A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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Wasilla's Mayor Rupright and a few others celebrate 50 years of Alaska Statehood; the fateful drive of the drunken good humor lady recalled

Elsewhere in the state, the 50th Anniversary of Alaska Statehood was celebrated last weekend. Wasilla's event was originally scheduled for last Saturday as well, which would have marked 50 years to the day since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, but with daytime temperatures ranging from -20 to -30 F, the city decided to postpone one week until today - and then only if the temperature got above -10.

Anchorage went ahead on schedule with its celebration as did Eagle River, midway between here and there, where the temperature would have been about -30. Eagle River even staged a contest to see what dog could drag the heaviest loaded sled across the snow.

When I left my house just before 1:00 PM to meet Margie for lunch today, the temperature here was -27 (-33 C), but I had heard that it was much warmer "downtown." Sure enough, as I drove towards town, I watched the exterior temperature gauge in the new Escape rise and dip as I passed through different pockets of air, but overall it rose and when I reached Wasilla's Main Street it read "0" degrees.

A bit before 3:00 PM, I ventured over to the Celebration site, where the temperature was -3 and found a tiny group of people gathered around a large bonfire. Among them was little girl Olivia, pictured above, who came because her dad works with Parks and Recreation.

It was warm by the fire, and she seemed quite happy to be there.

The man putting his cell phone back into his pocket while talking to a constituent is attorney Verne Rupright, the new Mayor of Wasilla and the first man to hold the job in 12 years. Given that one of his female predecessors was Sarah Palin, many obvious questions arose in my mind, but I figure the poor man must field these questions 80 or 90 times a day, so I decided to give him a break and not ask them.

Another time, perhaps.

What we talked about in casual conversation was the location where we live. Our address is a Wasilla address. We say we live in Wasilla. We pay the same sales taxes to the City of Wasilla as does any Wasillan, but we get no services from the city because, technically, we are outside the city limits.

Many years back, on a hot summer day, I learned just how valuable those services could be. We were in the house when we heard the happy tune of a good humor truck coming down the road. "Daddy!" Lisa, who was still small, piped up excitedly, "can I have some money to buy ice cream?"

So I gave her a dollar or two. She ran out the door and pretty soon came back in again, carrying a large box of chocolate-covered ice cream bars, which were beginning to melt. Lisa said the ice cream lady had given them all to her, but was acting strangely. "I'm scared," she said.

The ice cream lady was still parked in the middle of the road, so I went out to investigate. As I drew near to her, I could see from the slump in her posture and the stupor in her red eyes that the ice cream lady was drunk. I tried to take her keys, but she drove off and crashed on the corner - the same corner where the chicken crossed the road and a pet dog mauled its owners pet rabbit nearly to death.

She was not hurt, but I could not let her drive away. I yanked the keys from the ignition of her good humor truck, which was high-centered on some rocks. Margie called the Wasilla police, but they refused to come. So we called the State Troopers, who had jurisdiction, but it took over an hour for them to arrive. I had to hold the drunken ice-cream lady as my prisoner for all that time.

Mayor Rupright assured me that he is working to improve the situation. Wasilla plans to annex my neighborhood, he said, as well as some other regions of Wasilla that lie beyond the official city limits.

"Your property taxes will go down by two mils and you will receive city services, including police protection," he told me.

See the bearded man standing at the far left in the background? That's Bert Hall, who used to be the director of the North Slope Borough Health Department, headquartered in Barrow. Back when I first knew him, he organized the first golf tournament in Barrow, as part of the city's annual spring festival, held in April.

That tournament commenced in temperatures that were in the mid -30's, so I know there are people here in Wasilla who know how to celebrate in true cold.

Plus, I can remember some pretty cold Iditarod Days, just as cold as last weekend, back when the real race used to start here. Nobody cared about the cold. People were out frolicking, spinning brodies on Wasilla lake in their trucks and cars, eating hotdogs and drinking soda pop.

Of course, by Iditarod time, there is real sun in the sky.

With the sun comes renewed energy. In fact, it comes in a great burst.

I counted 19 people standing in the vicinity of the fire and saw a few more through the open flap of a nearby tent. A handful of children played on the ice rink. It seemed like everyone that I spoke with had come in an official capacity, or was the companion of someone who had.

"It's cold," Mayor Rupright explained.

But it was warm standing by the bonfire. At least on one side. In fact, on one side, it was hot, while on the other side, a bit chilly. Not too bad. Just a bit chilly. And a celebrant could always turn around to warm up the chilled side.

And this is how 50 years of Alaska statehood was celebrated, one week late, right here in Wasilla, Alaska.

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Reader Comments (1)

Sorry we had to miss it, but I was having my own -20 degree party with my pressure tank - which decided at some point in the late evening to spring a leak. Woke up with the most gorgeous ice sculptures hanging from the pipes in the well room.

Life in rural Alaska...:)

January 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy (=^..^=)

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