MATA Flies at Kako

The Missionary Aviation Association plane taking off for more passengers

A year ago this week, Hank and I took flight for an unforgettable Alaskan adventure.  We jetted to Anchorage, rode in a thirty-passenger propeller plane to the small town of Aniak, and were met there by a three-passenger bush plane. We landed in the beautiful, remote, roadless Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at a place called Kako. Kako, which means “clay” in the Yupik Eskimo language, is the site of a gold mine dating back to the early 1900’s. It’s also the location of Kako Retreat Center, founded and run by Dave and Vera Penz with the help of volunteers from across the U.S.A.

The Penzes spent nearly thirty years reaching out to the isolated villages of the Delta. Although Dave finished his tasks on earth this past April, Vera, in her eighties, is still hard at work.

We went to Kako for the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat. We helped in any way we could, but I was also there to gather information for a book whose working title is From Clay to Gold—God’s Alchemy at Kako, Alaska. It tells how Dave and Vera Penz shared God’s love with Alaska’s people. Airplanes were and are an absolutely crucial part of their work.

Alaska teens at the Berry Picking Retreat

Sharing a favorite song in Yupik

Kako Retreat Center

In the roadless areas of Alaska, planes and pilots are essential for medical emergencies, grocery and mail runs, retrieving visitors, traveling…or for any purpose one would use a motor vehicle in the other forty-nine states. Pilots help Kako build bridges of friendship to the far-flung people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. They also bring villagers in for retreats, camps, and classes. There may be thirty-five to fifty young people at each of the six sessions of summer camp. Fifty women planned to attend this year’s berry picking retreat. That’s a lot of flying when the planes can carry only three to five passengers at a time.

A few times, Kako events had to be cancelled because no pilots were available. (Dave’s pilot’s license lapsed in recent years because of health problems.) Sometimes airplanes go down for repairs. In such instances, friends of Kako may loan a plane and/or offer their flying skills. Last summer, we rode in a plane loaned by the Christian Pilots’ Association of Alaska because Kako’s Cessna 182 was out of service with a cracked engine casing.

The Cessna 182 was repaired by MATA. another group that has provided invaluable help over the years. MATA (Missionary Aviation Training Academy) is based in Arlington, Washington. MATA trains missionary pilots to serve in fields all over the world. They often send planes and pilots to Kako during summer camping season, along with teams of other workers. They repair Kako’s planes and rebuild engines at reasonable prices.

Inside MATA’s new building

When KRC’s Cessna 182 turned out to need a complete engine overhaul, MATA’s maintenance specialist, Dary Finck, took charge of the work. He flew the engine from Kako to Bethel, where Lynden Air Transport took it on to Fife, Washington. From there he hauled it to MATA’s new building in Arlington. Many of the needed parts were donated, as was the labor of those who worked on it. Donations also paid for most of the freight.

The engine shone as if brand-new when it was returned to Fife and placed on a barge for Anchorage. From Anchorage it was air freighted to Kako and installed in the plane by volunteers from a local Alaska airline.

Dave Penz, Dary Fink, and Hank Husby with the rebuilt engine

Vera Penz at MATA’s headquarters

MATA’s Executive Director, Gordon Bakke and his wife Elaine, a nurse, served as missionaries for twenty-two years in Zambia, Africa. He joined MATA in 1999, soon after its founding. Gordon met Dave and Vera in 2002. Dave told Gordon he could use help with flying, so Gordon took his first trip to Alaska that summer.

For seven consecutive summers Gordon flew his own Cessna 182 from Arlington to Kako, following the Alaska Highway for much of the distance. He flew helpers in and out of Kako. He flew in attendees for family camp, and kids from the villages for kids’ camp. He also did the required annual inspections on Kako’s aircraft.
All the people at MATA are volunteers. The organization exists on donations. It is not a flight school; rather it is a training program. Each student is on his own program, since many have regular jobs. For a commercial license, a minimum of 250 flying hours is required.

Requirements by mission organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators’ JAARS are higher—four to five hundred hours. One way for new pilots to earn those hours is to fly for Kako. MATA pilots at Kako fly an average of two hundred flight hours per summer, flying kids and other passengers to KRC, bringing in cargo, then making the long flight back to headquarters at Arlington.

Websites for MATA:

Other Sun Breaks posts about Kako:

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.

Another Fishing Trip…

A typical Alaskan lake (Photo by Don Biggar)

    My recent blogs about our July pike-fishing trip in Canada reminded me of another fishing trip, when my late husband, Bob Biggar, introduced me to Alaska during our honeymoon summer of 1962. Since he had already worked in Alaska for a number of years, he hoped to convince me that the state would be a good place to make our home. I was convinced enough to live there for seventeen years, while we raised two little Alaskans.

    That summer Bob was a project engineer on a road-construction job near Fairbanks, where giant Euclid scrapers hauled mine tailings as fill material for the new roadbed. One day one of the scrapers’ huge tires went flat. Bob asked if he could have the worn-out inner tube. He patched the holes and blew it up. As I remember, that tube was about seven feet across—large enough for a whole group of people to play on.

    Bob’s friend, Andy Hall, owned his own pontoon plane. He offered, in exchange for the inner tube, to take us on a spur- of-the-moment wilderness fishing trip. I was so excited that I completely forgot the next day’s luncheon invitation to the home of Virginia Leih, one of my new friends. I scurried around frying chicken and collecting camping equipment. When Bob came home early that Wednesday afternoon, we headed for the float pond at the International Airport.

    The plane had dual controls, and since Bob was licensed to fly float planes, Andy let him do most of the flying. Bob was thrilled, and so was I. I’d never flown in a plane like that before. We headed south, following the Alaska Highway. Then we crossed the Tanana and Little Delta rivers that braided and twisted across the tundra. They ran silty with glacial flour—rock that glaciers had ground to powder. All across the valley we saw zigzagging lines of trees and brush marking where rivers once flowed. Beneath the dark clouds and rain squalls to our right we glimpsed the shining peaks of the Alaskan Range. There were no signs of civilization below us…we were deep into the wilderness.

    My watch read six o’clock when Andy pointed ahead. “That’s Groffin’s Lake.” Bob brought our bird in for a landing. Spray flew past the windows as we coasted to the foot of a promontory topped with tall spruce and birch. Andy tied the plane to a tree. We stepped off the pontoon onto shore and hauled our equipment up the hill.

    In a clearing stood a sturdy sod-roofed log cabin. Traps hung on an outside wall. Door and windows were boarded shut, with dozens of sharp-pointed nails meant to discourage marauding bears protruding from the boards. We erected our tents on a carpet of moss deep enough to nearly hide the wild cranberry plants that grew up through it. The moss appeared to be studded with garnet-colored jewels.

    I set out cold fried chicken and potato salad for our dinner and while we ate, Andy entertained us with bear stories. Afterward, he offered to show me how to fish. I followed him to the shore. He cast out a line and handed me the pole. Immediately I felt a tug and the line snapped straight. Seconds later a big pike lay flopping on the moss.

    A few minutes later I caught another one. Although Bob had said he didn’t care for fishing, he suddenly wanted a turn. For a guy who didn’t like to fish, he seemed to enjoy himself hugely. Andy went to bed. While Bob fished, I built a campfire. Then we lay on the hill beside the fire, watching the moon rise before we too called it a day.

    I was too excited to sleep, and the blanket wouldn’t stay put. Although it was mid-August, autumn already had come to Alaska and the night was chilly. It didn’t help that Andy had pointed out grizzly-bear scat not far from where we pitched the tents, nor could I forget his dinnertime bear tales.

    Through the mosquito netting I watched the moon travel across the sky. Loons filled the night with their weird, lonely cries. By 3:00 a.m. the sky lightened. Bob got up to brew coffee. He brought me a cupful with a couple of cookies. Then I, too, got up. We walked to the brow of the hill to watch a pair of moose feeding off shore. They’d plunge their spreading antlers below the surface for long minutes, then raise their heads to munch mouthfuls of water lilies while water poured off the shovel-like blades. A flock of wild geese flew south, honking, and the loons still called.

    We’d kept our fish fresh in the lake overnight, but the back half of one was gone. Andy told us another pike had probably eaten it. While Bob cleaned the others, I practiced casting but got no bites. Then the line seemed to catch on the bottom. I jerked and jerked. Finally it came free, dragging a big hunk of water plant which seemed strangely resistant. When I finally reeled it in, another big pike was on the line. Not by its mouth, but hooked through its back. Andy said they sometimes strike at the bait and miss, bumping the hook on the way past. So we had one more fish to put in the cooler.

    By 5:00 a.m., we’d struck camp and were skimming over the tundra, where we counted seven or eight moose within a short distance of each other. We flew closer to the mountains this time, through rain squalls and bumpy weather. We flew over a radar site which Bob had helped to build, then turned toward Fairbanks. We landed on the float pond at 6:30, ate breakfast at a pancake house, and then the men went off to work. I went home to take care of our fish and get ready for our temporary return to Washington.

    The day got so busy and I was so tired from the sleepless night I forgot all about the luncheon I was supposed to attend. Only later did I find out there’d been a surprise in store—I was to have been the guest of honor. Virginia, the gracious and forgiving hostess, continued as a cherished friend when we returned to Alaska the next spring.

Mother moose (with head underwater) teaching her babies to browse a stream bottom.
(Photo by Don Biggar)