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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Mocked by a raven, I walk to Abby's Home Cooking for a late breakfast and am reminded that home means not only good food, but sorrow, fear, solace and hearty laughter

Suddenly, despite the hard lesson he had learned, he was right back to his old habits. I'm not talking about the raven, I'm talking about me. Actually, I'm not talking at all, I'm writing, about me and about how Monday night I did not go to bed but worked until a bit after 3:00 AM on a package of 101 pictures that I had to transfer to a client before ending my day. 

When that was done, I made Tuesday's blog entry, dropped in on a couple of David Alan Harvey websites and then finally went to bed at 5:05 AM - right after I set my alarm for 7:30. Margie had an early morning doctor appointment in Anchorage, but she does not like to drive the highway in the dark, especially when there is ice on it.

Problem was, I dreaded both the thought of hearing my alarm go off and of sleeping through it, so, come 7:30, I had not gone to sleep at all. I let the alarm go off to wake Margie. We then decided that it made no sense for a man who had not slept for a full day to drive for safety's sake. Margie said she could do it.

So, off she went and I sank back down into bed with the cats to get some sleep.

By noon, I was wide awake, so I got up and headed out to walk to Abby's for a late breakfast.

Half-way, I saw this raven standing in the middle of the snow-covered cut bank that rises over Seldon. It had secured some kind of carrion and was hard at work making a meal of it. What a neat picture this would make - if I could just get close enough.

The raven is not afraid of me or my camera. The raven sees me and my camera often and knows that I am harmless and not nearly so smart as itself. So you would think it would be easy for me to get as close as I want. 

It would be, too, but the raven likes to play a game with me. Raven likes to let me come sneaking in, clicking, almost to where I want and then, just before I do, Raven flies.

And so Raven flew, just before I got where I could shoot a superb picture of the big, black, bird against the white cut bank, working on its carrion.

"Haw-Haw, caw-caw," Raven shouted in derision as it flew off over the trees.

But this raven was not done taunting me yet. Just before it would have disappeared, it circled back and landed in this tree.

It made that kind of guttural chortle sound that a raven does when it really wants to mock you.

This was not quite the picture I wanted. I would have to get ten feet closer to get that picture.

But Raven would not let me.

Oh, how that raven did swoop about, mocking and taunting. I knew what it was telling me: "I'm smarter than you are, you dummy human!"

It moved ahead of me and then landed atop an old, dead, tree that had lost its top. Behind that tree was a thicket of birch and cottonwood against which the form of the raven was barely discernable. I saw that if I shifted a short distance to the side, there was a gap of sort against which I could better make out the raven. So I did - and I got this shot.

But it wasn't good enough. If I could manuever into another position one to two hundred feet ahead, then the old, dead, tree would be separated from the thicket and the raven would stand out.

I was certain Raven would fly off the old, dead, tree perch just before I reached that position.

I was wrong! I reached it! What had happened? Had Raven slipped up, failed to calculate, goofed?

Then I realized Raven was just waiting for me to notice that I had not reached the best spot at all, but I needed to shift two inches to the left, three forward, two to the right and then one back and then I would be in just the right spot.

Damn, Raven! Why do you always do this to me?

In answer, Raven dove in mocking taunt.

And then, right before my eyes, the raven took on the shape of an airplane. This raven wanted to mock me, taunt me, to remind me that the physical object that I most want to have, that I once had and loved and then crashed, was beyond my grasp.

But the raven had made a mistake. I never wanted an airplane like this - I just wanted another little tail-dragger that I could put skis on this time of year, fly low and slow, and land whereever the hell I felt like landing.

"Ha, Raven!" I shouted. "I don't even want that airplane! You're not so smart, after all! I got the best of you this time!"

So Raven returned to his natural form, landed in tree just a short distance from Abby's and sat there and sulked while I entered the restaurant.

It was warm in Abby's - both in temperature and spirit. I ordered a three-egg omelette with cheese, ham, red and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, which Shelly soon cooked up into one of her famous "bomblettes."

It just may have been the best omelette I have ever eaten. The hash browns were slightly on the crispy side, but still better than any other Wasilla restaurant hashbrowns that I have tasted and the fresh, thick-cut, homemade, buttered wheat toast with raspberry jam - well, in all this valley, this treat is unique to Abby's.

I took my time and made it a long, leisurely, breakfast. The company was good, too. Abby and Shelly are skilled at visiting even as they work. When she named her restaurant, "Abby's Home Cooking," Abby meant it.

As I ate, two gentlemen sat on the wooden stools at the bar eating also, their backs to me.

One then got up and left, leaving the other by himself.

Abby sat down beside him. They exchanged a few sentences that I paid no attention to, and then suddenly Abby gave him a big, hard, hug. At first, I thought the man was probably one of Abby's many relatives and I shot a few frames. Then I noticed that there was something intense about this hug. 

Next I heard the sound of sobbing, both hers and his. There was deep pain in that sob. Abby leaned back, her eyes wet, and kept her hand on his back.

Several minutes later, he got up to leave. I stopped him, showed him the first picture and told him that I had been photographing Abby and her restaurant since she opened on the Fourth of July.

With red eyes, he studied the picture, smiled, then nodded his head in approval. "Yes," he said. He extended his hand. We shook. Then he turned and left the restaurant. Abby had a hard time regaining her composure. The gentleman comes in every day, she told me. Last summer, they had a big party for him - a "cancer free" party.

He had waged a big fight - surgery, chemo, radiation - and he had won. He was cancer free.

The cancer has now come back. He must begin his battle all over again.


Help this man.


Abby is a most generous person - I don't want any readers to use this knowledge to go in and try to take advantage of her - but she is quick to give food away. She has given food to me - refused to let me pay a couple of times, for one excuse or another.

This man is aware of this. When he sees his own friends and co-workers trying to take advantage of Abby's generosity, he straightens them out and makes sure they pay their fair share.

Abby wanted me to hear a story from "The Valley Country Standard," a tiny, six-page, publication that I had never heard of. Abby did not want me to read it. She said it was better to hear someone read it. Shelly read it best, Abby said. So, as Abby fixed my second order toast, Shelly sat down and read the story to me:

Only in Alaska

"Hello, is this the Troopers?"

"Yes. What can I do for you?"

"I'm calling 'bout my neighbor, Virgil Smith. He's hiding marijuana inside his firewood. Don't quite know how he gets it inside them logs, but he's hidin' it there."

"Thank you very much for the call, sir."

The next day, the Troopers descend on Virgil's house. They search the shed where the firewood is kept. Using axes, they bust open every piece of wood, but find no marijuana. They sneer at Virgil and leave.

Shortly afterward, the phone rings at Virgil's house. "Hey, Virgil. This here's Floyd... Did the Trooper's come?"


"Did they chop your firewood for the winter?"


"Happy birthday, buddy!"

Shelly, upon completing the reading.

Abby's Home Cooking.

What is a home, just a place to eat?

No. Home is a place where, when hardship, fear and sorrow strikes, you seek solace from those who love you and give it as well. You cry and mourn together.

Yet, always, even in sorrow, home is a place where you laugh with family and guests.

Abby's Home Cooking.

I am not certain how long I spent at Abby's, but I know that it was more than an hour. Yet, when I stepped out to begin the mile-and-a-half walk back to the house, the raven was waiting for me. Waiting in the air.

I followed that raven here, I followed that raven there and always, just when I was about to get the picture I wanted, Raven flapped its wings and took off again.

Then it stopped atop this tree, and purposely posed for me.

I liked the pose, too.

But I was worried.

What was up?

Was the raven being kind to me?

Or was Raven setting me up to gain my confidence, only to put me down harder, yet?

I walked on. The Raven did not follow. It disappeared. In fact, all the ravens that had been at work in this area of town were knocking off for the day and going back to their homes in the foothills.

Then I saw a snowmachine coming my way. At first, I thought the raven had again disguised itself and was about to play a trick on me.

No, it really was a snowmachine, driven by a man, or maybe a full-sized teenager.

The sun had set now - on the ground, anyway, and up to about 30 feet above the ground. The tree tops still reached into the sun's last shine of this day.

Then I came upon Richard, who used to work at the Post Office but is now retired and has taken up photography as a serious hobby. We had things to talk about.

Richard was heavily bundled. 

Shortly before I reached my house, I heard the sound of a propeller beating the air. I looked up and saw a Super Cub, on skis, flying low and slow, ready to land any damn place that the pilot wanted.

Not a Citabria, but my kind of plane, just the same.

Then I noticed that it was not an airplane at all. It was the raven, in disguise. It had come back to taunt and mock me after all.

That whole posing thing? A setup, just as I feared.

This was the plane Raven knew I wanted.


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We nearly got blown off the road but finally the sky began to clear; bareness revisited

I took my walk at 3:00 PM and was delighted to see that the sky was finally beginning to clear. Good. Maybe it will get cold again. Around here, in winter time, clear skies mean cold weather and overcast warm. November was a good month - clear and cold most of the time.

But December horrible - we got blasted by a train of storms that orginated in the South Pacific and then got nasty when they reached Alaska and smacked into the cold air coming down from the Arctic. That's what this place is - a battleground between cold air coming down from the Arctic and warm air coming up from the Pacific.

In the summer, just the opposite. Then the cold air comes off the Pacific and the warm from the north, heated by the sun that shines all day to generate temperatures that can climb into the mid and upper 90's and, at Fort Yukon, where winter can go to -78, even to 101 degrees.

Over the weekend, as had happened the week before - the warm air got the better of the cold, but the conflict between the two set off some helacious winds, exceeding 100 miles per hour in some places and even over 110.

I did not mention it in last night's post, but on the drive in to Lisa's birthday party, our Ford Escape nearly got blown off the road several times. As we crossed the Palmer Hay Flats, we had a 90 degree crosswind and the Flats is one of the windiest places around.

The temperature climbed above 40 degrees and the snow turned to rain -- rain that blew so viciously that even as we were buffeted practically off the highway, we were sometimes blinded, too.

It was a scary ride.

In some nearby places, the snow never did turn to rain, it just turned to wet snow, driven by hurricane force winds - a hellacious blizzard of wet, driving, snow.

And even if the temperature was warm, no one caught in it would ever have known it.

Oddly enough, when we drove home a few hours later, the wind had dropped to perfectly still.

The temperature dropped a bit, the rain turned back to snow and today, after the sun went down, I saw clear sky - as you can see here.

So maybe it will get cold again. I hope so. I have not looked at any forecasts. Sometimes, if it is not in my vital interest to check the forecast, I prefer just to watch the weather develop as it will, and to observe and speculate what it will do next based on what I see.

Now I speculate that it is going to chill down.

But I also fear that another storm born in the South Pacific might already be headed this way.

I hope not.

I want it to be cold. Ten below, 20 below, 30 - even 40 below would be okay with me.

I might freeze, but still I would be okay with it.

Margie wouldn't, though. 

She would be talking every day about how we should go back home to Arizona.

See, to Margie (and Lavina, too), "home" will always be Arizona.

Me, I love Arizona and especially Margie's White Mountains and wish we had the means to spend more time there.

But "home" is Alaska.

Only Alaska can ever be home to me.

This has been true all my life, even before I knew it - and I knew it when I was boy, as soon as I figured out there was an Alaska.

I was born into exile, you see - an Alaskan, born in Ogden, Utah.

But finally I made it home.

And dragged my poor wife from her home.

Of course, I have said all of above before and some of you might now be yawning, but maybe some others of you missed it.

I took my coffee break immediately after my walk - at 4:00 PM, when I headed to Metro Cafe. Coming home, I reshot the scene that appeared on this blog on December 9 - just four days ago. See what a difference a little bit of new snow makes?


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The party begins with a buttery shout, progresses to flaming fire, and ends in displays of affection

The party began with a shout,"Pizzles stop licking the butter!" It was Liza who shouted, instantly causing all heads to turn to look at Pizzles as he licked the butter.

Shortly thereafter, Rex fed a piece of buttered bread to Cortney. Nobody shouted, "Cortney stop licking the butter!" 

No, this indignity was saved for Pizzles alone. True, Cortney was eating bread that the butter was spread on, yet, however one consumes the butter, in one way or another, one must still lick the butter.

Afterward, poor Pizzles begged for a piece of the bread spread with butter so that he might lick that butter too, but nobody would give him one. I am proud to say that, a little bit later, when I was eating my salmon, I gave three pieces to Pizzles. They were tiny pieces, yes, but he is a cat. He is a tiny creature. Tiny pieces for a tiny creature - just right and quite generous of me, because I wanted to eat all of the salmon - my piece and everybody else's, too.

I should note that Lisa took a little heat for calling Epizzles, Pizzles, rather than the nickname that has become the moniker of preference for him: "Poof."

This is because awhile back, Pizzles, who had always been an occasionally well-mannered cat, started to pee outside his litter box.

Poor Melanie and Charlie - they tried all the known remedies to convince a cat to restrict his peeing to the litter box, but nothing worked.

Then, they suddenly realized, "Pizzles.... Pizzzz..." Kind of sounds like the whiz of a cat peeing, pisssss. It occurred to them that everytime Epizzles heard them call him "Pizzles," he could be misinterpreting his name as an inducement to pee wherever he wanted.

So Melanie and Charlie quit calling him "Pizzles" and stuck to his other nickname, "Poof."

And sure enough, Poof quit peeing in the house.

I understand that he started to blow lots of stinkers, however. Nobody told me this, but it only makes sense.

Poof was well-mannered on this night, however, and didn't poof often, because he wanted some of my salmon and he innately understood that I do not share my salmon with Poof cats who are poofing all about.

Pretty soon, Charlie appeared with Lisa's surprise birthday cake. Her birthday was actually November 22 and we had all planned to celebrate together as a family down on my wife and children's ancestral White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, but then Margie had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery.

I stayed home with her, of course, but given the fact that I was in the hard, early stages of the shingles that still bother me, if to a lesser but still sometimes very aggravating degree, traveling would have been pretty hard on me, anyway.

So we had a late celebration.

It has, of course, become a tradition that no matter whose birthday it is, Kalib, joined now by Jobe, with Lynxton on deck, helps to blow out the candles. But Kalib and Jobe are in Phoenix tonight. Tomorrow, they will board a plane and fly back to Alaska.

So Lisa had to blow her candles out all by herself. Without the benefit of the assistance of little people, this process, which normally takes at least 10 or 15 seconds, happened just like that. So I did not get to snap a bunch of frames, but had to settle for just one.

This was a wild berry cheesecake, by the way, made by Melanie with assistance from Charlie - I am pretty sure it was the best cheesecake I ever tasted.

Afterwards, the glow of young love brightened up the otherwise very dim room: Lisa and Bryce.

Melanie and Charlie.

Rex and Cortney... and a reminder of young love from a different time, which feels like maybe last week to me... the young love that made all of this evening's display of young love possible... Margie.


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Lazy day

Very lazy today - so lazy that I only shot one picture, all day long - and this is it. Got no more to say. Too lazy.


I turn the clock back to right side up and fall into wedding preparations; etc - and three Young Writer studies

I decided that it was time to turn the clock back to rightside up. I wasn't certain that I could do it if I didn't absolutely have to - and I didn't have to. But I wanted to see what daylight looked again - even if it was just the muted daylight of Wasilla in December. "If I get up before 11:00, I'm going to go to Abby's for breakfast," I told Margie, just before she went to bed at 1:00 AM.

I stayed up for three more hours. There was no point in trying to go to bed early - I would just lie awake if I did. So, at 4:00 AM, I set my iPhone alarm for 10:00 AM - and then I just lay in bed awake, until close to 6:00 AM. After that, I slept sporadically until a few minutes before 9:00 AM, then I got up, auto-started the car and then, right about 9:00 AM, climbed in and headed over. 

As I drove down Seldon toward Abby's, I got the thrill of my life: I saw a school bus coming.

As I parked, I could see Heather through the window. I could not see Abby. I could not see her truck, either. That's because she was home, visiting grandkids.

When the cafe first opened up on the Fourth of July, Abby tried opening up at 7:00 AM, but that didn't work out too good and it gave her a very long work day, as the restaurant does not close until 8:00 PM. So she tried opening up at 8:00, but that didn't work that great, either. She said that I was about the only one who came at those hours, and since I usually only come once a week, she moved opening time to 9:00 AM.

I was the first customer of the day. I took a seat at the table that I always do if no one beats me to it - the little round one, right by the window adjacent to the door.

There was a card lying on the window sill, so I picked it up to see what it was. I would tell you, but you can see for yourself.

I turned it over to see what was on the backside and found out that the guy on the front was St. Michael. And here was a prayer to him, beseeching him to use his sword against evil on behalf of the supplicant.

A pickup pulled up and a woman got out. I recognized her immediately, so I pointed my camera at her to see what she might look like viewed through the reflections upon the window.

Again, you can see for yourself.

It was Arlene Warrior, who I had first met over 25 years ago when she was Arlene Lord, a student at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was working for the Tundra Times then, and was doing a story on Alaska Native students at UAA. 

I don't remember all the details about the interview and the story that I wrote way back then, but I do remember that she hoped that once she got out of college whatever she learned might help her to earn lots of money.

Now she told me that her daughter was getting married December 16, and she wanted me to be the photographer.

Oh, that is always a tough one! 

I am not a wedding photographer.

But how could I say, "no?" I told her to give me a little time to think about it. I told her that if I did it, I would not shoot it like a wedding photographer does, but like a photojournalist.

She said that was good.

I asked if she would mind if I put it on this blog and said that would be fine.

She wondered how much she would pay me.

I didn't know.

When I was in New York in late September/early October, I met a photojournalist who also shoots weddings. He charges $15,000 a wedding and will only shoot on the condition that he will do the editing and pick the pictures, which he then makes a Blurb type book out of. 

He limits himself to six weddings a year. With the income from those weddings, he is then free to go about and shoot the photojournalism projects that he wants. If he doesn't make a lot of money, fine. His wedding work will carry him through.

But there is no way I can charge $15,000 - not even close.

The wedding will be at the Alyeska ski resort. Her daughter will wear a dress that Arlene described as beautiful, white, buckskin. If I remember right, Arlene made it - but maybe it was her daughter or perhaps they sewed on it together.

Arlene went back to the truck and then came back with this piece of moose skin that her mother, who lives in Kaktovik, gave her. Arlene is making it into a wedding shirt for her son, Roland Warrior, who was named after her father, the late Roland Lord.

Arlene and her husband are spending a lot of money on this wedding, but there are two things they are not going to spend money on - liquor and the bar, and the Alyeska Starbucks coffee shop. "I'm not going to get anybody drunk," she explained to me. If any of the guests want to go to the bar and buy drinks for themselves, then that will be fine.

As for the coffee, Arlene says she will not patronize Starbucks. This, she said, is because on 9/11, there was a Starbucks not far from Ground Zero that stayed open. When thirsty firemen, risking their lives in the hope that they might save others, Starbucks made them pay for water, she told me.

So she does not patronize Starbucks, and Starbucks is the coffee shop at Alyeska.

"If people want to go into Starbucks and buy their own coffee, okay," she told me.

Pretty soon, Heather came with my omelette and hashbrowns, cooked by Shelly. Boy, that omelette was good! Abby's Home Cooking produces the best omelettes I have bought in this valley.

As I drove home the moderately long way, this snowplow came charging past.

It was about this same time that my iPhone alarm went off in my pocket.

Back home, Pistol-Yero was chillin' in the warmth of the fireplace.

Before I started to work, I took a walk. This raven came flying by, a feather missing. Did you see the raven, Sandy?

Soundarya? Soundu? 

At 4:00 PM, I headed out on the usual excursion to Metro Cafe, where I shot three Young Writer studies. Here is the first:

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #3222: The young writer smiles as she prepares an order for whomever is inside the truck in front of me.

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #42: The young writer prepares to deliver that order.

Study of the Young Writer, Shoshana, #10,029: Shoshona with her beau, Justin. As you can see they are very happy together. May they long remain so.

I took the long way home. Not as long as some long ways. I didn't drive through Texas. That would have been the long way home. But it was longer than it could have been if I had taken the most direct route, which is very boring and it gets me home too fast.

Along the way, I crossed paths with a school bus.


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