Today’s post describes grocery shopping in Fairbanks by people from rural areas that they proudly call the “Bush.” After reading this post, you will understand why. Many Alaskans live in rural communities of less than 100 off the road network. In rural Alaska, shopping for necessities and groceies requires preparation beyond a shopping list. Read why it is different, what it means, how Bush grocery shopping works, and what causes the quite different lifestyle of Alaskans at-large.
- The Facts about Shopping in Fairbanks,
- What Is the Shopping Situation in Alaska Rural Areas
- When People Come to Fairbanks, They Shop
- What’s a Bypass Mail Service
- Rural Alaskans Guerilla Shop When in Fairbanks
- How Rural Shoppers Prepare for Shopping in Town
- Shipping Home the goodies
- Bush Grocery Shopping Baggage Full of Perishable Food
- What’s a Bush Shipping Department?
- Why Do Interior Alaskans with Roadnet Access Bulk-shop?
- Food Transportation Is Vulnerable at the Last Frontier
- Natural Hazards Foster the Bulk-shopping Mentality
- Wrapping Up Bush Grocery Shopping
- What I Wore
- Further Readings on Alaska Lifestyle
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.
The Facts about Shopping in Fairbanks
Fairbanks (population 32324) is the largest settlement in Interior Alaska. Fairbanks is the second largest and northern most city in Alaska1. Thus, its service area encompasses the Fairbanks metropolitan area (Fairbanks, College, North Pole, Fox, Goldstream, Ester), the Fairbanks North Star Borough (population 97581), and areas far north of the Yukon River and even in the Brooks Range.
Nevertheless, Fairbanks has no department store where you could try out the color of a lipstick or foundation or test-smell a perfume. Long-time Fairbanksan women buy their cosmetics when they are on a business trip, vacation or family visits out of state or in the duty-free shop in the Seattle Tacoma airport on their flight home.
Many female students earn some of they money for college by selling Mary Kay or other brands’ products. Therefore, many women in their 40s and beyond feel obligated to buy cosmetics from their friends’ and/or neighbors daughters to support their education.
Shopping Situation in Fairbanks and Alaska Rural Areas
While people living in the Fairbanks metropolitan area shop every week for groceries in Fairbanks, those living far out in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and beyond only come for special occasions. In between, they either shop by mail order or ask friends, who go to town to bring fresh groceries.
North of Fairbanks, the various settlements have less than 100 inhabitants. For instance, Coldfoot has 10, Wiseman 14, and Deadhorse 25-50 inhabitants. You can easily imagine that running a grocery or clothes store in such a small village, sometimes even off the road network, would be a recipe for bankruptcy.
If there is a store in the rural areas, the choice of merchandise is very limited. This is especially true, 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. Consequently, prices are high due to shipping and storage costs as well as lack of competition.
When People Come to Fairbanks, They Shop
In various posts, I mentioned casually that on long weekends, during special events like the Tanana Valley Fair, Eskimo-Olympics, 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. The stores’ employees have difficulties keeping up with restocking. The same is true on the weekend before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Therefore, I avoid doing my groceries at these times.
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 vegetables, chilled, and dry groceries, and occassionally, durable fruits like apples, 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 Alaskans Guerilla Shop When in Fairbanks
When you live in an rural area, you do not shop for one package of corn flakes, but two months worth of corn flakes. They don’t stop at one 48 rolls package of toilet paper, one package of tooth paste or five bananas. They buy several gallons of milk, several cans of coffee, fresh tropical fruits, apples, fresh vegetables, canned beans, canned vegetables, flour, etc.. But they don’t buy meat, fish, sausages or marmalade.
They have moose and cariboo meat, blueberries, cranberries and wild strwberries for marmelade as well as smoked salomon. You get the idea. If they don’t live in a dry village2, they also buy liquors, wine and beer in amounts, you buy for a 30 people party.
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 , otherwise by boat or bush plane. They know they will not be able to buy fresh and tropical 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.
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.
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.
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.
Bush Grocery Shopping Means the 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.
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. Therefore, 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.
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 Department?
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.
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.
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.
In summer, wildfires caused 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.
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 instinct, and make it a lifestyle priority.
1The Fairbanks city and Fairbanks North Star Borough’s area extend 32.7 sq mi (84.6 km2) and 7444 sq mi (19280 km2), respectively. Thus, Fairbanks’ city area is a bit larger than the size of Nice (27.77 sq mi), but has way less population.
2Some villages and towns in Alaska forbid to bring in alcohol. They are called dry villages.
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.
Further Readings on Alaska Lifestyle
Other post on life in Alaska address the dirt road to Prudhoe Bay, or the weird thing of the Permanent Dividend Fund which is a reason why Alaskans book their vacation in October and an Alaska unwritten law of general support.
Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders
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