What Is It Like To Live In Rural Alaska? (It’s Really Hard)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in rural Alaska? I mean really rural Alaska, like Prince of Wales Island or somewhere in the interior?

Although I live in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, which has over 30,000 people, I have spent time in rural Alaska and I have known a lot of people who have spent years living there.

Let’s talk about some of the major differences between someone living in the city and someone living in rural Alaska.

Food

Probably the biggest difference between city life and rural Alaska is the food, both in what you’ll be eating and how you’ll go about getting it.

If you live in a small town like Coffman Cove (population 127), you’ll have a couple of options for buying snacks, but no full-service grocery store.

Coffman Cove residents can drive about 50 miles south to the town of Klawock to buy groceries. Other places in Alaska aren’t so lucky.

Pelican, Alaska (population 98), is served by a small convenience store that sells a few staples that a local family set up inside of their house.

Pelican’s one direction sign in town

Most food is ordered from grocery stores in Juneau or Ketchikan and delivered by float plane. Usually canned goods and other selections that will last longer.

However, a lot of people in rural Alaska (particularly those in Alaska’s interior, many of whom are Alaska Natives) tend to live a subsistence lifestyle.

They’ll hunt, trap, and fish for their protein, then add fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens.

Drinks

In some small towns, there will be a convenience store or other location to buy cold drinks. Water, soda, energy drinks, and other choices to help you stay hydrated and give you energy while you’re out fishing or hunting.

One thing you might not see is a liquor store. Some counties in the lower 48 are “dry,” meaning you can’t buy alcohol there.

Alaska goes a step further and gives each individual township the ability to restrict alcohol to the level of their own choosing.

For example, in some places, it’s a crime just to possess alcohol. In others, you can’t buy or sell it, but if you happen to order a bottle of alcohol or some beer for yourself, you can have it delivered.

There are a few places that don’t allow buying, selling, or ordering but if you fly back into town and have it in your possession, that’s perfectly legal.

I had an old boss about five or six years ago who told me that, growing up in the bush about 50 or 100 miles outside Talkeetna, he only drank powdered milk. He had his first drink of Darigold milk from a plastic gallon jug when he was 19 years old.

In many communities, particularly those in the interior, liquid milk isn’t an option, as it spoils too easily and is very heavy (causing a gallon of milk to be prohibitively expensive).

A gallon of milk weighs roughly eight pounds and since shipping charges are usually by weight, it can be very expensive for a product that might arrive with just a couple of days left.

Travel

Any food that you have (not to mention packages) might even arrive late since small planes are inherently more dangerous than a 747 and will only fly in favorable weather conditions.

I once tried to visit someone in a community that is only served by float planes. Granted, it was in the winter, but between fog, heavy rain, and snowfall, I was weathered out four straight days.

I tried again on the fifth day and after some terrifying turbulence, we turned back around and landed in Anchorage. I immediately called my friend and said, “I give up, I’m going home.” I flew back to Juneau the next morning.

If you live in the interior or some places like Pelican in Southeast Alaska, you won’t find any roads.

Your options for travel (other than small aircraft or float planes) will usually be a boat, an ATV, or a snow machine.

Note: in Alaska, people call them “snow machines” and not “snowmobiles.” I do not know why, as there is zero difference in the terms as far as I know, but I’ve seen people say “snowmobile” and get corrected by the person they’re talking to many times.

Isolation and Other Concerns

Hyder, Alaska (Population: 12)

It gets cold, dark, and lonely sometimes in the winter. Even my friends who live in Sitka, a reasonably-sized town for Southeast Alaska, call me up every couple of months and ask me to fly over to visit them.

They both live there for work, but their work is isolated and they don’t have a lot of friends there, because their coworkers have all known each other since they were kids.

They both often tell me that they feel like they don’t fit in because they haven’t spent their entire lives there, unlike most of the other people who live there.

Another concern for a lot of people is the lack of cell phone service. I use a local carrier that doesn’t get service in a lot of smaller towns.

I took a trip to Prince of Wales Island for work one time and didn’t have any cell phone service at all. I was able to use the free public WiFi at the library to tell my friends and family that I made it safely and that was about it.

That Sounds Awful!

A lot of this might sound negative, but believe me when I tell you that there are a lot of people who prefer to live this way.

They see cell phones as a distraction that hurts communication skills, they see grocery stores as a luxury, and they see peace and quiet instead of the loud sounds of the city.

Many of them grew up in rural areas and don’t know any other life. I once saw a man at a grocery store here in Juneau who was fascinated by our credit card readers, as he’d lived in Tenakee Springs his whole life and had never seen one before.

Living in rural Alaska can be a difficult challenge for some, but for others, they wouldn’t choose to live any other way.

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