The story of Joseph Dunham – A hippie in the Alaskan Wilderness
EAGLE RIVER, Alaska – Shortly after I arrived at this picturesque Orthodox community 15 miles north of Anchorage, residents rushed to ask if I’d met and talked to a guy named Joe Dunham.
Several young Orthodox converts who live at the St. James House, a self-directed program for young Orthodox adults, kept asking me during my visit last November if I had met Joe, the beekeeper. From what I had gathered, this guy named Joseph “Joe” Dunham, 68, was a living legend of the Eagle River community. He sounded quirky. I had to meet him.
Residents of St. James House described him as the most generous and helpful person they ever met. Twenty minutes after I called to introduce myself and explain that I would like to sit down and hear his life story, a gray-bearded, bespectacled man in his late 60s showed up in the living room of Saint James House.
“Joe Dunham has a habit of being generous to others,” said Ryan Ritchey, an Orthodox convert originally from Martinsburg, Pennsylvania. “After I arrived in Alaska, I was given a car by my employer. This car lasted all of three weeks before the engine blew out. My employer was unable to buy my another car at the time. Knowing this, Joe selflessly took time out of his life and helped me find a car.” He said Dunham helped him negotiate a good price, and the car still runs well.
Soft-spoken, witty and a bit eccentric, Dunham talked for a couple of hours about his childhood, life in Alaska and his unorthodox path to Orthodox Christianity. Although he has the professorial look and eclectic interests, his youth had been rebellious and turbulent.
Early years and growing up
He was born in a small town in upstate New York close to the Vermont border. As a boy growing up in a family of six kids, he was easily distracted and often found himself drawn toward trouble. “I was a wild child!” Dunham said at one point.
His family was Presbyterian, but they did not attend the church regularly. Young Joe spent summers in Bible school, where he was introduced to the Christian faith. Whenever Dunham’s family would get together for a drive, he would start a fight or argument with his siblings. That was a common occurrence until his mother got upset by his behavior. She came up with the brilliant idea of group singing in the car. Quickly, all members of the Dunham family accepted this practice. They would sing Bible songs, ballads and folk and country songs.
The Dunham family ended up with a very unique and broad musical repertoire. Singing became a family tradition. To this day, during family reunions, they repeat the repertoire from their childhood. During his adolescent years, though, Dunham got into drugs and explored the wild hippie lifestyle that was in fashion back in the 1960s. However, he always felt that life wasn’t satisfying — that there was something else, a special place for him.
Moving to Alaska
“I always knew that there is a place for me, that I had a special spot to be,” Dunham said.
In his late teens, he heard about a young, developing community in Alaska from a neighbor in New York who had already moved there. “Right away I knew, that was it,” Dunham said.
The same day he spoke to his neighbor, he told his mother that he was moving to Alaska. Initially, his mother was shocked and asked, “When are you coming back?”
Dunham still clearly remembers his answer: “You don’t understand, Mom. I am moving to Alaska. That’s where I need to be.”
Dunham hitchhiked from New York to Seattle. He had a few hundred dollars in his pocket, which certainly made his journey more adventurous. His path from New York to Alaska perhaps resembled Christopher McCandless wandering around the country in the narrative nonfiction book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, which became a film of the same name directed by Sean Penn.
Before heading to Alaska, Dunham decided he would put a foot in every state of the Union — zig-zagging as a hitchhiker across America. He almost reached that goal, missing only two states: Florida and Hawaii. During this exceptional journey, he slept along the road, often being invited by locals to spend a night in their houses. He returned home to work at a potato farm for $1 per hour.
“I was not living a Christian life, but contrarily, I dabbled in drugs and the wild side of life,” he said, adding that he felt a tugging, strong feeling “of needing a place to settle down. I knew that it would be Christian, and I also knew very clearly that I would recognize it when I saw it.”
After hitchhiking across the country, he finally reached Seattle, where he bought a one-way ticket to Alaska, spending $76. “When I finally made it to Alaska, I had just a few bucks in my pocket, and I was fortunate that I was allowed to stay rent-free until I could dig up my payments,” he said.
Journey to Orthodox Christianity
As a teenager, Dunham was introduced to God by a minister who prayed with him. After the prayer, Dunham said he felt like and “believed that he was a new person.”
However, this feeling quickly faded — fortunately not entirely, leaving the seed of Christianity in Dunham’s soul. He described it in a very detailed manner:
I was clearly confronted by the Holy Spirit many times, and I felt a voice calling me to be somewhere for a particular purpose; this call grew more apparent as I approached young adulthood. I knew that I was being called by God not only to the Christian life but something more specific. I kept running and trying to hide from this confrontation but knew there would come a time when I would recognize and accept where I was meant to be.
He said when he heard of a young, nondenominational church in Alaska, he immediately recognized it was a place he needed to be.
Maranatha North was a nonprofit religious community that didn’t want to be a church. “We were anti-church,” Dunham said emphatically. The group was a Christian anarchist group in 1973 whose members had cut ties with all Christian denominations but didn’t know exactly if they were anarchists. They were people drawn both to a communal lifestyle and to the message of Jesus.
As the time went by, the members of the community realized the benefits of organized religion. Dunham defines this as an “evolutionary process” of the group. “If you look at Christianity historically, you can’t help but not bump into the Orthodox Church,” he said. “For a thousand years that was all that was: one church!”
Dunham credits his conversion to Orthodoxy to the collective conversion of the whole community, which was a product of a profound interest in the early church fathers and theology, as well as the liturgical life of the church. The 20 or so members lived in a large house in Eagle River, reading books and discussing the Scripture and theology they encountered. “Coming to Alaska was my conversion to Christianity,” he said.
He and other community members in the house often took part-time jobs to be able to pay $250 a month to cover housing and food. Dunham took jobs painting the interiors of houses and selling firewood to pay rent. They listened to cassette tapes, read spiritual books and participated in Bible studies as part of their classes.
“The goal of this program was to find God individually and collectively and to learn how to live a Christian life together as a community,” he said. “We met together on Saturday evenings where we played guitars, sang songs and listened to homilies.” He said he and others “did not realize at this point that we were headed toward becoming Orthodox.”
This unusual approach to adulthood also brought ups and downs in his family life. He got married and had two sons — who are now adults — with his first wife and is a proud grandfather of four grandchildren.
He met his current wife, Tisha, in February of 1990 through Orthodox Church circles on the West Coast, and they were married seven months later. The couple lives in a parish house across from the St. John Orthodox Cathedral, where he can walk across the street to work on church music. He’s also close to the school at Saint John where he teaches 4th, 5th and 6th grade math during the winter months.
Music as a way of life
Dunham’s brain naturally and frequently runs to notes, lyrics and sounds. Several times, he said, “Music is an integral part of my life.” From singing during car rides with his family to present days, it seems music follows Dunham.
In a young, developing religious community, few people played or sang music for spiritual purposes on a regular basis. However, quite often someone would play a guitar with a couple of people gathering around to sing.
In November 1973, Peter Gillquiest (now Father Peter) visited Maranatha North — the original name of the community — in Eagle River, bringing with him a collection of songs. The collection included Scriptures set to the tune of old ballads. Gillquiest taught the young Christian community the importance of singing as a group, which was instantly embraced by members.
“Peter taught us that singing as a group is fun, and we loved it,” Dunham said. “It helped bond us together.”
Every Saturday evening, the community would gather in the “big house” — now the St. James House — for a sermon by Harold Dunaway, the founder of the community and the father of Marc Dunaway, the parish priest of Eagle River. Singing a few songs before a sermon became part of their routine and an important exercise for their spiritual development. Later, as the community developed into the traditional church, they developed group songs while incorporating some Protestant hymns.
“At that time, I … realized the importance of singing as a useful tool for teaching, preaching, exclaiming and proclaiming,” Dunham remembered. Maranatha North later became known as Grace Community Church, while Dunham became the song leader of the church.
As a congregation, they were passionate about singing and very proud of their newly discovered talent. The community developed into the Evangelical Orthodox Church, the predecessor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral parish in Eagle River. The music was still an integral part of the spiritual life of the community.
At one point, the community gathered the music band, which consisted of “a trumpet, a flute, a French horn, the piano, two or three guitars and a large bass,” Dunham said proudly.
Dunham, now lead cantor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral, emphasized repeatedly that members of the Eagle River community learn theology from songs. “Much of our understanding about Orthodox theology comes directly from the music,” he said.
When asked about his musical taste, Dunham answered enthusiastically, without hesitation, “Back in the day I loved the Beatles. Always the Beatles. Even today, they are my favorite group.”
It seemed that the music question shifted our conversation into a new direction, creating momentum and encouraging Dunham to share his eclectic music taste.
“I like any music that’s good,” he said, “by talented musicians.”
I needed more specifics.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What kinds of music?”
Dunham responded by rattling off a wild list: “I listen to The Mills Brothers, some older rock and country music, Bach, Franz Liszt and Tchaikovsky, although I find him heavy.”
At the end of our conversation, Dunham showed a genuine interest in learning more about Serbian ethnic music, which opened the floodgates of YouTube searches and my zealous interest to introduce him to as many Serbian songs as possible. For the last 15 minutes of our conversation, we listened to Serbian ethnic and Orthodox music compositions, which were followed by Dunham’s reply: “You have to send me this.”
In addition to his Orthodox faith, family and music, beekeeping is Dunham’s other passion and newly discovered vocation. His company — Alaska Honey, Pollen and Comb — produces raw Alaska fireweed honey. It’s his career of several years after he spent years working for the Alaskan government.
He expanded his beekeeping operation after retiring from the State of Alaska as the chief investigator of the Alaska Wage and Hour Administration, where he headed four offices in the state.
“Last year, I raised 170 hives and produced just under 12,000 pounds of honey,” he said. “This year I am currently keeping very busy with 240 hives. The amount of honey is yet to be seen.
Dunham’s honey is of exceptional quality, which I can say with certainty because I spent a good part of our conversation trying different flavors. Dunham received a Blue Ribbon Beekeeper award for the quality of his honey products three times in a row at the National Honey Show, which includes all 50 states and six countries. After that he decided to stop competing.
His beekeeping enterprise is unique because bees do not live easily in Alaska. Dunham has to import bees from the “Lower 48” before every season. For years, he’s been trying to keep the bees alive through winter. Yet because Alaskan winters are so long, bees usually don’t survive. In the last couple of years, Dunham has been experimenting new ways to keep his hives alive.
Dunham has developed several of his own beekeeping methods over the years. Perhaps the most notable one — often mentioned by residents of the Eagle River community — is the fact that Dunham does not use a smoker, an essential tool beekeepers use to avoid getting stung. Instead, he relies heavily on the help of cigars. When asked about his cigar preference, he gave a witty response: “I personally like Cohibas. I figured if they are good enough for Castro, they are good enough for me.”
It seems the market is open wide for Dunham’s honey products, essentially giving him a monopoly on the Alaskan honey market, while at the same time he can ship the honey nationwide. Dunham concluded our talk about his honey venture with an enthusiastic soliloquy about Alaskan agricultural monopoly.
“It is my market!” he exclaimed. “There is no one else out there that does it to this extent.” And he shares his business and hobby with friends and newcomers alike.
Ethan DeJonge, originally from Zeeland, Michigan, moved to Alaska to live at the St. James house. People kept telling him he needed to meet Joe Dunham. DeJonge’s family is a leading producer of Orthodox icons in North America with their company, Legacy Icons. DeJonge had kept bees before and appreciated that hobby and Joe’s other eclectic interests.
“Our long truck rides to his beehives always involved discussions of theology, the early days of St. John’s (Parish), and his own spiritual journey. Hearing him explain how St. John’s transformation from having a hippie preacher smoke cigarettes while preaching to the Orthodox church in a decade will always stay in my memories.”
Dunham’s move to Alaska 50 years earlier, to a place so wild and free, seemed to fit his unusual personality. His migration from a restless 1960s hippie took him to an even more unusual place. He’d become an Orthodox Christian, a cantor at St. John’s Orthodox Cathedral. At the same time he found his life calling: beekeeping and producing honey products of exquisite taste and quality. He said he was happy. He said he found the peace he couldn’t find in the world of the 1960s.