The Homestead Whisperer

Marty Raney holding a chainsaw withMatt Raney Misty Bilodeau near the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

The following report appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY CHRIS COCOLES

PHOTOS BY THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL

Marty Raney’s first view of Alaska was from high above the ground, and it almost felt like it was from the heavens.

In the 1970s, a then-teenaged Raney, who grew up exploring the Cascade Mountains just east of Seattle but longed for evenmore wide-open spaces, was flying to Ketchikan from the Emerald City and ran into a friend who worked for Alaska Airlines, Duane Tibbles.

“He told me, ‘Wait until we fly and I’ll have a surprise for you.’ I was just sitting there in the tarmac and, sure enough, he came back, pulled me away from my seat and let me ride in the cockpit of the 737,” Raney says. “To this day, I certainly have never forgotten his role in inspiring me to pursue the Alaskan lifestyle.”

Raney didn’t need to spy the terrain from the cockpit to know the Last Frontier would become his most hallowed ground. He conquered Alaska as mountain climber – he’s reached the summit of Denali multiple times and guides on North America’s tallest peak – logger, musician, survival specialist and homesteader.

The latter two traits have made Raney a somewhat reluctant TV personality after he was a regular contestant in the National Geographic Channel series Ultimate Survival Alaska. This summer, he and two of his four children put their off-the-grid skills to good use by helping struggling families on Discovery Channel’s rookie show, Homestead Rescue.

“Coming off 35 episodes (of Ultimate Survival Alaska), I watched and listened and learned, and now I’m at a point where I know what type of show I want to be involved in,” he says. “It was going to be real and if everyone wasn’t on board we would just stop dialogue right then.”

Raney, who turns 60 on July 28, appears to have gotten the series he signed up to star in. It’s real people facing real problems in really remote spots from Pennsylvania to Montana to, naturally, Alaska, where those who dream of tall mountains, pristine lakes and the wilderness – like Raney himself did – migrate.

Marty Raney sitting on top on the greenhouse build on a log at the Garcia Homestead in Fort Garland, Colorado.
Marty, Misty and Matt talking at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

 

MAKEOVER SHOWS ARE SOME of reality TV’s founding fathers as the genre evolved. Have a problem with your wardrobe closet? You can’t get your house decorated? Your dog growls at the neighbors? Never fear; the experts are here to solve your tales of woe.

“Discovery is calling me an expert, but I’m not an expert in anything and I told them that,” Raney says. “(But) if anybody is going to look me in the eye and call me out for being on this show, I want to know who it is. I’ve had to this day a hard life.”

Still, when Raney and his daughter Misty and son Matt agreed to makeover the homesteads of off-the-grid residents for the Discovery Channel project, the family patriarch was adamant there would be no forced drama, no showmanship and, most importantly, no scripted material.

Raney, who said he was presented with multiple show pitches and nearly agreed to a deal with the History Channel, praised Discovery and Homestead Rescue’s production company, Raw Productions and producers Sam Maynard and Mike Griffiths, for adhering to his wishes for a show without an agenda.

“They basically found real people who lived off-grid for a variety of reasons. There were no camouflage-wearing, gun-toting, government-hating doomsday types on this show,” Raney says. “I really have to tip my hat to Discovery for hitting the ball with the big end of the bat and finding real people for me to visit and help.”

In one episode the Raneys went to Montana’s Wolf Creek area to assist a couple with no water source, no livestock or garden and suspicions of a mountain lion lurking close to their dwelling (evidence of the cat walking on the roof was visible). Marty goes to work on finding water so the husband can stop making daily trips to and from town; Misty, an established farmer, helps develop a system for growing crops; Matt, whose expertise is hunting and tracking, becomes a sleuth to help detect the likely appearance of a mountain lion. It’s safe to say that with every homesteader who takes on the challenge of living far from civilization, predators pose one of the most concerning safety threats.

“There are definitely coyotes and fox, and definitely, which shocked me, an amazing amount of bird predators, and you can’t kill them because they’re all protected. They’re rampant,” Marty Raney says. “We looked up during filming on location in Pennsylvania, on camera, and I counted 20 vultures, hawks and bald eagles circling the homestead at one time. Crazy.”

Raney didn’t want to give too much away about what he, Misty and Matt encountered on their wilderness home improvement tour, but he couldn’t resist teasing one memorable moment.

“We drilled a well in Nevada and the drill owner told me, ‘Yeah, Marty, I’ll take your money. I’ll drill 500 feet and it’s going to be dry; 500 feet and dust is going to fly out of this hole,’” Raney says. “I told him to drill that hole anyway. And I’m going to tell you right now that the hole wasn’t dry. What happened was a miracle.”

Hyperoble? You don’t get that sense when chatting with Marty Raney. He’s convincing when he tells you that no, none of what you see with he, his kids and those they try and help is contrived once the cameras are rolling. Marty is the epitome of a no-nonsense Alaskan. Roll the camera and let’s see what happens is the mantra of his vision for Homestead Rescue.

In another moment at the 9,000-foot level in Colorado, a trail cam looking out for predators revealed something Raney says will “blow peoples’ minds.”

“They’re going to think it was scripted and hopefully they’ll know by then that we don’t script that stuff. You can’t get off-grid and leave civilization for the wilderness and be at the top of the food chain anymore,” he says. “You move into the predators’ neighborhood and are gonna have to deal with the problems because he’s not the best neighbor.”

Raney could relate from his early days in bear-infested Alaska.

Marty at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Misty holding equipment at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Misty Bilodeau, Matt Raney and Marty Raney with the completed wood sculpture at the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

NORTH BEND, WASH., HAS a TV claim to fame beyond native son Marty Raney’s ties to the Seattle suburb about 30 miles east of the Space Needle. Many of the filming locations for the 1990s cult hit Twin Peaks were shot in North Bend. The city is also known for the surrounding foothills of the Cascades as Interstate 90 begins its climb to Snoqualmie Pass.

Raney grew up “in the last house on Mount Si Road.” The nearest neighbor was about a mile away. He took advantage of the country framing his rural Washington home.

“I think when I was 12 or 13 I went up the Mount Si Road to Goldmeyer Hot Springs and basically hiked from there to Stevens Pass, 35 miles through the Cascades,” he says. “I lived at the base of Mount Teneriffe behind Mount Si. I’d climb that a lot and didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really have any technical skills but definitely scrambled a lot through the Cascades. I just loved the outdoors. And obviously, I ratcheted that love for the outdoors and mountains to a place more wild and where the mountains were bigger, and that was Alaska.”

By the time he was 16 in the early 1970s he was ready to quit school, which eventually led him north. Raney’s welcome-to-Alaska moment came as a logger on Prince of Wales Island, where his home was a floating logging camp.

“I was on the tail end of a romantic, beautiful but hard lifestyle of logging. Those trees were so big they would cut them down to about 40 feet long, tie them together and have a massive float that you could put anything on. You could build a skyscraper on them,” Raney says. “So they built houses and fourplexes and they dragged trailers onto them. And they would just tow these rafts – floating camps, if you will – from bay to bay.”

After he married his girlfriend, Mollee Roestel, they longed to get further away from civilization and built a home near the shores of Chilkoot Lake, 30 miles north of the city of Haines. Nearby streams teemed with spawning salmon, providing the couple with a convenient food source. But where there’s a salmon run there are also hungry bears seeking fresh fish.

“It was crazy,” Raney says of the bruins that shared the land and competed for the watershed’s coho.

Raney finds the irony now that his life experiences make him an off-the-grid guru. In reality, in his younger days Raney struggled to keep Mollee and their newborn oldest daughter, Melanee, fed. And there were other challenges: Mollee went into labor on the homestead, and when complications arose, Melanee was delivered after an emergency plane ride to Whitehorse, Canada, in the Yukon Territory.

“Even though my Haines homesteading days were long ago, I was taken back there constantly when I saw how hard it is just to get water,” Raney says of filming Homestead Rescue. “When I saw there’s no refrigeration and there’s no power, I realize how hard my life was.”

“And at times we were hardscrabble. I’d come home after a hard day of logging skinny and hungry. I would fish for salmon just on the edge of Chilkoot Lake. And hopefully I’d catch something for food for my wife and me. So I could relate to a hard life; trust me.”

But that’s exactly what makes this family what it is. The four kids, Melanee, Miles, Misty and Matt, are chips off the old block (see sidebar). When Marty was traversing the Cascades as a young boy looking for more, he found it on the floating logging camps or dodging the brown bears while subsistence fishing and hunting in around Chilkoot. And he’s never regretted the choices he’s made to live off the land.

“I don’t know if I’m special in any way, but I certainly like adventure and I live in Alaska, where adventure abounds and it calls. So it seems incessant – sometimes loud and sometimes quiet – but certainly a ubiquitous call from the wilderness to explore – to climb that mountain and ask, ‘What’s on the other side of that ridge?’” Raney says.

“Just in the subsistence lifestyle in Alaska, you’re going to have an adventure. You can’t dipnet the Copper River without an adventure; you can’t moose hunt without an adventure. And for much of the subsistence lifestyle – I don’t know the percentage and it’s probably more than I want to admit – that it isn’t so much about the fish or the meat, but it’s about the experience and the unknown and unpredictability of each and every moment.”

One of the themes that will resonate for viewers of Homestead Rescue is this: If you aspire to abandon city life to live like our forefathers, be prepared for some of the most difficult times of your life or risk the consequences.

“I think every family didn’t realize how hard it was going to be – the lack of electricity, the lack of water, the lack of modern conveniences, and the problems you were going to have from rattlesnakes to bears – because now you have moved to the country,” Raney says. “But what I think was something that I never predicted was that I would be emotionally impacted by these peoples’ reasons for being off the grid.”

Don’t let the cowboy hat, the stern grimace and the walrus-style mustache fool you. If Raney’s appearance screams gruff and tough, he’s anything but.

“I cried like a baby on this show because I got emotionally involved with (the homesteader’s) stories. I became empathetic with their struggles,” he says. “I don’t think any of these homesteaders went out there totally prepared, and certainly unforeseen circumstances happened, sometimes daily, that compounded the challenges of making such a life-changing move to the country.”

The Raney family arrival at the Zabecs Homestead in Kinsale, Virginia.

RANEY FIRST CLIMBED DENALI, all 20,308 feet worth of North America’s highest point, in 1986. Every member of his family has also reached the top. He’s hit the summit in all its glory in his 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. “And I’ll climb it in my 60s,” he predicts.

These days, when he finishes the journey up “the high one,” Raney will sometimes break out his guitar – he strums one that’s shaped like an Alaska state map – and play one of the tunes he’s written. (He released an iTunes album,
If That Bus Could Talk, with Raney recreating the iconic photo of Into The Wild subject Christopher McCandless.)

The trek up what was formerly known officially as Mount McKinley is now a routine part of this Alaskan’s journey from a restless youth seeking an escape hatch from civilization to a go-to source for how to survive and thrive in the desolate backcountry. But ask him about his first successful ascent at Denali in 1986 and Raney’s emotions get him again.

“As I approached that last 20 feet to the top of Denali, I was crying and the tears were freezing …” Raney recalls, his voice trailing off before pausing to collect himself. “The tears were freezing in my face. And when I got to the top I remember being ever aware that I was standing on the top of the continent and that there was no place higher than this point. And I had never felt so small and insignificant in my life.”

“It wasn’t about jumping up and down or taking the photos or stabbing the flag (in the ground). I never felt so insignificant looking at 360 degrees of foreboding, wild, jagged ridges and glaciers. It was the most scary terrain as far as the eye can see in any direction.”

It was a view not unlike the one he had from the cockpit of that 737 years before, the world he longed for in front of him – the best view in the world.  ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Marty Raney, check out his website at martyraney.com. New episodes of Homestead Rescue can be seen on Fridays on the Discovery Channel. Like the show at facebook.com/HomesteadRescue.

THE WILDERNESS FAMILY 

Marty Raney’s kids are just like him in that they are constantly seeking something to push them.

“It’s just been recently that National Geographic and others have found out about us and want to sing our praises and make money off us. But I’ve never answered a casting call,” Raney says. “National Geographic knocked on my door. I don’t watch TV. (But) I think about the fact that I probably take for granted what people like about our family.”

Marty’s and wife Mollee’s oldest daughter, Melanee, owns and operates an Alaskan whitewater rafting guide service, Chugach Adventures (alaskanrafting.com). Mindy and the family’s youngest, Matt Raney, who appear with their dad on Homestead Rescue, are accomplished in the outdoors. And then there’s their brother Miles, who might be this adrenaline-seeking clan’s biggest badass.

The bio on martyraney.com states that Miles “may be the most traveled human being in the world.”

Marty Raney admits that is “a boisterous, bombastic and arrogant statement, perhaps. But what I really mean is that it’s inarguable. Some of the trips he’s done he should have been killed on.”

Miles’ passion is mountain biking solo across entire nations – and a few years back he took perhaps his most daunting trip on two wheels. Miles biked from Madrid, Spain, eventually crossing between the European and African continents into Morocco and continuing all the way down to the west coast of Africa before ending his journey in Cape Town, South Africa.

The most dangerous part of the ride was through the nation of Côte d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast.

“You tell me right now: Can someone bike from Madrid to Morocco, and Morocco down through Ivory Coast to Cape Town and survive, alone? (Ivory Coast) is teeming with
al-Qaida and tribal factions of people who hate Americans.”

“There was a dark cloud over my presence when my son biked Africa; it was 25,000 kilometers (about 15,500 miles). There were weeks at a time where we never heard from him. And I constantly watched the news wherever he was and I wouldn’t have been surprised had we never heard from him again. I was almost preparing for myself for that.”

But Miles made it back after 10 months in Africa, and he’s biked throughout China, Australia and New Zealand, among other places. Melanee, Misty and Matt have also pushed the limit at various levels throughout their lives. But considering how often their dad has climbed Denali, which per the National Park Service has officially claimed at least 120 deaths since 1932, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree in this family, which is very tight-knit, Marty Raney says. And its zest for life made creating a series centered around three members a no-brainer to pursue.

“Discovery really liked that they came across an Alaskan family. You don’t have to climb Denali to be a real Alaskan – but you certainly have to love Alaska and have to live an Alaskan lifestyle,” Raney says. “Everyone gets along and I’ve never seen my kids fight. We’re just not that type of people and everyone’s pretty mellow and easy-going. But when it comes to adventure or a task, they’re incredibly intense.” CC

 

 

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