Is Alaska Expensive?

Alaska, the last frontier, can be pretty expensive at times. Although I can imagine that the costs of living in different parts of the world are pretty high in many areas, Alaska has some unique circumstances that make finding the cost of living difficult. I do want to clarify that the cost of living in the cities is a whole different ball game than living in the bush of Alaska.

In the city, you are going to spend less on groceries and clothing but more on housing costs, entertainment, and transportation. In the bush, your cost will depend on how much you live off the grid and how resourceful you are. For instance, if you hunt for your meat, you will save a ton because meat costs a fortune in the stores there. And if you need power and use the village electricity, you will pay a very high fortune for it, especially if your village uses diesel generators.

So to make things clear, I will talk about the cost of living in several different ways by breaking up the state into area types. You must also understand that different villages will vary according to their distance from the city (typically Anchorage or Fairbanks) and whether they are located on a river or another waterway. If the village is landlocked and cannot receive barges of supplies and has no road or railway, then it will make things very expensive. Please try to understand that these are generalizations and that each area will have differences to account for:


 

Anchorage
The city of Anchorage has everything including fast food.

Area #1: Cities on Roads, Rail, or with Docks – These cities have transportation nailed down and therefore can receive foods, supplies, and large items easily. The cost of living in Anchorage is pretty expensive compared to some places in the United States, but is also getting more affordable in some areas. Since Anchorage seems to be running out of space, the cost of housing is going up as well as transportation. The city is pretty spread out so walking or riding your bike can be an ordeal. They do have a bus transit system and that seems to work pretty well for some wishing to save money.

They do have moderate food prices in the cities and food doesn’t cost as much as it used to. Also, there are more choices these days as some big box stores have moved in, as well as some natural food and wholesale stores. Growth in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the like has been pretty steady so we have been seeing some new outlets and restaurants coming in on a fairly regular basis. In fact, in Anchorage, there is a new Hard Rock Café opening up!

Other costs in the cities that some may not consider is the cost of utilities, telephone, and cable. In the city, cost of electricity and natural gas is pretty moderate compared to the bush of Alaska. They also spend less on cable and Wi-Fi; however you can choose to not get those items and go to the internet cafes or just watch local television stations. The cost of buying a house is fairly expensive in most areas of Alaska and therefore rent is expensive. You will pay 1 ½ to 2 times the rent for the same place in Texas or Arizona.

Medical and Dental are extremely expensive in Alaska, probably more expensive than anywhere else in the country. There is no good reason for it at all but if you try to argue with them about it, you will get nowhere. They claim that the cost of the building, utilities, supplies, and personnel are what raises their costs. The average annual salary for Dental Hygienists in Anchorage, Alaska is about $73,270. As you can see, wages in Anchorage are drastically higher than in other parts of the nation to compensate for the higher cost of living.


 

Gulkana
Gulkana is a village on the road system.

Area #2: Towns and Villages on the Road System – The cost of living in these outer areas can be drastically higher in most instances. For example, the cost of heating fuel is very expensive and the cost of gas for your car can be a dollar or more per gallon than in the city. Some of these towns may be well over 100 miles from the nearest big city. You trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the quiet life of a town or village in the deeper parts of Alaska.

While still on the road system, it does not make things much cheaper. A lot of residents tend to make trips into the city to buy groceries at a big box wholesale store since most items will not be available in their town and some items, while available, are too expensive. The internet has made things easier as they can now order some items and the cost of shipping is more affordable than the cost to travel to the city. Hunting and gathering seems to be very common in these areas to make up for the rest of the grocery costs.

The housing is much more expensive, although some rents can be cheaper due to the cost of keeping the house heated being much higher. You can rely on firewood if you have the time or the ability to do so. Also, many communities do not have the greatest cellular service so internet may be an option that is desired, but that is costly. Another factor in living in these areas is that the jobs are harder to come by and they do not pay as much in many cases.

It is hard to compare towns and villages in these areas as some range in population from 100 residents to nearly 8,000. So as you can see, the comparisons are going to be drastically different. Many residents in villages on the road system will travel to a larger town nearby for work if they can. They tend to move in and out of the city, desiring a job and an income but wanting the peace and family from the smaller towns and villages.


 

Lime Village
Lime Village is a remote village that is on a water way and has a small runway.

Area #3: Villages located on a waterway and with a runway – Villages located within 200-400 miles of a major city are usually on a river, large lake, or the ocean. They can receive barges if they are on a river or the ocean, which means they can receive large amounts of supplies, fuel, and vehicles. This is important because most of their power comes from diesel generators and they can receive large amounts of fuel via barge which greatly reduces the cost. If they cannot receive barges, the cost of getting the fuel is beyond expensive and will have to be flown in.

Speaking of the cost of fuel, you can expect to pay about $6 to $10 per gallon for regular gasoline in some of these areas depending on the cost of gas at the time and the cost to bring it to their particular area. This also raises the price tag of everything else out there from electricity to food. These people rely on gas to get them out to the hunting areas. Can you imagine having $100 and having to choose between a few pieces of meat (at $10-$20 per lb.) at the store to feed to your family or $100 (maybe 10 gallons) of gas to go hunting to feed your family longer but with the chance that you may not be successful in that hunt? This is the decision that many families go through out in these areas.

The cost of housing can be less expensive in most of these areas; however the cost of heating is very expensive so that it makes up for that difference. Many villages have housing that is based on a percentage of your income level and you have the option to purchase some of these homes, while others are rentals only. Many folks who have built their own homes find it difficult to sell their properties in these outer regions so they will rent them out.

For transportation, most people will use ATV’s, snowmobiles, boats, and an occasional truck or car that was barged or flown in. When they want to go to the post office, they will hop on their 4-wheeler and run over. Or when they need to run to the next village to visit a family member, they will hop into their boat and head up river. But again, the cost of fuel will cause those things to be done more occasionally. For example; if you want to visit a sister in the neighboring village, you might share the cost of fuel with someone else that needs to go and while you’re at it, you will hunt or fish along the way and also bring some supplies back down with you from their small store.


 

Orange Juice
This is a sample of the cost of food in remote areas.

Area #4: Villages in the far reaches of Alaska or wilderness living – In these areas, you will find both the highest cost of living and also the lowest cost of living. Let me explain. On the one hand, if you live exactly like you would expect to live in the city with all the conveniences of city living, then it will be the highest cost of living in Alaska. You will pay a fortune for food, housing, transportation, etc. and you will most likely not have a job that pays you enough to afford it. On the other hand, you can live completely off the land and only have a smidgeon of the expense.

If you live almost completely off the land, you will not have a TV, telephone, rent (build a cabin), or high food costs. You will have to have some sort of transportation which will most likely depend on your location, so the cost of fuel can be made by money you make from odd jobs or by bartering. Bartering is common in Alaska in many areas. In the outer reaches of Alaska, you will find ways to come up with the money needed to survive. If you need to order something, you can borrow a phone or computer. You don’t need electricity as you have wood heat and that is how you can cook and bathe too.

Speaking of bathing, most folks in the bush tend to take steam baths (Yupik word is Maqiq, which is pronounced mah-kee). Basically, it is like a sauna but there are some differences. Imagine a small cabin with some benches and a wood stove covered in rocks on the inside. They start a fire in the stove and get it really hot inside. They will haul some water from the river or stream in buckets and then strip down in the closed arctic entry and go inside. They splash water on the rocks to cause steam to make them start to sweat. After sweating out all the dirt and toxins in their body, they will splash some water on them to rinse off and that is about as clean as you ever possibly get.

Alaska Steam Bath
This is an example of a steam bath, although you would usually see basins and benches.

Living off the land, or off the grid, takes some skill and not everyone is capable of doing it. You must have some things to start with and a place to call home. They don’t have homesteading land deals up in Alaska anymore, so you have to find a piece of land or acquire it through some sort of means. You can then build a cabin, but that takes some skill and a few supplies. You also need a way to get supplies in the future and backup plan if things don’t work out for hunting or gathering. You need a working knowledge of survival skills and a gun with ammo would help too.

 

The annual Permanent Fund Dividend helps to offset many of these costs but you must be a resident for a year to receive it. Also, Alaska has the lowest taxes in the U.S. and is one of a handful of states without a statewide sales tax. Many communities within the state do not have city taxes either.


 

I have lived in all four of the different areas listed above, so I have firsthand knowledge of them all. I have lived wilderness living, in a village of less than 100 residents, in larger villages, in smaller towns, and in the biggest city in Alaska. I know all of the areas and how things work in those areas.

Sonya's Cabin
This is the cabin I built in 1988 while living in the bush of Alaska, wilderness style.

If you have any questions about any of the areas, you are welcome to comment below and ask me. I will try to answer all your questions (within reason) and will do my best to guide you if you plan to move up here.

 

My Resources –

For cost of living: http://laborstats.alaska.gov/col/col.pdf

Permanent Fund Dividend: http://pfd.alaska.gov/

Cost of Dental care: http://www.bracesinfo.com/dentalcosts/us/ak/anchorage.html

Salary of Hygienist: http://salaries-by-city.findthedata.org/q/178/135/How-much-do-Dental-Hygienists-make-in-Anchorage-Alaska

Cost of Gas: http://commerce.alaska.gov/dnn/Portals/4/pub/Fuel_Report_2013_January.pdf

Life in a village on the road system: http://www.alaskapublic.org/2013/05/31/300-villages-gulkana/

Life in a village not on a road system: http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008234561_alaska07.html

Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HRCAnchorage

Top 15 Alaskan Rumors

Are there really penguins all over Alaska? Is Alaska cold and dark year round? Do they really live in igloos? Does Alaska ever get sunshine? Is there snow year round? Do the Eskimos’ really kiss with their noses? And do you have pet polar bears or wolves? Let’s just see if I can debunk a few of these rumors about Alaska!

I have lived in Alaska nearly my entire life and, in fact, I am married to a Native Alaskan (he is actually Eskimo/Athabascan and no, he does not kiss me with his nose…most of the time.) I have great insider information and can handle pretty much any rumor or question that is out there. There have recently been a lot of reality TV shows about Alaska; however I feel that they do not dispel these rumors and they actually will add to them. Now we shall sort through some of the top 15 Alaskan Rumors and questions that I have heard throughout my life.

#1. Do Alaskan’s live in the snow year round? Well, yes and no. Most Alaskans do not live in the snow year round and, in fact, may have warmer temperatures than many places in the northern states of the U.S. Some very remote villages up on the North Slope of Alaska can receive snow year round, although it is somewhat rare. You can access snow and glacier ice in some areas of the mountains and along glaciers. So for the most part…No, we do not live in the snow year round. Winter for where I live lasts from about October to April. And during the summer, in the interior of Alaska, it can reach high temperatures of 80-90 degrees! Granted, in those same places, it is common for it to be -50 degrees for weeks at a time.

-50 below
Fairbanks, Alaska at -50 below zero.

 

#2. Do you live in igloos? No, we do not live in igloos. As you can tell from my answer in question #1, we do not have snow year round so it really wouldn’t be practical. Also, I have never actually seen a real igloo, other than one that my kids and hubby made for fun and a huge several story building built to look like an igloo. Igloos were built by the Inuit people of Canada and a few other places. The igloo building skill has been taught in the past as part of survival training to help the military and other people survive cold weather situations.

Andreanoff Igloo
We made an igloo and the kids decorated it with Christmas lights.

 

#3. Does everyone own sled dogs or Alaskan Huskies? Well, there are a lot of them up here, but not everyone owns them. I do think that it is common place for me to see “dog yards” full of sled dog teams or huskies walking with their owners. My current dog is a mixed breed and is ¼ husky (also ¼ white german shepherd and ½ black lab.) I do live near the Iditarod Headquarters area and I have worked up in Nome when the sled dog teams from the Iditarod have come into town. Actually most people drive cars or ride snowmobiles (aka: iron dogs or sleds.) Do we get around by sled dog teams? Not really. I mean, they used to use dog teams not that long ago in Alaska as transportation but now most folks drive cars or trucks. I have, however, ridden on a dog sled that was attached to the back of a snowmobile as a sort of sled. Now that is awesome fun!

huskies
Happy huskies love to pull the dog sled.

 

#4. Do they have paved roads in Alaska? Yes, throughout a large area of Alaska, they do have paved roads. They have highways, stop lights, and even roundabouts in some of the more populated areas. There are a lot of dirt roads and trails in Alaska. Most villages do not have road access at all. Some villages are so remote that you can only reach them via airplane or boat. These remote villages are known as the Alaskan bush. Some villages have dirt roads and some even have cars or trucks that are barged or flown in. Almost all villages have a small runway. But for the most part, they use snowmobiles, ATV’s, and boats. Sometimes they will make roads on the ice between villages and those are known as ice roads. They also have train tracks through some of Central Alaska.

Ice road
This is the ice road on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel, Alaska.

 

#5. Alaska is nothing but an immense wilderness. Well, yes and no. Yes it is an immense wilderness, but it is also villages, cities, and lots and lots of tundra. Alaska’s population is around 730,000 people with nearly 300,000 living in the Anchorage area. Alaska has the most coastline of any state and is covered with lots of lakes, creeks, and rivers. Alaska also has the largest mountain in North America whose name is Mt. McKinley, but it is known as Denali by the locals which means “the great one.” It’s also great to know that you can fit Rhode Island into Alaska 425 times.

Seward
On the beach in Seward, Alaska.

 

#6. Do you have pet bears or wolves? I would have to say no to this one. However, I have heard rumors of folks breeding wolves into their dogs but it is most definitely illegal. It is illegal in Alaska to possess a wolf without a special permit granted for research or education purposes, and illegal in all circumstances to own a wolf hybrid. I would assume the same goes for bears. I have heard about foxes being kept as pets but those also will get taken away if caught. Do not, in any circumstance, feed wild animals in Alaska. Believe me; I have seen tourists try to take a picture of their child feeding a caribou a lollipop. Not smart!

Bear warnings
Bear warning sign found at the Exit Glacier campground in 2013.

 

#7. Do you have penguins walking down the street? Absolutely not! Penguins are from the Southern Hemisphere. We do have Puffins in many parts of Alaska; however they will never be walking down the street. I actually have to go to Seward or Whittier and catch a small cruise to get to the puffins or go visit the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, Alaska.

Puffin
Puffin walking. Signs in Alaska usually say “no puffin” instead of “no smoking”.

 

#8. Alaska is not part of America OR Alaska is an island near Hawaii. Seriously? Yes, seriously. I get this question or statement quite a bit. Some people think you actually have to have a passport to be in Alaska. Alaska IS part of the United States and in truth was a state before Hawaii was. We are part of the Continental United States, although we do have Canada between us, and if you plan on driving to Alaska you will need a passport to drive through Canada. You can fly to Alaska without a passport though. And no, Alaska is not near Hawaii, no matter what the map says.

Alaska
Alaska is huge and sits near Russia and borders Canada.

 

#9. Are the mosquitoes as big as birds? Welllll….no. Although they can get pretty big and they can be so thick that you can’t hardly breathe without swallowing some. When I lived in the bush of Alaska, I have been through times where the mosquitoes were so thick that you would tip your coffee away from you to spill out the mosquitoes floating on top, and then take a sip. In fact, it was so thick that you wished you had more than a mosquito net for you head, because a body net would have been awesome! I have also heard folks be surprised that we even have mosquitoes up here because they think it’s too cold for bugs to survive up here. Oh and DEET? They eat that for breakfast!

Alaskan mosquitoes
Alaskan mosquitoes big enough to pick up a bear.

 

#10. Have you been to the North Pole or have you met Santa? Well, yes, I have!! The actual North Pole you mean? No, I haven’t been there. But there is a town in Interior Alaska named North Pole and it is the home base for Santa. I have been to his house and I have met his reindeer. I have pictures to prove it. If you ever have a chance to come to Alaska, I recommend a drive up to Fairbanks and then on to North Pole. It is worth the drive.

North Pole
Santa Claus house in North Pole, Alaska.

 

#11. Do you have fast food in Alaska? That is a massive Yes! We have almost all of them. We don’t have them in the bush but in most of the larger towns and cities, we have them. You can pretty much count on getting your fix if you stick to the more populated areas. I, however, prefer to eat caribou burgers!

Fast food here!
The city of Anchorage has everything including fast food.

 

#12. Can you ride a moose? Absolutely not! And if you try, you will most likely end up in the hospital. I have seen where some folks have been charged and trampled by them. They either end up in the hospital or dead. I literally get them looking in my windows but they can be dangerous even with the window separating us. View from afar, and again, do not feed them.

moose charge
Angry moose charging a snowmobiler.

 

#13. Is the ground really frozen year round? Yes, it is. Permafrost is defined as ground that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. The depth of permafrost is different for different parts of Alaska. The reason why trees do not grow very big in many areas is because the roots cannot grow very deep and, instead, they spread out. Some areas where the permafrost is not very deep, the earth will not be capable of having any trees at all. The ground also heaves a lot during freeze and thaw seasons causing the roads to buckle and houses to shift.

permafrost
This is what permafrost looks like in the tundra.

 

#14. Are there really 3rd world living conditions in Alaska? Yes, in some villages there are, but they are getting better. You see, some areas with tundra cannot have septic tanks or underground pipes because the ground has permafrost (see above) and therefore you have either pipes running over-ground to a containment area or you use honey buckets or outhouses. What is a honey bucket? Well, it’s what you use indoors (a 5 gallon bucket) during the night and then in the morning you dump the honey bucket in the outhouse. You get the idea. So yes, in many ways, the villages in the bush do have 3rd world conditions, but they also have game systems, TV’s, phones, and microwaves.

honey bucket
Alaskan honey bucket.

 

And finally #15. Is there 24 hours of darkness year round? This question is tricky. Yes, in the winter in some northern areas, it can be dark 24 hours. In my area, an hours’ drive away from Anchorage, it is about 20 hours of darkness in the middle of winter. Also in the winter, you will need sunglasses because the sun doesn’t really rise above the horizon and will reflect off the ice directly into your eyes. However, in the summer, we can have up to 24 hours of daylight! At summer solstice in Fairbanks, they have the Midnight Sun festival with baseball at midnight without lights. You can hike till very late at night because you can see all night long. This really isn’t that great for those that want fireworks on the 4th of July and for those that are sensitive to light when they sleep. The sun doesn’t really go directly above your head in Alaska, but rather it skims around the horizon in a large circle.

winter sun
Watching a days worth of sun in the winter.

As you can see, there are a lot of rumors and myths about Alaska. I hope I have dispelled some of them and answered your questions. I love this state and I have lived and traveled all over Alaska, and my husband has worked on the North Slope from time to time. If you have any more questions, you are free to ask them in the comments section below and I will do my best to respond.

Ask an Alaskan about Alaska!

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