SMALL STATE, BIG IMPACT


“Cap” Willey leaves mark at “the end of the world”

If you thought you had an interesting experience this past summer, Grafton “Cap” Willey, CPA, probably has you beat. Of course, his willingness to travel to the “end of the world,” is a tough act to follow. 

For Cap, Managing Director at CBIZ Tofias and a long-timer member of RISCPA, the “end of the world” was Gambell, Alaska, a Yupik Eskimo village of about 680 people on St. Lawrence Island, 230 miles out in the Bering Sea – a mere 35 miles from Russia. 

“I have always had an affinity for Alaska and the Arctic having been to the state in both the summer and the winter,” said Cap. “When I was younger I visited Point Barrow which is the furthest northern point that you can go to in the US on the Arctic Ocean above Prudhoe Bay.  It was minus 50 degrees and I was only supposed to be there for two days but the plane did not come back for five.” 

This was not Cap’s first venture to our 49th state.  

“I am always interested in visiting unique places, so I was intrigued to say the least,” said Cap. “To get there we flew from Anchorage to Nome, and then from Nome we took a seven-seat Piper Cub for the 230 miles to the Island.”

Cap describes the village as a “subsistence community that depends on whaling, hunting seals, walrus, reindeer, fishing, and picking berries.” One native store sells goods typically found stateside, but its supplies vary dramatically.   

“Everything has to be flown in,” said Cap. “Major items and building materials are barged in twice a year at substantial costs. We brought in all of our own food because we did not want burden the community.  We also we slept in sleeping bags in the old church. 

I wouldn’t consider Gambell a tropical garden spot. The ground is primarily gravel and arctic tundra. There is very little vegetation and no trees.”

Cap said that in mid-August, the sun rose at 6 a.m. and set well past midnight. In the coming winter, those 18 hours of sunlight will be replaced by almost no light at all. There was also no cell phone service or Internet.  As Cap described it, they were “way off the grid.”  

Those who know Cap will not be surprised to learn that his summer jaunt to a remote corner of Alaska was no vacation. Rather, there was a higher purpose at hand and much to be done. Help was needed to build a new Presbyterian church for the community. Cap saw this as an opportunity to serve and learn. 

The project itself was significant in its scope. Cap’s cousins have long been members of the Presbyterian Church in Willow Alaska, just outside of Anchorage. The regional and national church had been working on the $3 million project for over 15 years by raising money, drafting plans, and starting to build the church.

The project, being in such a remote location, presents its fair share of challenges. For example, about half the cost of materials is in the shipping of the items to the island by barge. Each church in the region is expected to send over teams to work on the project. Cap’s team consisted of five men and two women.

“The exterior of the building had been completed before we arrived,” he said. “Our project was to build the interior walls and do sheet rocking.”

Perhaps most fulfilling for Cap and his team was the opportunity to interact with the members of the Presbyterian congregation. 

“They do not get a lot of visitors,” he said. “We attended their church services. One member of our team was the minister of the Wasilla church. We joined them for a pot luck supper which we cooked ourselves. It was all very interesting.”

During a bible study session, the topic being discussed was the Old Testament’s story of Jonah and the whale – fitting for a place where whaling remains an integral component of the economy.    

“It was a fascinating experience,” he said. “There is almost no industry there and jobs are scarce.  The villagers are known for their Eskimo carvings in walrus ivory. They depend a lot on whaling. They are allotted eight whales a year. They go out to catch the 70-ton bowhead whales in 20-foot boats, which is extremely dangerous. Last year they were only successful in landing one whale, primarily due to the lack of ice caused by the warming temperatures. They need the ice to be able to pull the carcasses across the grounds. The lack of whale catches has put a burden on the village's economy.”  

For Cap, the trip to Gambell, Alaska was time well spent.

“I guess it was an adventure that few people have taken or would take,” he said. “That is probably the main reason I did it.  Also, as an accountant, since the project was charitable in nature, I am pretty sure that the trip will be tax deductible.”

Even at the “end of the world,” Cap is an accountant at heart. 

This is an Eskimo home with Family car (ATV), snowmobile, and salmon drying on the rack.

We took a local tour bus trip.

 

Church construction

 

Outside the Church

 Gambell airport and luggage control.