Life in Rural Alaska
While America has become more urbanized in recent decades, a significant portion of the country’s population still lives in rural areas. The countryside is defined by wide, open spaces and a lack of creature comforts compared to the city, requiring residents to become self-reliant and take care of themselves. There is no more extreme example of this than life in rural Alaska, one of the most sparsely populated regions of the world.
While Alaska has large urban areas—for example, roughly a third of the population lives in Anchorage, its largest city—it also has countless smaller communities that are isolated from the rest of the state. Read on for a glimpse at what life is like in rural Alaska.
Life in Rural Alaska
Alaska differs significantly from other U.S. states in just about every major way. Most know that it is the largest state in the U.S. by far; if Alaska were to be divided into two equal halves, each one would be larger than Texas, the second-biggest state. Compounding this is the fact that Alaska is extremely distant from the rest of the U.S. and has extremely rugged, mountainous terrain as well as a viciously cold climate, especially during the winter.
While rural communities in the continental U.S. are linked to the wider world via roads, in Alaska, this is simply not possible. A combination of inclement weather and difficult-to-cross terrain means that it is economically and physically infeasible to build roads between all but the largest cities, and even then, many major Alaskan cities, including the state capital of Juneau, are not connected by road at all. This means that air travel is the primary means of transportation for many rural Alaskans, with bush pilots providing ad hoc service between even the smallest of villages. Airplanes are also the primary means by which mail and supplies are delivered to many small towns. The Alaska Railroad, which connects the major cities of Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks is commonly used by rural Alaskans, but it only covers a relatively small portion of the state.
The isolation of many Alaskan small towns means that basic comforts such as electricity, running water, and Internet service are hard to come by. Many rural Alaskans use portable generators in lieu of a power grid and wells to draw their water. Grocery shopping is also difficult due to the logistics of delivering goods to small towns as well as the expense of importing items from the continental U.S. Even in large cities like Anchorage, goods such as toilet paper can cost as much as four times more compared to the lower 48 states.
As such, many rural Alaskans train themselves to become self-reliant to a degree that is inconceivable in other parts of the U.S. Many rural residents of the state rely on fishing, hunting, and gardening for food due to the cost of purchasing food from a grocery store and the unavailability of many goods in small towns. Rural Alaskans teach themselves how to maintain their own houses, tools, and devices due to the expense and difficulty of accessing professional repair services. When rural Alaskans need to purchase items, they generally buy several months’ worth of supplies due to the cost of journeying to other locations. Snowmobiles and dog sleds are the primary means of ground transportation in these towns.
Rural Alaskans generally subsist off of tourism, fishing, and hunting to make their livelihoods. In particular, tourism has become a lucrative industry in rural Alaska due to increased interest in the state’s natural wonders, such as the Northern Lights. Entertainment options are limited to books, and in some locations, radio stations due to the lack of TV broadcasting and distance from major cities.
To ameliorate the cost of living in Alaska, the state government provides a guaranteed income known as the Alaska Permanent Fund. This fund was established in 1976 using revenues from the state’s nascent oil industry in order to ensure a balanced budget and to distribute the riches obtained by oil companies to all Alaskan citizens. Additionally, Alaska has one of the lowest personal tax burdens in the U.S., having abolished its income tax following the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Wages in Alaska are also considerably higher than in other states due to a lack of labor. Despite this, Alaska has one of the highest costs of living in the U.S.
A disproportionate number of rural Alaskans are of Native heritage, often living in villages that have existed for centuries. Native Alaskans have fought to defend their traditional cultures and rights from government and corporate encroachment with some success. Problems such as poverty, alcoholism, and suicide plague Alaska’s rural communities, with Native Alaskans harder hit.
Alaskans often style their state as “America’s last frontier,” and life in rural Alaska lives up to that moniker. Surviving in rural Alaska means being able to hunt and fish for your own food, repair your own house, supply your own electricity and water, and transport yourself using snowmobiles or dog sleds. While difficult, life in rural Alaska comes with a number of benefits, chief among them the freedom to make your own way in one of the most beautiful regions of the world.
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