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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2009 in review - February: Kivgiq - dancers come from across the Arctic; Kalib behind the window

When I arrived in Barrow for Kivgiq, the ambient temperature was in the -40's, and the wind chill, the -70's. I traveled from within the warmth of a jet airplane. Rex Nashookpuk traveled 100 miles on his snowmachine, coming from Wainwright.

I can guarantee you, he did not drive slow. So you can imagine what kind of windchill he experienced.

I doubt that he cared at all.

He just wanted to get to Kivgiq.

I am going to use different pictures than the few that I actually managed to post last February. At that, in the ten months that have since passed, I have so far only found the time to take a close look at a small percentage of my 2009 Kivgiq take and these represent only a tiny smattering of that. I chose them for this, because they were all in one folder and easy to get to.

Now... I know this kid's name... he is from Point Lay and he was three years old... and he was one of the very most popular dancers at the 2009 Kivgiq...

I know his name... it's just not popping up in my head... I want to post this right away...

Well, sooner or later, I will add his name back in.

...It's Elmo,,, Elmo Henry.

The man raising the walrus skull and tusks is Eugene Brower. Many gifts are given at Kivgiq. The man dancing to Eugene's right is his son, Frederick. Frederick shot the walrus and gave his father the skull and tusks.

Isaac Killugvik of Point Hope. Dancing comes natural to him. In his motions, there is power, grace and soul. Despite what I do, by nature I am a very shy person. Isaac gave me a gift and brought me onto the floor and I had no choice but to dance, just he and I, with all eyes focused directly upon us.

But after I started I got a feeling for it and it was fun. Then everybody applauded and shouted and we had to dance an encore. Once again, it was fun.

Come next Kivgiq, I must give Isaac a gift. I know just what it will be. After I give it, I will have to dance again. I am not sure I can do it again.

We will see.

Kivgiq only happens every two years on the average, so I still have more than a year to prepare myself.

Barrow High School Whaler dancers, caught in video.

My sister, Mary Ellen Ahmaogak, whose Wainwright family adopted me.

The Barrow Dancers drum.

Rhea Frankson of Atqasuk, who knows how to make a mask of her own face. She makes everybody laugh.

Elvis Presley passes out gifts.

Steven Kaleak, an active National Guardsman who served in Iraq and expects to soon serve in Afghanistan. He is doing a dance in honor of all veterans and servicemen and women.

Young Tagiugmiut dancers paddle in pursuit of a dance bowhead whale.

Kaktovik does a dance where the men and women switch styles - the women stomping and dancing about energetically, the men standing in one place, feet together, trying to mimic feminine grace.

See the beautiful young woman dancing out front? That is Katheryn Aishanna. Once, when she was a little girl, I was in Kaktovik and was staying in the home of her grandparents. Her aunt and uncle wanted to have a night out, and so they asked me if I would babysit their kids and the others hanging out with them.

Katheryn was one of those kids. She was very mischievous. It was a rowdy and fun evening.

Now she is grown and dances beautifully, with exceptional grace.

Lela Ahgook of Anaktuvuk Pass, who makes beautiful caribou skin masks and has fed me caribou at her table.

Four Wainwright girls. 

Mary Ann Sundown, Yup'ik of Scammon Bay, 93 years old. She danced strong and energetic. Towards the end of her performance, someone spontaneously ran up and dropped some money in front of her.

Soon, everybody was dropping money before her.

Barrow dancers doing Kalukaq.

Back home in Wasilla, I found Kalib in Caleb's arms, looking at me through the backdoor window.

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Reader Comments (9)

BILL! you are my new favorite blogger. I love you! I check in each and everyday. I LOVE all your pictures..

Two Comments: The first little girl in the picture of the 4 Wainwright girls.. She is adorable!

Second.. I work with Mary Ann Sundown's daughter.. She is the best! I love to watch her dance! There is a You Tube out there of Mary Ann and her sister dancing at a basketball game in Scammon Bay that is hilarious! They are both great.

Anyways, THANK YOU for writing this blog.. and thank you for inspiring me.

December 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRocksee

Some wonderful moments you've captured there! Well done, and thanks for sharing! I spent a few weeks one summer about 20 years ago in Atqasuk helping my dad's bush contracting company rewire the lights at Atqasuk's airstrip. Wonderful people!

December 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryceM

I missed reading you the majority of last year, so THANK YOU for doing a year in review - this is great!

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

What wonderful pictures. What a wonderful event. Thank you for letting me experience a taste of it from so far away.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCGinWI


December 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdahli22

"Kalib in Caleb's arms" is beautiful. I think it belongs in a large format, and framed.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia

That last picture of Kalib caught me off guard. As I was scrolling down the page, I saw his picture, and thought, Wow, what an amazing beautiful spirit soaring amidst the trees. And then I scrolled down a little farther to see the complete picture. Nicely done!

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterakglow

Thank you for sharing the "dance". Oh, how I wish I would have been there myself!

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWhiteStone

Thank you for posting all of these photos -- but the one of Kalib in Caleb's arms took my breath away.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGrandma Nancy

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