Editor’s note: You don’t get to be Atz Kilcher without experiencing life as Yule Kilcher’s son. Atz, the patriarch of the homesteading family that’s featured on Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier, had to please his dad’s demanding expectations while living as normal a childhood as he was allowed to do. Atz’s younger life is chronicled in his new book. Reprinted with permission from Son Of A Midnight Land, from Blackstone Publishing and available in February 2018.
BY ATZ KILCHER
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KILCHER FAMILY
I’m 17, and although I’ve been skiing in between, I’ve never competed. As a junior, I went out for the ski team and I was the number two skier. The two or three races I participated in I placed somewhere midpack.
I’m on skis my dad used in Switzerland, and they’re great compared to those old cable bindings I’ve been skiing on. My dad won his big national Swiss race on these and I’ve merely looked at them all those growing-up years. Now he’s letting me use them! They look sleek and modern to me, but they’re heavy and not much wider than my old ones. Coach gives me some newer gear to race on.
I’m not thinking at all about how I look – my differentness as a homestead hick is normal to me by now – but when we get to the resort where the race is, the ski teams from all over the state are decked out in the sleekest-looking outfits, some even with matching hats. I look down at my jeans tucked into the pathetic striped socks. They aren’t even ski socks!
Suddenly, I never want to look up again. I realize I now know what public humiliation feels like. Being teased for wearing a cowboy hat to school didn’t bother me. But this is different. My head hanging, I’m totally out of my league, whatever league that is. I want to head back to the hills, back to my log home on the homestead.
Fortunately, soon the butterflies set in and I forget about my outfit. It’s an interval start and I take off somewhere in the middle. I don’t know anyone just ahead or behind me, so I can’t gauge how I’m doing. My teammate and friend Ray Martin, who is in the running to win the race, is seeded toward the front.
The underdog, that’s me. No one knows who the hick is. So, what else can I do? I go like hell!
I’ll show ’em.
That 6-year-old kid at Ohlson Mountain comes to me, the one they made start last. I showed ’em then; I’ll show ’em now.
IF IT’S POSSIBLE TO ski your heart out, I’m going to try. I go full-out, fast as I can the whole way. No pacing – for me it’s a sprint. I have 5 kilometers to prove myself.
I pant across the finish, no clue how I did. I rush into the lodge and head downstairs to the big chalkboard. I meet a group of skiers in fancy racing uniforms coming up. As they go by, I hear bits of their conversation, one bit in particular.
“I have no idea … never heard of him … from Homer … named Atz Kilcher.”
Atz Kilcher! Holy shmoly!
I fly down the rest of those stairs with dangerous leaps. I push my way through the skiers.
No … yes! There it is at the top of that huge chalkboard. First place for the whole state of Alaska. My name: Atz Kilcher!
That moment, that precise moment, is still a part of who I am. It opened new horizons and gave me a glimpse of what I could be, of who I really was. And in some way, it forever aligned me with the underdogs, the ones who can’t afford the best but somehow make it work, all the ragamuffins out there without much more than a hope and dream.
Well, when my daddy, who was playing state senator down in Juneau, found out, he was ecstatic! I had seldom heard such excitement in his voice. At last I had done something he was truly proud of. The cheering crowds I had managed to work into my life to boost my ego were nothing compared to the excitement I heard in his voice.
“So, my old skis won another race!” he shouted over
“No, Father. I used a pair coach let me have.”
“Well, then at least my old ski boots won another race!”
No again, I said, and handed him off to my mom whose eyes were mirroring my pain and disappointment.
Can you believe that? Well, sure, it would have been a real kick if the equipment he’d used 30 years prior had won again. But give me a break already! What a piece of work. You gotta love him. He was a hell of a skier, and without him, I may never have gotten into skiing.
When someone asks me, “What do you do?” skiing is right there at the top of my list of things I do. I know they mean my profession. I don’t feel much like a retired teacher or social worker, hardly defines what I’m doing today, who I am. “I ski, make baskets, sing, and write songs,” I say.
And then they walk off thinking I avoided their question. Which maybe I did. ASJ
Editor’s note: Excerpted with permission from Son of A Midnight Land by Atz Kilcher, available February 2018 wherever books are sold, from Blackstone Publishing (blackstonepublishing.com/son-midnight-land-atz-kilcher). For more on Atz Kilcher and to preorder the book, go to AtzKilcher.com and follow on Twitter (@atzkilcher).