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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With her vision going bad, Rose Albert opens her last Iditarod Show; how she came to wear her famous beret

When I was in Barrow for Kivgiq, I received an email from my friend, Rose Albert, telling me that she would be doing her final Iditarod Art show. She invited me to come. 

So of course, when it opened, I was there. The show features her paintings from along the Iditarod Trail, but she also brought a box with her, made of different woods, include alaska yellow cedar that she spent much time searching for.

She carved the box in honor of Lance Mackey, whose Iditarod racing career had appeared to be at its end when he came down with throat cancer. Mackey fought off that cancer and last year won his fourth consecutive race.

That's Mackey above with his team in a 3D image that she carved out of the wood and painted.

Rose will be at the Iditarod restart in Willow tomorrow and she will have the box with her and it will be for sale. She told me the price, but I am not going to quote it here. By my estimation, the value of the box is greater than the quote, so if any reader is a person with a good budget for Alaska Art, that reader would do well to go to the restart and pick up this box from Rose.

The show opened yesterday evening at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation at 6th and E in Anchorage and will run for two months.

Rose brought some of her personal mementos to the show from inside the box. Among them was this belt-buckle that she earned when she ran and finished the race in 1982. Rose, who was born on the Nowitna River and grew up in Ruby, was the first Alaska Native woman to do so.

That's Jeff Schultz doing a high five with Rose. When it comes to photography, Jeff is Mr. Iditarod. This will be his 31st year straight following the race. Anyone who has seen much Iditarod photography has seen Jeff's work.

His image of Dee Dee Jonrowe mushing through the Rainy Pass area in the Alaska Range was chosen by the US Postal to adorn the Alaska Commerative stamp on the 50th anniversary of statehood.

Jeff and his wife Joan are numbered among Rose's best friends.

Rose and Jeff did the high-five after sharing a joke about the painting on the wall just behind them. It shows the village of Eklutna and was inspired by one of Jeff's photographs - as were the other works on display.

Also in the Mackey box was this picture of Rose taken during her Iditarod 1982 race. Riding the sled with her is her late brother, Howard. This is the only picture that Rose has of her historic race - the only one she knows of. I feel badly about that. 

I did not know Rose in 1982, but I did hear of her and when I heard that she was going to be the first Alaska Native woman to run in the race, I wanted to cover her effort for the Tundra Times. I was still new at the paper, had not yet gained much power there and the paper did not have much money.

My request to follow or do a photo essay on her training was denied.

The next year, Rose pulled back so that her brother could run again. By then, I had a little more power and the Tundra Times allowed me to go spend a couple of days with Rose and Howard at their trapping cabin 50 miles upstream from Ruby, at Barron Slough, fifty miles up the Yukon from Ruby. Rose's dad gave the slough that name after a barron moose cow that roamed there. "My happiest memories in life were spent there," Rose says.

It was a wonderful couple of days. Someday, when I write my big -wandering-Alaska-memoire, I think I might begin right there, at Kokrines Creek.

Even though I got to spend that time with them, the Times denied my request to allow me to follow Howard on the race.  I can't blame them. I had not yet learned to fly, I did not have my little airplane, we would have had to charter an airplane and that would have been extremely expensive.

Late the following summer, in a black and tragic moment, Howard left this life behind.

I badly wanted to go to his funeral in Ruby, but the Times said no, if the paper went to the funeral of one prominent Native, then we would have to go to the funerals of all prominent Natives and that would take up too much of our time and resources.

Among the paintings hung was this one of my friend, Mike Williams, who gained fame as the Sobriety Musher after he lost six brothers to alcohol abuse and used the Iditarod Trail to launch his personal war against alcohol and substance abuse.

And this is Rose's depiction of Mike Williams Jr., Mike's son, who will be racing again this year.

This is Trina Landlord, who works at the gallery and was overseeing last night's opening. Trina keeps a blog of her own, Eskimo to the World. 

So now readers who haven't already have two new places to visit - Trina's blog and the Alaska Native Art Foundation.

Among those who came to see the show was Glenn Elliot and his five year old daughter, Abigal. Glenn grew up in Bethel but now lives in Anchorage, but works as a guide in many of Alaska's wild regions.

As for Abigal...

...she had just lost her two front teeth and was pretty proud of it.

Alice Rogoff, cofounder and Chair of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, purchased the painting behind them for herself. Alice is also coowner of the Alaska Dispatch. Most importantly to me, when Margie broke her knee and wrist in a bad fall that she took in Washington, DC on the day of President Obama's inauguration, Alice moved us into her Washington DC guest house and let us stay there for as long as needed for Margie to heal enough to travel back to Alaska.

It was a terribly hard trip, but it would have been so much worse without the help of Alice.

And it was Alice who invited me to present my slideshow last spring at the Alaska House in New York City, which, sadly, has since closed.

As she did last year, Alice will be following this year's race in her airplane.

Rose explains to Alice why she decided she must make this her last art show. Last fall, Rose began to see streaks of light in her left eye. Then, when she started to work on this show, steaks of light would appear in her right eye and a film of mucas covered it and would not go away.

It grew harder and harder to paint until finally she went to an eye doctor. He informed her that she had vitreal detachment in both eyes and this would cause her vision to change for the worse. She also had a virus in her eyes and is being treated for it. 

"The virus is clearing up but my vision definately got worse, making it harder for me to paint in fine detail even with glasses so I use a magnifine glass now. There is nothing that could be done for me at this point unless I start seeing shadows which would mean retinal detachment and they would have to do surgery," Rose told me in an email.

Rose's beautiful Athabascan mother also had French blood in her. By the time Rose was 16, her artistic talent and desire was clear to all of her family. Her father told her that in France, the artists all wore berets and that as she has French blood in her, she should wear a beret, too.

She took her dad's statement to heart. When she is working with and showing her art, Rose always wears a French beret.

I had parked right across from the Fur Rendezvous carnival. It was cold and windy, but before I drove off, I took a five-minute stroll through the carnival. I found these kids fishing...

And this young woman from Phoenix manning a balloon-darting booth.

These two rode an amusement ride. On the first year that we lived in Alaska, we came by the carnival on a day that the temperature stood at -17 F, (-27 C) and the rides were packed, going like crazy. It looked crazy. It seemed crazy.

It was warmer than that yesterday - the temperature was above our F zero but well below the C zero - and it was still cold.

Especially with that biting wind.

What can I say?

Alaska is just a crazy place.

No way around it.

I love this crazy place.

Even Anchorage.

Which is too big and crowded for me.

I knew that I was getting low on gas, and yet I forgot. As I approached the South Birch Creek exit, I suddenly noticed the message that I had five miles to go to empty. I thought I might turn off there and head back to Eagle River, just a couple of miles away, but there is a gas station at Peters Creek which I knew to be just under five miles ahead.

So I continued on. I was a little worried, of course, but when the gas station came into sight, the message said I had one mile to go until empty. I was in good shape.

Still, to get to the station, one must drive past the station a fair distance, take the exit, turn left, pass under the freeway, turn left again, and then drive over about a quarter of a mile to the station.

So that is what I did. But when I made the second left turn I was thinking about something else and not paying enough attention.

Then I realized, all too late, that I had turned left not onto the frontage road to the station, but into the Anchorage-bound lanes of the freeway.

Just as I got back onto the freeway, the fuel message switched to "O miles to empty."


The North Birch Creek Exit was less than a mile away. So I turned off there, then doubled back.

So I drove about two miles on O miles to empty, but made it back to the pump okay.

When I hit the Parks Highway, I found myself behind this wide load. There was no way around it. It was a slow drive. But in time, I made it home.


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Reader Comments (6)

what WONDERFUL art! Its excellent.. I loved when I watched the movie Eight Below and wanted to see a race so badly after that. I would love to meet some dogs like this.
My love n luck to Rose. Such a gifted women.

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuji

What amazing images Rose Albert creates. Learning that they're carved explains the depth. Sight for a visual artist is so important. How sad that this is her last show. I hope that her vision improves, somehow. Regardless, from the images and your blog, she seems to be a resilient woman who will prosper no matter the consequences.

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShaela

beautiful art work..i'm sorry to read about Rose eye sight

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

why don't you ask the ny times or huffington post or other top paper if you can cover the iditerod? as we know, your photos and text are as good if not better than anyone's, bill.

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

Suji - We must see to it that you do meet such dogs - and ride on a sled behind them.

Shaela - Rose is both a talented and a tough lady.

Twain - agreed.

Ruth - Maybe in some future year if I can ever get this blog and the magazine that I plan to it going good, and I can get another airplane and gas money, too, I will follow the Iditarod again. It may sound odd, but I have no desire to cover it for NYT or Huntington. I just want to create my own venues.

Bill, this is one of your most poignant postings. I am sharing this with my friends so they can learn of your special gift, not only for photography but for storytelling as well. I am lucky to have met you in Barrow with the skeleton of the bowhead above us, a meeting you don't remember but I will never forget. Thank you for your work as it is extremely important, interesting, and beautiful.

Your account of the heartaches that are all too common in Alaska should be read by anyone wishing to understand their hardships. This post also drives home why it's so important to preserve the traditional Native way of life, especially subsistence opportunities.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

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