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   

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:

Can You Help Kako?

Kako Retreat Center from the cross on the mountain

This e-mail from my friend Jeanne Penz Rodkey arrived yesterday. Although Jeanne now lives in California, her parents were missionaries in a number of Alaskan villages and she grew up among  children like Rose. She still cares deeply for them. Her father Dave Penz married Vera after Jeanne’s mother died. Together Dave and Vera established Kako Retreat Center to serve the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Jeanne gave me permission to share from her letter in hopes that more people will come to care about Alaska’s isolated and needy Native peoples.

Rose’s soft voice came across the telephone last night. She’s 11 and she’s telling me about her week at Kako.

“I had fun. I  went rappelling. I rock climbed too!
We sang songs. We went on the mountain to the cross.”

Rose spoke so softly that several times I had to ask her to tell me again. Despite the low, quiet tones, it was obvious that she had had a wonderful time!

photo from:

“I was with Erica.” (the cabin leader) and she named off her cabin mates. “One night we sat in a circle and we got to know each other. Our cabin got to go first to the snack shack because we cleaned our cabin!”

“We had popcorn”
“I made a name tag”

Photo from:
Photo from:

“I ate spaghetti”

“We learned that Jesus died for our sins…”

“Kako is tiny, Hooper (her village) is big!  I got used to Kako. I want to go again next year!”

Rose lives near the Arctic Ocean on the treeless tundra, where the weather is cold and windy. Kako has trees and a mountain, and people who are loving and caring.

Learning about Jesus within the context of fun in a safe beautiful place is the best gift you can give a child!                                                                      

Hooper Bay, Rose’s village – a 3 hour round trip flight from Kako –  is a very large village… a small town actually, with 1700 people. This village is known for its high suicide rate. Rose’s older brother was part of the police force in her village, but due to the high number of suicides that have occurred in the past year, he quit that job. He couldn’t handle dealing with the suicides over and over.

Would you be willing to help fund a week of camp?
Kako has just begun week three of six weeks of summer camp.
Next week will be the critical teen week… critical because Alaskan teens have the highest rates for suicide in the nation, and sexual abuse and violence is extremely high in the native villages. Off the charts high! I’ve included links to data on these subjects at the end of the email in case you have an interest in reading more about it.

Please consider helping Kako Retreat Center be a fun and safe place for Alaskan children and teens to come, where they can learn more about Jesus and meet adults that love and care for them in Jesus’ name! Where they can find hope for living!

Kako has a critical need for giving because the summer barge is arriving early next week with the fuel needed to operate Kako all summer. The fuel must be paid on arrival and is $40,000! Gulp! Yes, forty thousand dollars! In the past, the barge company allowed payments over time, but they now insist on payment upfront for their sales! However, buying fuel from the barge is the cheapest and most cost effective way to purchase diesel and av-gas.

Imagine if you had to buy fuel this way! Enough to run the electricity in your home, and for every vehicle that requires fuel. And realize that when you are located 80 air miles from the nearest place to buy fuel (no roads!), it is critical to have your own supply so you don’t get stuck at home without fuel. 

See pictures of Kako Retreat Center and the map showing its strategic location
in the Yukon Kuskoskwim Delta at:

If you would like to help Kako Retreat Center, that would be wonderful!

Your gift is tax deductible.

Mail your gift to:
Kako Retreat Center
Box 29
Russian Mission, AK 99657

Trusting God to provide for Kako so it can continue to provide God’s light to the people of the delta.

~ Jeanne

Facts and figures on suicide and sexual abuse in the native culture of Alaska:

quote from
(I added the bold font to show you that Rose’s village is in this list):

“…Alaska Native Villages of Alakanuk, Chevak, Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay. The villages are among the poorest in America, almost 100% Alaska Native and have the highest suicide rate in the country.”

Suicide Statistics for Alaska — 2010
Suicides spike again in Y-K Delta villages
Devastating impact of domestic abuse revealed in database …
Alaska’s alarming rape epidemic –

More about Kako in past Sun Breaks posts for July, August, and September 2013!

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.

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?