Spread out on the tundra along the Kuskokwim River, Bethel is a frontier town of about 5,800 residents, originally established by Moravian missionaries in the late 1800s. One of rural Alaska's most important trading centers, it's a hub for 56 native villages in a region roughly the size of the state of Oregon. The Yup'ik Eskimo language and culture are still predominant in this regional center.
The surrounding lowland tundra is a rich green in summer and turns fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow in autumn, when plants burst with blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, and salmonberries. Salmon, arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden (a species of seagoing trout) fill the area's many lakes, ponds, and streams, providing excellent fishing just a few miles outside town. Pretty much everyone in Bethel has smoked, dried, and frozen fish aplenty. The wetlands are also important breeding grounds for more than 60 species of birds, from shrikes to warblers.
The town is also the northernmost freshwater port for oceangoing vessels. Among its businesses are radio and television stations, a theater, credit union, auto repair shop, car-rental agency, beauty-barber shop, DVD rental store, newspaper, two colleges (including a tribal college), and the largest Alaska Native Health Service field hospital in the state, which is contracted to the tribally owned Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
Each year on the last weekend in March Bethel hosts a regional celebration called the Cama-i Dance Festival (in Yup'ik, cama-i means "hello"), a great time to experience Native culture. Held in the local high school's gym, which is filled to capacity for the three-day event, this festival of food, dance, music, and crafts draws dance groups from dozens of outlying villages.