Out There

Amazing Amazon

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 23, 2012

I’ve been meaning to do a series of posts on shopping tips for those new to the bush.  This is sort of jumping the gun but I’m throwing it out there because if I don’t do it now I’ll forget about it and the moment is gone.

Just another item on amazon, 10 pounds of jasmine rice for $12.22.  But when it came the other day I realized how crazy cheap it is.  I can’t even figure out how they can cover the shipping.  Checked usps.com and 10.5 lbs from Seattle to here is $16.34 for parcel post which usually takes a month (this came in 10 days).  I’ve mailed boxes from the northwest to here maybe 25 times and I’ve *never* had one arrive that quickly parcel post so I don’t think that is how it was mailed.  Priority mail for 10 lbs would be $31.55.  Sure maybe globalization has brought the price way down but how are they possibly making money selling it for $12 with free shipping?  Maybe they have some kind of volume discount deal with the usps?  Even so, it can’t be that big of a discount.  Maybe I shouldn’t publish this.  You know that giant deficit the usps has been running every year?  Could I be the cause??  

Seriously, the usps is the greatest bargain ever–for those of us in the bush especially.  When we’re in Anchorage and I do one of our two annual shopping runs, I usually haul about 20-something boxes to the post office, each weighing an average of about 55 pounds.  A 55 pound box from ANC to KUK is $20.14 parcel post, delivered in about 7-20 days usually (and way faster, I believe, if our mail wasn’t delivered from Bethel via hovercraft.  Friends in other villages around the state report they get parcel post in less than a week).  What does the free market charge?  Northern Air Cargo (NAC) would charge me a total of $57.08 for the same box just to get it to Bethel!  (I’ll spare you the calculations but you can check it yourself here.  I’m assuming there is nothing that would fall under an “exception rate” which would push the price even higher)  You have to call them for the price from Bethel to Kasigluk as it goes on Ryan Air on that leg, but the price is usually pretty close to the same price paid to get it from ANC to BET.  So the free market price would be probably right around $100, which is why I say $20 is a steal, and why Alaska is such a losing proposition for the usps. You could probably get the price down to $80 by using Ace Air Cargo or Everts instead of NAC, but you get the idea.  While you’ve got me going, how about forty-something cents to mail a letter across the stinkin country?!?  Ridiculous!  And people complain when this goes up a cent or two.  

The next time you don’t like the price at the PO, think about how much you’d have to pay someone else, anyone else, to deliver it for you.  Then smile, pay, and say thank you!

alaska teacher blogs

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 4, 2012

Stumbled on a couple of good teacher blogs and wanted to pass them along.  This post has some good advice for those considering teaching in bush Alaska.  I’ve met this teacher in Chevak during my travels as an SLP.  The blog is worth exploring beyond this one post.

Here is a humorous but oh so true list of “You know you’re a teacher in the bush Alaska when…”  I especially like #3, which I’ve seen happen a few times, like when I found a giant (seriously, ginormous) swan hanging by the neck outside our friend Deanna’s door.

And here is an old blog that is apparently no longer being updated, but the photos are great and make me want to visit the area around the tiny village of Perryville.

bush groceries

Posted in teaching by Pete on February 8, 2012

I help answer questions over at the ATP Forum, which is a place for prospective teachers in Alaska to ask questions.  A common question people have is about budgeting for food, as they try and get a better idea of what a move to Alaska would mean for them financially.  I’ve put a lot of thought and work into grocery shopping in the past and thought I’d put up some of that on here and tag it as ‘advice’ so it might be helpful to someone doing this kind of research.

If you choose to shop in a major hub like Bethel, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Nome, Barrow, etc you will probably have a couple of stores to choose from, and they may not look very different from a smallish lower-48 grocery store except for the prices.  Here is a youtube video someone made of a recent trip to the AC store in Bethel.  And here is a link to the weekly specials for Swanson’s grocery store that appear in the Delta Discovery newspaper. These give you a small idea of pricing.  Of course if you live in an outlying village as we do then you need to pay another fee to have the boxed groceries delivered to an air carrier and sent to your village (our village is only a 15 minute flight and the fee is about $.50 per pound), or have a friend pick up the box for you.  Both AC and Swansons will shop your list for you and box it for no extra fee if you fax or call them with what you want, and pay by credit card over the phone.  They are both based out of state.  I believe Swanson’s is owned by Omni Enterprises out of WA state, and AC (Alaska Commercial company, which has quite a colorful history in the state dating back to the Russian days when they had a monopoly on the Pribolof seal harvest – try google) is now based in Canada.

Of course you can also shop in your village itself, which helps the local economy.  Village stores vary widely in quality and selection, based on factors like distance and number of flights from Anchorage, and management.  I’ve seen villages with three stores, while others have none.  Most common is one or two stores.  Some village stores have surprisingly good quality of dairy and produce, while others have only a few half-rotten choices.  But usually there is not a lot of variety, and things run out of stock on a regular basis, as in “there are no eggs today.”  It can be difficult or impossible to get a lot of dairy items like milk, cream, whipping cream, cheeses, ice cream, etc.  Some village stores (esp in larger villages) have these things, but most do not.  Same goes for veggies.  Our store in Kasigluk most often has root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, or onions, but also tomatoes and cabbage  and apples are fairly common, though the quality might be understandably below what you’re used to “outside.”

Our local store pricing is actually not very different from the prices in Bethel.  This is because the cost to mail goods from Anchorage to Bethel is the same as mailing from Anchorage to Kasigluk.  The main difference is in the variety and availability of what you might be looking for.  As for cost, it is expensive, no doubt about it, although if you have a line of credit with the store and pay it off in full every month you enjoy a 10% discount on everything.  But the price is still high, particularly for items that cannot be mailed such as bleach.

As an example, I recently brought in a “hazmat” barge order from Anchorage consisting of paint, bleach, motor oil, fire extinguishers, etc and sold off the bleach and motor oil in order to cover the cost of buying and shipping the paint which we were using to spruce up an old school bunkbed our kids started using as well as some other stuff like painting our conex container.  Anyway the bleach at costco in Anchorage was $6.24 for a 2-pack of clorox jugs each weighing 182 oz.  One of those jugs sells for $47.31 at our store in Kasig (yes, about 15x as much).  With barge fees my total cost ended up being about $8 per jug to Bethel, and then I found a way to get everything to Kasigluk and sold them for $20 each and all 20 of them sold in a week or so.

One avenue for fresh produce that has become very popular in the bush lately is Full Circle Farms and other CSAs.  It ain’t cheap.  We pay something like $60 or $70 per box of fresh produce.  But the quality is outstanding, as is the web-based interface where you select exactly what you want for each delivery.  We get mangoes, kale, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, fresh thyme, oranges, kiwis, zucchini, pie crusts…you get the idea.  It is Expensive with a capital E but in my view worth it when you consider how difficult/impossible it is to get otherwise.  We get a box every other week for our family of 4.

Another recent option that has come along is buying groceries on amazon.  When we first came here in 2003 this was an option, but then they changed the rules so groceries could not ship to AK.  But just a year or two ago they made it available again.  Generally speaking this option is a little more expensive than paying a company in Anchorage to buy and mail it to you.  But it is easier, and sometimes the prices are competitive or even better than if you go through Anchorage.  For example I’ve found that the prices for cereal are quite competitive with what you would pay a middle man to buy it at Costco and mail it to your village.  But on the other hand, laundry soap is far cheaper via Anchorage.  Some of this has to do with shipping.   Shipping from Anchorage costs about $.35 per pound for a heavy box going parcel post, say around $20 for a 50# box.  From the lower 48 the same box costs far, far more to send and takes longer, which is why going through Anchorage is generally cheaper than amazon.  But it’s tough to beat the convenience and selection on amazon if you don’t mind paying a bit more.

This is long enough, so let me just link to our old website (that cannot be updated) for information on shopping in Anchorage.  You can do it yourself, or use a middle-man company to shop and mail it to you, and this website explores these options in some detail.  This information is all 5 years old or something, but still useful.  The company I most highly recommend based on price, JB Bush, still exists but has changed their name to Alaska Bush Shoppers, not to be confused with Alaska Bush Service (same initials but different company) who I compare JB Bush to on the website.  Confused yet??  🙂  Hope this is helpful information.