Friday, June 12, 2015

The Last Alaskans

Dale Matson

I was drafted during the Vietnam era and after my training, I was stationed at Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks Alaska until my discharge. The Alaskan state flower is the Forget-Me-Not and I haven't forgotten Alaska. I intended to go back but have not done so.

There are quite a few reality series TV shows centered on the “Off the grid” lives of folks who live in the Alaskan outback. I have followed most to one degree or another. “The Last Alaskans” is the latest and very best of this genre. The show follows the lives of three families and a single man living alone estranged from his wife and children. They are allowed to remain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska until they and their offspring die. Then no one will be allowed to live there. There is additional background on the program here:

The series has excellent reviews including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Alaska’s two major newspapers offer a mixed perspective with the Fairbanks paper being very positive and the Anchorage paper being negative. In the latter case, I believe it is more a function of a reviewer who often feels obligated to be critical. I base this on reading some of her other reviews.

The filming is excellent. The quality of the footage is the absolute best of any series. They even use a drone for overhead filming. There is an intimate focus on the activities of daily living. There is great detail in filming the hands and facial expressions of the people. These folks are involved in the serious business of living each day as it is presented, being resourceful and finding enough to eat. The game is not plentiful. Bob Harte stated that there is less game per square mile there than in the lower 48 states. Some of the film footage of this stark landscape could be an individual landscape photograph. Everything this far north is understated including the spindly trees. There is an abundance of fish and caribou if you are in the right place at the right time. It is the moose however that provides enough meat to get through the winter. The background music is not “Creepy” as the Anchorage paper’s resident cynic Emily Fehrenbacher put it. I find the music both haunting and fitting.

The People are easy for me to identify with since most came from the Midwest also. I’m not sure folks born and raised in Florida would ever find this much snow and cold an attractive place. In fact it is a harsh, barren and difficult place to live…. to survive in.

Why would people be attracted to a place like this? For those who live there, it is not just the location but also a way of life. Ray Lewis (who reminds me of a younger Tom Selleck) said it is a difficult life but a simple way of life. Certainly there are no “YUPPIE nightmares” like the tail falling off the pool sweep. Certainly they don’t worry about who is in or out of power in Washington or how to do an electronic funds transfer. If there is a home invasion robbery it will be a bear and not a person. They can make it and have the skillsets to live there but could they ever live in “civilization” again?

What they do worry about is more basic than that. They worry about making a mistake that would get them killed like falling through the river ice. I held my breath as I watched Bob Harte climb a limbed tree to adjust a radio antenna. Hearing the sound of another human voice is necessary for him, even if it is only on the radio. He noted that he should have died 10 times already and as I watched him land his plane, I believed every word of this lonely man.

The people don't seem to exhibit a lot of humor or joy but they do reflect contentment and a sense of determined independence. Their human qualities and care for one another are very evident. There is no acting no matter how good, that could portray the genuineness of these people who have been shaped, hardened and softened by their environment.

Why are we here watching?  We are watching because we too wish for a simpler life and must find it vicariously. In their world, “Yes” means yes. The nuances of life are analog not digital. There is respect toward one another and the lives that must end in death at their hands for them to survive. They are the top of the food chain and are cognizant of it. Could we give up the many possessions that possess us? No. This show is our respite. It is our visit to the wilderness and to a way of life more suited to and understood by the brain in our head as it has evolved to this point. Thanks for sharing your lives with us. We are not only entertained, we are edified and reminded.

Trail name Padre.    


  1. Watched the season finale and hope there is a season II.

  2. There is a season II in the works. Great!

  3. Season 2 begins in April and has moved to the Discovery Channel.

  4. I watched the first episode of season 2 and was immediately drawn back into the lives of the families. Bob Harte was not a part of the program and I wonder if he will remain in Fairbanks. It sounds like a younger person will be introduced in the next episode. What a wonderful program!

  5. Glad to see Bob Harte is a part of season 2 after watching episode 2.

  6. Episode 3 was wonderful. These people are gritty, rough hewn and real, living a basic and simple existence. their emotions are only skin deep and honest. It is a joy to watch this show so beautifully done with music to match. Bob Harte remains fragile.

  7. Episode 4. I don't think Bob Harte will ever be back to his cabin. The living requires a robust individual. Saying that he was usually 170 lbs down to 123 is way too frail for the lifestyle. Sorry Bob, glad you have your wife to help. Tyler and Ashley Selden seem well stocked for the winter with meat and fish. They are the new generation.

  8. Episode 5 was excellent with more on the Lewis family. I love the way the camera catches the looks on the faces of the family members and the close ups of them doing simple tasks. Everything is quiet and subdued. Here is an interesting link about keeping this series real.

  9. Episode 6 was satisfying since Heimo finally got his moose for winter meat. He had delayed this hunt in order to finish his cabin. We saw Charlie Jagow introduced. He is a 20 year old resident of the refuge who is making his own way. He is young but has the survival skills of a journeyman resident. I hope Bob Harte's health is improving. This series continually has me pulling for the residents. Will they have enough to eat? Will they have a sturdy shelter built in time for winter? Will they be safe from predators? It is a simple life lived on the edge.

  10. Wow! what a final episode. It makes me sad the season has ended once again. The cinematography has gotten even better. You can see the fire reflected in Edna's Korth's glasses as they burn down their flooded, moldy former cabin which held so many memories including the drowning death of one of their four daughters. The final show was about beginnings and endings. Charlie Jagow is the new Bob Harte beginning where Bob Harte ended with the construction of a professional quality log cabin. Both are pilots and have their own planes. Ashley Selden said that she felt "Rich" having enough food and fur. It is the statement that best describes the attitude of those who live this subsistence existence.The problems with the Wolverine robbing their bait and animals from their traps reminded me of the same problem Marty M. experienced last year in Mountain Men. Of course, I hope there is a 3rd season and still worry about Bob Harte's health.

  11. Year 3 began Wed the 22nd on the Discovery Channel. This is good news indeed!

  12. It looks like there are four episodes in season 3. The first episode maintained the quality of the first two seasons. Heimo got his Cairbou. Tyler's brother was added as they boat their way up the Yukon to the camp with his wife flying in with the other dogs later. Young Charlie Jagow was added last year and is a wilderness wunderkind. His cabin is almost finished as a solo effort. Even at a young age he seems suited and skilled for solo wilderness living. I saw no evidence this year of Ray Lewis and his family and would miss them if they weren't a part of this season's cast. It looks like the long awaited and anticipated return of Bob Harte may happen by episode three with hints at his return in the first episode with his voice and face briefly interjected.

    1. Actually I noticed that there are six episodes not four with the final episode to air on the last Wednesday in April.

  13. I watched the 2nd episode (recorded from Wednesday) last night. How wonderful it was to see Bob Harte, a much healthier man back at his cabin. His illness was not disclosed. I can only imagine how disturbing it must have been for him to see that some unknown intruder had been staying in his cabin. Tyler Selden and his brother stopped by a deserted cabin on their return by river to his cabin. The cabin was built by a deceased trapper and was trashed by bears. He came back to a cabin that had been flooded once again and commented that he would have to move his location. That sounds like a good idea. Heimo and Edna greeted their daughter and granddaughter who were flown in by plane. He commented that having enough wood for winter early on is good in case you become injured and it would be easy to become injured with the lifestyle they lead.

  14. I watched the 3rd episode and I am disappointed that the Lewis Family has not been a part of this season. However, it was so good to see Bob Harte again with lots of time devoted to him. I guess I identify with him the most since we both are realizing our limitations and infirmities and how this restricts us from experiencing all the seasons of the wilderness. As Bob walks, I can see a stiffness that I too exhibit. But....he is still there, recovering, gaining strength and perhaps hoping to overwinter there next year. He is a man who fully appreciates daily the life God has given him. Tyler Selden and his brother carrying a stove to their new cabin site reminded me of a friend and me carrying a new stove into an earth sheltered home I had built into a southeastern Wisconsin hillside. The stove so symbolizes the final fitting of a new place when it is installed and fired up for the first time. Having the annual wood supply nearby cut, stacked and covered for the winter is both a thing of beauty and a comforting sight psychologically. It means independence of sorts also. Some of my favorite times were spent cutting, splitting and stacking wood with my sons.

  15. I continue to be impressed with young Charlie Jagow. He is experienced, skilled and has the necessary connectedness to the wilderness to make a go of it. He is a good planner, careful and meticulous in his preparation and execution of his plans.
    Edna and Heimo bid farewell to their visiting daughter and her infant. I can sense the pain in their hearts that they suspect none of their girls will come back to live there on a permanent basis, although they still hope for this.
    The Seldens are getting much needed help from his family building their 'final' cabin and Tyler is being meticulous about it. There is the usual man chatter trash talking as they work.
    All the families in the series express a willingness to accept the dangers of wilderness living and things over which they have no control like grizzly bears breaking into their gear or worse yet, into their cabins. All of them also understand their unique place in a way of living that is disappearing. Certainly they have more in common with the late John Muir than their contemporary Elon Musk

  16. I recorded episode 6, watched it and saved it to watch again. This is simply my favorite tv show. It is a reality series that is real. The camera work and music are wonderful. The people are basic too. It was good to see Bob Harte back, if only for a short period. Perhaps he will be well enough to live year- round again with his dog Ruger. (Gee, I wonder where he got the name?).
    The Seldons, Korths, and Charlie Zagow getting their moose for the winter meat was a sense of closure. Past seasons have not been so kind. I think I will keep episode 6 available to view a few more times. I mourn the fact that I would not be robust enough at age 72 to live this very arduous and dangerous lifestyle any longer. I know there are other off the grid folks in the wilderness and hope they continue to remind us in our materialistic culture, how little we need and how the simple life makes us more human not less human. What a series! Thanks to the Discovery Channel for continuing this series and I hope there is a season four that would include the Lewis family again.