Spread out on the tundra along the Kuskokwim River, Bethel is a town of about 6,000 year-round residents located in an area inhabited by the Yu'pik people for thousands of years (their village is called Mamterillermiut). During the 19th century, Bethel was a trading post, and it had a small population of just over 40 people by the late 19th century. Moravian missionaries eventually moved the town to its current spot on the west side of the Kuskokwim River. Today one of rural Alaska's most important trading centers and the largest community in Western Alaska, 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; Alaska Native people represent 70 percent of the town's population.
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), a few hotels and restaurants (including much-acclaimed sushi), and the largest Alaska Native Health Service field hospital in the state, which is contracted to the tribally owned Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Bethel residents love and are proud of where they live. And similar to most other off-road and rural Alaska communities, the healthy desire to protect and defend local people, traditions, and quirks from outside meddling is alive and well. However, a sense of community pervades this small tundra town; locals will talk your ear off about everything that makes their city great. Come in late March to witness their enthusiasm during the Cama-i celebration.
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.