The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness

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9780743453141: The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness

The inspiration for The Last Alaskans—the eight-part documentary series on the Discovery Channel! Called “[one of] the greatest life-or-death-tales ever told” (Esquire), James Campbell’s inimitable insider account of a family’s nomadic life in the unshaped Arctic wilderness “is an icily gripping, intimate profile that stands up well beside Krakauer’s classic [Into the Wild], and it stands too, as a kind of testament to the rough beauty of improbably wild dreams” (Men’s Journal).

Hundreds of hardy people have tried to carve a living in the Alaskan bush, but few have succeeded as consistently as Heimo Korth. Originally from Wisconsin, Heimo traveled to the Arctic wilderness in his feverous twenties. Now, more than three decades later, Heimo lives with his wife and two daughters approximately 200 miles from civilization—a sustainable, nomadic life bounded by the migrating caribou, the dangers of swollen rivers, and by the very exigencies of daily existence.

In The Final Frontiersman, Heimo’s cousin James Campbell chronicles the Korth family’s amazing experience, their adventures, and the tragedy that continues to shape their lives. With a deft voice and in spectacular, at times unimaginable detail, Campbell invites us into Heimo’s heartland and home. The Korths wait patiently for a small plane to deliver their provisions, listen to distant chatter on the radio, and go sledding at 44° below zero—all the while cultivating the hard-learned survival skills that stand between them and a terrible fate.

Awe-inspiring and memorable, The Final Frontiersman reads like a rustic version of the American Dream and reveals for the first time a life undreamed by most of us: amid encroaching environmental pressures, apart from the herd, and alone in a stunning wilderness that for now, at least, remains the final frontier.

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About the Author:

James Campbell has written for National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Men’s Journal, among other publications. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: Winter

I arrive at Heimo Korth's cabin on the Old Crow drainage in the far northeastern corner of Alaska in early January 2002 after a three-hour, 300-mile flight from Fairbanks. Although I expected stomach-churning air currents, the flight was a smooth one, and the two-seater 1954 Cessna 170B skids to an easy stop in a tundra field two feet deep in snow. In the Alaskan bush, the plane functions as a time machine, and only thirty minutes outside of Fairbanks, Rick, the bush pilot, and I had left behind civilization. Even the seismic lines, slashed across the countryside during decades of oil exploration, disappeared. For the next two and a half hours, there was not even a building to mar the harsh beauty of the Alaskan winter, and I had the feeling that I was being transported straight back into the nineteenth century.

"Heimo and his family are the only subsistence family I know," Rick said as we crossed Stranglewoman Creek. "'Subsistence' gets a lot of lip service in Alaska, but the Korths live almost strictly off the land. You got to respect them for that. Hell, their closest neighbor is a hundred miles downriver on the Porcupine."

Looking out the window at the endless sweep of land, at the trees bent double under the weight of snow, and the cow moose bedded down in the frozen creek bed, I tried to imagine it: New York City to Philadelphia; Chicago to Milwaukee; Los Angeles to San Diego -- not a soul in between.

Heimo heard the plane approaching -- in the Arctic winter, when stillness is nearly absolute, sounds are magnified -- and he is at the runway waiting for us.

I have not seen Heimo in twenty-seven years, and I've been imagining this day since the previous summer when Heimo was in Fort Yukon and he and I worked out the details of my visit by phone. I zip up my coat, pull my fleece hat over my ears, and pop open the door. Squeezing out of the seat, I nearly fall from the plane. But my reunion with Heimo will have to wait. First we unload the plane, and then we outfit the wings and engine with insulated covers to keep them warm and ice-free for the hour that Rick will be on the ground.

Once the work is finished, it is time for greetings. Rick and Heimo shake hands and discuss the weather -- in winter Alaskans are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and the talk is often of temperature, snow, wind, ice. I listen and look on. Heimo wears canvas pants with gleaming, blue vinyl kneepads, moose-and-caribou-hide mukluks with wolf trim and sealskin liners, thick beaver mitts, and a canvas parka with a wolverine ruff and seams held together by bright white dental floss. Dental floss is stronger than sewing thread. Though it may look foolish, over one hundred miles from the nearest neighbor, appearances are apparently something Heimo cares little about. Ice has crystallized in his beard, which he wears like an Amish farmer, long and unruly, with only a faint trace of a mustache. He also wears a wool hat, which sits on his head in a cock-eyed fashion like Randall P. McMurphy, Jack Nicholson's character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Heimo comes over to say hi. Even in the cold, he moves like an athlete. "Nice weather we got, eh?" He smiles. "Early January and it's only fifteen below." Then he gestures in the distance at the white peaks of the Brooks Range, which are silhouetted against a faint gray-blue sky that stretches to the horizon. "What do ya think?" he asks.

"Best backyard in America," I answer. He seems to like my response and shakes my hand heartily.

Heimo ferries my bags and me back to the cabin in a sled behind his Ski-Doo snowmachine, while Rick waits at the plane until Heimo returns. The trail winds through the tundra, and I bounce around and struggle to hold on until half a mile or so later we come to a stop at a large hollow in the snow colored a faint red by blood. "Shot a moose here in fall time. Called him from a mile away." Heimo simulates the call of a cow moose in estrus looking for a mate, a low bawl of longing, a groaning, "awhhhh, awhhhh" like a fishing boat's foghorn. "I hid behind that tree," Heimo says, stuttering slightly, the same stutter he had as a teen who spent more time in the woods hunting, trapping, and identifying birds than he did in the classroom. He points to a weary-looking black spruce no thicker than a child's ankle surrounded by snow-topped tussocks. "Moose can't see very good. They can smell, but their eyes ain't very good. The big bull came in swinging his horns, lookin' for a cow. Dropped him with one shot. Best thing about it was I didn't have to pack him out. I was only a quarter of a mile from the cabin."

We cut through a maze of willows and then dip down into a creek bed. After a quarter of a mile we climb the creek bank and Heimo stops the snowmachine. "See that," he says, pointing out an area where it looks as if a team of sled dogs has been urinating for days. Deep yellow holes pockmark the snow. But I know that Heimo doesn't run dogs. "That's where you dump your honeybucket," he says, clearing up my confusion. The honeybucket is an essential fixture of the Alaskan bush, usually a five-gallon plastic pail, though just about anything will do in a pinch, in which people relieve themselves at night when it's too cold to make a trip outside. In winter, at 30 and 40 below, the honeybucket is a savior. Extending his arm in the direction of an orange tent nestled among a stand of black spruce, he says, "And there's your place -- the Arctic oven." The ten-foot by ten-foot double-walled tent outfitted with a small woodstove is to be my home away from home for the next three and a half weeks.

Heimo helps me get my gear into the tent, and then he shows me how to operate the woodstove. He lights a fire and then adjusts the stove's vents. After the fire is crackling, he leaves. I sit on my cot as close to the stove as I can, trying to absorb the heat. After I warm up, I arrange my gear quickly, walk outside the tent, zip the double fly, and follow a trail that leads away from the creek. Forty yards down, I discover the cabin, sitting at the base of a hill, concealed on three sides by a cluster of top-heavy spruce trees. Roger Kaye, a twenty-six-year veteran of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, informed me of Heimo's tendency to hide his cabins. "Trappers are a paranoid bunch in general," Roger said, "but there's nobody who tucks his cabins away like Heimo." I can see what Roger meant. I could have walked the creek not more than a stone's throw away and never noticed the cabin at all had it not been for the sweet, comforting smell of woodsmoke.

Compared to the cabins I've seen farther south in Alaska, where builders have larger trees to work with, Heimo's looks unassuming, even frail, as if a polar wind or the Big Bad Wolf could do considerable damage. The wall logs are thin and chinked with moss. Moss covers the roof, too. The cabin's obvious asset is its location. To the north thick black spruce and to the south a 1,000-foot hill protect it from the frigid winds that pummel this landscape. Twenty feet from the cabin, a winter's supply of cordwood is stacked neatly, and snowshoes and an exterior-frame backpack lean against the woodpile. A moose leg lies suspended between two roughly fashioned sawhorses. Bags of furs and leghold traps hang from racks and caribou antlers, and the foreleg of a caribou rests against the cabin's front wall near a metal washtub. Another caribou flank hangs from a tree branch. Boreal chickadees peck at it, leaving a dusting of reddish brown flesh on the snow. Two willow ptarmigan swing from a string that has been tied around a roof pole, and propped against the cabin wall are an ice pick, a scoop shovel, and two iron rakes. A second snowmachine sits idle behind the cabin near the meat cache.

Heimo is standing outside the cabin's front door. "Come on, warm up," he says, inviting me in. "You can look around later." He ducks in through the shoulder-high doorway, which is cut small to conserve the cabin's heat, and removes a wool blanket draped across the opening. I follow, bending deeply at the waist.

Heimo introduces me to Edna, his wife, who is kneeling by the woodstove, frying bread in a cast-iron skillet. Edna rises quietly and shakes my hand. She has broad, high cheekbones, a strong, muscular jaw, braided raven-black hair, and dark Mongolian eyes. She is Eskimo, a Siberian Yupik Eskimo from St. Lawrence Island, an island of rock and lava stranded in the middle of the Bering Sea, 120 miles off the west coast of Alaska, forty miles from Siberia's Chukchi Peninsula.

Heimo then introduces me to his youngest daughter, Krin, who sits in the corner of the cabin, watching me intently. When I approach she looks down at a notebook and begins scribbling. "What kind of greeting is that?" Heimo asks her. Krin stands and shakes my hand and smiles shyly. She has almond-shaped eyes, Heimo's angular nose, and Edna's lovely cheekbones and complexion. Nearly as tall as Heimo, she is a willowy twelve-year-old with long legs and arms. Edna invites me to sit down, and Krin returns her attention to her notebook. Since there are no chairs in the cabin, I sit on a bucket near the simple sheet-metal woodstove, and Edna hands me two sandwiches of fry bread and cheese. Heimo grabs a piece of bread and explains that his eldest daughter, Rhonda, is still out on the trapline. Then, suddenly, he jumps, as if he's been shocked by an electric fence. "Oh shit!" he exclaims, lunging for the door. "I forgot about Rick. He's gonna be pissed. He's gonna think I'm screwin' with him."

The cabin is no larger than a conventional suburban kitchen, ten by sixteen, four steps across, six and a half steps long, necessarily small in a climate where heat is precious. Sitting on the bucket, I remember what bush pilot Kirk Sweetsir, who was raised in the Yukon River village of Ruby, 450 miles downriver from Fort Yukon, said about the Korths. "You visit Heimo and Edna's place and there stuff amounts to nothing. Theirs is not a sedentary life. Their lifestyle reflects an awareness that life in the Arctic exists on the m...

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