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!

Bad Decision

Most homes in Shageluk burned wood to keep warm, and Dave and Vera Penz’s was no different. Wood was free, and it was plentiful, if you went far enough away from the village. Early in the fall, Dave went with some villagers to cut their winter wood supply. They took a boat ten miles up a slough to a nice stand of trees and made camp on the shore. For the next couple of days they cut and limbed trees. They dragged some trunks into the water, tied them together into a raft, and piled more wood on top until they had a twenty by twenty foot stack. It was evening when they finished, so they decided to spend one more night at camp…a bad decision.

It froze hard that night. When the woodcutters woke, an inch of ice covered the surface of the slough. Their boat was frozen in. They broke the ice to clear a wide area around the boat, started the motor, and proceeded to ram the shelf of ice, using the boat like an icebreaker. Another bad decision. To Dave’s surprise, the sharp ice didn’t break until it had sheared through the bow of the boat as if it were a knife. Water poured in. The men scrambled into the rear of the boat, lifting the bow out of the water. Someone bailed frantically until they got it to shore. They pulled the boat out of the slough, turned it over, and rebuilt its front. Then they motored down a running creek and returned to Shageluk.

The men had to look elsewhere for their winter’s wood supply. All their previous hard work remained frozen in the ice until spring’s high water dispersed it down the slough and into the river.

Shageluk on the Innoko River, with sloughs. ⓒcommerce.state.ak.us

A Memorable Moose Hunt

Our friend Dave Penz has spent most of his life taking the good news of the gospel to the native peoples of western Alaska. One of his first assignments was in the village of Shageluk. He tells this story about one of his early hunting trips.

One of his neighbors, Charlie Wolf, was the son of a white prospector and a native mother. Many offspring of such parentage were energetic and ambitious, but not Charlie. He had a beautiful wife and three children, but he barely managed to keep food on their table. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic.

One mid-winter day Charlie wanted Dave to go moose hunting with him. He owned three scroungy dogs. Dave had a sled and a good team of dogs, so they hitched up all the dogs and headed into a wooded area where few people went hunting. They set up their camp when it got dark.

Next day they spent the four daylight hours trudging through the woods. Snow fell steadily. Just at dusk they came upon six moose clustered together in a thicket. They shot two of them. They skinned and butchered them and hung the pieces in the trees to keep them from animals. By the time they had finished it was pitch dark.

“I know a short way to get back to camp,” Charlie said. Dave hoisted a large chunk of meat atop his backpack, picked up his gun, and followed Charlie through the foot deep snow. It was so dark he couldn’t see where they were going, but something seemed wrong, especially after Charlie had stopped several times, then started off in a different direction.

The meat grew heavier and heavier, and the gun, too, seemed so heavy that Dave considered leaving it behind. If only they could see where they were going. Suddenly he remembered something. “I think my flashlight might still be in my pack,” he said. He dumped the contents. Sure enough, there was the flashlight at the bottom.

Charlie had refused to admit they were lost, but when Dave flashed the light through the woods, they could see their own tracks circling around to where they stood. They were the only people within many miles, and Charlie couldn’t deny it now. Later Dave would use the story in many of his sermons, telling his listeners that most people don’t know they are lost until they have the light of God’s word in their lives.

While Dave repacked his belongings, he prayed aloud, asking God to help them find their way back to camp. Then he stood watching snowflakes fall in the beam of his flashlight. They fell at a slight slant, telling him the wind was from the north. He knew he had to go east to get to camp.

Dave started out, in the lead this time. Now Charlie thought he heard noises in the woods. Wolves! Maybe they had smelled the meat Dave carried and were following them. He was so frightened he kept stepping on Dave’s heels. He continually asked Dave to shine the light behind them to see if it reflected from the eyes of hungry wolves. There were no wolves, but the last time Dave swung the flashlight around to the front, he caught the faint, snow-covered impression of old sled tracks running across a frozen lake. Now he knew where they were. They followed the tracks across the lake and were soon greeted by the dogs they’d left tied at camp.

The next day they took the dogs and sled back to where they’d left the meat. They were amazed to find the long, heavy front leg of a moose a quarter mile away from the rest of the meat. A wolverine had helped itself, and was probably not far away. The two men hung the leg in a tree and Charlie set one of his traps beneath it.

It took several trips to get the meat and hides back to Shageluk. Oh yes. They also hauled home Charlie’s wolverine, which had come back for its prize and got caught in the trap.