OK, we’re not actually in Bethel, yet. We’re at the Anchorage airport, waiting for our flight, so I thought I’d give you a brief introduction to the town in which we’ll be spending a long weekend.
We’re attending the Cama’i Dance Festival, a three-day cultural fest that hosts Native dance groups from all over Alaska and the Outside as well. The schedule is jam-packed, and performances stretch all the way to midnight each day. My head is spinning just thinking about it.
In the meantime, here’s what we know so far about Bethel:
- It’s on the western coast of Alaska and is only reachable by air or water.
- It sits near the mouth of the mighty Kuskokwim, one of Alaska’s major rivers. Bethel is not far from where the river dumps into the Bering Sea, and it’s the main port for the river.
- Bethel is the ninth largest city in Alaska and, at a little over 6000 residents, the biggest town in the enormous Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. It’s also the administrative hub for 56 villages scattered throughout the area. These are mainly Alaska Native villages that, like Bethel, can only be reached by boat or airplane.
- The area has long been inhabited by Yup’ik Eskimo tribes. The village that is now Bethel was called “Mumtrekhlogamute,” which means “Smokehouse People” because the villagers smoked their fish. Russians settled here early, and Americans came in the late 1800’s when the Alaska Commercial Company established a trading post here. Protestant missionaries soon followed. But these days as back then, Alaska Natives still make up the largest percentage of Bethel residents.
- Many people don’t own a car. It’s expensive to have them shipped in, and gas prices are also high. As a result, the town has an inordinately large number of taxis for such a small population, but those, too, can be expensive, so some just get around on foot.
- Bethel is home to a noteable dogsled race, the Kuskokwim 300, which takes place in January and honors an historic mail route in the area.
- Bethel has a subarctic climate with cold winters and short, mild summers. Earlier this week the lows were dipping below 0º F, but this weekend it’ll be warmer, with temps in the 20s and 30s, which–and I can’t believe I’m saying this–is quite comfortable for us. (You know you’ve acclimated to the winter when you think anything above freezing is balmy).
I’m so excited about this trip. Soon after we moved to Seward, I met someone who’d lived in Bethel for most of his life. He moved to Seward shortly after us and was wistful for his hometown. He compared the tall, omnipresent mountains of Seward with the open tundra of Bethel and expressed feeling claustrophobic. “In Bethel, you can see for miles and miles, because there’s nothin.’ No trees, no mountains, nothin’.” He laughed as he said this and as he thought of his family, scattered throughout the villages, some so isolated that they can only be reached by taking a boat up the Kuskokwim River.
Here’s my chance to see the town that he spoke about with such affection. I look forward to posting pictures and stories from Bethel!