Moving to Rural Alaska: It Takes a Village

Sep 26, 2017 | Transportation

Ships discharge fuel, cement, and cruise ship passengers at the Port of Anchorage on June 13, 2016, beneath a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster on final approach to land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Tractors, airplanes, boats, trucks, snowmobiles, and dogsleds. When it comes to moving to Alaska’s bush territory, just about any mode of transportation is fair game.

Moving household goods to Alaska is no easy feat, especially to its rural outreaches. Outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks there are few paved highways. Most don’t meet the same interstate/highway standards drivers in the Lower 48 may be used to because many are two-lanes and undivided. And, for many communities there are no roads at all. Add to that inclement weather and a perfect storm of less-than-stellar moving conditions is formed.

As a result, moving costs are often far more expensive here than in locations outside of Alaska. “We don’t get a lot of calls from people saying how do I get there?” says Bob Hafner, executive director for the Nome Chamber of Commerce. “We get calls from people asking: ‘Is there a road I can drive up there?’” The answer? There isn’t.

The coastal community of Nome, which is nearly 540-air miles from Anchorage, sits on the northern coast of the Norton Sound in the Bering Sea. Because there are no highways to Nome, flying and water transport, snowmobile, and dogsled are the only modes of transportation by which cargo can be moved to and from the town. Still, Hafner says it’s not difficult to move to Nome or to get household goods delivered: “You just can’t get here by car.”

There are plenty of companies that help people relocate their goods to Alaska, including U-Haul, U-Pack, Denali, RAVN Alaska, Lynden, Tote Maritime, and USPS, are just a few of the companies offering these services. Even with the wide range of companies offering moving services, there is still only a six- to eight-week “season” during which movers are more easily able to coordinate rural moves.

To determine the costs associated with moving to rural Alaska, experts recommend obtaining an estimate from one of the many company’s websites offering such services. There are so many variables governing rural Alaska moves that price estimates are all over the map depending on location, time of year, and available modes of transportation.

“It’s tough,” says Michael Gonzalez, vice president of Denali Group. “There are too many variables that could increase the price substantially. For instance, where is it coming from? How fast do you want it? What kind of services are you requesting at the other end?”

Gonzalez says he considers the cost to be “very expensive. It depends on how remote the area is and availability of transportation that is going to it.” Once a shipment arrives in one of Alaska’s more populated cities, such as Anchorage or Fairbanks, it can take a couple of weeks to get to rural destinations, he says.

Denali Group has been moving people to Alaska since 1954. “We have moved everything imaginable,” Gonzalez says. “We move hard things all the time. One thing that stands out is 120 full-size animal mounts. We moved the Native hospital to its new location and Alaska Airlines during its remodel.”

Most items coming into Alaska arrive at the Port of Anchorage or Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport before being delivered to other destinations, says Meadow Bailey, Alaska Department & Public Facilities spokeswoman. “Aviation touches all aspects of life in rural Alaska and is a basic mode of transportation due to the vastness of Alaska,” she says.

About 82 percent of Alaska communities are not served by roads and have no connection to the contiguous road system, she adds. The state is responsible for 242 airports.

The Port of Anchorage is the other major transportation hub in the state. “It comes here and it may go down the road a couple hundred meters to Lynden or North Star’s barge terminal to go to Western Alaska,” says Jim Jager, director of external affairs for the Port of Anchorage. “It depends on the time of the year. Some stuff goes by truck to Fairbanks for distribution from there to Western Alaska. It depends on what the item is.”

Barges, Jager says, are the best way to move automobiles, whether it’s a car for personal use or cars headed to a dealership. “They get barged up. What would happen in the case of cars generally is they go from the port to a dealer, then back to a barge and then out again [to the buyer],” Jager says.

Personal cars go from the barge to Lynden and North Star for shipment to owners. “A lot of people think of this port as a destination, but we’re not a destination, we’re a terminal,” Jager says. According to Jager, about 90 percent of incoming products, such as food and household goods, arrive by marine transportation.

“Of the 90 percent, about half of it comes into the Port of Anchorage and of that, half stays in Anchorage and half goes to other parts of Alaska like Fairbanks, Bethel, [and the] Mat-Su Borough,” he says.

Lynden, one of the major movers in Alaska, offers a must-read blog for those looking to move their items to the state called “The Six Things You Need to Know About Shipping to Alaska.” Alaska is unique, it says, “particularly when it comes to shipping.” But for those who know what to expect, “the experience can be as smooth as ice.”

“It’s easy to ship your vehicle to Alaska by barge,” says Alaska Marine Lines President Kevin Anderson. “We use a system that allows vehicles to ride within an enclosed container, so it is protected from the elements.” The company can ship cars, pickups, or SUVs with regular service between Seattle and Southeast Alaska and Central Alaska and on a seasonal basis to Western Alaska.

“Many of our customers like the fact that personal belongings can be included within the vehicle,” says Anderson. But, he cautions, there are restrictions so those looking to use this particular service should conduct thorough research on the rules and regulations—which are somewhat like those of the TSA for flyers—before booking the move.

This is an abbreviated version of the article “Moving to Rural Alaska: It Takes a Village” first published in Alaska Business. Get the full story in the September 2017 issue of Alaska Business.

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