Provisioning for a Year in the Bush

Above, Jack is zip-tying the lid to a Rubbermaid Roughneck tub at our storage unit in Anchorage.

Planning for a year in a remote village may seem like a daunting task. After two bush moves and two annual shopping experiences, I think we’ve nailed it.

InĀ Walden, Thoreau lists everything he took with him to his life on the shores of Walden Pond. Fascinated and inspired by Thoreau’s list, we vigilantly documented all the provisions we sent out to Shishmaref last year and monitored what we used and didn’t use in order to prepare our shopping lists for this coming year.

Here’s what the advice of others and our own experiences have taught us.

1. Rubbermaid Roughneck. They come in a variety of sizes and are easy to stack and store. We label each tub and lid so all the holes we drill for the zip ties which keep them closed match up. The manufacturer says they are “unbreakable.” So far, they have been just that. Caution: most other tubs will break.

2. Cardboard boxes. The best boxes are reliable for only one use, and even then they are more difficult to ship and stack than the plastic tubs. We have gone away from using boxes.

3. Media mail. For books, CD’s, DVDs and other media, the post office gives a discount on their already inexpensive rates. Know that these items will be shipped on the slowest boat, at times will be stacked atop each other in huge piles, and will likely be tossed around. In our first move, just about the only boxes that were wrecked were those that had been sent at the media rate. This time around, we shipped our media in rubber tubs.

4. Dry goods. We think of food items in three categories: dry, refrigerated, and frozen. Our first advice is this: if you don’t have a Costco membership, get one! Costco has excellent prices and they seldom stock anything that isn’t of good quality. Unlike some other stores which, for a fee, will pack and ship your groceries for you, Costco is a “do-it-yourself” proposition. That’s fine with us. Not only do we save money by taking care of something we can do perfectly well ourselves, but in doing so we ensure that our items are properly packaged. And in addition to getting butcher-shop-quality meats and excellent produce, in shopping at Costco we are giving our hard-earned money to a business that is known for treating its employees and its customers fairly and ethically. We won’t name any businesses, but personally we can’t justify giving our money to a corporation that is constantly in the news fending off one law suit after another because they simply do not treat their employees ethically and with respect. Once we have purchased and packed our dry goods, we mail them at the parcel post rate of about 70 cents per pound.

5. Frozen goods. Alaska airlines as well as the the smaller airlines that provide service to the bush allow three checked items (50 pounds each) and one carry on item. We were advised to bring coolers as the checked items, so last year, we brought up three 58-quart coolers stuffed with frozen meat, juice, fruit, and vegetables. All the coolers ended up exceeding the airline’s weight limit by 20 to 25 pounds each, which irritated the employees at the ticket counter end cost as overage fees. This year, we are going to use Rubbermaid tubs instead of coolers. The tubs themselves are lighter than coolers, and by going with 14 gallon (56 quart) coolers and using crumpled newspaper for insulation and to take up some room, we should be able to stay within the weight limit. With items frozen solid (we have a chest freezer at our storage place), everything should hold up fine during travel. We’ll supplement what we buy at Costco with the razor clams, salmon, halibut and rockfish we harvest this summer. By the way, the large bags of frozen vegetables Costco carries are superb.

6. Refrigerated items. Last year, we really wanted cheese, yogurt, eggs, lettuce, apples, and tomatoes, and not knowing whether or not we could readily get these items in Shishmaref, we decided that we would pay the extra cost for “overnight” shipping. We knew that we wouldn’t actually get these things the next day, but we were hoping that our delivery would arrive in two or three days. Unfortunately, it took a full week for our items to arrive. As we unboxed our items, we were mentally preparing for the stench of rotten yogurt, cheese and lettuce. But amazingly, the only items we lost were the few small bags of frozen vegetables we had thrown in as ice bags. The vegetables had thawed and had begun turning to compost.

7. Items we forgot or ran out of. Our experience here is that if you forget something or something gets lost or ruined in transit, don’t worry. If the store in your bush community doesn’t carry something you need, you can pick up your phone and call the Fred Meyer store in Fairbanks. (Don’t bother with their online bush order service; it isn’t really set up to be practical.) Fred Meyer will mail or ship any item they carry in their store. They pack things well, their, customer service is excellent, and their prices are reasonable.

We’ve finished our shopping and packing chores for this year, and now we have the rest of the summer to camp, fish, boat, hike and play!