The more I learn about Bethel, the more fascinated I become with this little Alaskan bush town.
It’s the hub for an ecosystem of rural villages and the heart of the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta, where Alaska’s two longest rivers empty into the Bering Sea. And yet, with just over 6,300 people, Bethel is barely more than a village itself. We spent a long weekend there but only needed a few hours to drive the small network of roads and see the scope of it—the river and the tundra, the schools, hospital and nursing home, the scattering of stores and restaurants—all seen in a single cruise around town.
Yet we loved Bethel. Here’s why:
1. People are so darned friendly
In a previous post, I raved about our hosts Ron and Janet, strangers who opened their home to us and treated us like we were old friends. Then there was Eva, the curator of the Yup’ik museum, who gave us a personal tour. At Cama’i, the dance festival we attended, we were surrounded by people who smiled at us. Perhaps it’s the peculiar charm of any small town, or the camaraderie that comes from being Alaskan. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, Bethelites were effusive, and it made our experience that much better.
2. The town’s a testament to how resilient people can be
If you spend anytime at all in Bethel, you experience the realities of the tundra, where the ground heaves and the wind rages.
Bethel is an experiment in survival.
There are no trees or mountains to stunt the wind, and when we arrived, the only thing blocking the blowing snow was us.
With the freezing and thawing that comes with the seasons, the permafrost heaves, or shifts. Traditional concrete foundations would soon surrender to this unstable ground, so buildings are placed atop posts.
And because they can’t be buried, water and sewage pipes snake aboveground throughout the town. Homes and businesses have two options when it comes to managing water and sewage: it can either be trucked in and out, or connected to this piping system.
Because everything, from fuel and food to cars and building materials, must be shipped in, Bethel’s cost of living is extremely high. Gas is over $6.00 a gallon, and the price of groceries made us gasp.
3. Bethel is all things to all people (in the Y-K Delta)
The Y-K is one of the greatest deltas in the world, larger even than that of the Mississippi, and about 25,000 people call this region home. 82% of residents are Alaskan Native, and most live in remote, isolated villages.
Bethel is the hub for this region, an area the size of New York State. Everything is based here—administrative services, advanced medical care, “affordable” groceries (it’s all relative), the sole fast food restaurant (a Subway), and the only correctional facility in southwestern Alaska.
Healthcare services are largely provided by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), headquartered, of course, in Bethel. There’s the 50-bed Y-K Delta Regional Hospital, as well as outpatient clinics, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center, a long-term nursing facility, and the Bethel Prematernal Home. In the prematernal home, expectant mothers from all over the Y-K Delta spend their last month of pregnancy here, receiving prenatal care to ensure healthy deliveries. The idea for such a facility developed in the 1960’s after a young pregnant woman was found sleeping under a boat near the hospital; she was from a nearby village and had no place to stay while awaiting her delivery. The Prematernal Home was built with the goal of ensuring a safe and healthy delivery for every baby born in the Y-K Delta.
4. For such a small town, Bethel has some big highlights
Bethel may be small, but it offers several highlights, including the Kuskokwim River and its ice road, the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, and the Cama’i Dance Festival (to be discussed in an upcoming post).
Most of the region is protected within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the second-largest wildlife refuge in the country, which offers fantastic wildlife and bird watching opportunities. Springtime brings with it a “spectacle” of birds, millions and millions of them, migrating to the Delta to nest.
There’s excellent fishing on the Kuskokwim year round, and every spring the highly-regarded Kuskokwim 300 dogsled race starts and ends here. Bethel has the second-busiest airport in the state, with nine different airlines operating out of here. They offer daily flights to surrounding villages, so it’s easy to take a flight-seeing trip over the Delta. And if you’re in town during basketball season, you should attend a high school game (apparently the townspeople are fanatics).
Things to know if you decide to go
Here’s the thing about Bethel; it may be the 9th-biggest city in the state and an important Alaskan community, but it’s still a small town and off the typical tourist path, so it doesn’t have extensive services like tourist towns do. None of this, however, should stop you from visiting. Here are a few tips:
Finding a place to stay can be challenging because the options, which include a few hotels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb rentals, are limited. If you’re headed to Bethel during a high-traffic time, such as during Cama’i or the Kuskokwim 300, plan ahead and reserve early. The Bethel Chamber of Commerce can offer suggestions as well.
Getting to Bethel is easy; multiple flights a day go to and from Anchorage. Once there, however, getting around is not necessarily as easy. I mentioned in a previous post that many people in Bethel walk because owning a car here is expensive. I had hoped to do a lot of walking ourselves, but in the end we rented a car, and I was glad to have it. We arrived in the midst of a driving snowstorm, and the weather stayed cold and blustery for much of the weekend. There were indeed lots of people walking, a fact we observed from inside the warm car, and it was so freaking cold that my heart went out to each and every one of them.
Perhaps the town is more amenable to walking when the weather is nicer, but for the average visitor, vehicle-based transportation is probably the best choice. Car rentals are expensive but a reliable option, and the town also has a bus system. And like I discussed before, Bethel has the largest taxi-to-person ratio in the country (yes, even greater than New York City). An L.A. Times article even proclaimed that Bethel is America’s “taxi capital.” They’re everywhere.
Food and drink
Of course there’s the Subway that I mentioned above, but the town offers more than just fast food, and Yelp provides a list of Bethel’s 15 or so restaurants. We ate out only once, at Sam’s, a Chinese food restaurant run by Koreans. It was delicious and the employees were wonderful. If you’d rather cook, there are several grocery stores, but regardless of which option you choose, know that it will be expensive.
When it comes to alcohol sales in Alaska, towns fit into one of three categories:
- “Dry”—possession or sale of alcohol is prohibited
- “Damp”—personal possession is allowed, but sales are not
- “Wet”—both the possession and sale of alcohol are allowed
After decades of being dry, Bethel recently transitioned to wet, with restaurants and two liquor stores selling alcohol. Many of the surrounding villages, however, continue to be dry, and some Bethel residents were opposed to Bethel’s legalization of alcohol sales, arguing that, in an area already marred by poverty and addiction, alcohol will only make things worse. Those in favor of alcohol sales, on the other hand, assert that decades of prohibition haven’t been effective. Obviously the issue is complicated and way beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re going to travel here, it’s good to be aware of the fact that alcohol is an emotional topic in many areas of Alaska.
Bethel is remarkable, a thriving, multi-cultural town on the rough edge of the frontier. It is quintessentially Alaskan and entirely essential to a huge, remote swath of territory. It might not be the easiest place to visit, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.