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Home  >  Know Alaska  >  Alaska Geography  >  Community Profiles
Bethel: A city of 6,000 people in a wildlife refuge

The city of Bethel sits in the heart of the second largest national wildlife refuge in the United States. The mighty Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers spread out here on their way to the Bering Sea. This huge delta attracts at least 100 million birds each spring from all over the Pacific region. It is one of the most important waterfowl nesting areas in the world. The 19-million acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect this world-class resource.

The Yupik Eskimos have lived here for some 10,000 years. The people hunted caribou in the fall. They fished for salmon in the summer. In the spring, the millions of migrating birds and their eggs provided a welcome source of fresh food. On the shore of the Kuskokwim River, a small group of Yup'ik Eskimos lived in a village they called Mumtreklogamute or Smokehouse People. In 1885, missionaries for the Moravian Church started a new community near the village. They named their new mission Bethel.

In all, some 42 communities line the rivers and coastal areas of the refuge. Bethel sits on the northwest bank of the Kuskokwim River just 40 miles from its mouth. The only way to reach Bethel year-round is by plane. The Bethel airport is the third busiest airport in the state. The 400-mile flight from Anchorage takes about an hour. When the river is ice-free, people can travel by boat around the area. When the river is frozen, they hop on snow machines or sled dog teams to travel from village to village. The annual Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race is held each January.

Each spring dancers from all over the state come to Bethel for the Camai Dance Festival. It showcases traditional Native Alaskan dances, but all kinds of dancers are welcome. One year an Irish clogging group performed.

In 1980 just over 3,500 people lived in Bethel. In 2009, that number was up to 6,400. More than half of the people work at local, state or federal jobs. The rest of the jobs are mostly with small businesses. The cost of living in Bethel is high. Most of the food must be flown to town. A gallon of milk that costs $3.00 in Anchorage can cost $6.89 in Bethel. Many residents rely on local fishing, hunting, and berry picking to help feed their families and continue a centuries-old tradition of eating local foods.

Which would you prefer, summer or winter in Bethel, Alaska, and why?

The Kuskokwim, Alaska Geographic, Volume 15, Number 4, 1988

Gallery of Images

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Bethel Riverfront at Sunset

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Bethel Docks

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Bethel from the Air

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Bethel River from the Air

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