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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« Five studies of Jobe | Main | Time forces this blog back into Wasilla, but it will return to Cross Island tomorrow and will romp with polar bears »

Cross Island - where polar bears can come knocking at your door - or window - or just go through the wall

A nanuq on Cross Island.*

A polar bear punched this hole in the wall.

Mother and child.

Please note the unfinished wood behind Maniksaq Nukapigak. It was placed there as part of a major repair job after a nanuq smashed through the wall when no one was home and helped itself to all that it desired. It moved things around and trashed the inside of the cabin.

Handsome young one.

The fellow in the mirror fragment is Maniksaq's dad - whaling captain Isaac Nukapigak. After the bear went through the outside wall and entered the cabin it came face to face with itself in a mirror on the opposite wall. It smashed the bear in the mirror.

There she is - Ms. Nanuq with her two, nearly grown, cubs.

This is James Tuckfield, "Jamie." In the early morning of this day, he was inside the cabin, sitting against the wall opposite this window when he saw something round and black appear at the spot where his finger is. It was a polar bear nose.

Nanuq siblings.

The nose began to slide up the window. Jamie demonstrates the facial gestures and paw movements that he saw the bear make as it rose up behind the window.

The siblings seem to get along well.

Jamie continues to describe what he saw.

Momma nanuq, once again.

That bear got pretty animated. On the inside, Jamie and others in the cabin also got animated as they put on a frightening show, hoping to scare the bear away.

Cub follows mom.

The bear left. All was good. There was a new story to tell.

Jamie invites me in to visit. He is famous for his maktak soup and is cooking up a pot right now. I will have a bowl later - and another after that. Jamie's fame is well deserved. 

As Jamie cooks, a young hunter peers through the window and spots more polar bears.

It was these three, who I first showed you last week, as they walked nonchalantly down the beach, ignoring the humans who they knew were watching them.

Now, suddenly, one of the cubs takes an interest.

Not far out of the frame, another adult bear shows up as well.

The people take an interest in the bears. He is not bringing the gun out to hunt, but, if need be, to frighten off the bears and, if absolutely need be, to down a bear in defense of human life.

The Iñupiat hunt bears and they hunt them on this island, but right now they are taking care of their whale harvest and want to save their energy for that. They do not want to be forced to shoot a bear.

They get checked out pretty closely.

He closely checks out the bear through the scope. The young hunter wants to take a closer look, too.

Buddy Napageak has decided these bears are not a threat - but he will remain ready should anything change.

I go back in to visit as Jamie continues to cook. Whaling captain Carl Brower, who owns this connex cabin, looks out the window and sees more bears. Willie reads a Louis Lamour western.

More bears. As the reader can see, the hour of deep darkness draws nigh. I have to push my ISO up to 6400.

Another mother has come with two smaller cubs, including this one.

The cubs. The one at the right will wander about 100 feet or so away from the other and a bit farther than that from the mother. Ivory, the dog who I recently introduced in a previous post, will chase after that cub.

And then the cub's mother charges Ivory. It was an amazing thing to witness the speed, power and determined force with which the sow charged after Ivory - and it was a little frightening, too. I did not succeed at photographing it - other than this blurry image. Given the low light, my camera just could not zero in on the focus in the brief moment.

Ivory comes running back.

Mom and cubs leave.

Buddy with Ivory, who is safe. Buddy loves the dog greatly, but is quick to point out that Ivory is as much the dog of his brother, whaling captain Thomas Napageak, Jr., as his.

The bears gather to pick scraps off of some bowhead skulls. It is now so dark that I can only shoot at a very slow shutter speed.

I should note that I have a special polar bear story and photo essay from this trip that I am saving exclusively for Uiñiq, so it won't be seen on this blog until well after Uiñiq has had a chance to circulate through its readership.


*A special thanks to Whaling Captain Edward Nukapigak Jr., my host and the man who made it possible for me to take the opening series of close photos. Up until the time we left, I had only been able to get distant shots, almost all in very low light. When it came time to go home, Edward's crew was the last to leave Cross Island. After we had traveled about a quarter mile offshore, Edward spotted six bears on the beach, very close to the place from which we had launched. He turned around and took me right to them.

I could have spent all day photographing those bears, but I am exceptionally grateful for the several minutes that Edward gave me.

I have thought about the Cross Island bears many times since. I want to go back and hang out with them some more. I just want to go back to Cross Island. It can be a cold, bitter, lonesome, dangerous place, but I want to go back.


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Reader Comments (17)

Your eye and your camera , in bringing my neighbors' faces and lives truly to life, are treasures beyond compare.
Thank you.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlaska Pi

OMG! O...M...G!

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIn The Zone

thank you for sharing this with us...what magnificent animals, although i think if i was there in person i'd be a little (lot) afraid of them

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Wow. Just wow. I am thinking that is all I ever say when I comment. Oh well. Wow.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

WOW. Fantastic.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Beautiful as usual Bill. Thank you!

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterManxMamma

What extraordinary, majestic creatures!

Bill, thank you for your comment to me on burn.
I truly look forward to meeting you when you next find yourself in Seattle.


September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatia

Hahaha those pictures of Jamie are hilarious. :)

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Fry

I think this may be my favorite post of all time. Jamie's fame as a maker of maktak soup may well be eclipsed by his fame as a story teller extraordinaire.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

Thank you! That was exciting and very brave...! I love your dog. Continued good luck with your photographs...you are fortunate to live in a beautiful place that you can document with your camera...and share with us... Thanks, again..!

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRockyMissouri

Surely you know about Kaktovik? The bears live there also in Sept. You can get very close to them.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamara H.

Your words bring life to these great pictures. I am amazed at a whole new world that is so very very different from the tropical life that I have lived all my life and know only of.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVijay

astonishingly beautiful, bill! i'm listing this post on my blogroll. words cannot express my feeling that i was there among the polar bars. liked seeing the bottom of one of them's paws - super shot! also liked the pebbled beach. i would actually order posters of these if they're available.

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Z Deming

BILL Hess!
Glad to see that you are doing well.
FINALLY Back HOME @ Unalakleet - working as Housing Director for the Native Village of Unalakleet.
Nayangaat to our Inupaat friends on the Arctic Coast !

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenter"Sovereign Sheldon"

OMG! How close are you to the bear!?! I would be running the other way if I saw that, probably not the thing to do huh?

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdaughter n law

Is there a connection between your easy photography of polar bears and global warming? Shouldn't they be off on ice floes somewhere instead of ashore? I don't want to sound hysterical, but....

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEyak Jeff

Great stuff Bill thanks.

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark W

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