Shopping Tips for Rural Alaska

On the Alaska Teacher Placement website, you’ll find tips for shopping when you are living in rural Alaska. This is mostly geared toward bush Alaska, but not too far off what many of us face living in rural parts. (Thanks to Angela Gonzalez of Rural Cap  for the link.)

Here in Tok, we are lucky to be on the road system. Can’t even imagine what it would be like without roads in. Or out.

Although things have improved dramatically in terms of rural Alaska shopping options since the 1980’s and early 1990’s, your first year or two in the Bush is still going to go more smoothly if you plan ahead!

There are several basic approaches you can follow to prepare for you first year. Which one is right for you depends partially on what village you are headed to, the size and composition of your family, and your consumption habits and patterns. You have three basic choices for how you order your basic items: traditional grocery shippers; on-line retailers, or do-it-yourself shopping trips to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Here are some tips for Guerilla Shopping:

You are either on an overnight layover in Anchorage or Fairbanks, and have only a few hours to buy as much as possible. You know you will return to the village for a couple months – maybe longer – without another chance to get fresh stuff or necessities at prices like this. What’s a guy or gal to do?

  • Shop with a plan or a list, or you’ll be ineffective!
  • Boxes / rubbermaid tubs, packing tape and markers…have them with you.
  • Keep packing and/or shipping limits in mind at all times…pack as you shop if possible.
  • Mail suitcases…you need fresh produce and fresh meat more!
  • Coolers are useful as luggage both in the summer to chill, and in the winter to protect produce from cold.

And some tips on dairy products:

Real Milk

If you order several cases of sterilized, shelf safe “Real Milk” in pint containers, the cost is not all that outrageous. It will be more expensive than a grocery store in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis, but the net cost is not all that much higher than in Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Whole Milk

Whole milk is far easier to get than it once was, but is still quite expensive by Lower 48 standards. A gallon of milk in some village stores can be over $12, and you need to watch those expiration dates. But, a gallon of whole milk at Fred Meyers on-line today is $2.99, plus shipping.

Gallons of milk are treated like perishable produce for shipping purposes.

And, contrary to what my mother told me, yes, you can freeze milk ;-)

Powdered Milk

When I first moved up to Alaska, my family could only get “Milkman”, a powdered milk substitute that you mix with water. There really is no need to do this to yourself any longer, and I don’t recommend it. Some friends of mine STILL order it. Go figure.

You can read the entire post here.

I’m all for shopping local, and here in Tok we have both Three Bears and the healthfood options at Tok General Store. But I’m also all for Guerilla Shopping whenever we get to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

What are your favorite shopping tips for rural Alaska?

Why I Love the Upper Tanana Imagination Library

I’m part of the team of moms who brought Imagination Library to Tok and the Upper Tanana as the Upper Tanana Imagination Library. It started with Candice Jacobs then Carrie at Head Start has carried on as the extraordinary catalyst and organizer. Everyone’s efforts – along with the efforts of Best Beginnings Alaska and Barbara Brown – are part of the reason why we have this ongoing opportunity. I am absolutely thrilled and impressed with what we are able to do.

What is Imagination Library, you ask?

The Upper Tanana Imagination Library is a literacy program run through the Dollywood Foundation and Best Beginnings in Alaska to provide a free, age-appropriate book each month to children in our community who are under 5 years of age. This means that – at no cost to families – any family in Tok, Tanacross, Tetlin, Mentasta, Eagle or Northway can sign up their children ages 5 and under to receive a free book each and every month in the mail. For my 4-year-old, it’s like Christmas each month when her book arrives in our post office box.

I’m also teaching my daughter about giving back to her community, and we regularly go through her books to see which ones we can give to children who don’t have the means to buy them. We donate these through the Upper Tanana Imagination Library so they can have extra books on hand for children who need them. Anyone can donate children’s books to the program.

Here’s an example of this month’s book list so you can see the quality of books they are providing:

Group 6 (2005): A Place Called Kindergarten

Group 5 (2006): Take Care Good Night

Group 4 (2007): Gobble, Gobble, Crash!

Group 3 (2008): Rhymes Around The World or Pip & Skeak

Group 2 (2006): Mother for Choco or Just Like You

Group 1 (2006): Skippy Jon Jones Up and Dow

In addition to free books, Upper Tanana Imagination Library also organizes events like the recent one held at the Tok Library based on the book Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy. These events rotate to the different communities served by the program in the Upper Tanana Valley (Tok, Tanacross, Tetlin, Mentasta, Eagle and Northway).

For more information, visit the Upper Tanana Imagination Library website or contact Carrie Beeman at 883-8080 or The fiscal agent for The Tok & Tanacross Imagination Library is the Tok Community Clinic, Inc. so donations are tax-deductible.

Visit the Upper Tanana Imagination Library Page on Facebook.

Tok General Store

dscn0003Stopped into the Tok General Store for the first time – after picking up two days worth of mail from the Post Office. Note to self: Postman doesn’t bring the mail to your home anymore!

I love the Tok General Store! Francine, the proprietor, is a vegetarian (yes, in rural Alaska!) and has a thoughtfully selected array of veggie and healthy foods, condiments, and cooking products. I felt right at home seeing all the brand names I know and recognize. And her prices seemed incredibly reasonable, especially after seeing the heavily marked up prices on Costco-purchased goods at the grocery store.

Francine’s daughter is an artist. I’ll be sure to profile her on this blog soon. She makes lovely ceramics, and I was coveting one of her huge moose head paintings ($399). I’m determined to buy more art from Alaska artists and have a substantial collection in the next few years.

I’ll also see if Francine would like to be profiled. She was telling me about coming to Tok in ’91 as a nurse at the clinic and then one day having the idea of opening a general store. She says she had no business experience but told her husband about the idea and he ran with it. The next thing she knew, she had a store. She has seen her ups and downs – the more recent down was an attempt to add a deli to her shop – but she just keeps going at it.

Now all she needs is a little espresso drink stand and some free wifi, and I’ll be hanging out there every day!

Internet Connectivity in Tok, Alaska

Southeast Fairbanks Census Area mapImage via WikipediaI’ve been preparing for my move to Tok, looking into Internet connectivity which is an essential part of my work as well as my life. So far, I’ve found out that the main way to connect to the Internet in Tok is through Alaska Power and Telephone (AP&T). And they only offer DSL.

I spoke with a rep from AP&T and this is what I found out:

I can get the 10 Gig DSL account – 512k transfer speed – for $199.95/month ($2400 a year). Each additional Gig over is $30.

Or I can get a 24 Gig DSL account – same transfer speed – for $469.95/month.

For comparison, I currently have GCI in Anchorage – their Extreme package – For $69.99/month. This comes with a 3 MB transfer speed and a 20 Gig allowance.

I asked the guy at GCI about my average usage. It broke down as follows:

July 08 – 17 Gigs
Aug 08 – 11 Gigs
Sep 08 – 11 Gigs
Oct 08 – 21 Gigs – and the overage of 2.5 Gigs cost me about $12.78
Nov 08 – 9 Gigs before mid-November

I have to rethink what I do on the Internet each day to try to keep my bandwidth activity to 10 Gigs. Based on my monthly average, this means immediately cutting out my Second Life usage – which comes to about 2-3 hours per week but clearly requires high bandwidth. This means giving up my Second Life TV shows and events – cutting out one of my favorite parts of my work.

“I’m very impressed with your bandwidth usage. What do you do?” asked the rep at AP&T.

When I told him about my Second Life projects, he laughed.

“There’s a guy in Tok who’s on Second Life,” he said and promised to give the guy my avatar name next time he called in for tech support.

Someone else in Tok is on Second Life? I hope to meet him and find out some anecdotal information about how Second Life works in Tok, how much he uses it and how much he is paying.

I’m also looking into AT&T coverage in Tok. Will report back on that soon.

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