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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
If I had to choose one lasting image from my trip to Alaska, it would be the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.
I have never had any doubt about climate change, but viewing this glacier somehow made me see the issue in a new way, as if I had not fully grasped the situation our world faces.
I recently watched “Chasing Ice,” a documentary created by photographer James Balog, who uses time lapse images of glaciers to tell the story of climate change. It is a spectacular yet jarring film that shows how drastically glaciers are melting around the world, including sequences from Alaska.
To see a disappearing glacier before my eyes was an unforgettable experience. I initially was excited to discover that we would be visiting the glacier, but during our hike up to Exit Glacier, I felt anxious about what we would find.
Yes, the glacier was extraordinary. But because of its noticeably shrinking size, I immediately felt saddened by the sight before me.
I admired the shades of blue on the ice but then observed that it was losing its pristine white color and instead acquiring a grayish tint from the rocks surrounding it. I saw the deep cracks throughout the glacier and a stream of water flowing down the ice mass.
If I return to Alaska someday and visit Exit Glacier, what will it look like? It’s a startling question to think about. Depending on how far into the future it may be, the glacier could look strikingly different.
It all depends on how quickly we act because we are running out of time. I see progress being made, but there is still so much more we need to do to curb the affects of climate change. I still have hope that our world leaders will be brave enough to take these necessary and urgent steps before it is too late.
As we put together our own documentary, a goal for the film is to tell the personal side of the issue and how it is truly affecting people in Bethel. Like “Chasing Ice,” I hope that our project will in some way make an impact on the community and shine a light on climate change to those who may not have seen it.
Throughout my time in Alaska, I was on the lookout for my favorite animal, the moose. It is an awkward yet majestic creature, so I find it to be quite endearing. Alaska is the land of moose, so it seemed like I had a good chance to see one during my trip.
I knew it was unlikely that I would find one in Bethel because it’s on the treeless tundra, but it just so happened that early on in our trip, four girls in our group going on a walk saw a mama moose and two young calves emerge from the bushes across the Kuskokwim River. I was very sad that I wasn’t with them but still held onto hope that I had many more days of the trip left to find one.
By our last day in Alaska, I still hadn’t seen one. I had looked longingly through the trees as we drove from Anchorage to Seward. We took a spectacular boat ride on the ocean and visited the gorgeous Kenai Fjords National Park, but there weren’t any moose to be found during either experience. We spent time in the town of Moose Pass to experience its Summer Solstice Festival. There I took my picture by a cute sign of a moose, but no moose were passing through at the time.
During my quest for a moose, many of my fellow Backpackers wondered why I love moose so much. In eighth grade I visited Grand Teton National Park with my family during summer vacation. As we were driving through the park, I was sitting in the backseat looking out the car window and spotted a brown animal in the thick of the trees. I called out “Moose!” and my dad stopped the vehicle. I jumped out of the car and hurried a few feet back to where I had seen the animal. Sure enough, about a hundred yards in front of me was a female moose just standing there looking at me. My family and I watched it for a while, and soon it turned around and disappeared into the trees. This is where my love for moose began.
I still wonder how I spotted the beautiful moose at the Grand Tetons. If I had blinked or looked away at that moment, I would have missed it. A few summers later, my family and I saw six bull moose all at once in a grassy meadow at the Snowy Mountain Range near Laramie, Wyoming, which was an absolutely remarkable experience. Both moose sightings are two of my favorite memories, so I have a fondness for the animal that made them possible.
As I stared out the car window on our way back to Anchorage on Sunday, I hoped that my history of spotting moose would come to benefit me, but as the day wore on I came to accept the fact that I wouldn’t see one, knowing that I had witnessed lots of wonderful new wildlife like orca whales and otters.
After leaving Moose Pass, we began our journey through the mountains to our final destination, the Anchorage airport. Then our fantastic tour guide Todd, who knew of my love for moose, said that we had one last stop. Ahead I saw a sign for the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and Todd surprised me by saying I would have a chance to see a moose.
Once we entered the park, I quickly hopped out of the van and spotted a moose right away about one hundred feet away. I hustled over to find not only one but two young bull moose with small antlers. They were in a fenced-in area chomping on the grass. One was sitting just a couple feet away from the fence. Words can’t really describe the moment, but maybe a picture can.
I was absolutely overjoyed to see my favorite animal up close. I ended up sitting alone with the moose for a couple minutes just looking him. Then I decided to check out some of the other animals in the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. It is an incredible place. Orphaned and injured animals are brought there to be nursed to health and taught how to survive in the wild on their own. Black and grizzly bears, bald eagles, deer, caribou and bison were some of the other species there.
Before our group left the center, I went back over to the moose, who were now standing and enjoying their dinner of willow branches. As I was taking one last look, the moose turned his head to me, stopped eating and slowly walked over to the fence where I was standing. We just looked at each other for a few moments, and then he went on his way eating his dinner. It was an unbelievable moment I will never forget.
I have an even greater appreciation for moose after spending two weeks in Alaska. Because moose is a subsistence species, the Yup’ik people rely on the animal to survive during the fall and winter. Not only is there a respect for landscape in this culture but also for animals. We heard a story during one of our interviews about how a group of subsistence hunters said a prayer of thanksgiving after hunting a moose. Every part of the animal is used and never wasted. The meat is lean and good for children to eat.
At the church potluck, I debated eating the moose stew someone brought because of how much I love the animal, but because moose are such an important part of the Alaskan culture, I decided that it would be disrespectful not to try it (and thought is was delicious).
Even though it wasn’t in the Alaskan wilderness, seeing a moose up close was a special opportunity and the best way I could have imagined to end my two week Backpack Journalism trip. I will always be able to say I saw a moose in Alaska and also learned about how important and special the animal is to this place.