Life in the Bush

Jan 21, 2013 | 0 comments

I have been intermittently aware over the last few months that I’ve failed to thoroughly described to you what it is really like to live in the Alaskan bush. Maybe you’ve gotten some idea if you’ve read enough of my posts, or if you remember some of my initial deer-in-the-headlights reactions when I first moved here 7 months ago.

But every so often, I am reminded that what has become daily routine and “normal” life for me was a totally foreign concept last year and still is for 99% of my friends and family.

The “beach”

If you think I’m living in the wild, think again. I mean, I am in some ways, because although Nome is home to over 3,500 people, it is literally surrounded by tens of millions of acres of nothing but tundra, mountains, and wilderness to the north, and the Bering Sea to the south. However, it’s no Las Anchorage either: there is only one paved street, no stoplights, and no roads connecting Nome to the “outside” world. The only way to get in or out is by one of 3 Alaska Airline flights per day, weather permitting. These also bring in the cargo and supplies needed to run a functioning town. For local travel, bush planes offer daily services to the handful of villages around the Seward Peninsula and northwest Alaska, or in the winter you can snowmachine. But for all intents and purposes, Nome is in the middle of nowhere. Flying in at night, the moon is brighter than the twinkle of town lights, and it illuminates the landscape such that you can hardly even pick out Nome from the air.

Some weeks, cargo shipments don’t come in because of the weather and we won’t have very much fresh produce or meat, or sometimes they freeze on the way over and go bad before they can be sold. And if you plan on eating anything at all (which is often not in great condition by the time it gets here), get used to paying $3-6 per fresh fruit or vegetable,  $2-4 per canned good,  $5 for a loaf of bread, $10/lb for meat, or $5 for a box of cereal. If you eat out, expect to pay at least $12 for a sandwich, an order of Chinese food, or any hot meal, or $25+ for a pizza. The only chain restaurant in town is Subway (it doubles as the local movie theatre).

In the winter, the isolation of this place is much more obvious than it was in the summer. With the tourists and gold miners gone, we are down to just the locals. On any given day, I’ll see a man riding a 4-wheeler down the road with a dead seal bouncing around on the back; a request for moose liver or whale meat on the local town listserve; a reindeer riding in the back of someone’s truck; a mid-day drunken street fight being broken up by the state troopers downtown; dog mushers training along the road; or tiny children bundled up in their fur parkas, playing in the street totally unsupervised. The culture and customs have become surprisingly commonplace to me. From hearing the unhurried local dialects, to expecting the long, exaggerated stories when talking to someone, it all makes up the tapestry of life in the Alaskan bush for me now.

Old St. Joe’s Town Square

Nome feels to exist in its own little bubble, sometimes seemingly forgotten by time and the outside world. Most of the local and regional news is provided by the radio station. Every hour on the hour, the weather is read out for every village in western Alaska. This is sometimes followed by a reading of local announcements ranging from “Doris of such-and-such village wishes her nephew a happy birthday,” to “Jim, please drop off Betty’s box at her home, 111 Blank St.,” to “Play with and read to your children,” to “Jesus loves you.” A few times a day, traditional King Island drumming will come on, an eclectic playlist of any kind of music you can imagine, some national or world news, and a mock traffic report (“A car is driving down main street. Now it just parked. Sir, if you’re listening, your headlights are still on.”). Followed by another hourly reading of the weather.

There is so much more to say about Nome and rural Alaska. I could write an entire other post about the rural education system, the Inupiaq culture, and so on, but that will have to wait for another time. It’s hard enough to even begin to accurately and sensitively describe the basics.

Holding a Flat Stanley from a student in CA
under the Iditarod finish line

So much of my perspective has changed in the 7 months (to the day!) that I’ve been here. I wonder how much more it will change in the next 2, and after that when I have returned to the lower-48?


Leave a Reply