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.
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.
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.
There has been so much going on that the days and experiences are starting to all blur together and just feel like either one longgggg day, or an entire month. Yesterday was no exception. I’ve never had a day feel quite so long and so short all at the same time.
It all started with the opportunity to be behind the camera for an interview. This time I was on my own (accompanied by Tim) and really getting things going. Each time I’m feeling more and more comfortable operating the cameras and just more confident in my abilities. We interviewed a girl named Anna, a recent high school grad, about her experiences growing up in Bethel, and a few things about culture and climate change.
After listening to her perspective and rocking my detail-oriented style, we headed back to base camp. From there I was offered the opportunity to go for a walk and take some pictures. I normally would have just wanted to stay in and play some card games, but my gut pulled me out the door; and thus the dream team was born!
We went out on a whim of an adventure, and MAN was it incredible. It all started when we ran into some natives. Sadly, we bore witness to a common trend in Bethel as at least one if not more of our new insta-friends was very intoxicated. Nonetheless, they were still very friendly and talkative, and we took photos and laughed. And then the magic kicked in.
Mid-conversation, across the river, a moose and her two calves emerged from the bush, and we all exclaimed in excitement;, grabbing our cameras trying to get a shot. Either way, we were all so exhilarated that we gleamed, and started to head back to the social hall. Then we stumbled upon a woman with a yellow Finch that had recently ran into a window. The bird was still trying to fly so we all got some great shots of him. We finally arrived back inspired and pumped up for the remainder of the day.
For the near eternity that was left of the day, I was assigned to the group that was going to see a local village off the Kuskokwim river. We bundled up and prepped our equipment. We ended up taking a hour boat ride into the sun to see never-ending meadows, beautiful skies, and incredible wildlife. I was already amazed by the time we got to the village. We only got to stay for a short amount of time, which a lot was taken up by being swarmed by adorable kids, but it was so unforgettable. The B-roll aside, the images and scenes we saw will forever be with me. It all truly was a blessing to experience.
Ending the day with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn and jamming out with Hannah to “It’s the best day ever!” from the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack really just tied everything together.
I’ve really learned how incredible this trip has been, and how to fully experience things I just have to get out there and see what I can while I have time. Just realizing that this experience is completely in my hands just makes me feel so empowered and ready to take on each individual day. Good thing tomorrow is only a day away!! #MusicalHumor #PopLockandFocus
Talk about one heck of a week. It can’t already be the end of week #1! There is so much Bethel has to offer. It is hard to explain in words my experiences so far to anyone else. Maybe thats just the Biology major in me struggling in this Journalism field. 😉
Here’s a glimpse of some of my Bethel experiences:
Bethel pizza is amazing. Ramen (was amazing that first day! )and oatmeal on the other hand get kind of old after having it for one week straight.
Gas is almost $7.00 a gallon.
We walked to our first Bethel Saturday Market and saw all the gorgeous local native pieces of artwork, clothing such as Kuspocks, food, and tools. I bought fireweed jelly (YUM!) and some cool eskimo paintings to take back.
I’ve gone to two fish camps so far and seen the delicious Red Salmon butchered right before my eyes. Call me a pro now at butchering fish.
I had the privilege to join Nico, Tony, and one of our professors to shoot B-Roll on a fishing boat of a man and his wife while they checked their nets, bring back their fish to their fish camp, and enjoy a little taste of heaven while sitting outside watching the Alaskan sunset on the Kuskokwim river.
We also stopped by the Napaskiak village and filmed some B-Roll of some kids and the Orthodox Church on our way to fish camp. This village did not have any main roads. The roads were all made of wooden boards and people drove 4-wheelers to get around!
I witnessed firsthand my dinner caught in a net, brought back to a fish camp, filleted before my eyes, and barbecued on a grill right before my eyes.
I love filming B-Roll!
After 12 hours of filming we went back to their house and ate more fish! Salmon spread, pressure cooked salmon, and more salmon jerky!
If there is an apocalypse I’m moving to Alaska and living in Bethel. These people spend June fishing and drying their fish for the winter. They spend the next few months moose hunting. And then in the fall they spend their time berry picking in the tundra. I think I’d be set for life.
Tundra tea is probably the best tea I’ve ever had. Especially with a Bethel crud cold.
We walked on the tundra for an hour and a half! And yes I couldn’t feel my legs the next day. Walking on a squishy mattress is exhausting!
One night I managed to stay up to 3 AM and witnessed the sun set and rise all within a matter of 4 hours.
Homemade berry cinnamon jam is the best thing ever!
Learning Yup’ik words are so cool! Kenka means unconditional love. Quyana means Thank you. Goudak is eskimo ice cream (crisco/seal/fish oil, sugar, berries) which I still have yet to try.
The river is FREEZING! I wore 6 layers on top and 3 layers on bottom when we were in the boats.
We explored an old abandoned BIA boarding school which was pretty spooky.
Basketball played at a fish camp with deflated basketballs, no net, and on grass is the way to play basketball. I think we can all agree the game of Knock Out will never be played the same!
Showering after 5 days with no shower really does make you feel and look like a new person with all the dirt and fish smell washed away.
Salmon egg salad is the way to go people.
On top of all my experiences so far there is still so much to learn about the Yupik culture and native town of Bethel.
Kari’s great Alaskan adventure to be continued…Quyana!
When I first heard about the Backpack Journalism Project as a freshman at Creighton, I was immediately intrigued and knew that someday I would love to be a part of this experience. Now more than two years later, I am just beginning what I consider to be the opportunity of a lifetime.
What first attracted me to Backpack Journalism, beyond the practical reasons like it fitting with my major, was the chance to travel to a new and compelling place with a group of Creighton students and faculty. In addition, I have always loved movies, and the idea of filming a documentary sparked my interest in the program even more.
When the 2014 trip was set for Alaska, I was thrilled for many reasons: no passport needed, beautiful scenery, cooler temperatures and the chance to see my favorite animal, the moose.
Once I committed to the program and continued to learn about Backpack Journalism, I realized how much more there is to this project than what meets the eye.
Even though this year’s group won’t be leaving the country, our destination will feel like a whole new world. Bethel, the town in which we will be spending most of our trip, is not in the “pretty” part of Alaska. The landscape is flat and wet (we were all instructed to purchase mud boots to pack), and it is one of the poorest regions of the United States. We will be immersed in a culture far different than the Midwest and encounter a new way of life.
Bethel is a place full of people with stories to be told. As we learn about important issues in this community, we will be reaching out to people to tell us about their experiences. The finished product of the trip, a documentary, will be a way to share these stories to a larger community and give a voice to the people of Bethel.
I know that I will gain so much from this experience far beyond filmmaking and writing. Being a part of Backpack Journalism is encouraging my love of learning in a new way. Stepping outside my comfort zone and experiencing a completely new place will be a tremendous challenge but one that will make a lasting impact on my life. Throughout this trip, I am excited to be exploring issues that interest me, including poverty, religion and the impacts of climate change. Beyond these topics and others, I look forward to learning by being with people and establishing relationships.
I have been anticipating this trip for so long now, and I am incredibly excited for this journey.