This Tuesday, April 12, the best reality based series of 2015, The Last Alaskans, settles into its new home on Discovery Channel. The series documents the lives of the handful of people living in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Among these people existing on the last American frontier are Heimo Korth and his wife Edna, both of whom have called the refuge home since before it was a refuge. For the last 40 plus years, the Korths have lived out their unique way of life deep in the Alaskan wilderness, and now they and the seven other families who are allowed to live in the refuge are sharing their experiences with audiences for a second season.
Recently, Heimo Korth spoke with Seat42F about the upcoming season and his fascinating way of life. From sharing some of his favorite memories to discussing the need to rebuild his family’s homestead, the warm and gracious Korth was kind enough to share his amazing story, and give us a sneak peek at what is ahead for his family.
This season, you lose your family cabin and have to rebuild. What was that experience like for you?
Korth: When we burnt it down it was a thing we needed to do. The cabin was extremely moldy and so then we built a new one. I think it bothered Edna a lot more than me because I guess you would say I am more pragmatic where she has a lot of memories of raising our children in there. It affected her a lot more than it did me, and yet she knew we had to do that also.
The rising waters seem to have affected each of the settlements in some way. Did you have to deal with other crises as a result of this year’s unusual weather patterns?
Korth: It’s still winter at home, and when we left to come to town, meaning Fairbanks, it was six below and clear and windy, which is normal. But the winter in general was very warm and the coldest day we had was 35 below, and that is the normal temperature from the first of November until the first of April. This year that was the coldest day, so this was the warmest winter on record in Alaska ever.
Now the river is getting what is called overflow, meaning there is lots of water flowing over the ice and then freezing, so the ice is getting thicker and thicker. In some places it was like 15 feet thick in the river, and in some places it is still growing because there is another month and a half before it melts. I’ve never seen that before, ever, and I have been living up there for 41 years.
Could the rising waters threaten your settlement once again?
Korth: No, but there were some places along the river where the water went back into the trees and froze. It is still doing that right now. There are some places where it is going up over the banks and into the trees and it is freezing. I’m just curious what is going to happen this summer and how the river will be because I’m sure it is going to change the river and the channel, it just has to.
What was it like having your daughters and grandchildren with you this season?
Korth: Oh that was something that both me and my wife had been looking forward to. It has been 21 years since we have all been out there at the same time. That was a really big thing for us. It was nice to have them all out, and plus, some of the grandkids had never been out. It was really fun and it was enjoyable.
Do you think any of your grandchildren will be as drawn to nature as you are?
Korth: Not that strong, no… there was some yes, but not that strong. There are more grandkids on the way, so we’ll see.
There is speculation that in 100 years there will be no humans living in the area of Alaska you call home. How does that make you feel?
Korth: The thing is, it is the Arcatic National Wildlife refuge and we were there before it was a refuge. That is the only reason we are in it now. A newcomer cannot come in there and do what we are doing now, it is in the law. The people that were there prior to it being a refuge, there were seven of us, the federal government allowed us to stay and to live this lifestyle. So we have to have a permit that has to be renewed every five years. It’s not an issue as long as you don’t do something illegal. The permit only goes until the death of our last child, and when I asked them about that, I said, “Hey, what about grandchildren?” And this one federal agent told me no and then this other federal agent just shrugged his shoulders and said, “We’ll see.”
I don’t know what is going to happen. Personally, I hope that us seven families can always keep it going within our families.
Do you want the show to inspire people to venture into the wilderness or would you rather people appreciate it from afar?
Korth: This show isn’t based on drama and all that kind of stuff. It is based on the way it really is. When you watch the show, they are showing the aesthetics, eagles flying, terrible walking and the beauty of the land, and that’s what it is really about.
At the same time, they show that there is a lot of hard work involved, like getting water for example. It’s 60 below and you have to go out with five gallon buckets and an ice chisel and you have to chop a hole in the ice at 60 below, and you have to do this every day. A lot of people romanticize this life, but in reality it is a very difficult thing.
Do the cameras ever feel intrusive?
Korth: No, not really because we invited them in, and we said film this and that. I’ll just say, mostly 90% no. There are times when I’m like, I’m done with the camera for the day, just put it away, take the mic away, but then in the morning you are fresh and feeling good and you go at it again.
What sold you on the show?
Korth: One of the reasons was we should show our way of life because it’s not just ours; there are other families that live out there like that. We should show our life to the public that’s not like other reality series. It’s not all drama and everything, this is real. I think we share that lifestyle on camera with everybody so people can see there are still people living like this. That’s a big reason why.
What is it about Alaska that keeps you coming back?
Korth: I’ve been living this lifestyle for 41 years, and at first when I went out there it was an adventure, but now it is a way of life. After 41 years out there that’s home. I’m going to live out there and my wife is going to live out there as long as we possibly can live out there physically. I’m going to be 61, so eventually everyone’s bodies take a turn for the worse no matter how healthy they think they are, that’s just part of getting old. We’re going to stay out there as long as we physically can or die out there, whatever comes first.
What is one of your favorite memories from your 40 + years in Alaska?
Korth: One time I was by myself and I remember I was climbing this mountain, and you know we hunt caribou to eat, but we had enough to eat so I was just climbing this mountain for some reason. It was flat on top, and it was about a half mile long and five miles wide. There were plenty of caribou around and I enjoy watching them. I was climbing up and I got to the top and there was a herd of a couple hundred caribou as they were migrating through the area.
They came up to the top of the mountain and they came right to me, and they made a complete circle around me. I was completely surrounded by a couple hundred caribou in a tight circle around me, and I was just standing there. They were all looking at me and grunting and snorting, and I was like, “Why are they doing this?” It was really weird, so I just started talking to them. It was the most memorable thing I ever had with caribou. They knew that I wasn’t going to hurt them. They were standing around like that for five minutes in a complete circle around me and then slowly they started moving away until the herd was all gone. That will be in my mind until I die.
The Last Alaskans Season 2 premieres Tuesday, April 12 at 10pm ET/PT on Discovery.