The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
On a season four episode of the Discovery Channel series The Last Alaskans, which follows the select few residents who reside in cabins within massive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, longtime resident Heimo Korth picks out rusted vintage traps from one of the seven homesteads that dot the refuge.
“When a trapper passes away, if he doesn’t have family that continues on, everything just kind of deteriorates and falls apart. Cabins fall apart,” Korth says as he quietly walks the premises. “Pretty soon trees will be growing in them and in 100 years you’ll never know that someone was living there.”
But Korth (Alaska Sporting Journal, July 2015) will always remember that his friend trapped there, lived there and essentially died there. Bob Harte, a mainstay on the refuge and who, like Korth and the few other residents of the cabins, was featured extensively on the series, lost a long battle to cancer when he passed away at 66 on July 22, 2017 in Fairbanks.
Korth, who on a tribute episode to Harte says they’ve been friends since 1976, was asked by Harte – “his last request to me” – to keep an eye on his cabin.
“Bob Harte was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever seen on television. He’s a guy from Jersey, but Alaska, specifically the incredibly challenging corner of it where he settled, became part of him and defined who he was as a person,” says Discovery Channel executive producer Michael Gara. “The life he built there was epic but he allowed us into his world on a very personal level.”
The just concluded season of The Last Alaskans began filming in the summer of 2017, just around the time Harte appeared on camera for the last time before he died.
“As we tackled how to portray his battle with cancer, we always wanted to make sure that Bob’s spirit came through every time we were with him,” Gara adds. “He’s such a rare mix of someone who’s tough as nails but also introspective and not afraid to be honest. We had to be honest as well as we told his story.”
A TRAPPER’S FAREWELL PARTY
Harte, who legend says hitchhiked to Alaska over 40 years ago and had one of seven permits to reside on ANWR, opened the tribute episode in mid-December with a clip from three years before his death. Harte counts out 275 long strides along a rocky shoreline to estimate how much space his Piper Cub needs to take off from this crude makeshift runway, the likes of which Alaskans are accustomed to.
The camera then cuts to an interview with an ailing Harte shot shortly before his death.
“In this country you’re always on the edge,” Harte says. “That plane makes it so I can match my wits against the extreme. And it’s what I love.”
“Toward the end of his life, his body was frail but his mind was still strong. He sat in his chair and watched the squirrels and talked about how they were getting ready for winter like him. He would study them and talk about how he could catch them if he wanted to. He still had that spark,” says Brigham Cottam, an executive producer with Half Yard Productions, which produces the show.
“With Bob, you didn’t want to turn off the camera because you knew he was going to say something in a way that was unrepeatable. So we just filmed everything.”
One moment Discovery didn’t film but felt fortunate to be a part of happened the day before he passed away. On that July Friday, Harte told his wife Nancy he wanted to invite many of his trapper friends, including fellow refuge residents Korth and his wife Edna, Ashley and Tyler Selden (Alaska Sporting Journal, June 2016) and Ray and Cindy Lewis, over to the Chena River camp in Fairbanks the Hartes were staying at for a cookout.
“It was a last-minute get together, but fortunately most people were in town. Bob had a great time, they all told stories, (and) from what I understand it’s the first time all of these people had been together in one place in a long time,” Half Yard executive producer John Jones says. “At the end of the evening he says goodbye to everybody and retired to his camper. He passed away that night.”
“To live the life he did required incredible instincts, and on that Friday it’s as if he knew that this was his last day to say goodbye.”
REFLECTING AND MOVING FORWARD
It took another year for longtime viewers of The Last Alaskans to get their own send-off for Harte as his plane rumbles down the same space he walked over to make sure it had enough room to take off.
“The freedom to come and go as a pilot is indescribable. It’s the best there is,” Harte says as that shot from three years earlier shows him soaring over the lands he lived on for so many years. “You get a different view of the land – just a different perspective flying over. From the air you can see tracks, you can see sloughs and lakes and what’s happening down below. It’s free and I can’t give it up.”
Harte, Jones says, “wore his heart on his sleeve.” Cottam says Harte never was bashful to give his opinion even when the camera might have made him hold back. “He didn’t care. He just spoke from the heart.”
Korth, his friend and fellow refuge trapper, also paid tribute on the show as he spent a night in a tent adjacent to Harte’s cabin.
“What these walls can tell you,” Korth says as he picks out keepsakes Nancy Harte requested he bring back. Another grizzled veteran of this lifestyle, Korth talked about his own mortality when remembering his friend’s legacy.
“I’ve been trapping and hunting so long, I realize death is part of life. Part of this place is gone. Something’s missing and Bob’s gone. I’m sure in spirit he’s still here. Someday I gotta go too.”
Harte provides his own victory lap, reflecting about what made his choice of lifestyle unique and memorable as the camera alternated among scenes of the remaining living refuge residents on this sacred ground.
What’s even more emotional is the reality that this legacy will end sometime in the next 50 to 100 years, when these families will no longer legally be allowed to live there (immediate next of kins will be the last to utilize the land before the feds reclaim it).
“I came up to Alaska to make a living trapping. I wanted a place to spend the rest of my life,” Harte says during one of those final interviews. “But I found even more than I can imagine … Living here was the best thing I ever did.” ASJ
Watch the season four finale of The Last Alaskans here.