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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What would you do if you found $50,000 lying in the road in an unmarked suitcase? 

As 2010 drew to its close, Gilford Mongoyak, Jr. was driving near Sam & Lee's Restaurant in his hometown of Barrow when he saw a suitcase lying in the road. Gilford does not own a car, but he had rented this one so that he could take care of some year-end business. Before returning it, he thought that he would just take a nice little evening drive about Barrow and that is what he was doing when he came upon the suitcase.

There were other people out and about, on the road, walking, driving, but no one paid any attention to the suitcase. Gilford drove right past it himself, but then decided that he ought to check it out. He backed up, picked up the suitcase and examined the outside of it.

It carried no identification, so he drove home and took the suitcase inside and showed it to his wife. They did not want to open it, but they did want to return it to its rightful owner and so they opened it up to see if there was any ID inside.

There wasn't, but there was something bundled up in white wrapping paper. "I opened that up," Gilford told me over the phone after I called him to find out this event that I had first learned about through Facebook had come to pass. "I found bills. I said to my wife, "it looks like $10,000."

They did not know what to do, so they started to talk.

"My hands kind of started really shaking with that kind of money right there," he says. "We say, really, what should we do? So my wife and I decided the best thing to do was to take it to Public Safety (Police Department)."


I took the above snapshot of Gilford day last August after I happened upon him as I walked through the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow. I thought that it would be good to include Gilford in a project that I am working on and so I took this quick snapshot to remind me to go back and find him at later date when I had the time to do it right.

So Gilford and his wife took the suitcase to the Police Department. They entered to find a receptionist behind an opaque black window. They stated their business and then a police officer came out to see them.

"You won't believe what I found," Gilford remembers telling him, "look, it's $10,000."

The officer opened up the suitcase and studied the contents

"Then he took a look up at me and said, 'you know what? It's not $10,000. It's $50,000.'"

Gilford asked the officer if anyone was looking for $50,000. The officer told him yes, a woman from Osaka Restaurant.


Due to a back injury, Gilford is unable to work in the labor force that once sustained him. He supports himself primarily through the sale of his art. Here, he has set up in the Heritage Center. Some days, he does okay. Somedays, there are no sales.

Shortly after that, some other officers came in, as well as woman from Osaka who Gilford believes was the owner. I called Osaka to see if could find out who she was, talk to her and get more information, but was told that no one could talk to me about the matter. I also called the Police Department, where a spokesman told me that they could not comment at this time.

Gilford describes the woman as being very happy to get the money back and says she was wearing mink. He believes she had planned to leave on the evening flight south.

"She asked for my name and number. She was happy, shaking," he recalls. "I thought she would call me that night."

She never did call, so a couple of days later, Gilford called her. "I asked her if there is any reward. She said, 'I buy you dinner?'"

The offer did not appeal to him.

There were those who told him that instead of an offer for free meal, he could have kept the entire $50,000 and no one would ever have known.

"A lot of my friends told me that. But I was raised in a good Christian home with a good Christian mom and dad. They always taught me to do the right thing. I have friends who are saying that I was a good Samaritan. My daughter is proud of me." 

His sister, Claudia Mongoyak, who first informed me of Gilford's discovery is also proud of her brother. "I am honored to have such an honest and trustworthy brother," she told me on Facebook.

"My brother Gilford is unemployed due to back problems and makes a living out of selling his carvings and jewelry. He once found a wallker with $500 or $600 in it and called that person and that person was so appreciative to get her wallet back." 

As to the offer of a free dinner at Osaka, "I don't know what to say about that. LOL."

If he could have kept the money, one friend asked, what would he have done with it? "I would have bought a brand new washer and dryer. Our windows are no good. They let too much cold air in. I would have totally fixed the house up.

"I was rich for like 15 or 20 minutes," he laughed.

If anyone should care to learn more about Gilford and his art or to make a purchase, he can be contacted at gmongoyakjr@hotmail.com.


And this from Wasilla:

The holiday is over and the boys have returned to Anchorage to go to day care and be with their parents, but, before they did, Kalib grew bored with doorknobs. He decided the best way to get into a pantry is with his spatula.

When his mom arrived to pick him up, he raced to the window and kissed her through the glass.

Jobe was greatly amused by the walking fingers of his grandma.

Jobe and Kalib spend their last moments with this season's Christmas tree. I am very sad to say it, but next time they come out this tree will be gone.

The holiday season is over.

The carols will now fall silent.

That certain feeling that comes only at Christmas is gone and will not be back for nearly a year.


And this one from India:

About 35 or so miles south of the broiling city of Chennai sits the temple at Mamallapuram, cut entirely out of the rock face of a low cliff.


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Reader Comments (23)

Great man...big hearted and honest. Nice story. Nice pictures.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGane

My husband and son will be traveling to Barrow for basketball games (Go Wolverines!). Just so happens to be very near my birthday. I will put in heavy hints for a baleen/ivory bracelet :)

Thank you Bill, for sharing this story. May blessings abound in the New Year for you and yours.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia

What a lovely Man

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Dang, only a dinner? What is up with people? Gilford will receive his just karma.

Thanks for the better ending of seeing the boys.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Dang! I'll have to put Osaka Restaurant. on my list. (You know which list.)

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert Lewis

What would I do? I would turn the money over to the Police. It would be the right thing to do. Besides, next time, it might not be a wealthy woman in Mink but a suitcase headed towards surgery, charity, etc...

Thank you for sharing such a nice story, especially during the holiday.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob

I would turn the money in..
But just a dinner.. man.. it's not like it was a 100.00 she lost...

I wish she would have helped him.. so he could have gotten the few things he needed for his home..

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRocksee

She should have been charged a "dumbass fine" for carrying money in a suitcase and managing to lose it.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermocha

Mr. & Mrs. Gilford Mongoyak, Jr. are Honorable and Respectful in the eyes of those of us who realize how priceless honesty is. Unfortunately, honor and honesty are becoming more rare in this era. Congratulations to both of You for honoring Your Ancestors and Family by doing what is right!!!!

Were I rich, I'd send You $50,000!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarlin Savage

great story, bill! gilford did the right thing, the woman did not. as big-hearted as he was, that's as small-minded as she was. perhaps we should send kalib after her with his spatula.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

Doesn't Barrow have a bank? With that much money in cash, could it be that it would not be reported to the IRS? Something is fishy with the lady in mink, and she is lucky that an honest person did the right thing, now she just has to worry about the poor PR for her place of business, reminds me of the old Alaskan saying, oh, they're the rip,rape and run type.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAK CONSERVATIVE

Thanks, Bill , for letting us know that good people are still out there. I believe in the goodness of people and do business here in Wasilla with few legal contracts, just on a verbal agreement. I have been burned a few times but don't let those few change my way of doing business.

I agree with Michelle. Karma..........

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAKPonyGirl

There may be some IRS type Karma headed for the now identified restaurant owners traveling South with a suitcase full of $50,000 cash.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia Greene

Oh yeah. Osaka Restaurant in Barrow, Alaska will definitely loose customers over this stint. Ungrateful, greedy people. if that suit case had been picked up by a crook, Osaka would've definitely lost out on $50K. They need to start packing and getting the you know what outta here.

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterInupiatpride

Thanks! And I should note that both the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Dispatch linked to this article and many comments are coming in there that do not show up here:



January 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

Bill, a man with values if you have internet access or a website, I'd like to buy some. To the woman in the mink. I hope the negative karma rains down on you. Disgusting example of a business woman.

To the author, thank you we see the good, the bad and the ugly all in one story.


January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Jones

I've never left a comment for you before although I visit every day. You are a piece of sanity for me in this crazy world.

I will be purchasing some pieces from Gilford and enjoyed this post about what it really means to be a good person.

I would also like to offer my services to set up a website for Gilford to sell his goods and share his skill and Alaska with the world if there is a way for him to receive payment via the internet/paypal, however. Bill if this is of interest please contact me via e-mail.

I truly appreciate the slices of life you share with us and look forward to your posts. We never know what exciting things you'll surprise us with or what glorious pics we'll be blessed with but you never disappoint.

Tell Margie she's a fine example of a Grandmother and Mother's love too!

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDootDiddyDoot

What a True Soul! Amazing real life story ever!

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuji

If you do build the website I will be a buyer, I bought ivory throughout villages served by Nome. Lived there 3 years, Little Diomede, Shishmaref, Savoonga, Gamble, wales, Brevig, I have none from Barrow.

He didn't do this good deed for advertising, he did it because it was right thing to do. With your heart helping him with a website, shows that good deeds multiply and soon become contagious. All for it.

Anchorage & the Philippines

January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Jones

there is a website, Etsy.com that allows people to sell their handmade products on it.... Your friend may find a much wider audience if he could do something that that for his beautiful artwork..

January 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersallahdog

The honesty that this man revealed is priceless. These are good people who knew that they couldn't, with a clear conscience keep money that wasn't theirs. As for the owner of the Osaka restaurant....Boycott them right out of Barrow! A small town like that does not need selfish and unappreciative people doing business in their town! BOYCOTT OSAKA!!!!

January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob C.


January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPISSED INUPIAQ!

I have lived in Alaska for 33 years and have not gotten the pleasure of visiting any small rural towns but it is an honor to read of such a wonderful person. You sir are an example to be followed. I pray that God will bless your business and your family with prosperity in all that you do.
I also pray that the owner of the Osaka restaurant, receives the Karma she deserves. Got to love how the town seems to be rallying to oust this seemingly vile person.

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebra

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