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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I get an invitation to the set for "Everybody Loves Whales" and find that I have been there since the beginning - I wonder, what if?

Anyone whose memory reaches back to October, 1988, will remember The Great Gray Whale Rescue that took place on the sea ice near Point Barrow. For those whose memories do not reach back that far and who may not have heard of the event, freezeup came early that year and my friend, Roy Ahmaogak, found three young gray whales trapped in three small holes in slush ice that would soon harden.

What unfolded thereafter was the strangest, most bizarre, wonderful, nightmarish, magnificent, dreamy, spectacle of human good will, pettiness, compassion, selfishness, ingenuity, brutally competitive, cooperative display of kindness and love that I have witnessed - and it was driven by the fact that Everybody Loves Whales.

A most unlikely coalition of Iñupiat whale hunters, the oil industry, Greenpeace, the National Guard, the Reagan White House and the Soviet Union, plus a myriad of ordinary people from all over, came together to try and rescue those three whales.

For two weeks, all the other big stories of the world, including the heated political battle between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis to become the next President of the United States, receded into background noise.

Media from around the world poured into Barrow as the concern and attention of an entire planet of people became focused on those three whales and the efforts to save them.

And I had a front row seat to the drama. I guess I was part of the drama, as I may have been the first person to photograph those whales and I was absolutely the first media person to do so. I alone photographed the first human contact with the whales and the resultant images got onto AP and became the first images of the rescue to be seen in the world's newspapers.

Now, just over 22 years later, Universal Pictures is making a movie based on the rescue, directed by Ken Kwapis, starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Dermot Mulroney, Ted Danson with a supporting cast of Iñupiat and Yup'ik actors and extras, led by John Pingayak who plays a character loosely based upon the legendary Malik.

Among these actors is my good friend, Art Oommittuk, who has developed a firm relationship with Kwapis. 

A couple of weeks ago, Art suggested to Kwapis that he invite me onto the set for Everybody Loves Whales. Kwapis had spent time with my book, Gift of the Whale: The Iñupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradtion, and told Art that he definitely wanted that to happen.

So the invitation came. On Saturday, I was able to accept it.

When I stepped onto the set, I experienced Deja Vu to the extreme. There, in a small area in front of me, was a whale hole on a flat pan of ice rimmed by pressure ridges. When I turned and looked in the other direction, there was a section of downtown Barrow, painted in the very colors that I remember from 22 years ago. It looked so real that I kept wanting to climb the stairs up to Pepe's, go inside, and order some tacos.

I had not been on the scene for more than one minute when Art spotted me and waved. He couldn't come right over, because they were shooting a scene simulating the reaction of the whalers and other rescuers as the Soviet ice breakers rammed the ice nearby. Of course, I wanted to photograph this, but Universal Pictures does not allow any but their own official still photographers to photograph such scenes, so I had to stand with my camera hanging useless at my side and just observe.

After several takes, they took a short break and Art introduced me to Kwapis.

This is them - Art Oomittuk, Iñupiat hunter, artist extraordinaire and now actor, with Ken Kwapis, renowned movie director. He came across to me as a very down to earth individual. He looked like he could have been comfortable on the real ice off Barrow. I could see that he had genuine respect for Art and that he was truly interested in anything I might have to say.

Kwapis said he had been through my book many times, and that it had played a significant role in guiding them as they created the stage for the movie.

This is Hope Parrish, set designer, holding her copy of my book, Gift of the Whale, which she asked me to autograph. As you can see, it is well marked with yellow stickies and it is the most dog-eared copy of the book that I have signed.

She told me that it had been invaluable to her, to many people working on the film, that it was the primary reference for recreating the visuals of the rescue.

The reason that I have lightened, blurred, and distorted the background is because it shows a portion of that part of the set that shows Pepe's renamed, along with a portion of the Top of the World Hotel. Universal Pictures does not want anyone to show pictures of their set to the world just yet. They want the set to be seen for the first time in the trailers that will precede the expected release in early January, 2012.

I got mixed signals about how Universal might react to seeing this small portion of the set off in the background. Some thought it would not be a problem. Some thought it would.

So I decided just to blur and distort it, for now. 

Once the movie is released and I do the big series of Gray Whale Rescue blog posts that I plan to publish then, I will post the undoctored version.

We were soon joined by Sarah Regan, who also had a copy for me to sign.

An airplane flew overhead.

Ossie Kairaiuak, a well-known singer and performer in these parts, and David sing a few bars in Iñupiaq of a piece that several of the Native actors on the set spontaneously came up with one day. They were filmed performing and the song is expected to be included in the movie.

Of all the stories that anybody has ever told me regarding their experience with Gift of the Whale, none have moved me more than David's. David has roots in Point Hope, but grew up in Palmer. After he read Gift of the Whale, he decided that he had to go back to Point Hope and go whaling. He did. 

He loved the way the experience connected him to his people. He plans to keep doing it.

This is Sarah Conliffe, who I met in the warmup room, where there is much good food to eat, from fresh raspberries and blueberries to peta wraps, delicately braised slivers of beef, rolls, coffee and tea.

Sarah is the costume designer and she, too, wanted me to sign her book.

She, too, described it as an invaluable resource to her - her costume Bible - I believe she said.

Unless I am getting her words mixed up with Parrish's.

I feel like maybe I am coming across as arrogant and boastful, here, and letting all this go to my head.

But it's how it happened.

I was also told that Universal did not want anyone to publish photos of the star actors taken on the set, but that it would be okay if I got personal pictures of my friends in a way that did not really show the set or the big stars.

I was in the process of taking just such a picture when one of the big name actors saw what was going on and jumped right into the middle of the picture.

Again, I got some conflicting advise - some thought it would be okay for me to publish the picture straight, some thought maybe not - so I did it like this. I could make it look better, but I have to catch a plane to Barrow, where, as usual, I will be staying with my friend, Roy Ahmaogak, the man whose discovery launched the episode that led to this movie.

Please come back after the movie is released and then I will show you who the actor in this picture is.

This is Reynolds Anderson, assistant to Ken Kwapis. It was she who met me after I reached the set and who served as my guide for the first hour or two that I was there.

I felt very badly for her at times, as she spent a lot of time just standing patiently by while I talked to other people. Plus, although the day was very warm for this place this time of year, it was not at all warm to a young woman from Southern California.

A young bald eagle flew over head.

This is cinematographer John Bailey. He also came across to me as being a very down to earth, curious, helpful person and he took the time to talk with me over several breaks.

He, too, had kind things to say about my book - and he gave me an idea and said he would help me with it in the future. I have learned never to get my hopes too high about anything until it actually happens, but it sounded good, so I will take him up on that and see if it can be made into anything.

This is Nelson, who also has been doing set work. He showed me a picture from my book that I had taken inside a home where women were sewing skins and told me how he had worked off that picture to create a living room that will appear in the movie. It will not exactly the same, but the element will be there.

I autographed his book, too.

I feel badly, and I thought I entered it into my iPhone, but I cannot remember the name of the woman with him. She also has my book, but did not have it with her. Others told me the same.

To the left is Sandra Murray, who turned the tables on me and interviewed me about my experience during the rescue. Whatever parts of the interview they might find worthy will be incorporated into the DVD and HBO package of the film. Jeff Feller manned the camera and Paul Lawrence handled the sound.

After the interview I hoped in a white van that took me to place where a cajun lunch was being served. I met Heidi there. She had papers for me to sign, stating that it was ok for them to use the interview in their package.

And now, the what if:

Everyone that I met on the set treated me wonderfully. It was flattering and it was good to see that they had been impacted by my work as a team and as individuals and had found inspiration and guidance in it to help them carry their own work forward.

This felt good to me - and it was fun. Yet, I cannot help but wonder, what if?

After my book was released, my publisher, Sasquatch Books, attempted to sell the movie rights to it in Hollywood, but the effort didn't pan out. Later, my niece, Shaela Cook, who is making a career in Hollywood, decided that she wanted to make a movie based on Gift of the Whale.

She worked hard at it, and presented it to various people in Hollywood and got some responses that were, at first, encouraging, but that ultimately led to nothing.

So what if?

What if either of these efforts had succeeded?

The story Hollywood settled upon is a love story, based loosely on one that actually happened during the rescue, one that was written up in another book.

I am not certain about this, but I understand that a photographer also plays a significant role in the film - a photographer who documented the rescue effort from beginning to end. I am not certain if this is a still photographer or a video photographer - or even if there truly is such a character - but there was only one photographer of any kind who was there at the beginning and at the end of the gray whale drama, and that was me.

Many others, from all over the world, joined in between the beginning and end points. But I am the only one who shot the beginning, the middle, and the end. The only one.

So what if it had been my book that had been made the focus of the story?

There is a pretty good chance that I would now have the necessary resources to spend a year or so trying to figure out how to build this blog and its evolution into what I would like it to become.

That's what if.

But it did not happen that way. There is no point in lamenting.

So, when the movie is released, I will go and enjoy. It will not matter to me that the story is a different story than the one that I saw unfold. I will enjoy it.  I have this feeling that the movie is going to be good - perhaps even excellent, a huge hit. I will take Margie and we will eat popcorn, and chocolate covered peanuts.

The movie will give me an excuse to do what I always wanted to do but never did - to tell the gray whale rescue story indepth, as I saw and experienced it. I did not tell it in depth in Gift of the Whale, because I had space enough only to devote one chapter to it.

There will be space enough in this blog - or whatever this blog has evolved into by then. I will spread the telling out over two weeks - the same approximate time as it took for the rescue effort to unfold.

I will tell the story then - in early January, 2012, or whenever the movie is released.

So please come back then.


The bridge above, by the way, crosses over the place where the van took me for the Cajun lunch, which was excellent. I saw Art and some of friends in there and was going to join them, but the publicist asked me to join him, as he had many questions for me.

I did my best to answer all of them.


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Reader Comments (14)

Wow. It is amazing that they all have Gift of the Whale!! The gray whale rescue is but one chapter in your amazing book. You still have plenty of stories and now that you know and are respected by people more powerful than me, you may be able to tell them on the screen.

I have always felt bad about not getting it further. But I am happy that you are known to this group. That is very good.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShaela

Roy and I were extras ^_^ it was a lot of fun, looking forward to seeing the movie!

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSharene

I can't wait to see the movie, and who knows, maybe there will be some opportunity's
coming your way from this.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Bill, I love that you helped capture the importance of this event. It wasn't just about whales, it was the socio-political atmosphere with an aging Soviet-era and American relations. Neocons at the helm and the green movement butting its head against a resource hungry administration.

Like Depression-era folks clung to Seabiscuit as a representative of hope and proof that the underdog could win, people couldn't help but respond to those erstwhile whales that faced a useless and cruel death sentence if we let Mother Nature take its course.

Many would argue it was out of our hands, but the compassion of the local hunters (the irony is not lost on me) brought out the best in most players involved.

I'm glad you were a part of it to paint the picture, cement it in time. Like you say, What if? What if you didn't go? What if you didn't take pictures? What kind of flawed and insulting liberties would a Hollywood outfit take?

I'm also glad you were given such props, you deserved that invitation if not a little more. It's a treat for us to read about your day of celebrity. Hopefully this project that John Bailey suggested you consider pans out, it sounds exciting. You probably thought this chapter was closed in your life, just one of the most amazing adventures one can have living in Alaska if they chose to live the way you do - but here it came to life in front of you, in small thanks to you.

Quyana and congrats!

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentericvillages

Bill, it is so nice to see you up there and see so many people appreciating what you have done with your book. I'd bet that you and Margie will perhaps be invited for a paid for trip to the opening of the film in LA and walk the red carpet with pride knowing that you contributed so much to the backstory with your detailed tome.

Your children, and grandchildren, (and cats!) must be constantly amazed at what a great storyteller and photographer their father and grandfather is. Benton and I were reading your post about Lisa the truckdriver last night and remarking on your wonderful ability to craft a fabulous story. Who knew that Lisa was nearly our neighbor as well. Such is life here in Wasilla, Alaska. Nice to see that our more deserving citizens are getting their time in the limelight as well. Perhaps Wasilla will suffer no more when people finally realize that good, smart and talented people reside here.

Thanks again from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to document and share your life through your stories and photos.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia Greene

Hi Bill, thanks for the heads up on the movie. As an Inupiaq from Kotzebue, I truly enjoy your book and the stories (I live here in Palmer now and when I get homesick, I look at the pictures in your book and I feel at home again).

There aren't many photographers who can also write well. Nick Jans and maybe Seth Cantner now. But your work is incredible. You should be proud of that.

You know what would really make a Hollywood hit that I'm surprised hasn't been made into a movie yet? The story of the "Firecracker Boys". The near-atomic-destruction of our region many years ago. The story of the biologists suggesting it shouldn't happen, and then getting fired. The story from the Inupiat side of it.

In a world where energy development is of prime importance, it's important to inform the public on our government's actions in the past. What it sheds light on is their increasing ability to be sneakier about energy issues than ever before. Movies like Erin Brokavich (sp?) are proof that it's a valid genre.

With the ice receding further and further north, oil companies are going to rape and pillage the resources. I'm highly opposed to offshore drilling in the Arctic. If there's ever a spill, that oil will float to the bottom of the ice which, in it's platelets, starts the food chain for shrimp, tomcods, seals, and polar bears. There's NO WAY the bottom of ice can be cleaned up.

Also, shipping lanes are going to be coming through our area...right past where the atomic blast was supposed to happen. It would be great to put that area on the map of American's minds so that it gets the stringent regulation it deserves.

Are you ready to write a million-dollar screenplay??? TTFN

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLance Kramer

congratulations, bill! hope this is the start of many good things coming your way.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

Something tells me I wouldn't be surprised to read on your blog one day, that you and Margie will receive an Invitation package to the premiere of the movie!!

I look forward to reading your blog entries as I have been searching to find what the story is about as I do not live in AK.

Congratulations to you for the recognition by the many individuals you photographed above who found your book invaluable.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterde

Wow! Can't wait for you to tell the story.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Hi BIll! I'd like to pick up a copy of your book for myself. I found it on Amazon, but I was curious if that's the best way to do so, or if you perhaps sell any copies directly. Let me know!

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Fry

Congratulations, Bill--I hope that this leads to other great experiences for you, and that the idea that was sparked that day comes to fruition.

November 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

Jim and I are so thrilled at this news for you! Mazel tov!!!! Cyndy E

November 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy E

Bill your last two posts have been even more spectacular than usual! I hope something positive comes through for you because of this film (I think they should do a separate package of your experience there....overlaid with your photographs...and pay you for that! ... for the hbo special). Congratulations on being one of the primary documentarians for that story though.

one question--when you distort the background, do you have to cut out the people with the magnetic lasso (or other tool) in order to isolate the background...or is there an easier way to do that? thanks in advance if you have time to answer my question.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdahli22

With trailer now out at least some of the blanks can be filled in with regard to the photos. Drew is apparently the girl with the back to your camera in the blue parka and it is amazing to see, as you reported, how realistic the Barrow street scene set was crafted. The URL for the trailer can be located on the ADN.com website under the Hollywood Alaska blog link. (The movie has been renamed "Big Miracle" with a release date of February 3rd, 2012.)

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDale

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