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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When on the ice, always look before you pee

I now take the reader back a bit over one month ago, either to the final minutes of May 10 or the opening minutes of May 11. I am unsure which day it was, I only know it was right about midnight, so it could have been either one. It is true that my camera stamps the time shot into the metadata of each image, but it is also true that I have only had this camera for about four years and so have not yet found the time to set the time.

Anyway, it was right about midnight, May 10 - 11, the final full night of my last trip up north. I was in the Saggan whaling camp of Edward Itta, Mayor of the North Slope Borough, and I realized that it was time to visit the latrine.

The people who know the ice will tell you that when on it, you must always be alert and prepared for polar bears. You, or someone nearby, must always have a good rifle or slug-loaded shotgun handy, just in case. I did not have a weapon with me, but this was not really a problem because everyone else in camp did and their eyes are sharp and they are always looking.

As noted, I had to go, so I left the spot at the blind where I had been with the others, watching for bowhead, and walked to the latrine, which was located in the cracks at the base of one of a multitude of ice upheavals. I didn't think much about anything, but just got straight to business.

About three-quarters away through my task, it suddenly occurred to me that had I done all this without even bothering to look about for polar bears. So I raised my head. What you see above is what I saw.

The thing at the bottom of the picture is the windscreen of a snowmachine.

I was in no real danger, because as noted, those whom I was with are sharp-eyed, well-armed, and always looking and even though their attention was focused primarily in the opposite direction, from which a whale might come, they, too, had spotted the bear and began to call out to me, just to be certain that I knew there was a photo opportunity in front of me.

The bear spent some time studying us from various vantage points, pooped, and then moved along to the northeast.

Within an hour or so of when I took these pictures, the wind had turned to the southwest. Ice was advancing, the lead was closing and we had to pull back.

The happenings of the next 30 hours or so are among the most frustrating happenings of this year for me ever in my career. In the hope that a whale would come to this camp, I had already delayed my departure by a couple of days over my plan. I needed to get home, prepare a few things and then head to Tok and Fairbanks to cover the honoring of Ahtna elder Dr. Katie John, but I had held off pushed my departure back to the last moment.

Twelve hours after I had left Barrow, the lead had reopened, conditions had become good, a bowhead came to the Saggan crew and they accepted its gift. For them, for the Iñupiat community of Barrow, I was happy and grateful.

For me, I was devastated. Absolutely. Devastated. Crushed, you could say. No one can know when a whale will come or what crew it will go to. Sometimes, several seasons can pass by without one coming to where you wait. Yet, this time, if I had stayed one more day, I would have been there when the Saggan whale came.

Then, of course, I would have missed Katie John receiving her honorary Doctor of Laws degree and that would have left me devastated as well. 

Sometimes, there is no winning, even when you do win - because I absolutely did win. To be there for all of Katie's honoring was a win... it was a special, once in a lifetime - a long and great lifetime - event, and I had to be there. I just had to.

But I still feel sick inside to have missed the Saggan whale.

What a beautiful, special, event that would have been and how honored I would have felt to have stood as a witness of it.

Originally, I had planned to post coverage of what I saw and experienced that trip to Barrow to the same degree that I posted Point Hope. Although I missed the final event, I none-the-less got several pictures that I believe many readers would have found amazing.

But I did not anticipate how long it would take me and it is just too late, now. Soon, I will be back in Barrow and at the rate I have been going I would still posting my last trip and people would think the snow never ever melts in Barrow, which it does, as you will soon see, right here, on this blog, if I but move along and stay in the present.

So, except for this bear and at least one people story I will yet work in, I am going to drop that coverage for now.

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Reader Comments (7)

Definitely sound advice. :)

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShaela

Beautifull photos. Nice shosts.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJakartaLantern.com

ROFL! Holy mackerel! That would have stopped the flow! Our worst predators in CA are the drive-by shooters! I can't imagine being on ice with no hiding place whatsoever and being at the bottom of the food chain.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWakeUpAmerica

great headline...i see you made the anchorage daily news again. thanks for posting!

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdahli22

Bill, if you know what time it is now, and you know what time the camera is set to, then you can calculate the difference between Wasilla time and camera time. Then, look at the metadata of that image and add back (or subtract) the time difference and you have the time the bear pooped at Point Barrow.

I'm pretty sure I would have pooped too, had I seen that bear.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Garrod

I've been puzzling over the beautiful blue in the last pic (after I got over the scary side of considering how the pics came to be ) and wondering if it is a real measure of ice color or more to do with available light or what... has a similar intensity to our glacial ice here in the pic.
Is now in my top 20 favorite- Bill-Hess photos... at least til you take 20 more which take my fancy :-)

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlaska Pi

All - thanks for the comments.

Martin - Yes, I know I could do that, but close to midnight, on either side, is good enough for me.

Alaska Pi - I believe it has to do with the angle of refraction. In the last picture, the bear is at about about a 90 degree angle from me as compared to the first.

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