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 have created my own Arctic winter day of night, right here in Wasilla; the new Uiñiq - front cover

I think I must be homesick for Barrow and the Arctic Slope, for those long nights that extend all the way through the day with no sun ever rising; those all-day nights during which, if one wants, one can slip into the comfort of a warm cacoon of darkness, hidden and protected there from the glare of world.

I think I must be homesick for this because, to the degree that is possible, I have converted Wasilla into a place where the winter sun never rises. Actually, it does, for just a few hours, but I go to sleep before those hours begin and wake up after they have passed.

So I do not see the sun. It is as if it never rose at all.

Today, I arose at 3:38 PM, pretty much right at the moment of sundown. It was time to head out for my regular afternoon coffee break, even though I had begun no task that I needed to take a break from, and to head to the drive-through of Metro Cafe, which is exactly what I did. I took this picture along the way. Admittedly, this is not a very good picture - I missed the good picture by a few seconds. It happened while I was too far back to get it, although I could have if I had had a bigger lens on the camera.

In the good picture, the one that I missed, the school bus had stopped and all of a sudden a whole passel of kids shot out and in a line sprinted through this little patch of light.

Oh, did it look neat!

By the time I got close enough to take that excellent shot, it was gone. A straggler got off and headed through the light, so I took this picture, so that I could tell you all about the one I had missed.

A couple of hours later, Margie was about to fix dinner. For some strange reason, I felt very hungry and decided that this a night to go out for steak - something we do maybe once every couple of years or so.

So we did, and here were are, at Denali Family Restaurant, where we had never tried dinner before. Margie had a chicken fried steak. They had a special that covered their New York steaks - $3.00 off but still pretty darned expensive, so I ordered one. The baked potato was very good, the roll was delicious - tasted like it might have been fresh out of the oven - and the once frozen half-ear of corn on the cob tasted the way corn on the cobs that have been frozen tend to taste.

The New York steak - it was okay. Not great, but okay and being okay it still tasted good. One would not call it "superb," "exquisite," "mouth watering" or anything like that. It was okay. Good enough.

Afterward, our waitress asked us if we wanted dessert, but we declined and went home, where I scooped up some Rocky Road out of the carton and made myself an ice cream cone.

I am happy to report that my shingles are diminishing. They are still there, but to a much lighter and more bearable degree than just two days ago. Maybe by this time next week, they will be gone altogether. My need for copious amounts of sleep still remains, however. 

Now I need to see if I can a little work done, so that I can finish up today's tasks in time to go to bed before the sun rises.

And here is the cover of my latest Uiñiq:

This is whaling captain Billy Oyagak of Nuiqsut, standing in the middle with members of his crew on Cross Island, balleen from their whale behind them. Other successful captains and crews that fall season of 2010 were Herbert Ipalook, Thomas Napageak and Edward Nukapigak, who hosted me.

That season happened very fast. The crews left Nuiqsut almost at the very end of August and arrived at Cross Island to find the weather perfect and whales passing by in good numbers. I could not come until September 2. Originally, I thought they might possibly have landed a whale or two by then, but that there would still be at least two, maybe three strikes left for me to follow.

As it happened they had landed all four before I even got there. They were still cutting and putting up the whales, and there were polar bears wandering about. I had a good time, took lots of pictures, but still fell far short of what I had hoped to do.

So I want to go back, get in a boat at Nuiqsut and ride out to Cross Island with them. Stay for a month, come back at Naluktak and a few other times, too. I had hoped to go back this year, but irony of ironies, I could not because I was working on getting this Uiñiq done. Nuiqsut/Cross Island was the first story that I laid out and originally I laid it out huge - my first layout filled up almost the entire 120 page magazine. But then, as I worked other storeis in, I had to keep cutting it back and cutting it back and so in the end it wound up at 17 pages.

That still left it as the largest single spread in the magazine, but 17 pages wasn't enough to even begin to do Cross Island-Nuiqsut justice. I couldn't even leave my polar bear shots in, and I had a couple of magnificent polar bear shots and a fun story based on polar bears coming into and passing by camp. Elsewhere in the magazine, I had a double-truck polar bear shot I took on the sea ice off Barrow, and that took up all the space I could afford to give to polar bears in this Uiñiq.

So I hope to go back and somehow find the way to produce either a Uiñiq or a Uiñiq sized or bigger publication wholly on Cross Island and Nuiqsut. In fact, I would like to do that with every village on the Slope - and some off the Slope, too, like Fort Yukon and Arctic Village.

But how do I all this? The decades are flying by. I still think of myself as a young man, fit and strong enough to do anything, but in fact I am on the verge of becoming old - and this bout with shingles that I have just about but not quite won is kind of a telling sign. And this work is not easy to do. It is hard - both in the field and back home, when it becomes necessary to put in 20 hours, 24 hour, 30 hour and even 40 hour days to ever get it done.

I do not wish to listen to this sign the shingles have given me. Yet, if I don't, and just keep living in the manner that I have so far lived, I might just get taken down and not get anymore done at all.

And there was a great deal of material that I gathered from all over that I did not manage to get in at all. I don't why, after all this time, but when I set out to make a 116 page publication (which is what it was budgeted for but I pushed it up to 120 at my own expense) I think that gives me enough space to cover the whole world.

So I shoot this, and I shoot that; I go here, I go there, I interview this person and that person and all the time I am thinking I can work it all in and then when it comes down to it, I can only work a fraction of it in.

That's one of the reason I plan to create on online magazine. I could work it all into an online magazine. I remain at a bit of a loss on how to go about it. I have a colleague who is expert at online publishing and he says he will help me set it up. He's booked solid until January. Once he helps me set the format I want, then how do I fund it?

It ain't cheap to travel around Alaska, you know.

Still, we will see what happens then.

For sure, I need a new airplane. I don't merely want one, I need one. It seems impossible right now, but I know it's not.

Well, I've been rambling, writing more words than most visitors will ever read. Guess I'll stop now.

I've got some things I must do and I had better get at it if I want to get to bed before sunrise.


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Reader Comments (6)

I admit I had to google "balleen". Such a Celtic looking word. Who would think that they came from the mouth of a whale!

I wish you continual improvement with your shingles.

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManxMamma

So that's what baleen looks like! I've never seen it before - what a great picture! It looks like feathers a bit, doesn't it.

I've been reading your blog for a while, and it's become one of my favorites. It's so calm and has wonderful pictures. Makes me want to live in Alaska, to know the kinds of people you know, to eat in those diners, to watch the sun set at 3PM. You and yours are a true representation of what Alaska is. Thank you for all the good things your blog has done for me.

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteravsutton

Greetings! You could never write too many words for this visitor! I may always be doing catch-up reading; but never regret the time spent reading your blog. Thanks for the pictures and stories.

Good health to you and Margie. But I have to wonder.....did some cosmic shockwave hit the earth and jiggle peoples stones loose? Just before Margie had her attack, my sister had to have emergency gallbaladder surgery. Hmmmmm... ;-)

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJersey Babs

Bill ...

What about working up a project description and entering the Pepsi Challenge Refresh Everything grant contest that Pepsi runs each month? The categories are Education, Communities, and Arts & Music ... you cover all of those in your wanderings. I believe the top 10 vote getters in each category every month are funded. You have a unique perspective and could bring your stories of Alaska and the native people of the North Slope to many more people - that so few of us in the lower 48 know anything about. Wouldn't a 50k prize make more of that possible?

You know so many people - and I have no idea how many read here silently like I do - you'd have to social network a little harder - but I think you would have a project that was unlike any other proposed AND many people who would vote for you each day. Each person gets 5 votes a day - one per project (two if the voter also texts a vote). Do you have a Facebook page? Another good place to network and ask for votes but you need to work it.

Do check it out and let us know when we can vote for your project. :)


Also, I have never seen any information here as to how one might purchase a copy of Uiniq. You're an evocative writer and photographer - how about a little more aggressive marketing? C'mon, toot your horn! You just might be able to fund larger print runs and more travel.

Hope this might help jumpstart something!

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCatsPaw

glad the shingles are getting better. an online mag is a great idea. have your friend help u with the set-up and other professionals too. i pay $15 a month for the online NY Times and would be willing to pay something for your mag. See if there are any grants from the state of AK to help fund you. or private foundations. get some of your family members to help you with all this. i'd have no money at all if i hadn't gotten some grants to run my support group www.newdirectionssupport.org.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

Manx Mama - I suppose I should have defined what balleen is. It's so much a part of the world that I live in that I forget it is not common knowledge everywhere.

avsutton - with such a name, you should live here. The community of Sutton is maybe 25 miles east of here on the edge of the Matanuska River - and in one of the prettiest settings you will ever see.

Jersey Babbs - I think maybe there was such a shockwave. A friend of mine was also struck by shingles same time as me.

CatsPaw - I will certainly look into the Pepsi Challenge. I am never optimistic about winning anything like that, but it wouldn't hurt to try.

As for Uiñiq, its distribution is pretty much limited to the eight communities within the North Slope Borough, the funder. It is not sold. You are right on the marketing end, but that is also very hard to do.

Ruth - good suggestions - grants I have tried and failed. It is really hard for people who make art grants and even photojournalism grants to see blogs as serious forms of art or photojournalism. I will keep trying, though. As far as going to my family for funding? No, I couldn't do that. They've got their own dreams to pursue.

December 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

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