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 go to a place of rescue and get a cut

I came to Barrow looking pretty shaggy, as I had not had a haircut or beard trim since mid-May, just before I left for Arizona. So I headed over to the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue building so that Johnny Adams could cut my hair. Naturally, I photographed the entire event with my pocket camera, which, I am afraid, needs either to be replaced or to go back to the factory, as the design of the lens makes it nearly impossible to properly clean and it has degraded. Even so, I keep taking pictures with it, because I can carry it about in my pocket.

Just as we did last summer, Johnny and I posed for a "before" shot before he began to cut.

This time, I decided not only to photograph Johnny and I, but the scenes around us as he cut. This was the scene that I saw directly in front of me. As laid back and casual as everything may look, I must emphasize that the people who gather in this building tend to be hunters who know the tundra, the rivers, the lakes, the sea and the ice in a way that few people do and that is why they are members of the Barrow Volunteer Search and rescue.

Many search and rescue operations have launched from this place, with continual radio communication back and forth between those who stay put to man the base station and those who go out in the field by boat, snowmachine and snowshoe and who fly as spotters in North Slope Borough Search and Rescue airplanes and helicopters.

Many lives have been saved because of the people who gather here and the activities they engage in.

Even during those periods of time when there is no rescue operation in progress, volunteers come in and out to play cards, drink coffee, chat and just to be together with like-minded people who know the country as they do.

Johnny cuts away. You might notice a little red in my eye - in fact, for the past three days there has been a lot of red in my eye and for a while it really hurt, too, but it's not so bad now.

I don't know what happened. Maybe the wind blew something into it or maybe I scratched it with my camera while shooting pictures of the football game.

All I know is that I went to bed unaware of it one night and when I woke up in the morning it hurt and my eye was bloodshot. I have been dropping Visine into it a couple of times a day.

For readers who may not know it, that is bowhead baleen hanging above the door with the American flag.

Johnny trims my 'stache like a true master. 

Roy Ahmaogak, my friend and host and the man who, in October of 1988, discovered the three gray whales trapped in the ice off Point Barrow, Carlson Segevan and William Aguvluk.

My beard and 'stache was a challenge, but Johnny was up to it.

Kunuk, the whaling captain who took me on the ice with him for four spring whaling seasons in a row. Those of you who have read my book know him already and you have seen images of the moment that the whale appeared before him and gave itself to him.

I mentioned this before, but I will mention it again. At those parties I would sometimes go to back in those days, Johnny would pull out his guitar and sing, "This land is your land..." but instead of from New York to California it would be from Barter Island to Point Hope, from the Arctic Coast to the Brooks Range Mountains - the home of the Iñupiat. 

Everybody here loved it.

Wasca Williams is amazed at the masterpiece unfolding before him. Wasca is the cousin of Mike Williams, the famous Yupiaq Iditarod dog musher from Akiak. Wasca also grew up in Southwest Alaska, but married a Barrow Brower girl, joined the family whaling crew and is a true Barrow person.

When I was a kid of about eight, my nose was about four inches longer than it is now, but my mom once got careless while trimming my mustache and accidently snipped that four inches off.

Due to that little mishap, I had a most sensitive sense of smell. I could detect any kind of odor from as far 25 miles away - even upwind.

This had its advantages and its disadvantages.

I didn't worry at all about Johnny accidently snipping off what's left of my nose.

Savik, Roy's dad right next door and who keeps his house, refrigerator and shower open to me, blocks out the light so that he can get a better look.

He tells me I suddenly look 20 years younger. Or did he say I suddenly look like I'm only 20 years old?

It was one of those.

Johnny and I pose for the after shot.

You did a fine job, Johnny - especially considering that you didn't have much to work with in the first place.

After the cut, I hung around a bit. This is Eli Solomon, who readers of Gift of the Whale know as the shoulder gunner who was behind Kunuk when the whale came.

One time, I was somewhere - I can't remember where - when a man, also a hunter - I can't remember who - started to give me a hard time. Eli jumped right in and defended me against one of his own.

I may not remember the place or the man, but I will never forget the act.

Johnny steps into the room to take another look at his work.

"You look like Bill again," he says.

That's Patrick Brower on the left.

Vincent Nageak, who you can see in Gift of the Whale hunting ducks on the ice when the lead was closed, Apuk, who I once camped out with at 60 below with the Alaska National Guard on Operation Brimfrost and Glenn Kignak.

Glenn Kignak.

Lloyd "Boo Boo" Stein, naps with bears and elk.

Isabelle Panigeo, the only lady in the house.

Just before I left, Whitlam Adams, who makes excellent jewelry from ivory, baleen and other materials, came in. Clearly, he was impressed with Johnny's work.

Before signing off, I will note that, due to some kind of satellite mishap, internet service here in Barrow is very spotty right now, with no service periods lasting for hours at a time. I don't know how many days this situation might continue, or what it might mean for this blog over the next few days.


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Reader Comments (9)

looks so fun :D

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterladyulia

"When I was a kid of about eight, my nose was about four inches longer than it is now, but my mom once got careless while trimming my mustache and accidently snipped that four inches off."

This tells me a lot about the kind of delightful dad you were (ARE) to your children. What were you doing with a 'stache at the age of eight? LOL!

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthe problem child

Looking good Bill! An oldie but a goodie: you clean up well.

Wonderful people you are surrounded with, I can just tell.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

i love the outcome, i practically jumped out of my seat . . . uncle Johnny does a good job everytime. we have video of my soon to be 14 yr old son's first haircut by Johnny. both my daughter, krystal and I cried. he had some cute curls and we didn't want them cut off. :)

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEllen June

You shoulda got a Mohawk!

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames Mason

looking good Bill :)

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

You look great Bill! 20 yrs younger for sure :)
Love this post, those faces are great. Men who know their country, uncommon men among men. Tough people, salted and seasoned and visually delicious. You take great pictures, capturing those lines and looks, the real face of the people. You are a talented, talented man.
(and handsome, when we can see your face :)

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMikey

When I read your title, I read it as "I go to a place of rescue and get a cat." And I thought, "Goody! They've found Fat Cat." Imagine my surprise to see you getting a hair cut. Now, don't get me wrong...it was over due, and truth be told, you did look a little like something that cat dragged in, for the first few pictures, anyway. I also enjoyed looking at the pictures of all your old friends and plan to get out my book and compare the faces of what they are with what they were, but, my friend, have you heard an ending for the story of Fat Cat?

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

I appreciate the comments and I actually wanted to get a Mohawk and asked Johnny to do it, but he said my hair was too fine and would not stand up right and, as an artist with integrity, he would not do it.

Debby, this pains me more greatly than many might understand but the last word I had was that Fat Cat had not been found. This does not mean that she has not appeared at someone's home, somewhere, or that she won't yet, but it does not cause me to feel a great deal of hope.

August 14, 2010 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

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