TALKEETNA -- David Luntz grilled steaks Friday evening as the summer sun lit up a broad meadow fringed with canvas tents.
A few people sitting in camp chairs sipped gin and tonics, getting to know each other before the weekend got started.
Rick Ford and Jon Droska walked up with unloaded hand-built semi-automatic rifles. Ford, in head-to-toe camouflage, shouldered an AK-47. Droska, a bearded, burly U.S. Navy veteran who now conducts emergency medical instruction, carried an AR-15. Around his legs rippled a charcoal-gray "Elkommando" kilt made by Mountain Hardware.
Welcome to the fourth annual Prepper, Survivalist and Militia Rendezvous.The gathering probably isn't what most Alaskans think of when it comes to the state's militias.
Then again, if the 25 or so rendezvous participants drawn this weekend to 50 acres of private land near Montana Creek are any indication, Alaska's militias are hard to pin down.
Event organizers say there are certain things their militias aren't.
"We don't want white supremacists, or supremacists at all," said Luntz, a Delta Junction man who heads the Central Alaska Militia and coordinated this year's rendezvous. "We don't want anarchists. We don't want sovereign citizens that are anti-government. We really police what our population is."
'We're trying to be professionals'
Rick Ford knelt in the woods Saturday afternoon, stringing wires between birch trees, the booby traps partially hidden by ferns on the forest floor. They were set to trigger a pop similar to a small firecracker. Ford led a dozen participants through an unarmed combat patrol scenario. The group learned to march in wedge shapes and fall into straight lines on hand signals.
There are strict rules governing weapons at the rendezvous, organizers say. Participants get a safety orientation at the start of every event. Rifles, regardless of type, generally must be left unloaded unless they're on an established firing range. Participants get to carry holstered sidearms.
Other sessions Saturday featured instruction on Alaska gardening, long-term food storage and herbal medicine. One scheduled for Sunday provided tips on defending against armored personnel carriers.
Ford, who served with the U.S. Army in the 1980s, is a fine woodworker with a farm and an affinity for Scottish bagpipes who commands the Anchorage Municipality Defense Force, a group with just under 20 core members.
He says he considers other survival skills more important than the military movement ones he's teaching. Say a major earthquake knocks out Anchorage's natural gas supply. Do residents have a way to heat their homes and cook food? Enough supplies to last months? Plywood, tape and Visqueen to cover damaged windows?
But he says that fighting an enemy on Alaska soil is a scenario that has crossed his mind.
"I think a lot of people are concerned with where the country's going in itself, the government and stuff like that," Ford said. "I prefer to think that we can work things out in a democratic fashion. It hasn't always worked that way through history."
Ford said he hopes that if a citizen militia is called on to perform a combat patrol, like the one rendezvous participants practiced Saturday, they would be a force that works in concert with police and military.
"I would hope that with this training, they would see that we're trying to be professionals," he said. "We're not just a bunch of yahoos. There are some of us that are pretty well trained, that know what we're doing, that hopefully could be an asset to them."
However, Ford has no confidence that he'd be welcomed. "I know almost for sure that we wouldn't. So we'd have to stick to our own. I will present the hand of friendship first and see what happens. It's up to them to decide to take it."
'Don't shoot at me, or I'll shoot back'
The scene at the Talkeetna gathering was a mix of Alaska weekend camping and hard-core training. An agenda circulated beforehand laid out some ground rules: no drinking and shooting; tactical uniforms not required but encouraged; and don't forget the sunscreen and bug dope.
Ed Wick owns the property where the rendezvous happened. Wick is part of a group of historical re-enactors known as muzzleloaders. Though Wick doesn't consider himself a prepper or survivalist, he said he had no reservations about hosting the group, told them they could stay for free and gave them few conditions.
"Don't shoot at me, or I'll shoot back," he said with a laugh Saturday. He expected no problems and hadn't had any as of midday.
Rendezvous organizers say that along with skills training and connecting militia members from around the state, the weekend is part of an ongoing public education campaign.
It's no coincidence, Luntz said earlier in the week, that the rendezvous started the same year the Fairbanks-based Alaska Peacemakers Militia made national headlines. Leader Schaeffer Cox is serving about 25 years in federal prison on murder conspiracy charges linked to accusations he planned the kidnapping and killing of state troopers, a judge, U.S. marshals, TSA officials and Homeland Security personnel.
Several militia members at the rendezvous distanced themselves from the group and said the event itself is part of that strategy.
"It's an effort to show the public that we are different, and that we're trying to change the public perception of what militia groups and survival groups and prepper groups are," Luntz said.
An Army veteran and member of the Alaska Constitution Party, Luntz works as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense.
He's also been a state representative for the International Rett Syndrome Foundation. His 8-year-old daughter is one of just a few Alaska girls living with the rare developmental disorder that slows speech and other brain functions.
Some of the people at the Talkeetna gathering make no secret of their negative feelings about the current administration on social media. Facebook posts include anti-taxation and Benghazi links, along with a photo of ranks of Chinese United Nations forces, captioned "Bring it."
As of 2013, there were 1,096 active "patriot" groups in the United States and 240 were militias, up from about 150 groups five years earlier, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Twenty-one of the patriot groups were based in Alaska.
Members of the larger militia movement "feel disenfranchised and believe their conservative ideals are at odds with the current administration," The Center for Public Integrity reported last year. Perceived inroads against the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- the section that protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms -- has prompted a resurgence of self-described patriots around the country.
Asked about the role of militias in Alaska, Luntz says that's a hard question.
"They all have their own basic agenda," he said. "A lot of them are kind of to build up local groups of people that can lean on each other and react to problems as they arise if they needed to."
Like what kind of problems? Natural disasters, he said. "Or something more serious, where we have the world's situation change and we have a foreign threat enter our state and we would become whatever we needed to to react to that."
The weekend agenda item about defending against personnel carriers, for example, stems from what Luntz describes as "a very serious increase in Russia's Arctic presence right now" that includes the ability to drop vehicles onto airfields.
"We could wake up one day and have an electromagnetic pulse detonation over our state and lose all power and communications and the next thing we know is we got aircraft overhead," he said. "That's a stretch. But it is a possibility."
That said, not everyone joins a militia to prepare for an invasion, people at the Talkeetna gathering said. A high percentage of members are military veterans and like to keep their skills sharp. Some see the camping and weapons training and survival tips more as a hobby than a calling.
Jason and Mariah Kerrone of Anchorage prepared a stew Saturday in a Dutch oven for dinner as they heated some hot dogs over a campfire. This was their first time at this event. Jason said he is drawn by the principle of self-reliance, particularly when it comes to people growing their own food, should Alaska's infrastructure be interrupted by a volcanic event, earthquake or any other reason. Jason Kerrone, a projects manager on the North Slope, runs a Facebook group called Peninsula Preparedness Pipeline.
"If things go dark, you want to have a system set up, so to speak," he said.
Scott and Karen Dally of Big Lake say they feel a little isolated from "like-minded" people. They sought out the event to network with people who were also interested in the outdoors, hunting and "thinking about tomorrow instead of today," Scott Dally said.
Around the field, they see people with many different skills who can learn from one another, he said. "It's like Scripture says: You all have your own talents."
Correction: This story originally incorrectly identified weapons carried by two participants as machine guns. The weapons were semi-automatic rifles.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing