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!


Years ago, Edie Smith, an Eskimo friend, could not grow a garden on her forested hillside property in interior Alaska. When a friend parked his car in the only sunny spot in her front yard and left it there for the summer, she created an improvised greenhouse by planting tomatoes inside in boxes of dirt. The tomatoes loved it, filling the car with a jungle of greenery and ripe fruit. Edie knew how to make the most of what she had.

Like most people in Alaska’s wilderness areas, the Penzes at Kako Retreat Center make do with the resources on hand. When the center was just beginning, Dave and Vera made good use of the old buildings from Kako’s gold mine days. They lived in one of them. They used others to lodge the first campers. They tore some apart and reused the lumber for new buildings. Sometimes Dave bought an empty building in one of the villages, disassembled it, and brought the materials to Kako for reuse.

Now they have their own lumber maker, called a Woodmizer. They cut logs from the  property, saw them into rough boards, and plane them for use in building projects. When we were there, they were making lumber to build a shed around the Woodmizer where it stands. The building will be big enough to store and dry a lot of lumber.

Over the years a lot of equipment has worn out. There is no place to send scrap metal for recycling, but that’s all right. Broken-down snowmachines, four-wheelers, even trucks and other large equipment are parked out of sight, ready to serve as parts-donors for other machines still in use. I saw a good-sized “boneyard” of scrap metal where the men can scavenge for the just-right piece of metal for projects in process.

When everything you need must come by small plane or by barge up the Yukon River, then be dragged by sledge over an 8-mile trail, one develops great skill in reusing, recycling, taking apart and rebuilding. Here are a few photos of some clever ways of repurposing materials at Kako:

The Woodmizer with a log in place, ready to make lumber. The drying-storage shed is going up around it.

Hank sorts nails and screws into vegetable cans from the kitchen. (He’s taped one of each kind to the outside of its can.) Dave pays a small amount for the nails that get spilled and swept up from the floors of hardware stores. Once sorted, they’re ready for Kako’s use at much less than full price.

Playground area for summer campers. Tires are worn out, but still fun to play on.

Storage area along the runway. Old freezers and refrigerators are reused for dry storage for small parts and pieces.

A broken shop broom and an old handle get together.

What do you do when you want to pick berries in the rain? You tear the bottom of a garbage bag open and cinch the ties around your waist. Now you can kneel on the tundra and not get wet.

The laying hens live in the shed. The young chickens live in the repurposed camper. They’re fed the kitchen scraps.

Hank made this shop table on the spot when Dave noticed a piece of pallet lying there and said, “That would make a good table top.”

This scavenged street light was spotted high on the wall of one of the shops. It can brighten the shop or be moved anywhere someone needs lots of light.

A plastic barrel cut to shape protects the innards of Kako’s Cessna 182 while the engine is being rebuilt.

A fabricated metal water tank sits on four oil barrels next to the garden. Gravity feeds the water to irrigate the garden. The tank is filled from the canoeing pond which is out of sight below the brush.

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!

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