Summer Camp, Kako, Alaska Style

Kako Retreat Center and the Yukon in the distance

I haven’t posted about Kako recently, but the work is carrying on after the homegoing of director Dave Penz two years ago. That’s in spite of huge challenges hurled one after the other at new director, Dave’s son Jonathan Penz, and the staff. The latest happened just prior to the first camping session of the summer, when lightening set the forest ablaze. The fire burned through tall black spruce to within 6 1/2 miles of Kako Retreat Center. Smoke jumpers set up camp on the runway and started clearing brush away from the Center. But they didn’t think they could save the surrounding forest, which is what makes the place so attractive to visitors from the treeless tundra villages.

The word went out to pray. God sent rain last Thursday to dampen the fire, and more rain the next day, which quenched the last of the flames.

(For readers who don’t know, Kako is located near the village of Russian Mission, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska. The nearest connecting road is 400 miles away. Transportation is by bush plane, and fuel for all energy needs comes via barge on the Yukon River.)

Guest blogger Jeanne Rodkey, Jonathan’s sister, grew up in bush villages. She gave permission to reprint this letter, which offers her insights into the native culture. She also gives us a glimpse into running a summer camp in far western Alaska.

From Jeanne: Hello, everyone.
Although John and I are no longer at Kako, we keep in close contact to hear what is happening next!

Week One of Kids Camps at Kako is underway with 51 elementary age campers from twelve different villages. This number is high for Kako Kids Camps, because usually we have just two airplanes to pick up campers from multiple villages. But this week, we have one additional airplane and extra pilots available from MATA, Missionary Aviation Training Academy, based out of the Seattle, Washington area. This organization has been helping get kids to and from camp at Kako for many years. Flying in bush Alaska is great training for their pilots interested in mission aviation. Thus, they get real mission experience and we get extra transportation help, so it’s a win-win!

Children at Kako with staff and pilots  Photo: Gordon Bakke

To see pictures on their website from their pilots at Kako, go to their website at  The two little smiling girl passengers pictured are very cute and give you a good idea of the thrill it is for these children to get to come to camp! You can also see a picture of a young pilot helping with a repair at one of Kako’s cabins and another of  him cooking up pancakes in Kako’s kitchen.   [To find the picture, go to the website and notice a box in the lower right hand corner — you might have to page down a bit – that says Facebook ‘like’ pages]

Valuing native culture at Kako
Because the native people of Alaska speak English, and mostly dress the same as we do, it’s easy to think that there are no cultural differences. But as all cultures do, each one has parts that are unique to them. A big part of any culture is the food. The Alaskan native culture is based on eating the local animals and fish so it’s always been a normal part of Kako life.

One of the ways that the native culture was given value at Family Camp two weeks ago was including foods that they love. Not only did we have native foods such as moose and salmon as part of the menu as Kako always does, but we also had native people assisting with making these favorite native foods:

Moose soup.
Fry bread
Fish head soup

This came about because it just so happened (which mom always said showed God’s presence in the background) that I was in the kitchen when the cook, Sarah, wondered aloud how she could be sure that she would be cooking Moose Soup authentically and also how she’d be able to make Fry Bread for the one hundred plus people!?! Some time later, I met an Eskimo couple, Joe and Florence, over lunch where I learned that Joe just absolutely loved to cook, and that his specialty was fry bread! It was an easy thing then to introduce them to Sarah.  I  got to see huge smiles from Joe and Florence over the idea of them getting to help cook and as well as a huge sigh of relief from Sarah! Later, another Kako guest asked if he could make fish head soup with the left over salmon heads from the salmon that was going to be baked, and when Sarah gave him a green light, there were other happy smiles as well over that addition to the menu! [Just for the record, I did not taste that soup, but I did enjoy very much the moose soup and fry bread!]


Photo: Gordon Bakke

How to say ‘Yes’ native style 
As a child growing up in the bush, it was a fairly quick thing to learn that my friends didn’t say ‘Yes’, like one normally does, when asked a question, but instead would raise their eyebrows to indicate a yes.

Back in Alaska this May, I realized I had forgotten my childhood training. I had asked a question and not hearing an answer looked more closely at the person’s face for an explanation, and realized my listener’s eyebrows had gone up. Oh! Right!I

My school teacher friend, Jim, who teaches in the bush,  says that this eyebrow lifting response is difficult in a classroom situation. He has to encourage hand raising or has to switch to his long distance glasses so he can see if the child’s eyebrows are going up or not. He says that his students often remind him to ‘wear your other glasses’ so that he can see their eyebrow responses.

The way of saying ‘No’ is more subtle, a slight shaking of the head, but so slight, that one needs to confirm by glancing at the person’s eyebrows so see that they are not raised. This is so because saying no, often could be offensive or disappointing to the listener.

The Alaskan native cultures are more closely connected with Asian cultures in their preference for indirect communication. As you may know, the person from this cultural background places a value on saying to their listener what their listener wants to hear. This concept is invaluable to know when one is communicating about a topic where accurate listener response is critical, such as matters of faith. Instead of responding with a yes just to make us happy, we give the listener time to absorb the information and then to ask for more information when interested and ready for more.

As a result of this, we’ve always been careful to have this sharing about God’s Good News done in way that communicates the good news in a culturally sensitive way.. both with using illustrations that are familiar and with allowing the camper to seek out more information as desired.
Additionally, a key part of each week of camp is on Thursday evening — the last night of camp – when a native pastor gets to share with the kids about his faith in God and God’s love for them as well. Having him share with the campers is very important for communicating to them that faith in God is not a ‘white man’s religion’ but relevant to their people.

Camp at Kako brings fun for the kids in all the traditional ways that summer camps offer — games, activities, new friends. But the main goal is for these children to hear that God loves them and cares for them and that they can choose to be His own.

As you think of the campers, pray that they will follow up on their internal responses to that Good News that is happening in their hearts, and that they will share with their cabin leader/counselor about what they are thinking.

     Barge off loading fuel for Kako.  Gordon Bakke photo

Cookies out of fuel!
You have read before about the need for help in paying for Kako’s fuel. The high cost of fuel is mind boggling to be sure. The barge this month will be delivering Kako’s order of aviation gas,  the fall barge brings diesel, and the combined cost is over one hundred thousand dollars! Add to that tally is the cost for propane for the cooking stoves and it all costs so much. Is it worth it? We believe it to be so.

As you probably know, relationships developed with loving staff at camp can open a child’s heart to God in a way that can positively change their life. Additionally, it can make a connection for the child’s whole extended family to be interested in coming to Kako to learn more about God too, and can even make an opening for future connections for a whole village! Kako’s long term goal includes helping people of the Delta reach their own people for Christ. We desire for them to have a faith in God strong enough to help them withstand pressures and temptation for alcohol and drug use and offer hope against suicide as they grow into the teen and young adult years.

When you choose to help with Kako’s fuel costs, you are not just helping buy fuel but you are partnering with Kako’s total ministry.

Take for example, the cookies that are made for camp. The ingredients, flour, sugar, and chocolate chips, are flown to Kako, which requires aviation fuel. The cook needs electricity to make up the cookies in the big mixer, which depends on diesel to run the generator, and then the stove fuel (propane) is required to bake the cookies.  Kako requires all three kinds of fuel and enough for the full year, which comes the most economical way, by barge in the summer. Fuel is the ‘life blood’ for running Kako and must be paid for on delivery. The first fuel barge is coming soon. Would you like to help?

for the whole Kako team

If you would like to help, send a check to
Kako Retreat Center
Box 29
Russian Mission, AK 99657

Also, giving is available at their website:

For more about Kako Retreat Center, search for the following posts on Sun Breaks:
6/18/14 Making Good Use of Resources at Kako
9/1/13 Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat at Kako   
8/28/13 Kako’s Beginnings
8/22/13 We’re at Kako!   

8/9/13 Adventure Ahead in Kako   

7/29/13 Two Heroes   

Only One Life

This month, the high school seniors of 2016 are launching into adulthood. It’s their season of profundities and pontifications, of mortar boards sailing through the air, of hard-earned diplomas, of inner quavering. “I’ve graduated. I’m done with school. What do I do now?”

Traditionally, high school classes have chosen mottos to live by, some silly, some far-reaching.
The other day while driving through a small town, we saw a big signboard on which the local class of ’16 had posted their motto: “Only one life, right? Don’t blow it!”

The thought was right on.

How many young people let the months coast by without a thought that some day they’ll run out of time?

How many older people look back at their unfulfilled dreams and think with regret about their wasted years?

In our retirement community, the people who are most satisfied and joyful are those who’ve devoted their lives to what they feel is a high purpose. It might have been staying at home to raise children. It might have meant faithfully sticking with a less-than-ideal job in order to care for one’s family. When people know that God has called them to a specific task or tasks, there is no satisfaction higher than accomplishing that task.

My mother had a small picture on the wall, which we children passed every time we went up or down the stairs. A silhouetted woman in an old-fashioned hoopskirt sat at a spinning wheel. Above her was lettered,
    “Only one life.
    ’Twill soon be past.
    Only what’s done for Christ
    will last.”
          —Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931)

Once upon a time, spinning yarn was a time-consuming but essential, daily task. Even in silhouette, that woman looked so content and satisfied, she made an impression on me that’s lasted through the decades. Whether she was real, whether she even had a name, she wasn’t blowing her life. She was doing—and doing well—the task she was given.

Whatever the life God gives each student in this year’s crop of young people, we who love them pray that they’ll realize early that they get only one chance to live the moments of their lives. May they live those moments well, in accordance with God’s good plan for them. Don’t blow it, graduates!

photo credit: As The World Keeps Turning … via photopin (license)