What to Bring on Your Visit and Other Alaska Arctic Travel Tips

“Alaska? That sounds fun! You know I have always wanted to go there.”

It is becoming easier and easier to visit Alaska. It is no longer the challenging bucket list destination that it once was. With Hotels springing up in Anchorage and Fairbanks and cruises leaving Seattle on a regular basis, visiting the land of the midnight sun has never been more affordable or easier.

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A cruise ship anchored offshore of a small town in southern Alaska

On cruise ships and in hotels your every need is taken care of. Excursions come fully stocked with equipment, gear and often clothing. The food is fresh and prepared by renowned chefs. And if you forget something there is somewhere to buy it just one deck up or one floor down or, worst case, across the street (although you may have to pay tourist prices in any case).

If this is the experience you are planning then I can’t help much because it is already taken care of. Everything you need is included or available for purchase. Just bring a camera, for everything else theres master card…

If on the other hand you are traveling to the bush. You may need a little more.

Maybe you are coming to visit someone. Maybe you are moving up for the first time. Maybe you are just curious about life in Alaska and have nothing better to do then read a bush teacher’s blog. Whatever the reason here is what I have come up with.

Travel

If you are going to the Bush then you will first need to get to a hub village. These are usually 2-5k people and are serviced by Alaska airlines, known locally as the “jet”. Our local hub is Kotzebue which takes 2 Alaska airlines flights from anchorage each day one at 8am one at 8pm (roughly).

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Anchorage to Kotzebue
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My preferred luggage, sturdy and sized right. Plus stackable. Just get the ones with predrilled holes for zip ties.

When planning your flight it is important to consider when the village flights will be. Shungnak has 2 commuter airlines, Bering air and Ravn air which each do a morning (~9am take off from Kotzebue) and afternoon flight (~3pm take off from Kotzebue) with only one flight on Sunday at around 11am.

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Kotzebue to the village

If you take the morning ‘jet’ you may make it in time for the morning bush flight but not always. If you miss it that is ok, you can reschedule for the afternoon flight but you will have some time to kill in Kotzebue. If you come in on the afternoon jet you will have to spend the night in Kotzebue. This means you will either need a couple hundred dollars for the hotel, which is admittedly a good hotel, or you can pick from several bed and breakfast places which are hit or miss on quality.

There is also now a Ravn flight from Anchorage to Kotzebue which arrives in Kotzebue around 1 meaning you would be in time for the afternoon flight.

Transportation in village

While in the hub village you may have taken a cab. These usually have a flat rate per person regardless of destination. In Kotzebue it is currently $7 per person. Now that you are in the village though there is probably not a cab to call or any other public transportation. So once you are dropped at the ‘airport’

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“airport”

(there is no building that you can enter besides a locked hanger so you are in
the elements), whoever you are visiting or meeting picks you up. If you have not prearranged someone to get you then your plan is to desperately hope that someone feels bad for you and gives you a ride into town. In some villages this may be only a few hundred feet, but in others it may be a mile or more. For us it is about a half mile.

Fall and winter transportation;

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Communication

img_1411If you were planning on calling your friend to come get you after arriving… don’t. A few villages have service for major carriers but most do not. In Shungnak the only carrier is GCI. In the Kotzebue I think ATNT phones will also work but it is best to check if and where your phone and carrier will work before starting travel.

Even if you do have the right carrier it may be spotty. In Shungnak I am not able to use data except on rare occasions unless connected to wifi. Even then I am rarely able to send or receive picture messages or videos and sms messages may fail as well. And besides service issues, if it is -20 you may only have a minute of usage outside before your phone shuts down. It will turn on again when it warms up, but they don’t like the cold.

Cloths

Clothing will depend a little on the time of year you travel and where specifically you are traveling too as some places in Alaska are much warmer/colder than others. The general understanding is that Alaska is super cold in the winter and generally mild in the summer. This is generally true but it is best to research the place you are going in particular because not all of Alaska is the same.

In the winter you will want to travel with a winter coat, ski pants, hat, gloves. If you have one, keep a face mask handy also. You will want to wear these on the bush plane as some of them get fairly cold and even if the plane is warm it wont be once you take off. If you are just visiting your friend may be able to borrow a parka and heavy ski pants (these can cost $100s to $1000s) from someone in case it is very cold when you get off the plane you can trade up for the ride into town.

But if you are coming on your own or moving, you will want your own. If you are moving you will want;

  • Heavy thermals
  • A second face mask or three to trade out when they get wet from your breath after a few hours.
  • Warm boots ie bunny boots, Cabelas makes a few pretty good models too. Pictured below; water boots, hiking boots (water proof), bunny boots, cabelas inserts and the boots they go to.IMG_2914 med
  • goggles preferably with attached face guard
  • very warm gloves/ mittensIMG_2912 med
  • Good wool socks and wicking socks. Below shown heavy wool vs regular vs wicking.IMG_2916 med
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Playing with my heavy gear… I built another me.

In the summer you will want some sort of rain gear handy. I only wear long pants and long sleeve shirts if I can help it because of the bugs. Some good mud boots or water proof high top hiking boots. And a good hat and sunglasses.

Spring and fall are up in the air and could go either way. Being prepared is always recommended but a midrange coat on with ski pants hat and glove handy is probably good enough. Just make sure to check weather reports as close as possible to your travel dates.

Lodging

Now that you have presumably made it to town you will probably be tired and want to rest for a while. After all you have been traveling for a solid day or more. If you were counting on finding a hotel I hope you checked before you left. A few villages do have some sort of accommodations but many do not. If you are moving to the village make sure you have access to your new housing or at least a place to stay in the mean time before you go. Generally speaking though you will either be living at your new house or staying with friends in the village.

Food

Being all settled in it is time for a meal. If you are lucky you are staying with a friend who was prepared and has a roast in the oven or a steak on the grill. If not then hopefully you brought some food because depending on when you get in, the store may be closed. Even if it is open, don’t count on it being ‘well’ stocked. They will have enough for you to get by but at certain times of the year there is not much there and rarely much variety to choose from at any time of the year. You would also want to be prepared for some sticker shock as prices can be many times those of the lower 48. Many stores do not even label prices because everything is expensive and either you need it or you don’t. If you need it then you will buy it regardless of price, if you don’t then you probably already know it is more than you want to pay. Some villages have a restaurant but most do not.

Some good things to bring for your host (these are also good to bring if you are moving up);

  • fresh fruits and veggies. Shungnak regularly gets root vegetables, oranges and on occasion apples, pears, and cucumbers but that is about it.
  • Meat. I love game meat but not everyone does. If not you might want to bring things like chicken, burger, lunchmeat ex. as these things are expensive and often of questionable quality in the villages.
  • Fast food or other perishable comfort foods
  • Anything you use a lot of. For me, I use a lot of peanut butter, cheese and rice. Keep in mind that you are going to be paying by weight for both Alaska airlines and the village planes (village planes often include carryons as well).

Equipment

This kind of depends on the reason for your visit and what you will be doing. A simple visit does not require special gear other than described above. If you want to do something like hunt, fish, snowshoe, then you will need equipment and permits appropriate to those activities. Your friend may have some things you can borrow or have advice on which to bring ie. don’t bring your 12 inch snowshoes bring your 48 inch snowshoes.

Other necessities for living in the bush

This is more specific to people who are moving but if you are you will want;

  • water filter see Challenges in the Bush for some explanation and images of what the water can be like
  • detergent
  • rope and a good knife (useful for many things)
  • whatever you need for your house; cups, plates, sheets, towels, unless you have confirmed they are available on sight. Keep in mind it may be a few weeks before that box you sent arrives.
  • a hobby and the materials for it

Eventually you may want, if you don’t have already

  • a snowgo and a 4 wheeler. I didn’t get mine the first year for a couple reasons. First I was not positive I would be coming back. It could have been harder than I thought or the district may not have wanted me back. It also gave me the chance to hike around and become familiar with the area and know where I was before venturing far out. I would highly suggest waiting on this one for at least a little while.
  • a fishing pole
  • a gun, but make sure you know how and when to use it before you go out. Otherwise you can take a friend along and make some noise is just as effective for self defense.
  • a tool set
  • a good camera (some great photo ops here)

Getting back

Now that you have made it and had fun it is time to go.

This is basically how you got here but in reverse. If you were hunting there may be some shipping challenges which should be researched ahead of time. The day before your flight it is a good idea to call the bush airline and make sure you are still on the docket. Occasionally reservations are lost, canceled or not written down. The day of the flight you will have to call in a few hours before to the local agent to give your baggage weight and body weight so they can plan the routing.

Then you will need to have your stuff ready in the sled or trailer and be listening to the VHF (like a walkie talkie that everyone in the village can hear) for the announcement that the plane is coming. Unless you charter a flight they will not hold for you so don’t miss it. Hopefully you booked the right flight to make the flight out of the hub. From Shungnak both the morning and evening flights will make the evening jet. I usually take the morning flight just in case there is weather and it gets canceled I may still make it in the afternoon if weather improves.

Neither will make it for the morning jet unless you spend the night. If you take the morning flight in hopes of making the Ravn jet at 1pm, you might make it but it might be close and if you are delayed a little or take a longer route you could miss it. Also important to note. If you take the Ravn jet you will not need to go through security in Kotzebue but you will in Anchorage so plan layovers accordingly.

Also remember

Many villages are dry. There are serious consequences for importing alcohol.

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These birtch baskets may hold 3-4 cups of berries and go for $70-$150.

Many places and most stores will take credit cards but individuals don’t. If you want to buy something from someone like a basket or hat, you may need cash and these may run anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred depending on location maker and detail.. That may sound expensive but the best prices for the genuine article are in the villages where people make them. If you just stepped off a cruise ship then the prices have been inflated

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These baby booties may sell for $100-$300.

for you and often the person or store does not make them themselves but buys from the villages and then marks up the price a little to turn a profit. This is the same effect in the hub villages that many of the outlying villages sell to the more populated hub village which then marks up prices.

P. S. The post challenge for this week is Glow. Thus the northern lights picture at the top. Here are a few more “glowing” picture just for fun. IMG_0249IMG_2683img_1077IMG_7746IMG_0100

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