Life On The Refuge: The Last Alaskans

Last Alaskans 1
The following story appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 
By Chris Cocoles
Photos courtesy of Animal Planet
Remember when you were young and daydreamed about what life in the future would be like, or at least could be like?
Heimo Korth has more Fred Flintstone in him than George Jetson. He’s more fascinated by the past and what the world around him used to be like; he’s not interested in Tomorrowland.
Korth’s is among a couple handfuls of families still allowed to maintain residency on Alaska’s lonely – that’s lonely, even for Alaska’s standards – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, featured on Animal Planet’s rookie series, The Last Alaskans.
“This is an adventure; this is joy. You’re bound to nature; nature directs your path,” Korth says during the first few minutes of the show’s premiere episode. “I mean, that’s the way that man has been for nearly three million years. In the land we live in you’re part of the food chain. The only pressure you and all the animals have here is keeping yourself alive.”
In 1980, Congress banned new human occupation in ANWR, which at 113 million acres is about the same size as South Carolina. The owners of seven cabins on the refuge were allowed to continue residing there until their direct living descendants pass away, whenever that time comes.
Most don’t spend the entire year there – the Korths spend a few months out of the year at a cabin in Fort Yukon in the Alaskan Interior, but they trap and hunt through the fall to have enough food to get through the winter. It can be dangerous, regardless of how many months are spent on the refuge.
Korth and his wife, Edna, know all about how fragile life can be in their rugged northeast corner of Alaska, where your nearest neighbor can be hundreds of miles away. Thirty years ago, the Korths lost a child in a river accident when she was 2. It was the kind of unthinkable and horrific tragedy that could destroy a family’s resolve to live in such a primitive setting. But Heimo and Edna , and the others who remain on this beautiful but dangerous refuge – residents share their land with polar bears, brown bears and wolves – are filled with resolve, not regret.
And it’s the kind of fend-for-yourself approach they chose compared to past generations with no such choice.
“If you think about it, any anthropologist will tell you man has been the nomadic hunter for far, far longer than he has farmed in the world,” Korth said. “I guess I feel like me and my wife were kind of keeping up the tradition; I shouldn’t say tradition, but should just say (keeping up) a way of life – with the human population growing – that is dwindling. I’m glad that we live like that, and I’m proud of it.”
LIKE THE OTHER ANWR cabin owners who are the subjects of The Last Alaskans, Heimo Korth was a Lower 48er who migrated to Alaska with every intention of chasing the Last Frontier dream of freedom in a place where you can disappear, metaphorically at least. (According to the Animal Planet bios on the residents featured on the show, Bob Harte hitchhiked to Alaska from New Jersey 40 years ago; Ray Lewis, who has lived in the refuge for 30 years with his wife, Cindy, and three daughters, is originally from Michigan; Tyler and Ashley Selden, relative newcomers to the ANWR, met  at the University of Minnesota Duluth).
Korth’s hometown of Appleton, Wis., wasn’t exactly a major metropolis back in the late 1950s and early ’60s when he grew up. But consider that Appleton’s current population – 73,000 – is bigger than Fairbanks and Juneau combined.
“My dad and mom weren’t very outdoorsy at all. Even though my dad was born and raised on a farm, he wasn’t a hunter or a trapper, and very rarely fished. We lived at the edge of town, and I could walk a block away and be in a farmer’s field with dairy cows around,” he said. “So instead of going into town I always went out of town. There weren’t any cars there, but there were woods to play in. Probably 60 percent of the time I’d go by myself. I loved it and I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go out with me.”
You can see where this quest for peace and quiet was going to take Korth. His odyssey began in Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1973. This was the during the final days of the Vietnam War and the perception was men Korth’s age (18 at the time) who came to Canada were draft-dodgers, so his presence there was greeted with an icy reception. Still, he longed to fit in somewhere in that corner of North America.
Korth found work assisting a hunting guide, earning just room and board. After two months he asked his boss about opportunities in Alaska to self-sustain as a trapper somewhere. The guide offered to fly Korth to a cabin he used to trap out of. But it was more Alaskan nightmare than American dream.
“I was a cheechako (a rookie outdoorsman, or tenderfoot); I had a difficult time, lost a bunch of my food and fell through the ice,” said Korth, who was unhurt but left the trapping game.
He wrote his guide a letter explaining his failures and got a rather unexpected reply: a check for $500 with two options – use the money to either outfit himself and go back to the cabin or come back to work for the guide. The man had moved to St. Lawrence Island, a middle-of-nowhere Eskimo outpost in the Bering Sea, 36 miles offshore from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Almost every resident there is an Alaskan native.
So Korth was off again to one of the island’s only two villages: Savoonga. It was there he met Edna, though they didn’t start dating until five or six years later. (“Out in an Eskimo village on an island in the middle of a frozen ocean, where do you go out for a date?” he joked.)
Before they fell in love and married in the early 1980s, Korth was already living on his own in a rickety cabin on what is now the ANWR. This wasn’t exactly a romantic spot for young married couples.
“When you’re a single guy in your mid-20s you can live in pretty crummy conditions and you don’t care. I had a little cabin that you couldn’t even stand up straight in because the roof was so low,” Korth said with a laugh. “And Edna got out there and told me later, in her mind, ‘What am I doing out here? This is crazy.’ But she gave me direct orders to raise the roof. A week before winter I worked like a crazy man to raise the house up. I just got it up before the snow.”
But even Edna, no stranger to living in isolation from her island home, also embraced the solitude of the cabin. They could both sustain themselves there, and it was a life dictated on their terms. “Now that’s home,” Korth said.
SOMETIMES, IRONY CAN bowl you over with brute force and downright cruelty. Four months after getting married, the Korths named their first daughter together (Edna had a daughter, Millie, from a previous relationship) after the river that winds its way through the refuge they call home for most of the year. The Coleen is 52 miles long, a tributary of the Porcupine River and a vital artery for the Korths in their home on the refuge. Their first child together, Coleen Ann Korth, was born on May 29, 1982.
In June 1984, the family was in a canoe crossing the Coleen when the boat capsized. Coleen was caught in the river’s swift current and swept away. Her body was never found.
Yet, not only did Heimo and Edna remain strong despite their grief, they were defiant about staying the course in the setting they’d chosen.
“Let’s say a couple has a child and they live in, let’s say, Dallas, and they were born and raised there. They drive out on the highway and they get in a car wreck; the child dies but they live,” Korth said. “Are they going to move to another state to get away from that town? Why would we move away from where we live, even though we lost our daughter? Granted, to this day, many times when I’m walking by myself or me and Edna will be walking somewhere, and even though it was 30 years ago, tears will fall from our eyes out the blue when thinking about it. And it’s hard.”
They’ve carried on in Coleen’s memory. At the end of the debut episode of The Last Alaskans, the Korths make a familiar trip to a place where they both mourn and celebrate simultaneously.
“This is a very important day for us. We’re going to go up to the top of the hill where we put the cross,” Edna says. “Sometimes when we go up there it takes a lot out of us.”
They make the trek to the memorial for a life ended so quickly and abruptly. Flowers are left on the cross – “COLEEN ANN KORTH born 5/29/82; DIED 6/3/84” – as are Coleen’s parents’ tears; hugs are exchanged. “We still have each other,” Edna reminds.
“It’s a very important ritual for us,” Heimo says. “If you’re strong enough to live out here, the hardest part about living here is to keep your mind together.”
The couple went on to have two other daughters, Rhonda and Krin, who themselves grew up learning the hunting, trapping, gathering and survival skills necessary to make it in the bush.
Flash forward a few years later, when Heimo and Rhonda, then 8, were transporting caribou meat on the river.
“Somehow the current caught the canoe and flipped it over. All the meat and my gun sunk in this deep hole. There was ice everywhere; I said, ‘Rhonda, start a big fire; I’m gonna get all the meat,’” Korth said.
“I jumped into that cold, deep water and grabbed the meat and started taking it out. I got my guns out, and while I was doing that I turned around and saw that Rhonda had a big roaring fire going. She knew that I needed that or I’d be dead. She didn’t lose her cool and she just got (the fire) going. I gave her a big smooch on the cheek.”
IN THE CLASSIC novel and film Gone with the Wind, plantation owner Gerald O’Hara tells his daughter, Scarlett O’Hara, “Land is the only thing worth workin’ for … because it’s the only thing that lasts.” This is not Tara. In the Korths’ world, their land won’t last forever. Daughters Rhonda and Krin are now in their 20s and living in Fairbanks. When their parents pass away, the kids will also be able to live on the ANWR cabin, but with their deaths the United States Fish and Wildlife Service regains control after the property was “grandfathered in” to the families.
Heimo once asked the refugee manager if his grandchildren would also get their chance to live there. The answer was a resounding no. So now there’s a sense of finality looming, and Korth acknowledges his appears to be a dying breed.
“Nowadays, the youngsters have very little ambition or desire for the outdoors because everything is so computerized,” he said. “It’s kind of sad because you’re losing connection to the land, or actually the earth. We’re part of the earth – everybody is. People have become so urbanized – and I don’t mean to make fun of you – that they’re losing that. How many people in the big city like Philadelphia or L.A. or New York, when they see the moon, what does the moon mean to them? If they can even see it with the street lights and everything. But when you live in a place where there’s no town, moonlight means a lot. You can do things at night.”
But hope exists in Heimo’s and Edna’s youngest daughter, Krin, whose husband is in the Marines. They already plan to someday live a good part of the year on the refuge.
“I was happy they want to do that because they’re going to continue on what myself and Edna have done; our other daughter, Rhonda, there’s no way. But that’s fine,” Korth said. “(Melinda), my stepdaughter, would never live there again, but every one of them wants to go out once a year for a couple weeks or a month.”
But that’s in the future, and Heimo and Edna hope to have lots of years left together on the refuge. Korth hopes viewers of The Last Alaskans are left with an impression he thinks is lacking on the smörgåsbord of live-action shows meant to depict the excessive wildness and chaos of an Alaskan lifestyle.
Critics seemed to agree, albeit cautiously. The nearby newspaper, the Fairbanks News-Miner, wrote, “The Last Alaskans might be Alaska’s first real reality TV show. Maybe.” There will always be skeptics who don’t believe what they are seeing. Heimo Korth can only do so much to convince you otherwise that these are not actors or showmen (he does admit to the occasional vice from the mainstream world, such as a downing a daily Diet Coke when he spends time in Fort Yukon).
“It makes us look like idiots, like everything you do is on the edge, and that’s not real,” Korth said of other shows. “And I think the audience is going to say, ‘This is real.’ And it is.”
Editor’s note: Animal Planet has renewed The Last Alaskans for a second season.