Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat at Kako, 2013

Kako Retreat Center’s most popular event is the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat. This year 42 women from about 12 villages were flown in for three days of fellowship, teaching, and berry picking. Since berries are the only fruit that grow in western Alaska, wild berries are a highly prized part of the diet, and they’re easy to find at Kako.

Vera Penz and Lynda work on name tags for the participants.

Brenda holds one of the gift baskets each woman found on her pillow.

Shea decorates with wildflowers.

These pretty teens were some of the youngest guests.

Off to pick up another three ladies. The weather was rainy, but not bad enough to keep the two planes from flying.
These women were the first to head for the mountain. Bill gives them a ride on Kako’s all purpose vehicle, a four-wheeler.
Wild Alaska blueberries grow only a few inches high in the tundra.

Picking berries on the mountain above Kako. Kako’s cross is visible on the distant hill.
Recording memories. The red metal box is a berry rake, used to make the job go faster.
An unwritten rule everyone respects: Elders go first. These Eskimo women are wearing kuspuks, or summer parkas.
Jeannie, our speaker, grew up in the villages. Here she visits with old friends.

Vera’s daughter, Debbie, also grew up in Alaska. Here she receives a handmade jacket from a friend.

Berries bagged and ready for the freezer.

Lovey (back to camera) is telling the ladies of her recent discovery that young people in the villages are ordering dangerous prescription drugs over the internet, using debit cards. The drugs come from foreign countries with no questions asked. Kids as young as elementary age quickly get addicted and many are dying. “Check your debit statements,” she says. “Please, tell your village councils we must work together to stop the loss of our young ones.”

Irene sings a hymn for us in her “up north language,” Yupik Eskimo.

Jeanne uses handmade visual aids to illustrate her teaching.

All the women and staff at the close of the retreat.

Raining again, but it’s time to go back to the villages. Brenda helps one of the women carry her berries and belongings to the plane.

Kako’s Beginnings

Kako Retreat Center (KRC) began in the 1970’s as a dream of a young school teacher-missionary-gold miner at Kako, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of western Alaska. When Ed Hooley died in a plane crash, Dave Penz took over the mining and carried out Ed’s dream of establishing a place where people of the delta could come for spiritual teaching and relaxation.

Kako Retreat Center (KRC) is located on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska. No roads connect it to the rest of the world.

The gold mining equipment was loaded onto a barge in Fairbanks, carried down the Yukon to the river bank 8 miles from Kako, then pulled on sledges to the site by a bulldozer. Dave says the equipment could be back in production in just a few days. A lot of gold was taken out of the ground which now lies beneath the airstrip, but for now, low prices and high costs make mining impractical.
 Dave showing Hank how he pans for gold in a horse watering trough.

The gold in this pan is tiny specks and flakes. It came from floor sweepings in Dave’s metal working shop.

Picking wild blueberries along the track that leads to the Yukon River. The no-see-ums won this battle.

When we tried to back down the muddy road in the 4-wheel drive truck, we got stuck.
Abe, a pilot from Nunivak Island, and his wife, Mona, came with us to check out the berries. He got us unstuck and backed the truck all the way to the gravel runway.

We’re at Kako!

Waiting for a flight at the Anchorage airport

Not our flight, but one just like it. We took Era Airlines to Aniak.

You know you’re in Alaska when you follow the caribou hoofprints across the tarmac to your plane.  Vera’s daughter, Debbie, and her friend Linda are boarding the same plane we’re on.

Kako Retreat Center on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska is like no place else on earth that I know of.

Despite being a lonely little outpost in the wilderness, far from cities and highways, it’s connected to the outside world by small plane, river barges and boats, telephone, and the Internet.

Internet connections are slow…I’m not sure that these few pictures will even send. But we’re here and fully immersed in the exciting little world that is Kako.

The ceiling was 600 feet here this morning, but now I can see the top of the mountain behind us. In a few minutes the two volunteer pilots will be bringing in the first ladies for the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat. It will be a lot like other women’s retreats, with groups meeting during the day for fun activities, a special speaker, singing and visiting. Volunteers here have been planning and preparing meals, decorating tables with local wildflowers, preparing little gift bags for each attendee, making programs and fancy name tags.

There will be differences too. The 50 ladies expected are coming from 8 or 10 different villages (the first to arrive will be brought from the farthest away communities). All of these villages are off  the road system. And the activity to which women most look forward is the hike up that mountain behind us to pick wild berries. We’ll be up there in the tundra above timberline for much of the day, filling buckets with Alaska blueberries and salmon berries (really cloudberries, which are salmon colored and grow one to a plant only inches off the ground). Those berries will provide treats for their families next winter.

I’m off…want to be on the airstrip with my camera when the first ladies get here!