In Alaska, especially in Bush Alaska, the United States Postal Service is as essential as a freezer full of salmon for the winter. It’s also a service that many of us had taken for granted until we realized in 2020 that its survival had come into question. With Donald Trump backer Louis DeJoy at the helm, the future of USPS looked ominous. We’d gone through periods of slow mail delivery in the past, and we knew that the postal service had been hit with financial setbacks over the years, but this time it was as if the very person in charge seemed intent on bleeding it out.
For 17 years, my husband and I lived off the road system on the north shore of Lake Clark year-round. Although Steve and I now spend winters in Homer, we are at the lake for at least six months per year, during the summer and fall. Port Alsworth, the community nearest our homestead, lies across the water. Mail comes into Port Alsworth after having been flown from Anchorage to Iliamna, the hub. From Iliamna, it is rerouted to villages around the area. There is no financial support from the government for such contracts; the USPS is self-sufficient.
When my parents lived in Pedro Bay on Iliamna Lake in 1952, mail was still delivered by dog sled to outlying locations. Since then, airplanes have become the default means of transporting letters and packages in rural Alaska. In the late 1990s, when Steve and I first moved to our remote Lake Clark property, Alaska was privileged with a special perk that was supported by then-Sen. Ted Stevens. The sender could write “Intra-Alaska” on the outside of the box and pay a ridiculously cheap rate, something like 11 cents per pound. The box could weigh up to 70 pounds and have a girth plus height of up to 108 inches. We benefitted greatly from being able to send most of our household belongings from Wasilla to Port Alsworth when the lake became our permanent residence. We were younger, and poorer. That perk is gone now, probably rightly so. It was an indulgence, albeit a legal one. Stevens had flexed his senatorial muscle to bring the bacon north.
Friends recall shipping 50-pound bales of hay for their horses and tires for their equipment. One famous case, perhaps what brought about Intra-Alaska’s demise, involved someone who sent 6,000 concrete blocks to Wainwright for a boat harbor. The blocks weighed 67 pounds apiece and each was individually addressed.
But while residents of Bush Alaska can get by without Intra-Alaska, they simply can’t get by without the USPS. In the Lower 48, mail carriers like UPS and Fed Ex are competitive, and retailers often offer free shipping on items delivered through them. But in the Bush Alaska I know, UPS rates are exceedingly high.
Even on the road system, in a town like Homer, UPS and Fed Ex are often cost-prohibitive. Alaskans notoriously gripe about having to pay more for shipping an item than the item itself is worth. When I order something online, the first thing I do is check out a retailer’s shipping policy. Will they even send to Alaska? If so, will they send via USPS? Sometimes I call or email and ask if they would consider sending via a USPS flat rate mail box. Once in a while, a retailer will agree to do so.
Medications and food are just two of Alaskans’ most fundamental needs that often arrive by mail. And absentee ballots for mail-in voting? It’s a no-brainer for people like me who are in a remote location during fall elections. If I were forced to vote in person on election day, and that happened to fall on a bad weather day, there’s no way I would risk a 13-mile boat ride in an open skiff with a 30-knot east wind to travel to Port Alsworth. Or expect Steve to fly our Super Cub when the visibility is a quarter-mile or the north wind is burbling over the mountain behind our house and making our rocky beach an even more perilous landing strip.
During his tenure, Postmaster General DeJoy has removed sorting machines, cut overtime pay for employees and reduced post office hours. Sen. Tammy Duckworth recently wrote that “DeJoy is a disaster.” She and Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia are urging President Joe Biden to fire the entire Board of Governors, which has the singular authority to remove DeJoy from office.
I’m all for it, if that’s what is needed to keep the USPS intact. Although I miss parcel post, I’ve adapted to flat-rate priority mail. Yes, I remember the 10-cent stamp. But 55 cents is not that high. These rates increases are a small price to pay for keeping a mail delivery service viable that has served Alaska dutifully for decades.
Anne Coray is a writer; her debut novel, “Lost Mountain,” is forthcoming in March 2021. She divides her time between Homer and her birthplace on Lake Clark.
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