The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY CHRIS COCOLES
He doesn’t have to stress over traffic, smartphone service or making restaurant reservations – you know, those annoying details that smother almost everyone else on a daily basis.
That’s the choice Tyler Selden and his wife, Ashley, made. The 30-somethings are one of a handful of families living on the South Carolina-sized Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and one of the subjects of Discovery Channel’s series, The Last Alaskans. Living far off the grid 100 or more miles away from your nearest neighbor from September to March isn’t for everyone, which is why the Seldens feel so blessed about what they get to do.
What worries Tyler Selden is this: Is his an endangered way of life? He regrettably acknowledges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take over his cabin and trapline property once he and Ashley are gone.
“It’s a preoccupation of mine. I have been thinking about it a lot lately,” says Selden, who hopes to someday write about what will be a devastating day for his and the other families still attached to this piece of government land. The land will go back to the feds when the last living direct descendants of the families pass away.
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“I don’t think it’s right and it’s a misguided policy that the refuge eventually plans to terminate those who occupy these winter camps,” Selden adds. “They did it in the (Yukon–Charley Rivers National Preserve). That’s what the National Park (Service) did – they kicked people out. What they did was they killed the culture.”
But while he’ll do what he can to convince the government to reverse the policy, Tyler and Ashley are comforted by the notion that they are living on their own terms and fulfilling what always appeared to be their destiny when they first met in Duluth, Minn., and became college sweethearts. They took quite an interesting route as they bounced around Alaska and worked a variety of odd jobs and odder bosses. But in our conversation with a candid Tyler, it was worth the journey to reach this destination.
Chris Cocoles I understand fellow Last Alaskans AWNR resident Heimo Korth (Alaska Sporting Journal, July 2015) helped inspire you to come to Alaska.
Tyler Selden You could say that. I didn’t know him before I moved up here and started living in the bush. I just got familiar with his story reading James Campbell’s book (The Final Frontiersman) and, I don’t know, it just kind of blew me away that were still people in Alaska doing that. I was (a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth) trying to decide what to do with my life. I wasn’t too thrilled with my options. I was a philosophy major and it’s kind of a dead end if you only have a bachelor’s degree for actually getting a job. What I was looking at was six more years of academic studying to get a PhD, which would have made it more possible to get a professional job. The more I started looking into that, about one of eight people who get a PhD in philosophy are actually going to get something when they’re finished. I really enjoyed the four years that I spent in the university and wouldn’t take it back; I learned a lot and I think it expanded my mind. But I was pretty much ready to be done with that. In a way, it felt like a prison to me.
CC I would imagine the way you and Ashley are living now, there were times you had cabin fever in the classroom. Did you have the typical
TS I don’t know; I guess it was typical. But two things were pulling at me: one was this interest in intellectualism and trying to earn my living with my brain. But there was this other side of me that I guess you would call the wild side. I was just feeling that urge to get outdoors and stay there. Whenever I could get away towards the end of my time in Duluth, I was always on the trails there or on the Boundary Waters. That’s where I always felt something and was the happiest and freest. I felt good about life when I’d get back in the classroom. And there’s something very stimulating about exercising your mind that you just won’t get outside of the classroom. But I just didn’t feel like that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And I decided I just wanted to move to Alaska. And things just turned out well for (me and Ashley).
CC Was Alaska in your plans before you and Ashley met?
TS [Pauses] I didn’t actually think in college that that’s where I was going to end up. It would just be a fabrication for me to say that it was my plan all along. But Alaska always did spark my imagination, just as I think it does for every outdoorsman and –woman.
CC So did you and Ashley get through school around the same time?
TS I’m older than Ashley by about two years, so I graduated before she did. And I had made up my mind that I was done with Duluth and I was ready to go to Alaska. And Ashley was dealing with her own ideas of what she wanted to do with her life. She was (a criminology major) and her options for what she was going to do for an occupation after college weren’t exactly enticing. And we were in love at that point, young and willing to experiment; and she just decided to drop out.
CC It sounds like you had some interesting adventures after getting married and first moving to Alaska in the mid-2000s. What were the early days like?
TS Sitting in Duluth we decided we were going to move to Alaska after I graduated and had a few months to decide what we were going to do. We got up there and I guess I was infatuated with the wilderness aspect of Alaska. I wanted to jump right in, but with not having any connections, nor having the option that the hippie generation had to just basically pull out a map and say, “I’m jumping off right here.” For somebody in this day and age, you really can’t do that anymore. We just decided to get a job and get as far removed from as a town as I could, just to start things out. That ended up being in Coldfoot. We lived there for almost a year after moving from Duluth and that’s an interesting place. But we got to meet some people who were living the subsistence lifestyle. It confirmed – for me, especially – that I didn’t move to Alaska to be in town. I just wanted to find a way to make it work in the woods, and Coldfoot wasn’t it. After a year there we made the mistake of moving to Anchorage. I don’t know why we did that.
CC That seems like the last place you’d want to go in Alaska.
TS That seems to happen to a lot of people, where you go to the two economic centers in Alaska – Fairbanks and Anchorage – to get a job. We happened to have a friend who had spare space in his apartment (in Anchorage). We lived there for about three months and my brother moved up with us from the Lower 48. We were desperate to get out of there but we were broke too. At that point in our life we were just flailing around looking for a way out. We moved to Hope after that and that was basically a disaster. We ended up working for some really weird people.
CC You must have some pretty good stories from that.
TS Oh, jeez, man. We were working for about 12 hours a day for a month straight and they ended up calling that training and didn’t have to pay us for it. They gave us a $100 check and told us it was a bonus. We thought we better get out of there.
CC There was no hope in Hope.
TS No, there wasn’t. We moved back to Fairbanks and my brother moved back home to Nebraska; he’d had enough. We loaded up our possessions and our dog in our truck and worked with developmentally disabled people. In the course of that time we met some people who really steered us onto the course of our current lifestyle. We knew we wanted to live in the bush, trap, hunt and live of the land, but weren’t sure how to make that happen. But our experiences the first three years we had in Alaska were probably pretty typical of a lot of people who had that vision when they move up here. We were committed to try and make it work. It took longer than we would have liked and it was a lot of work, and it still is hard work to live this way. We were optimistic it was going to work out and we met these folks in Fairbanks who got us a foot in the door and our luck changed.
CC How much did obtaining the rights to an abandoned trapline in the ANWR change your lives?
TS It’s changed it in a lot of ways. It’s hard to render the experience down to a few sentences [laughs].
CC I understand that. Is it a special feeling, if not a blessing to you, that you’re one of the select few who live this way?
TS Absolutely. It’s rare for a day to go by that I don’t think to myself that I’m the luckiest person in the world. And the thought also occurs to me that it’s crazy that more people don’t want to live that way. But it’s not all good. I don’t think there’s any lifestyle or way of living that’s going to be perfect all the time. But I really enjoy living that way and we experience some lows every once in a while. But overall the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life have been there. It’s something I always look forward to. It takes a lot of dedication around the clock and takes a level of commitment that I don’t think a lot of people would want to put into it to make it stick. We’re all the time focused on it and working towards it.
CC What’s it been like being on the show with the cameras and crew there? Has it been a positive experience for you and Ashley?
TS It’s been fine. I would give these guys credit for trying to not impose their way of thinking. They just try to adapt to what we’re doing and try hard to understand where we’re coming from. They understand well enough to try and give an honest depiction on television. I don’t think you can say that about many of these production companies. Ultimately, we’re making television and the goal is to make money and sell advertisements. The fact that they’re also trying to do a good job of portraying a vanishing lifestyle and being very respectful about that is admirable. So far our experience has been positive. Of course, it’s frustrating to have people out there on your trapline [laughs]. There’s no way of avoiding it if you’re going to make a documentary.
CC There was a moment from this season that I saw and affected me. You harvested a huge moose, and while a big part of what our magazine does is appeal to Lower 48ers who want to hunt big game on an adventure, for you that moose will feed your family. How satisfying is that?
TS It makes you feel good. It’s pretty important that you bag some meat early on because it can have some repercussions as the season goes along. It changes the experiences to be able to eat well out there.
You can get by without a moose because we live in pretty rich country out there. We can snare rabbits and catch beavers. There’s a lake on our trapline that will consistently produce pike. We don’t live in starvation country.
But some traplines are in an area that if you don’t get that one moose that’s hanging around there, you’re screwed and will be eating rations of beans and rice to get by. But to get that moose and have it all work out, that’s one of the things you live for out there. When we got that moose and got back to camp, the weather stayed cooperative and didn’t get too warm to where there wasn’t a worry about the meat spoiling. It just makes it seem like you’re living in a dream and makes life basically perfect.
CC When I talked to Heimo last year he told me one of his guilty pleasures was drinking a can of Diet Coke every day. Do you and Ashley allow for anything like that?
TS We’re not really deprived of anything, I don’t feel like. We don’t just live off of meat. We bring stuff in from town, though not in ridiculous quantities. We raise a huge garden in town and dehydrate vegetables, so we end up bringing a ton of vegetables. A lot of people who get back in town after a winter in the bush just want to eat a salad. We never feel that way because we eat a lot of vegetables and eat really healthy. Ashley’s an excellent cook. But I guess we bring a lot of chocolate – about 3 pounds – so I guess that’s our guilty pleasure.
CC It’s got to be heartbreaking for you to encourage someone who might want to live this way to follow in your footsteps. Is it a helpless feeling?
TS It is, because what we’re up against is something much more powerful and influential than any one of us. We’re up against a layer of American bureaucracy that has no flexibility. It just plods ahead like a juggernaut to anything that gets in its way. And that’s, I think, what’s going to happen to us: We’re going to be homogenized just like the rest of the United States. They’re going to take a valuable part of our Alaskan identity and kill it just because that’s what their management policy tells them they have to do.
CC Does the finality of the government eventually taking the cabin back make you emotional and think about that often?
TS What I see with the Fish and Wildlife plans to kick people out is they’re going to kill the last vestiges of that subsistence culture. And why would they want to do that. Why would we want to destroy that link with our past? And, if nothing else, why wouldn’t you want people having this lifestyle we’re living today as a counterpoint to what’s becoming of people now? We’re distancing ourselves from nature more and more every year; we’re just out of touch with our natural side. I think it’s going to be more important as time goes on that there’s still a few people practicing this lifestyle and keeping that connection alive. If Fish and Wildlife someday follows through with their plans to terminate the cabin permits, it’s going to be on their shoulders. They’re the ones who would have killed it. It’s not too late to change that policy and not set in stone that it has to happen. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on The Last Alaskans, go to discovery.com/tv-shows/the-last-alaskans. New episodes can be seen on Tuesdays on the Discovery Channel.