bush plane companies like to fly bypass mail as it helps them to operate at affordable costs yearround for Alaskans and not only during summer for rich tourists.

 

Rural Shoppers Prepare for Shopping in Town

The shoppers from rural areas come by truck when their village is on the road network, which over long stretches consists of unpaved dirt roads (see featured photo with store, and photo below), otherwise by boat or bush plane. They know they will not be able to buy fresh and exotic fruits and other fast perishable goodies for a couple months, i.e. until their next trip from their village to “Town.” Furthermore, necessities and long-shelf time staple food is much cheaper in Fairbanks than at their local grocery store.

truck on the Dalton Highway that is a dirt road over most its extension
Truck on the Dalton Highway which is a dirt road over most of its length

 

How to Shop like a Rural Alaskan

The villagers shop differently than the shoppers living in “Town” who can head back to the store when they forgot something. Shoppers from the rural areas come prepared to shop with a full toolkit. It holds among other things the long shopping list, duct tape, transparent package tape, a hand baggage-scale, permanent marker, zip ties, chill  and checked baggage stickers as well as pre-addressed labels. They also bring empty suitcases, tough large plastic boxes (27 gallon or so, ~102 liter; see photo below) and/or coolers. They guerrilla shop.

bush grocery shopping container for bulk food
Example of the kind of plastic boxes used in rural Alaska for shopping or other purposes. We used this one for shopping (now used to store the Christmas tree) and one in a different color for hauling trash to the transfer station when we lived out of “Town” in Goldstream

 

Coolers Serve to Keep Items from Freezing

Together with a store clerk they pack the scanned merchandise into mail boxes while the cashier scans the next items. Often they pack faster than the store clerk and/or the cashier can scan. Fresh products get packed into huge cooler boxes of the size of a coffin. The coolers are not intended to keep the products cold, but to protect lettuce and other fragile goods for a short time from the extreme cold in the bush plane’s cargo section,  and on the air stripe prior to loading and after unloading in winter temperatures. Note that these bush planes typically fly at heights less than 10000 ft (3 km).

You know you are in Alaska, when you use the cooler to keep food from freezing. #Alaska #lifestyle Click To Tweet

Shipping Home the Goodies

Those who are fortunate to be on the road network load the boxes and coolers into their trucks. They also make sure to get fuel. In rural villages, gasoline or diesel cost about twice the price of what you pay in Fairbanks. Interestingly, in Fairbanks, you pay on average about 50 cents more on gasoline than in the Lower 48s. Why is that? I mean, we have the oil on the North Slope and continental shelf.

Those shoppers who came by motor boat or bush plane, close the packed boxes and coolers with duct tape and put their pre-addressed labels onto them for shipping. Some of the Fairbanks stores, e.g., Fred Meyer’s, Costco and Walmart, ship the merchandise. Otherwise, the shoppers head to the post office to ship the merchandise themselves.

A Baggage Full of Perishable Food

On flights within Alaska, two bags are free of charge on Alaska Airlines for 49 Club members, which most Alaskans are when they live in a place where Alaska Airline flies. The suitcases don’t serve to haul new or used clothes back to the villages. Nearly everybody  mails their dirty clothes back from “Town”, and uses their baggage allowance for fresh stuff (e.g. fruits, fresh vegetables) and things they can eat within the next days.

You know someone lives in rural Alaska, when they fill their baggage with food and mail their dirty laundry. #LastFrontier #lifestyle Click To Tweet

 

Online Shopping

Of course, there is also the possibility for online shopping. Online shopping is tricky in Alaska because many companies either don’t ship to Alaska or ask higher shipping costs than for addresses in the Lower 48. Thus, one must be careful to not pay the price of the order also in shipping fees. Sometimes it is cheaper to order more to get free shipping than paying for shipping.

You know you live in Alaska, when buying more to get free shipping is cheaper than paying for shipping. #Alaska #curiosa Click To Tweet

Amazon Prime, for instance, ships free to Alaska. However, while in the Lower 48s, Prime is free 2-day shipping, it means for Alaska “as fast as humanly possible.” However, Alaskans don’t expect anything to arrive within two daylight cycles anyway. In many regions daylight lasts 24/7 all summer, and in many other areas there is no daylight for more than two months. Thus, with dark days and white nights, two days is confusing. First Class Mail to/from Alaska takes a week from/to the Lower 48s.

 

What’s a Bush Shipping Departments?

In Anchorage and Fairbanks, the two largest cities of Alaska, all major grocery and dry goods stores (e.g., Fred Meyers, Walmart, Carr’s) have a so-called Bush shipping department. Rural shoppers make their list online and an employee of the store collects the items from the sleeves in the aisles, packs, and ships them out.

 

Why Do Interior Alaskans with Roadnet Access Bulk-shop?

In the Interior, also people along the road network feel urged to shop in bulks. They are well aware of the various threads to the Interior Alaska supply chains.

45 rolls of toilet paper, 15 rolls of kitchen paper towels, or 24 boxes of paper tissues anyone? Yes, please. Click To Tweet
#Alaskalife toilet paper, kitchen towels, and facial tissue in the pantry
45 rolls package of toilet paper, package of 15 rolls of kitchen paper towels, and package of 24 boxes of paper tissues sitting on the uppermost shelf in our pantry

In the Interior, people are well aware of the vulnerability of their food supply. Even when people live in the vicinity of Fairbanks, they like to have food in the pantry for at least six weeks. Long-time Fairbankans well remember that shelves in the local stores got close to empty when no air traffic brought goods in after 911.

Food Transportation Is Vulnerable at the Last Frontier

In the Interior, everyone is well aware that transportation of groceries into Fairbanks only works by land or air. Even when the goods arrive in Anchorage or Valdez on a ship, they still have to be hauled by rail road or on the only two highways up North.

The rail road and highways cross the Alaska Range, which is the third highest mountain range after the Himalayan and the South American Andes. A strong snow storm can easily cut Fairbanks off from both land and air traffic, and even internet communication.

Bush grocery shopping examples of bulk food
Examples what is in our pantry: Bulk food, huge boxes of spices (here only two of 14 other varieties are shown), ketchup, grated Parmesan cheese, Italian pasta of all kinds (here only elbows are shown), instant cappuccino, bulk boxes of vegetable cans (only corn is shown), 12 pack tomato paste for spaghetti sauce. Other food not shown is spam, yogurt, gnocchi, pickles of all kinds, olives, olive oil, coconut milk, peanuts, chicken, bread, rolls.

 

Natural Hazards Foster the Bulk-shopping Mentality

Alaska is also located on the ring of fires. Volcanic eruptions have often let to shutdown of air traffic. In the past, it happened several times that strong summer thunderstorm systems caused flash floods. Small creeks became wild rivers and washed sections of roads away. The 7.9 earthquake in 2002 reminded everyone that earthquakes can destroy roads. Even when people are new in the state, every small earthquake is an opportunity for the long-term residents to talk about that 7.9 quake on the Denali fault, the Homer 7.1 earthquake or even the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964.

 

wild bird food bag
Two bags of 40 lb (18.14 kg) wild bird food. The cleaning bucket is put there to get an idea of the size of the bags. Small birds, ducks, ravens and squirrels enjoy munching this food

 

#Alaskalife sunflower seeds and peanuts
44 lb (19.96 kg) bag of sunflower seeds (middle) and huge bag of peanuts (front)

 

In summer, wildfires and/or their hazardous smoke may lead to road closures. Because of all these natural threats, most residents of Interior Alaska feel that

A well-stocked full pantry is worth its money in gold, in case of a natural hazard. #Alaska #food Click To Tweet

Wrapping Up Bush Grocery Shopping

In Alaska, Bush is not a negative word. On the contrary, everything with the word Bush in front of it is deserving highest respect! Bush pilots or Bush teachers, for instance, are considered to be heroes. You get the idea.

Those living off the road network need by-pass mail and have to guerilla shop due to lack of access to retailers. Those living along the road network are well aware that any natural hazard can close the roads and cut them off from going to Fairbanks. Therefore, both groups try to have enough food for them and their pets as well as other life important things (batteries, medication, toilet paper, etc.) in storage to cover needs for at least six weeks.

The harsh climate, earthquakes, snow, ice, floodings and wildfires foster the survival instict and make it a lifestyle priority.

What I wore

When you are a regular reader you know that I love the combination of pink and brown. Thus, this business casual winter work look features these colors. I added pearls and a neckerchief. The neckerchief takes up the yellow with pink trend as well as the two different pinks, and some brown. The otk-boots keep my knees warm when I have to idle the car after work before I can drive.

Alaskan woman in shopping outfit

Alaskan fashion blogger in a winter weekend going out outfit

over 50 years old blogger in casual winter office outfit
Outfit details: Halogen quilted leather jacket (ordered online), Banana Republic tweed skirt (bought in a local thrift store), GNW Luxe sweater (bought at the grocery store), opera pearl necklace (bought on eBay), Dior neckerchief (bought on eBay), and Dior over-the-knee boots (bought on eBay)

 

Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders

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