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An illustration of hands using utensils to grab food off a table such as pie and salmon.

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In Remote Alaska, Meal Planning Is Everything

In a town where most ingredients need to be grown or painstakingly shipped in via bush plane, everyone’s invested in eating well

In March 2020, when pandemic stay-at-home orders had just started and everyone was figuring out how to get groceries and purchase in bulk for the next several weeks, I already had a chest freezer full of food and a pantry stocked with months’ worth of meals at my home in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had been living in the Arctic for more than a decade, and the fly-in community of Bettles, Alaska, had prepared me for pandemic life in ways I hadn’t realized.

In 2010, I moved from Brooklyn to Bettles to live with my husband, Adam, who worked as a park ranger at Gates of the Arctic National Park on and off for 15 years. Bettles is located on the Koyukuk River, 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the interior of the state, and is the seasonal base for those who work in the park, as well as the visitors who use the village as the starting point for their backcountry trips. The official city sign that greets visitors as they depart the Cessna airplane onto the gravel airstrip states, “Population 63,” although I highly doubt there have ever been more than 30 or 40 full-time residents.

There’s no way to drive to Bettles except during the height of the winter, when the river freezes over and becomes an ice road (yes, this is the exact “road” you’ve seen on the reality show Ice Road Truckers). In the summer there are two daily 90-minute flights from Fairbanks; after that a visitor can charter a flight shuttle into the park itself. In the winter, one can drive the ice road from Fairbanks if the conditions are right.

Bettles began as a gold rush trading post on the west side of the river, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, residents began to resettle in “new” Bettles, a 2-square-mile plot of land near the newly constructed airstrip, which at the time was already known as the unincorporated Alaska Native village of Evansville. Today, there is an invisible geographical line that separates Evansville and Bettles, though it really doesn’t matter in the everyday lives of residents unless there is a local election. Demographically, the 10 to 15 residents of Evansville are primarily Alaska Native, while the 20 or so residents of Bettles are primarily non-Native people are here because their work is here — mostly at the “weather box,” a Federal Aviation Administration weather station; for the National Park Service; or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The population of Bettles can double in the summer, with seasonal workers coming to town, but otherwise, these two census entities have almost entirely congealed into one.

Bettles is part of a vast array of rural Alaska communities, most of them Alaska Native, that remain disconnected from America’s road-based supply chain. Many industries, including fishing, timber, and oil, also require people to live in remote work or fish camps. Provisioning, or seasonal pantry stocking with shelf-stable dry goods, is a deeply embedded part of the state’s food culture. When you move to a rural place like Bettles, it fundamentally changes the way you think about how to procure food and how to create a community in which to share it.

That first summer in the Arctic, Adam, who had already spent several summer seasons in Bettles, arrived a few weeks before me and told me that I had to go to the grocery store in Fairbanks and buy as much food as possible. What he really meant was, buy as much food as you can push in a grocery cart back to your hotel, repackage it into boxes, then get it all into a taxi to the small Alaska Bush plane office, and pay for it as freight on the flight.

What Adam hadn’t shared — but what quickly would become second nature to me — is that in the tiny town, we would develop our own rituals around eating. Yes, things like fresh strawberries would be hard to come by, but together we’d craft innovative solutions to tasks more easily accomplished in less remote places. We’d communally grow vegetables with our neighbors. We’d order food from thousands of miles away, weeks ahead of time. And we would hardly ever be eating alone.

Historically, the Alaska Natives in this region — Iñupiat and Athabascan people, many of whom were nomadic — lived off the land, a practice now known in Alaska as “subsistence,” eating berries, moose, fish, caribou, and Dall sheep. Many Alaska Native communities still rely on subsistence as a way to supplement pantry stores and offset the high cost of food. In Bettles, though, my experience was that an aging population and the prevalence of Amazon Prime made those traditional ways of getting food less common.

Today, whenever flights land in Bettles, upwards of 50 packages with the Amazon label are thrown from the plane’s cargo shoot onto the pickup used as a mail truck. The Fred Meyer grocery store’s Bush order boxes, treated like Faberge eggs, are carefully passed on to eager residents. Amazon likely loses lots of money by shipping heavy food items to Bush Alaska, where, in addition to the USPS or UPS shipping costs to ship each item to the hub in Fairbanks, it then costs 79 cents per pound to then fly it from Fairbanks to Bettles. I would always laugh and shake my head when opening a large box full of coconut milk that I received via Amazon Prime with free shipping — it likely cost the company at least $15 to get it to me.

The sole food shop in town, owned by one of the flight shuttle services, is only open in the summer. It’s as big as a mid-sized walk-in closet, and is filled with foods that people crave either when they’ve returned from 10 days in the backcountry (frozen pizzas, ice cream sandwiches, microwavable mac and cheese, a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich) or when they’re up late due to the midnight sun.

It’s a real feat to get frozen foods to Bettles and it’s amazing that the ice cream sandwiches and rocket pops still only cost $1 each, which seems like the shop owner’s way of acknowledging that she isn’t making a profit on these items because she firmly believes everyone should have equal access to ice cream during the summer. The shop often functions on the honor system, with a notebook in which you write down your name and what you took, or an envelope in which you can leave cash. At the end of the summer, it always amazes me that I owe $62 worth of Almond Joys, raspberry popsicles, and Fritos.

Hazel Pagkalinawan first came to Bettles from Southern California almost 15 years ago to manage the Bettles Lodge, a historic small hotel that sits right on top of the airstrip. Since moving to Bettles, Pagkalinawan has worked as a relief cook at the lodge, an observer at the “weather box,” vice mayor, and now the city clerk.

When I talk to Pagkalinawan right before the Easter holiday, she shares that several families are having a potluck brunch together this year. In Bettles, especially in spring and summer, potlucks are a common occurrence, not just because they’re a way for the community to share resources, but because Bettles can be a lonely place. For Easter, one family will make sourdough pancakes, someone else is bringing an ambrosia dessert from an old cookbook, and Pagkalinawan herself will make a frittata and possibly ribs if her grocery order comes on the plane landing later that day. “I also ordered Cool Whip for the dessert, if we get it, otherwise we’ll use what we have on hand.”

Pagkalinawan’s pantry is stocked with Amazon Subscribe & Save items (flour, sugars, canned beans), and she made a haul on the ice road this year to bring up sodas, alcohol, and other heavy bulk items not available through Amazon. She had to hang up with me so she could phone the flight service to see if her “freshies’’ (how locals refer to fresh food orders) order from Fred Meyer would arrive that day.

It wasn’t until the last few years — and really as a result of the pandemic — that it became slightly easier to place a Bush order at the grocery store. There are several grocery options in Fairbanks, but nearly all the Bush orders go through Fred Meyer, which is part of the Kroger brand. In fact, it was likely due to all these Bush orders that “Fred Meyer West, one of two Fred Meyer stores in Fairbanks, [was] the highest-grossing Kroger supermarket in the country — topping more than 2,700 other stores” in 2016, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

As recently as five years ago, an order would go like this: Call the Bush order desk, read your list to whomever answered, pay over the phone, and then hope for the best. Would you get green grapes or red grapes? How many grapes would you get at all? Would the bananas be green or super ripe? There is no cell phone service in Bettles — only landlines — and in our first few years, we didn’t have a landline at home, so we used a pay phone in the Bettles Lodge or a phone in a makeshift Park Service game room that somehow was still connected.

Between the extra fees to Fred Meyer for boxing up her order and driving it to the air service, and the price per pound she pays separately for the groceries as freight on the flight, Pagkalinawan estimates that her groceries cost her about $100 on top of their actual price per order. It’s still worth it to her to place an order every three or four weeks, though, because she simply doesn’t like frozen vegetables: “I buy veggies that will keep, and I buy a lot of cabbage. What won’t keep, I’ll try to cook it first,” she says.

Still, the freezer is life in a place like Bettles. Most people in town have at least two freezers — some have two fridges too — which come in especially handy for the occasional influx of moose and caribou meat. While subsistence hunting is no longer a main food pathway in Bettles or Evansville, non-residents can hunt with a guide in the nearby national preserve (but not the national park) or with a permit on state land. Many times, hunters will stop back through Bettles before heading on a flight to Fairbanks and leave behind much of their meat — except for some choice cuts and the animal’s head or antlers (because what’s a trophy hunt without a take-home trophy?). Also, when an animal is hunted illegally, the state will donate the meat to a nearby community. Someone in town — it might just be the person who first answers their phone — then becomes responsible for dispersing the moose legs and caribou quarters and ensuring everyone has a stocked chest freezer. Last year, Pagkalinawan reports, “I didn’t accept any meat donations because I didn’t have any room; I still had plenty.” That surplus often winds up in some of her potluck favorites: moose lasagna and moose enchiladas.

Creating a delicious potluck dish from just what you have on hand feels like you’re on a Top Chef challenge where the cook must design a menu with just four preselected ingredients. When desperate, sometimes you phone a friend and ask for a crucial item that can’t be left out. When invited to a potluck (which can happen multiple times a week in the height of the summer), I often try to make something that can feed a lot of people, looks complicated but isn’t, and doesn’t sacrifice any coveted items (like fresh fruit and vegetables) — like corn bread with a secret spice (cumin or za’atar), or Peruvian chicha morada (from a packet I had brought back from travels years before) mixed with a small amount of vodka (Bettles is a “wet” village, but many Arctic villages are “dry”). You can always bring rice to a potluck; I promise it will get eaten.

No matter the specific dishes that find their way to the potluck table, a community priority continues to be that the Native elders have enough to eat. You’ll frequently hear someone say, “I’ll make a plate for...” as a potluck is wrapping up and the leftovers are beginning to be dispersed.

By the second summer I spent in Bettles, I had a more sustainable plan for better eating. Bettles experiences extreme differences in both temperature and daylight. The winter may see extended periods of minus 40 F weather and only three or four hours of daylight. But the summers are glorious, with nearly 24 hours of daylight (the sun only skims the horizon and never really sets) and temperatures between 70 and 90 F. You can grow a lot, and you can grow it very quickly. So, I planted a garden filled with several varieties of lettuce, kale, chard, carrots, tomatoes, and as many herbs as we could fit into the space.

I also found a sourdough starter and started to make bread (the flours came from Amazon), and made jellies from the abundance of blueberries and cranberries we foraged in August. Using his beer-brewing equipment, Adam managed to brew beer to last most of the summer. We started bringing salads and blueberry muffins to potlucks.

Pagkalinawan reminded me, “People who come up to Bettles are amazed that we eat better than they do. I always tell them we can’t just go to a restaurant; we know what we want to eat and have to plan ahead for it.”

A friend from New York City, an amateur chef who studies food systems, came to visit and we hosted a potluck with the theme “eat local.” Adam went to the river and caught grayling, which was served over a bed of sauteed greens with a rhubarb sauce. Our neighbors brought moose burgers, locally grown potatoes cooked with our garden rosemary, and blueberry cobbler. We stayed up late, which can be hard to realize during the peak of the summer when the sun is still high in the sky, sharing food and drinking Bota Box wine. Although this was a gourmet meal, in many ways it was just as great as the store-bought hot dogs and macaroni salad we had eaten together hundreds of times before; the quality of a meal is really a reflection of the company you share it with as well as the long process and coordination it takes to get everything on the table. Then before bed, with the sun just starting to near the horizon, we all walked over to the small shop on the airstrip and finished the evening off with Mounds bars and Doritos.

Bree Kessler is a writer, researcher, and public space activist based in Alaska and Hawai‘i.
Rejoy Armamento is an illustrator and muralist based in Anchorage, Alaska.
Copy edited by Paola Banchero