Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
Our trip in Seward was certainly one to remember. Just I was starting to get used to the wide open spaces in the tundra while we were in Bethel, we flew into Anchorage (cell phone service?!) and were immediately on our way to be a tourist for the weekend in Seward, Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. It certainly was a change of scenery going from tundra to being surrounded by tall trees, massive snow-capped mountains, and the sea. I couldn’t help but get progressively more excited as we traveled deeper into the mountains and Kenai Peninsula. Our tour guides were the best, and certainly knew all of the places to stop to get the perfect Alaskan pictures. Some of the places we stopped at included the largest Alaskan water plane “airport lake”, a lookout point towards Denali, and a stop by the “Welcome to the Kenai Peninsula” sign.
That Saturday we saw tons of sea life. For the first time in my entire life I saw killer whales, whales (sadly no dramatic jumping out of the water pictures), sea otters, sea lions, and of course LOTS and LOTS of tufted puffins. When we got to the glaciers, it was like seeing a giant monster slowly steeping into the sea. It was amazing and really cool to see the ice breaking off into the ocean. However, at the same time it was hard to grasp the fact that these glaciers are calving, and very rapidly. It wasn’t until the next day when we hiked right up next to the glacier that it really struck me that the climate is changing up here. In the car about 6 miles away form the glacier we started seeing signs that marked years dating back to about 1800. As we got closer and closer to the glacier and saw a sign that read about 1960, we were only 2 miles away from the actual ice. When you think about it, thats 2 miles. Melted away in about 40-50 years. Thats when it hit me that this is climate change thing we hear about in the lower 48 is real up there in Alaska.
We then started the trek back to Anchorage. We ate dinner and enjoyed the summer solstice festival (longest day in Alaska!) in Moose Town. We stopped at the Alaskan National Wildlife Refugee where we saw caribou, moose, reindeer, LOTS of bald eagles, foxes, owls, and (my favorite) the BEARS! I was only about 6 feet away from one of the bears at one point (of course doubled up and electrically charged fence in between us). This trip for sure made a lot of firsts for me that I will never forget!
As our trip is finally winding down, I keep reflecting back on my experiences in Seward and in Bethel. The people we’ve met and the sights I had the privilege to see have touched us all in different ways. Some stories touch others more than others. Some stories teach us to reflect on our own lives and way of living more. Seeing really made me believe. And in some stories we find connections and friendships with the people we’ve talked to. No matter what, I realized that each person and everything has a story waiting to be told.
Last night, we had a potluck with some members of the church. Unlike the potlucks that I’ve experienced in Nebraska, there were no pies or pots of chili. Instead, there was a delicious variety of traditional Yup’ik foods. Here are a few of the dishes that we tried:
Mayonnaise and dill salmon
Salmon chowder (my favorite)
Moose and vegetable stew
Herring eggs with oil
Spicy beans with ground moose
Rhubarb and ginger cake
What made this meal so special was hearing hunting stories about the meat I was eating and listening to the way some dishes were prepared. In the case of the Yup’ik people, nothing is wasted. Every piece of meat is taken off the bones of salmon, the scaly skin is sewn together to create a waterproof coat, and the fermented heads are considered a delicacy. While I’m not sure if I’m ready to try a fermented fish head, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to try some traditional foods.
Last night we had the privilege of having a potluck hosted by the Catholic Church. Church member were very generous and brought us all kind of native foods that I’ve never even heard of or tried before! There’s always a first for everything! Some of the foods featured at our potluck that I sampled personally were seal soup, moose stew (one of my favorites), fish chowder with white fish and salmon, hering fish eggs dipped in olive oil (very interesting texture I’d say), caribou stew, moose stir fry, and salmon every possible way you can imagine. I decided not to be apprehensive about trying the new dishes because how many people can say they’ve eaten seal meat? All of the dishes tasted amazing! Our Creighton group decided that we should bring some form of Nebraska to the table. So of course we made a dish that included corn. Everyone loves cornbread muffins!
Not only was it great to see the variety of foods that were brought forth to the table, but it was also even better to see the people and friendships we’ve made during our short time in Alaska all come to the potluck. It just goes to show how great this community is. Some our friends that came were Connie and Arvin who showed a few of us to their fish camp the other day; Brian McCaffery, acting Yukon delta NWR manager and deacon of the Catholic Church; Cecilia, a Yup’ik woman, and her husband Mike; Alisha, our friend and fixer; Stan, a barbershop owner and amazing person who hosted all of us at his fish camp, Susan, who runs the Catholic Church behind the scenes; and Sarah, our guide and former Jesuit volunteer at the Catholic Church. Not only did our new friends show up, but members of the church also came to help us feel more at home and gift us with more food.
After our amazing feast all the students including Tony and Nicole all went on a nice long walk after dinner to unwind and goof off at the end of a long day. During our long walk, I realized that our own group is a potluck of personalities. The group wouldn’t be the same without everyone. It also wouldn’t be the same without everyone who was willing to help us out and make our time here in Bethel memorable and one for the books.
It also really hit me the various things I’m going to miss the most about Bethel. I’m going to miss these late night 11 pm strolls while it’s still light out. I’ll even miss seeing kids still riding around on their bikes at night with nothing but one layer on while you see me with four layers on. I’m going to miss just spending time with everyone literally 24/7 and eating every meal together like a giant family. I’ll miss our attempts at “jumping pictures”. It’s random moments like these I’m going to miss the most. I do know for a fact these memories will still continue to be made even after we come back from Alaska. I won’t lie. I was little homesick a week ago (Yes mother I’m admitting it!). Normally you are supposed to feel homesick after you leave a place. Now I’m starting to feel the post-Alaska homesickness. It’s incredible we’ve only been here a week and a half, but I feel like it’s not enough time. There’s still so much more to explore and learn from Bethel. Perhaps I could continue this exploring and come back one day. Maybe by that time I’ll be in or done with dental school and I could use my skills here. No matter what, I see myself coming back to this place I can call a home.
Quyana to all that have made this experience amazing!