Often when an Alaskan talks about going out to the Bush, they mean anywhere off the grid, which is most of Alaska. However, it also refers to those wild and lonely expanses of territory beyond cities, towns, highways, and railroad corridors, stretching from the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska Peninsula, and Aleutian Islands in the south through the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Seward Peninsula and into the northern High Arctic.
For the sake of this guide, the Bush refers to this territory. The Bush extends over two-thirds of Alaska, where caribou outnumber people and where the summer sun really does shine at midnight; in fact, at the state's northern edge it remains in the sky for several weeks in June and July, disappearing altogether for weeks in winter. The Bush is a land that knows the soft footsteps of the Eskimos and the Aleuts, the scratchings of those who searched (and still search) for oil and gold, and the ghosts of almost-forgotten battlefields of World War II.
If you visit the Arctic plains in summer, you'll see an array of bright wildflowers growing from a sponge of rich green tundra dotted with pools of melting snow. Willow trees barely an inch tall might be a hundred years old, and sometimes berry bushes have berries bigger than the bush they grow on. In the long, dark Arctic winter, a painter's-blue kind of twilight rises from the ice and snowscapes at midday, but the moon can be bright enough to read by, and on a clear night you will have a new appreciation for the depth of the heavens. Spring and fall are fleeting moments when the tundra awakens from its winter slumber or turns briefly brilliant with autumn colors.
The Brooks Range, which stretches east–west across the state from nearly the sea to the Canadian border, separates the Arctic from the rest of the state. The Brooks is actually a superchain, including several mountain systems, from pale, softly rounded limestone mountains in the east and west to the towering granite spires of the Arrigetch Peaks in the heart of the range. Large portions of the Brooks Range's middle and western sections are protected within Gates of the Arctic National Park and the neighboring Noatak National Preserve; its eastern reaches lie within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
North of the Brooks Range a great apron of land called the North Slope tilts gently toward the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The vast sweep of this frozen tundra brightens each summer with yellow Arctic poppies, bright red bearberry, and dozens of other wildflower species that pepper endless stretches of landscape. Beneath the surface, permanently frozen ground known as permafrost has shifted and shaped this land for centuries, fragmenting it into giant polygons that make a fascinating pattern when viewed from the sky. This same permafrost, due to global climate change, is melting rapidly, radically changing not only the lives of humans, but also the annual migrations of numerous different animals, as well as the very composition of the atmosphere.
At the very edge of this wilderness, where land meets sea, Prudhoe Bay, America's largest oil field, was discovered in 1968. At its peak, more than 2 million barrels a day of North Slope crude from Prudhoe and neighboring basins flowed south via the 800-mile pipeline to the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska. Today the flow has diminished to around 600,000 barrels per day, a number that decreases slightly every year and is the subject of perpetual political and economic controversy.
The rivers that drain the Brooks Range include the Kongakut, Kobuk, and Sheenjek, names that reflect the Native peoples who have lived here for thousands of years, ever since their ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge. The great Noatak River defies the Arctic's north–south drainage pattern and runs east–west, making a right-angle turn before emptying into Kotzebue (kots-eh-bew) Sound. Perched on Kotzebue Sound is the colorful Inupiaq (the term "Eskimo" is falling out of favor, being replaced by local and more specific terms) town of Kotzebue, the largest Native settlement in the state and the jumping-off point for much of the surrounding area. Native ceremonial dances are demonstrated at Kotzebue's Living Museum of the Arctic, as is the Eskimo blanket toss, a traditional activity dating to prehistoric times, when hunters were bounced high in the air so they could scan the horizon for seals.
Another coastal community, this one first settled by prospectors, is the former gold-rush boomtown of Nome, where you can still pan for riches. In early spring Nome celebrates the appearance of the sun with a golf tournament where the "greens" are painted on the ice of the Bering Sea coast. Nome also serves as the end of Alaska’s most popular sporting event: the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The running starts more than 1,000 miles away in Willow (90 minutes north of Anchorage) the first Sunday in March. (The ceremonial start is in Anchorage the Saturday before.) About nine grueling days later, the fastest dog teams make their way up Front Street to the cheers of locals and visitors from around the globe alike.
Southwest Alaska includes the biologically productive wetlands of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where the state's greatest river meets the wild ocean. Sloughs, ponds, marshes, mud, streams, and puddles in these flat regions near sea level can slow water travel to a standstill. The delta is one of the most important migratory flyways for birds in North America, and the waters teem with life. Farther south, Bristol Bay is the site of some of the largest salmon runs in the world. Nearby Wood-Tikchik State Park (the nation's largest, at more than 1.6 million acres) encompasses huge lake systems and vast stretches of untouched wilderness where moose with antlers the size of end tables browse their way through the glaciated landscape. And on the upper reaches of the Alaska Peninsula the brown bears of Katmai rule a vast national park dominated by dramatic volcanic scenery. Also in the Southwest, the lower Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian (pronounced ah-loo-shun) Islands reach well into the Pacific Ocean toward Japan. This chain beckoned Russian explorers to Alaska in the 18th century, as they tried to turn the islands' sea otter population into furs to trade with China for tea. Along the 1,600-mile long chain of more than 70 islands, weathered onion-dome Russian Orthodox churches in Aleut villages brace themselves against fierce Pacific winds that blow year-round.
Unalaska, home of Dutch Harbor, is the largest town in the Aleutians and a former U.S. Navy base pounded by Japanese bombs in 1942. It is one of America's busiest commercial fishing ports with annual exports of fish and crab of more than 1 billion pounds. Deep-sea trawlers and factory ships venture from here into the stormy North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The Discovery Channel’s hit TV show Deadliest Catch has brought this brutal, difficult lifestyle and the characters it attracts to living rooms across the Lower 48. Although originally settled as an ancient Aleut village, Russian traders built churches during their time in Unalaska; in the town today you can tour one of the oldest and best-preserved Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska. North of the Aleutian chain, in the Bering Sea, the remote volcanic islands of the Pribilofs support immense populations of birds and sea mammals, as well as two small Aleut communities, St. George and St. Paul.
Alaskans who live in towns use the Bush as an escape valve, a place to get away. And those who've made the Bush their home are practically heroes to the rest of the state; they're the people who are bold enough to do what the majority of urban Alaskans wish they could do. Bush Alaskans have a deep affection for their raw land that is difficult to explain to strangers. They talk of living with complete independence, "close to nature." A cliché, perhaps, until you realize that these Alaskans reside in the Bush all year long, adapting to brutal winter weather and isolation, preferring to live off the road system. They know a store-bought hamburger will never taste as good as fresh moose meat, and whatever they're missing by not having a cell phone can't possibly be as interesting as the view out the cabin window. They have accepted the Bush for what it is: dramatic, unforgiving, and glorious.
Philosophically speaking, the Bush is more a lifestyle than a location. It brings a new definition to "roughing it"; after you experience the Bush, you come to understand that the term "rural" only applies in the Lower 48, where there's typically a nearby urban hub easily accessible by car to bail you out. But if a village or town store in the Bush runs out of something, it won't be in stock again until the next delivery—whether it be by boat or by plane—which can take anywhere from a week to a month, maybe even not until the next spring after the ice thaws. People who live in remote Alaska towns and villages know transportation schedules like the backs of their hands, and they know that if they don't show up at the store within hours of the supply boat or plane's arrival, the odds of getting any fresh milk or vegetables are about zero.
Technically, the Bush is more or less any place in mainland Alaska that can't be reached by road. To outsiders the Bush has three distinct divisions: The Southwest part of the Bush, the Yukon Delta region and Bethel down to the Shelikof Strait, is the preferred territory for sportsmen and those looking to spot big animals. The Aleutian and Pribilof islands and the Alaska Peninsula attract dedicated birders and history buffs. And the northern part of the Bush, from Nome to Point Barrow, is for those who see north as a direction to go. A lot of people may say they're traveling to the Far North for the Native culture, for a chance to see the beauty of tundra or experience the full splendor of the Midnight Sun, but really, most do it for bragging rights.
Of course, venturing to the farthest reaches of the Last Frontier at all is cause enough to boast; each region has its own distinct climates, people, scenery, and activities. Kodiak and Katmai are prime locations for grizzly viewing and birding. Nome is not only the best place for gold-rush history, but is also known for its large and small wildlife, bird-watching in summer, and pristine river systems for paddle adventures. No matter where in the Bush you go, that distinct Alaskan culture—created by the simple fact that the only people who live here are people who genuinely want to live here—is abundant, distinct, and welcoming.
A tour of the Bush's Southwest region can begin in Bethel, an important outpost on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta ("YK Delta" to locals) surrounded by the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Off the mainland coast is the undeveloped wilderness of Nunivak Island.
The Alaska Peninsula juts out between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea; here are the Becharof and Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife refuges, as well as the prime bear-viewing area of Katmai National Park and Preserve. To the northeast of the Alaska Peninsula is the Kodiak Archipelago, where you'll find Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and Shuyak Island State Park.
The Aleutian Islands start where the peninsula ends, and sweep southwest toward Japan. The Pribilof Islands—windswept, grassy, with whale bones scattered on the beaches—lie north of the Aleutians, 200 miles off Alaska's west coast. Head north along the Bering Sea coast and you come to Nome, just below the Arctic Circle and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Kotzebue, just above the circle, is a coastal Inupiaq town surrounded by sea and tundra and a jumping-off place for several parklands: Kobuk Valley, Noatak, Cape Krusenstern, and Gates of the Arctic (though the last is more easily reached from the inland village of Bettles). Barrow, another Inupiaq community, sits at the very top of the state and is the northernmost town in the United States. Follow the Arctic coastline eastward and you reach Deadhorse, on Prudhoe Bay, the custodian to the region's important oil and gas reserves. East of Prudhoe Bay is the embattled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast expanse of unexplored, roadless tundra spanning nearly 20 million acres.