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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Tikigaq: Journey to the Killigvuk whale

The snowmachine and sled ride depicted in my post of two days ago took us to the whale camp of Rex Rock, Sr., where we would transfer to the umiak for the trip to the whale taken by Isaac Killigvuk and crew - as soon as the harpoons and darting guns were made ready. The weapons would not be used on this trip, as a "cease fire" was in place until the Killigvuk whale was landed.

Just before we boarded the umiak, some belugas swam by.

This was the first time not only on the ice and at whale camp but certainly in an umiak for Al Sokaitis (left in white) and Mike Hajdukovich (right in black) of Challenge Life Alaska. The boat rocked a bit when we launched which caused Mike - who in his college days was one of UAF's 10 all-time lead scorer at basketball, to shout out in slight panic. Even when it rocks, an umiak is a very stable boat and there was no real danger that it would tip over.

When the hunters go after a bowhead, they paddle the umiak but this would be a long ride with no hunting be done, so the boat was powered by a small outboard motor.

In addition to his work with Challenge Life Alaska, Sokaitis is the head coach for the Post University men's basketball team in Waterbury, Connecticut. He has also coached at Western State College, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Southern Maine, and North Adams State College and he coached the Alaska Dream in the ABA for one season.

Eider ducks flew past as we cruised through the Chukchi.

That's Rex Rock, Jr. His father had things to do onshore, so Rex was in command.

We came upon a seal...

...and a male eider duck swimming.

A bowhead blew and then glided through the water not far off starboard.

Rex Rock, Jr., surveys his country. The Rocks have replaced the bearded seal skins that once covered their umiak with fibreglass.

Shorefast ice.

Another bowhead, in the distance, beyond the eiders.

Eiders over the ice.

In time, we reach the landing site. The bowhead is still in the water. The block and tackle have been attached to its tail. Isaac Killigvuk, the successful captain, is the second person to the right of the paddle. The man standing next to him in blue is Popsi Tingook, captain of the first Point Hope crew to land a whale this season.

Preparations to pull up the whale have been made. The skin-covered Killigvuk umiak is pulled up onto the ice.

Those present join together and pull and pull on the block and tackle, until the whale is pulled onto the ice. For a large whale, this process can take many hours, even a day. This is a small bowhead and comes up quickly.

The whale is landed. Isaac is joined by his wife, Sally. They are very happy to have this whale give them the honor of taking its flesh to feed to their community. They haveprayed for the whale. Of all the many sources of food natural to the Arctic - caribou, beluga, seals, walrus, ducks, geese, fish, berries and such, the bowhead is the most important in every way that one can imagine - food, nutrition, spirit, identity.

Year round, the activities of life focus first and most importantly upon the bowhead.

The flag of the Isaac Killigvuk crew.

We stayed for the early part of the butchering, but with the whale landed and the process of cutting and dividing it well underway, the hunt would soon begin again. So Rex Jr. took his boat back to the Rock camp and I followed.


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Reader Comments (2)

great pictures..i miss the cold

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

So much of ice!!!! Wonderful Pics..waiting for more..

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuji

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