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.

Two Heroes

I just talked to my friend Vera Penz, who helps her husband Dave run the Kako retreat center for villagers in the vast, lightly populated Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of western Alaska. In summer, the Penzes get their supplies via Yukon River barge or by air. Winter travel is by bush plane or snowmobile.

The Penzes have help from volunteers who come from other areas of Alaska and across the lower forty-eight, but “winter is hard,” Vera says. They are mostly alone then. At age eighty, she is the sole bookkeeper, letter writer and paperwork person for the mission enterprise. Dave is battling a form of leukemia. When I called, he’d been out all day plowing snow from the runway and clearing paths between the buildings. It had “warmed up” to 11 degrees from last night’s 16 below zero. As we talked, I stood at our window, looking out at a light mist falling and rubbing goosebumps. It was 40 degrees outside our house. And I thought I was cold?

Within a radius of 160 miles of Kako there are fifty villages. Many are afflicted with alcoholism and attendant social evils. The subsistence lifestyle is as hard as it ever was, and there are few paying jobs, so many people live below the poverty level. Kako offers hope, through summer camps for children, teacher’s retreats, marriage seminars, men’s and women’s retreats, and short term Bible seminars. Most of the attendees are flown in, as are workers, speakers, and everything needed for their stays.

“In two weeks, we have a speaker from Moody coming to teach about forgiveness,” Vera told me. 

 Forgiveness is an appropriate topic in a place where abuse goes hand in hand with alcoholism.

“We’re so glad for the warmer weather and plenty of snow. The trails are good for those close enough to come by snowmobile, but we’ll have to fly people in from farther out.”

Dave and Vera both came to Alaska in the early ‘60s. They married after having lost their respective spouses and have since spent the last thirty years at Kako, reaching out to the people of the delta. Did I mention that they are two of my heroes?

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