The horses moved against the current, pulling the long draft boat up the river. Atop the flat bottomed boat lay thousands of pounds worth of gear. Whiskey, food staples and hardware were just a few of the many objects within the shipment. Men stood aboard the boat, using long poles to stay in the deeper sections of the river. In shallower sections, they would have to move in the frigid waters, guiding the horses and their cargo into deeper water once more. In some years, the water would be so shallow that a temporary removal of all materials aboard the boat was necessary in order to ensure further passage. As the horses, men and boat approached the town, they found a large congregation waiting for them on a nearby gravel bar. A young boy had spotted the boat downstream and had alerted its presence to those in the area. Men ashore helped to tie off the lines, shook hands with the river men and helped unload the cargo.
One hundred years ago, such a scene would be commonplace during the summer period throughout Alaska. For the white man,* sourcing supplies in Alaska has always been difficult, with the most pressing goods almost always being food. Most non-natives throughout Alaska’s history have been unwilling to fully transition to the native diet of meat, fish and birds (water or land based) with berries and plants as supplements. Therefore, supplies must be sourced from industrial centers far away. Until the arrival of airplane transportation in the 1920s, supplies was often transported from Seattle by boat, then onto river steamers and progressively smaller boats until reaching its final destination. With such a long journey, goods were expensive (as much as 10x that of Seattle prices) and in most cases arrived only once per year. The arrival of supply boats within towns or outposts was often greatly celebrated by the town’s inhabitants, especially if they were running low on food.
Wildlife could often be found in surrounding areas and pursued for food, subject to migrations and natural population fluctuations. Native peoples have lived off the country for thousands of years and many immigrants to the state also took to the practice. Hunting and fishing was and is a necessity throughout Alaska, due to the lack of a stable source for commercial goods. In the summertime, people along rivers caught and put up fish to feed households and dog teams. Meat was obtained throughout the year, by hunting animals such as moose, caribou and sheep, and berries were picked if present in the fall.
Unlike people on frontiers past, who were able to cultivate plants for food, Alaskans have always had many things going against them which limit their gardening capabilities. Outside of southcentral Alaska, where there is long light in the summertime, decent soil and moderate temperatures for a longer duration than anywhere else within the state, gardening is a challenge. While blessed with long periods of light, temperatures are often too cold to permit abundant plant growth. In the southern reaches of the Arctic, the last frost can occur into the middle of June with the first frost occurring often with the first two weeks of August. That leaves a narrow frost free window in which a gardener attempts to maximize growth. Other challenges are acidic soils and permafrost (frozen ground), both of which require extensive additional labor to prepare the ground if one wishes to have any success. As it was in the past, most gardeners in Alaska today focus on growing root vegetables and salad greens throughout the short growing season.
Food was able to be obtained more easily with the arrival of airplane travel. More regular deliveries meant an end to the starving days of early summer, where the supply boat had not arrived and last year’s supply of food had dwindled. Yet, prices still remained high. For those in rural Alaska, economics still deemed it prudent to source as much of one’s food from the surrounding country, whether that be through hunting, fishing, foraging or gardening.
For most urban Alaskans (of Fairbanks, Anchorage or Juneau), food is sourced not unlike their counterparts in the Lower 48. A trip to the local superstore (Fred Meyer, Costco, Sam’s Club or Walmart) fulfills most kitchen needs. Animals may be hunted and fish may be caught, but they will supplement one’s diet, rather than be the central component..
Much has changed in rural Alaska since the era through the gold rush days, ending not long ago. Goods are still difficult to obtain. If a village has a store, selections are limited and prices remain high. For example, one can expect to pay $6 for an apple or $10 for a head of lettuce, both of which (along with any other produce or meat) are in poor condition having travelled weeks and thousands of miles. The major difference separating current Alaskans from their ancestors is access to the internet. Today, almost all communities in Alaska have access to the internet and with it, access to one of the largest distributors in the world. Amazon.
In rural communities throughout the state, Amazon has dramatically changed the procurement of goods. Ordering goods to be delivered is not a new concept. Mail order catalogues brought (and still do) canned, frozen and dehydrated goods to those who order them. The difference is in the cost and speed of service. Prices are often slightly higher than those found in urban stores, but compared to travelling to those locations and resupplying or ordering through other catalogues the cost is still less. Much of this is due to Amazon’s shipping policies, which enable those with a Prime membership to receive free shipping (with a $99 membership), no matter the locale. Compared to urban locales, shipping isn’t fast, often being a week at the quickest**. But considering the history of sourcing goods in times past and the remoteness of many communities, such a time is quite fast.
Despite Amazon, it is still impractical and cost prohibitive for rural Alaskans to source goods from outside local areas. Gardens will continue to be planted and nets will be set in the summertime season, while knives will be sharpened and guns taken off the shelves to pursue wildlife periodically throughout the year. Sourcing commercially produced food has always been difficult in rural Alaska. Barring substantial technological innovation and a change in cultural values, people will turn to the land to provide, as their ancestors have done for decades, hundreds and thousands of years.
*Alaska has primarily consisted of native peoples and white men throughout its history. In rural Alaska, that division still largely holds true today. There are of course exceptions to that. Interesting enough, Anchorage is one of the most diverse cities in the world with 33 different languages being regularly spoken among its inhabitants.
**In Wiseman. Arguably the slowest mail service within the state. Wiseman is the only community on the road system in Northern Alaska. Mail is delivered through a shipping company, Lynden Transportation, contracted by the USPS. The shipping company drops the mail off 3 times a week at the post office in Coldfoot before continuing on to Deadhorse. In other villages, mail is delivered by plane (and in my understanding) on a more regular basis.