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   

Adventure Ahead in Kako, Alaska

This perfect weather makes it hard to sit at my computer and faithfully churn out blog posts, although I’ve tried. Half-a-dozen posts wait to be finished and shared with you. I promise, I’ll post this one. I want you to know about Kako Retreat Center. Hank and I are looking forward to the adventure of our lives this month when we fly to Alaska for the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat.

Where in the world is Kako? Well, Kako Retreat Center is in Alaska, about 400 miles from the nearest road that could connect it to the rest of the world. It’s on the site of an old gold mine six miles from the Yukon River, on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Barges bring supplies up the Yukon in summer, but otherwise the only way to get there, or to reach the 56 villages within Kako’s one hundred sixty-mile radius of influence, is to fly by bush plane.

Kako has been the home of missionaries Dave and Vera Penz for thirty years. Since their marriage in1983, these faithful servants of God have been developing this oasis of hope in the wilds of Alaska. With the help of volunteers from all over the U.S.A., they’ve been reaching out to approximately 31,000 Eskimo, 1,000 Indian and 3,500 white people within Kako’s circle of influence. Dave and volunteer pilots from both Alaska and the lower forty-eight have spent countless hours flying young people to Kako for summer camps. They also bring adults and families in for Christ-centered retreats, workshops, leadership training classes, seminars and counseling throughout the year.

Hank and I will be serving in any way we can while we’re there. Hank is even willing to wash dishes! I’ll be doing research for a book about the Penzes and Kako.

 We’ll get acquainted with the women who will spend the days berry picking in the hills near the center. In the evenings, they’ll listen to Dave’s daughter Jeanne Rodkey talk about “What a Friend we Have in Jesus.” Jeanne grew up in the villages and understands their culture first hand.

 Some of these women know Jesus as Friend, some don’t know him yet. But they need a friend like Jesus. It’s estimated that over ninety percent of Native women have suffered some kind of abuse in their home villages: alcohol, drugs, sexual and physical abuse…the whole gamut. Suicide rates are much higher in the villages than in the rest of the country. Even the Christian young people find it hard to resist pervasive cultural influences that cause them to bring babies into this same abusive environment. Many girls are single moms by the time they are fifteen or sixteen.

Kako Retreat Center is faith-based and completely independent. At Kako, people find hope. It’s a safe place for the people to come and rest, away from the noise and chaos of village life. They learn from God’s word, and receive encouragement to help them live godly lives back in their villages.

 Lives are being turned around because of what happens at the retreat center, but the enemy always fights back when evil is challenged. Because of that, Kako and all those involved with it need the prayers of God’s people.

For more about the Penzes, see Sun Breaks for Feb. 12, 2013 (Two Heroes); Jan. 9, 2013 (Bad Decision); Jan. 7/13 (A Memorable Moose Hunt)

Vera (center) and two friends

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?

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.