Sprawled along the Kuskokwim River 40 miles from the Bering Sea and 400 air miles from Anchorage, Bethel, with a population of 5,665, is one of the largest communities in rural Alaska. It is also the transportation center and supply hub for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, providing food, fuel, medical care and other services for 56 surrounding villages.
Originally a Yup'ik settlement called "Mumtrekhlogamute," meaning “smokehouse people,” Bethel was named for the nearby fish smokehouse. A trading post arrived in the 1870s followed by the Moravian Church mission in 1884 and the town grew up around the mission and trading post.
Bethel is 68 percent Alaska Native or part Alaska Native. Not surprisingly, traditional Yup’ik Eskimo practices and language remain predominant in the area, as do subsistence activities such as the gathering of salmon, game birds and berries.
Things to do
Avid birders will be impressed by the 20-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, which encircles the community of Bethel. It is the largest wildlife refuge in the country. The refuge is a landscape of tundra marshes, lakes and streams that supports one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in the world. Every spring, a spectacle can be seen as 2 million waterfowl, 750,000 geese and 100 million shorebirds return to their habitats to nest.
Those looking to visit the refuge can charter a boat or floatplane for opportunities to get up close for wildlife observation and photography. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Bethel can help visitors connect with transportation and guides. Hiking in this marshy tundra can be difficult but you can explore the unusual terrain at Pinky's Park in town, which features a nearly two-mile boardwalk over the tundra.
Bethel comes alive during its two main festivals. The Kuskokwim 300, often regarded as one of the top mid-distance dog sled races in the world, is held in mid-January, while the Cama-i Dance Festival is held the last weekend of March. The three-day dance festival is sponsored by the Bethel Council on the Arts and involves participants from other states and countries along with local dancers.