The New York Times
The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wildernessby James Campbell, Paul J. Pugliese (Contribution by)
The inspiration for The Last Alaskans—the eight-part documentary series on Animal Planet! 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/i>/i>
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The inspiration for The Last Alaskans—the eight-part documentary series on Animal Planet! 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.
The New York Times
"[One of] the greatest life-or-death tales ever told."
"Campbell makes the case that an increasingly urban America and its desires for oil, for timber, for neat and packaged wilderness is killing and, worse, forgetting the frontier we once worshiped."
The New York Times
"The Final Frontiersman is an icily gripping, intimate profile that stands up well beside Krakauer's classic, and it stands too, as a kind of testament to the rough beauty of improbably wild dreams."
"Heimo Korth and his family face down more adventures in a typical week than most of us experience in a lifetime. A terrific first book by turns inspiring and unnerving and never less than wholly absorbing."
Bill Bryson, BOMC judge, writing in the Book-of-the-Month Club News
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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 margin. Every season they move, and they understand that the key to surviving in the Arctic is living light."
Edna apologizes for the plywood floor, which has a hole in it the size of a frying pan and has begun to sag. The floor was damaged in a spring flood, and Heimo, she explains, has been too busy hunting and trapping to fix it. Otherwise the cabin is comfortable, cluttered but clean and homey with one large window that faces south and captures the reluctant winter light and another small one, looking west. Space is at a premium, and nearly every square foot has a purpose. Three sleeping platforms, each two and a half feet off the cabin floor, with curtains that can be let down for privacy, form a horseshoe around the perimeter of the cabin. Above the platforms is a storage loft, where books and most of the clothes are kept. Underneath the platforms, clothes, headlamps, pencils, pens, boots, books, and notepads lie scattered about the floor. Edna has decorated the walls of the cabin with the girls' artwork, and next to their sleeping platforms the girls have tacked up photos from teen magazines and splashy promotional shots of their favorite music stars Eminem, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg. Above a rough-hewn wood counter, which holds two plastic tubs filled with water, is a shelf with two small mirrors, cups, dishes, bowls, plates, and toothbrushes. A chain basket containing soaps, lotions, toothpaste, vitamins, shampoo, and other bathroom items hangs from the wall in the corner. Cast-iron pots and pans decorate another wall, and a radio hangs from a nail at the head of the largest sleeping platform. The radio is attached to an aerial wire that runs through a small hole Heimo has bored into one of the logs of the cabin. Once outside, the wire attaches to a nylon cord and climbs a spruce pole. Then it cuts across a small clearing and attaches to a second nylon cord hanging from another tall spruce pole. Lots of wire improves radio reception, and the nylon cords prevent the wire from grounding out on the wooden poles.
Krin's giggling jars me from my observations. I look at her and she turns her head downward toward her notebook and puts her hand over her mouth. I look at Edna and she is trying to stifle a laugh, too. Finally Edna says, guffawing, "Krinny saw you leaning back on the bucket, almost touching your coat to the woodstove." I turn and realize that I was only inches from the blazing hot stove. I am a stranger, and as far as Krin is concerned a silly city boy, and she wasn't going to tell me that I was about to catch fire.
Books, candles, the girls' CDs, cassettes, writing supplies, sketch- pads, a deck of cards, batteries, and ammunition are arranged on top of another shelf. Long poles of debarked spruce dangle horizontally from wires attached to the seven-foot-high ceiling. Two wet washrags, a towel, and a T-shirt are draped across one of the poles to dry. They are steaming from the heat of the woodstove. From another pole hangs the cabin's only kerosene lamp. Above the door, guns are pegged to the wall, shotguns and large- and small-caliber rifles. To the door's left, parkas are slung over long nails. To the right, a lynx pelt and three marten pelts dry from hooks. A chain saw lies on the floor. The snowmachine and chain saw, it seems, are the Korths' only concessions to the notion of hard work made easier. Edna dips out a cup of drinking water for me from a large plastic garbage can next to the woodstove and tells me that Krin hauled in the fresh ice for my arrival. The ice, she explains, has to be brought from the creek, a half-mile away.
Heimo and Rick return and they, too, grab buckets. "Lucky it isn't cold today," Rick laughs. "This son of a bitch forgot all about me," he says, elbowing Heimo, who is sitting next to him. But Heimo isn't listening. Rick has brought in three months' worth of mail and two large boxes of Christmas presents and cards. Heimo is tearing into a small box of candy, picking out chocolates. He grabs two or three and then holds out the box, urging everyone to take a few.
"Save some for Rhonda," Edna says, reminding him that Rhonda is still out on her trapline. Looking like a kid who's just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Heimo puts the cover on the chocolates and sets them aside. Rick finishes his sandwiches and a cup of water and announces that it is time to go; he wants to get back to Fairbanks while he still has light.
It is just after 1:00 P.M. when I follow Rick out of the cabin, say good-bye, and retire to my tent. Heimo has told me that until the sun returns, five hours per day of something resembling light is all we can hope for. In early January, that light, he said, rarely lingers past 2:30 P.M., so before darkness falls, I unpack my gear and acquaint myself with the small woodstove. Since it is my first day, Heimo allows me to take a night's worth of wood from their winter supply. But that's it only one night. Their wood supply is limited, enough to get them to March, figuring in cold spells, meaning at least a week or two with temperatures lower than minus 40. Finding, cutting, hauling, and splitting wood to last me until late January is to be my responsibility.
I test out my army cot and do an inventory check polar gear, hand and foot warmers, PowerBars, one for each day on the trapline, matches, knife and then I close down the vents of the Yukon stove, now churning out heat, and go back to the cabin. I knock at the front door, and from inside I hear Heimo say, "Oh, who could it be? A neighbor stopping by to visit?" Then I hear laughter.
I remain outside until Heimo shouts, "Just shuffle your feet like an Eskimo, so we know you're there, and come on in." I enter, unclipping the blanket, and then I clip it again before the heat can escape. Edna explains that no one in her village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island ever bothers to knock. "They just shuffle their feet or kick them like they're trying to get snow off their boots," she says, "so everyone knows there's someone coming. Then they just walk right in."
Rhonda is back and is sitting on her sleeping platform. Still windblown and cold from the day, she's wrapped in a sleeping bag and is telling the story of losing a marten to a prowling lynx. She stops long enough to get up and say hello. She tosses the bag onto her bed and thrusts out her hand and smiles as if she is genuinely happy to have a visitor. Then she sits back down and resumes her story, wrapping herself in the sleeping bag again. She found fur in the jaws of the trap, but the marten was gone. Leading to and from the poleset, she discovered the cat's tracks, and guesses that the trap was robbed the day before. "Maybe I'll have that lynx in one of my snares next week," she says, looking at Heimo and grinning.
Rhonda is darker complected than Krin and has a wide, friendly face. She is also several inches shorter and powerfully built like an Olympic bobsledder. She looks like she could walk for days. At fifteen, she will be my escort across the tundra when I don't join Heimo on the trapline. Heimo has no way of knowing whether or not I've come to Alaska with any wilderness skills, and he won't risk allowing me to roam the countryside on my own. But he trusts Rhonda. She has been running her own trapline for two years.
Looking at Rhonda, I remember the story Roger Kaye told me about her. "When the Korths are at their Old Crow cabin," he said, "they are, without a doubt, the most isolated bush family in America, and maybe North America, too. Once, when Rhonda was only three, I was doing aerial reconnaissance and decided to drop in before going back to Fairbanks. I was inside the cabin, and Rhonda couldn't take her eyes off of me. She just kept staring. Edna, Heimo's wife, noticed and apologized. 'She hasn't seen anybody else in six months,' she said to me. And I remember being so struck by that a child who hadn't seen another human being outside her immediate family in six months. She sat right next to me in the cabin, practically touching me, and then when I left she followed me outside. Of course, six months for a child seems like a lifetime. A child forgets that there is anybody else in the world."
On my first night in the Arctic we eat a supper of rice and lynx, which has a familiar taste, like the dark meat of a Thanksgiving turkey. After the meal, Heimo insists I stay while they open their Christmas gifts. Had Rick the pilot not delivered the presents when he dropped me off, the Korths would have had to wait until March, when the next pilot flies out, to receive them. Christmas in January is an unexpected treat, and they tear into the gifts. Friends and relatives have sent candles, batteries, boxes of chocolate, ceramic figurines, and typical Christmas cards of themselves posed in front of mountain scenes or dressed in their holiday finery kneeling next to the tree. I ask Heimo how it is that America's most isolated family has so many well-wishers across the country. He just shrugs and bites into a cream-filled chocolate candy.
Before returning to my tent to stoke the fire, I stop next to the woodpile to watch the sky. The entire sky is exuberant, full of blinking and beaming stars. Then I crane my head and there it is, the North Star, near its zenith, an unreliable bearing in the Arctic, more uncertain even than a compass, which at this latitude wobbles indefinitely to a magnetic north, a full 34 degrees east of true north.
Later, after succumbing to the warmth of my tent and dozing off, I return to the cabin. Shortly after 9:00 P.M., Krin turns the radio dial to KJNP, a religious station out of North Pole, Alaska, just east of Fairbanks, and everyone grows silent for Trapline Chatter. Seven nights a week, "King Jesus North Pole" kicks in its 50,000-watt signal and broadcasts personal messages throughout Alaska's vast bush. For some families like the Korths, KJNP's Trapline Chatter is the only regular connection to the outside world. People send messages from home, holiday and birthday greetings, gossip, everyday news, and weather updates, which Bev Olson at KJNP dutifully reads over the air once or twice a day. Listening to KJNP is like sneaking into someone's mailbox and reading a letter from a much-loved aunt or listening to the trivial messages on someone's answering machine. Usually there is not much in the way of voyeurism; KJNP is, after all, "God's Tower of Power; The Gospel Station at the Top of the Nation." Occasionally, there'll be a message from a girlfriend who has been left behind in the city, telling her man, who's gone back to the trapline or a mining claim, how much he is missed. The language is platonic, containing little of the juicy longing or abandonment she perhaps feels. Still, people are often as interested in others' news as they are their own, and even as satellite phones become more common in the bush and the messages have reduced from fifty a night to no more than a dozen, Trapline Chatter is still a comforting nightly ritual for many Alaskan families.
After Trapline Chatter, Heimo tells stories about his early days on the trapline, talking well past his usual 9:30 P.M. bedtime. When he gets up to get a cup of water, Rhonda jumps in. "I should tell you about the first time I snared a wolverine. Wanna hear?" she asks.
"Sure," I answer.
"I couldn't believe it," she says, not bothering with the details. "When I saw it in my snare, I kept yelling, 'I can't believe it, I can't believe it.' Of course, there wasn't a soul around to hear me." She giggles at this, as if realizing how comical she must have looked, jumping up and down, celebrating in the middle of nowhere. "But that didn't stop me. When I finally calmed down, it hit me, 'Shoot, now I have to carry this thing all the way home.' It was frozen, so I couldn't skin it, so I stuck as much of it as I could in my backpack and started walking. When I got near the cabin, Daddy saw me coming and ran out onto the tundra to meet me. I thought he'd take the backpack, but he was so excited, he ran all the way back to drag Mom and Krin out to see me."
"Yeah," Heimo says when Rhonda finishes her story, "she's my little woodsman." Encouraged by her father's compliment, Rhonda reaches under her sleeping platform. She grabs a stack of photographs and shuffles them onto her sleeping bag as if she's dealing cards. Then she finds the one she's been looking for a photo that Heimo took of her on her trapline. Surrounded by black spruce trees, she is carrying a 30.30 rifle and a backpack. It is cold, nearly 30 below. Though she is wearing a hat and a hood, her bangs are covered in frost. I tell her that she looks like a real trapper, and she is clearly pleased. Then she turns and grabs her portable CD player and shows me her new Lauryn Hill CD. Adjusting her headphones, she slips the disc into the machine, flicks on the music, and whispers the rhyming words.
I say good night and walk from the warm cabin. Earlier, Heimo, who checks the temperature once a day for the National Oceanographic and Aeronautics Administration (NOAA) and sends his reports out every three months by bush plane, announced that the temperature had dropped to minus 22. Despite the slap of the cold, I linger outside my tent, amazed by the spectral colors of the aurora borealis (literally "dawn of the north"), charged by cosmic particles unable to escape the earth's magnetic field. Radiant pinks, pulsating whites, and luminous greens light up the Alaskan night like the swirling phosphorescence of a Cape Cod bay after the sun has set. The northern lights dance, whirl, and shimmer, then they fade. The Inland Eskimos of Anaktuvuk Pass call the aurora "spirit light," and I feel a sense of grace on this, my first night in the Interior.
At 9:00 A.M. the blue shadows of twilight are disappearing, yielding to the dim light of day. Dawn is an occurrence that is happening somewhere else, farther south, that we will not see for nearly another week, when the sun breaks from its winter hibernation. At 68 degrees latitude north, the sun slips unceremoniously below the horizon near the end of November and isn't seen again until the middle of January, and even then its appearance is brief, nothing more than a flash of light in a day dominated by gray.
Off to the east, in the direction of what Rhonda and Krin have christened Thunder Mountain, a broad, treeless, snow-covered peak that rises coldly out of the tundra, the sun flirts with the horizon and the sky has a distinct painted-desert glow. Heimo stops to wrestle his snowmachine out of a snow drift. Annoyed, he pulls the machine's skis back onto the trail and blows a string of snot from his nose. "Sometimes I hate it," he growls. "Just when I think I have my trails cleared, it snows, and then I spend the rest of the week pulling my machine out of the drifts, understand?" Heimo punctuates many of his sentences with "Understand what I'm saying?" or the shorter version, "Understand?" as if he's unsure whether someone from the Outside which Alaskans amorphously call anything beyond the state's borders can even begin to comprehend his life. He tells me about the time in the late 1980s when the snow didn't melt until June and came again in great, wet gobs in early September and stayed again until late the following May. "I heard about the seven feet of snow in Buffalo. Hell, you couldn't pay me enough money to live in Buffalo," he says, and smirks, fully aware of the irony of his statement. "I don't mind the cold, but snow makes life miserable. You never heard of a guy dying of a heart attack from shoveling too much cold, have you?"
Eager to change the subject, Heimo says, "We should see it on January thirteenth, if we're lucky, if a low doesn't settle in." I know he is talking about the sun now. Each day, for the past five days, the sea of light has crawled resolutely across the land, coming closer and closer to the tundra valley, tinting the sky with color, and this has been the topic of our dinner conversations since my arrival. For a man who hasn't laid his eyes on the sun for six weeks, however, Heimo seems to be taking its absence in stride. "Some years it gets to you more than others," he admits.
Alaska's Interior is definitely no place for fair-weather fans. There are two seasons up here, people joke, "Fourth of July and winter." Summer, it has been said, is "nothing more than a sweet dream," an evanescent eight weeks between breakup and freeze-up, when mosquitoes rise like thick smoke out of the muskeg's cotton-grass sedges, and flowers bloom at a frantic pace and go to seed by early August. Despite the unnerving hordes of mosquitoes in summer, winter is the season when even the strongest psyches are challenged. In August, when the willows and balsam poplars are already turning yellow, bearberry blazes a bright crimson, alders turn a muddy brown, and the first killing frost comes, everyone knows that summer has, once again, ended too quickly. As the earth's northern axis turns away from the sun, a reckoning occurs. Winter is the all-consuming fact of life in Alaska's Interior, a vital, physical, force. Those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is believed to be caused by too little exposure to sunlight, would find their own private hell here.
Though the temperature is mild today by the Interior's standards, only 28 below, I can feel the cold's uncaring stab even with my layers of expensive, high-tech inner gear, a full-body polar suit, a badger fur bomber hat with earflaps, big, clunky Trans Alaska boots, a balaclava, expedition-rated mittens. But there is no room for bellyachers out here. Once the cabin is out of sight, there is nowhere to warm up. If the wind is shrieking across the tundra, as it often does, Heimo may occasionally seek refuge among the trees, but he won't linger long. There are traps to check and very little light in which to do so.
I'm aware that I should be thankful for this brief January warm spell. I've heard the stories. In the savage winter of 1989-1990 it was 56 below or colder for a month and a half. In February it "warmed up" to 46 below, and Heimo seized the opportunity to check his traps. Though there was a wind the new windchill chart postulates that a mild 15 mile-per-hour wind transforms a temperature of minus 45 to an almost unbearable 77 below, where exposed skin suffers frostbite in less than two minutes Heimo hadn't checked his traps in nearly three weeks, and he'd been feeling stir-crazy. When a spring broke on the snowmachine, Heimo was forced to stop and fix it with his bare hands. He froze his heel, his nose, the tips of his fingers, and his cheeks that day.
In the Arctic, the weather can assert its primacy at any time, as if to make it completely clear that this is not a land that man was intended to inhabit. Exploring the realm of subzero cold, for those who have never experienced it, is like learning a new language or like being plopped down in another country in which you lack even a vague understanding of the local tongue.
Though I was raised in Wisconsin, where the cold is something we're proud of "Keeps out the whiners" an old friend says I discovered that Interior Alaska required a complete readjustment of my cold quotient. In Wisconsin it can reach 10 below, but at that temperature we all huddle under blankets in our warm, gas-heated houses, leaving the couch only long enough to go to the window and watch for signs of life outside. But for residents of Alaska's Interior, 10 below is considered refreshing; they split wood in flannel shirts or sweatshirts at 10 below. Between minus 10 and 20, there's very little difference. Perhaps a person would throw on a jacket for another layer and smile about how easily the wood splits. But as the temperature nears 30 below, blood retreats from appendages. Take off your gloves for more than five minutes or so and your fingers will probably be frostbitten. This is the temperature at which a person achieves a vivid understanding of just how ill-prepared the human body is to handle the cold. Even trees suffer at 30 below. Moisture beneath tree bark can freeze and swell, causing bark to snap like the sound of a flat hand slapping the water's surface. At minus 40 the air has the quality of fire. Snow is as dry as flour. But there is almost nothing harsher than a high pressure, when the winds barrel out of the high Canadian Arctic, bringing with it the northern latitudes' bitter chill, or a "Siberian Express," charging full-steam out of Russia's icy hinterlands. Worse perhaps is when the winds south of the Brooks Range simply stop circulating. Temperatures in the Interior can then plunge to 50 and 60 below, a desolate cold for which we have no vocabulary, one that saps the spirit. The still air has a bite that can literally burn the lungs. Breath crackles with each exhalation and muscles react slowly, sluggishly, to orders from the brain. Worst of all, 50 below makes no allowances for mistakes.
Even in my tent at night, I became well acquainted with the Interior's cold my woodstove was small enough that the fire required my attention about every two hours. At first, invariably, I slept through the embers, waking only after a deep chill invaded my bones. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and worked bare-handed, tearing thin strips of paper and then arranging the paper and kindling inside the belly of the stove. Lighting the match and touching it to the paper became an act of fervent hope. Even before the kindling caught, I scrambled back to my bag and watched the fire, blowing at it from a distance, trying to coax it to life. On more than one occasion, when the kindling failed to light, I scrambled out of my bag, shivering and cursing, reluctant to start the process again. When the kindling caught, I put on mittens, a hat, a neck gaiter, an extra pair of socks, and sometimes a coat, and buried myself in my bag and fed small logs into the fire. The whole procedure, if performed unerringly, took a few minutes. However, an hour later, after the tent was hot, I would wake up to shed my extra clothes, aware that the whole process would have to be repeated again in another hour.
After those first few days, though, my internal clock adjusted to the demands of the fire. I woke every two hours or so, as if on cue, to catch the embers while they were still glowing. When I caught them in time, I threw in two or three small logs, opened the stove vents long enough for the fire to blaze, then closed down the vents to the point where only a whisper of air could sneak into the stove. If I did it right, the tent stayed relatively warm though I could still see my breath and I'd be snuggled deep in my bag with sleep overtaking me in a minute or so, hardly time enough to catch a chill.
Today, ten days after my arrival on the Old Crow, Heimo pulls me in a sled behind his snow machine. I'm wedged among longspring leghold traps; wire snares for wolf, fox, wolverine, and lynx; skinned marten carcasses, which Heimo will put near the base of a tree as bait a week ago, he noticed wolverine tracks near the tree a small-caliber .22 rifle; an ax; an extra drive belt; a spare backpack with emergency rations, matches, and extra clothes; and our snowshoes. We use the sled instead of the second snowmachine because we are headed east across the tundra to the Old Crow Flats along the Canadian border and because Heimo's winter gasoline supply is getting dangerously low. He uses about ten gallons a week, and he's figured out that he's got just enough to get him to March. Years ago, when Heimo ran shorter lines, fifty to seventy miles long, he checked all his traps by snowshoe, but now with 200 to 250 traps and 120 to 170 miles of line, he makes the rounds by snow machine, stopping often to check the short side lines on foot. For that reason, Heimo is emphatic about calling his snowmobile a snowmachine, though I persist in calling it by its Lower Forty-eight name. "It's strictly a work vehicle," he says. "I'd never own one if I didn't need it. How many guys down in the Lower Forty-eight use theirs for work? There, it's a recreational vehicle, neon to neon, you know," he laughs, "tavern to tavern. And there ain't a tavern up here for over 300 miles."
As we near the Old Crow Flats, the Richardson Mountains take shape far to the east. They are large and ominously white, rising out of the Flats' snow-covered marshland. We stop for a moment, and Heimo sets a blindset, a coilspring trap that he lays just under the snow, hoping to surprise an unsuspecting lynx or wolverine that has taken to our trail because of the ease of travel. Though I should be paying close attention, I am in love with the rarefied light and the silence, which is as wide as the country, oceanic, and I am remembering what John Muir said. In Alaska, Muir marveled, "it is the morning of creation."
Heimo tugs at my snowsuit, breaking my reverie, and points to a small clearing where some caribou had bedded down the night before. We walk over and he shows me the white tufts of their bleached winter hair, which lie matted in the snow. Minutes later, we're off again. We cross a lake, and Heimo takes the opportunity to open up the throttle, a bit of a joy ride. Snow flies straight back, and I pull the ruff of my fur hat over my eyes and adjust my face mask. Before the mask froze, it strained the biting cold, but now it is nothing more than a shield of ice. My eyelashes are freezing shut, and pinpricks, like the burn of stinging nettles, warn me that my cheeks are near freezing. Once over the lake, I look up just in time to swat away the supple alders and willows that line the trail and slap at me. By the end of my stay, I will develop an intense dislike of alders, the black sheep of the birch family, which resist human intrusion with whiplike lashes. When Zeus killed Phaëthon with a thunderbolt, he later punished Phaëthon's sisters for mourning their brother's death by turning them into alders. Offspring of the sisters flank nearly every trail and seem to be doing their best to punish me, displacing their anger, exacting some sort of belated revenge.
I'm relieved when a few minutes later Heimo slows and shuts off the snowmachine. Heimo has stopped here because he's eager to show me the international boundary line, an improbable thirty-foot swath cut through the trees. We forgo the snowshoes and slip up the riverbank to a clearing. Heimo makes it up first, and when I arrive I see his vapor trail and him posed next to a three-foot cylindrical cement marker, marker #32, designating the boundary between the United States and Canada, the 141st parallel. "Go ahead," he says, pointing to a clearing that extends to the south as far as I can see. "It'll be the only time you can cross over into Canada and get back to American soil without having to clear customs. I do it whenever I'm here. In fact, I always piss on the Canadian side. Not because I don't like Canada, but because I can't stand parks, and this is the Vuntut National Park. They set up parks, and they take out the people," Heimo says, echoing a sentiment I have heard regularly in Alaska.
The Arctic is a wilderness, but it has been inhabited for perhaps as long as 10,000 years by descendents of those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge. Modern definitions of wilderness won't allow for the presence of people, however; in fact, they demand their absence. By that standard only Antarctica is a true, undefiled wilderness, though with research stations appearing on the Antarctic ice pack and a steady supply of tourists, this, too, is up for debate.
It has been two days since our trip to the Canadian border, and Heimo is all business. He sets a wolverine snare, adjusting the guide sticks carefully, so that if the wolverine chooses the trail, there's only one direction for it to go. "I'll get 'em with this," he says, and pushes one last stick into place.
Though many of Alaska's trappers use leghold traps for wolverine, Heimo usually prefers the snare. It is effective and easy to use. Heimo explains how the stiff end of the wire snare is fastened to a tree, while the malleable loop dangles from a stick placed near the middle of the trail eight inches from the ground. When a wolverine enters the loop and continues walking, the loop slips closed around its neck, which activates a small locking device and prevents the snare from reopening. When the snare works as it's supposed to, the loop pulls tighter as the wolverine struggles, and the animal dies swiftly of suffocation.
Having set the last guide stick, Heimo walks back to the snowmachine. Before he can start the machine, I venture a question that I've been meaning to ask, and now seems as good a time as any.
"What about groups like PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]," I say, "which claim that you're putting the animal through a lot of unnecessary pain?"
"PETA" Heimo winces at the word. "If the PETA people had their way, I'd be working in Fairbanks at Jiffy Lube instead of trapping," he laughs. "Sure, an animal in a trap experiences pain, but I try to keep it to a minimum. Anyway, pain ain't new to animals; they live with it. I trap half a dozen wolves a year. My impact is nothing. Many others die of starvation or are eaten by other wolves. And don't forget, I subject myself to cold, hardship, pain, and the threat of death, too. I'm not above the natural process. The wolf kills the caribou, and I kill the wolf. But a bear could maul me, or I could drown. Some might say that I'm a killer, but most people just leave that to others. How many people butcher their own chickens? Do they ever think about all the animals killed in a combine?"
Heimo whips around in his seat end of discussion. "Just one more set," he says, "and then we'll head for home." The news lifts my spirits. I am cold and eager to return to the Arctic oven, and fire up the woodstove and crawl into my sleeping bag. Heimo starts the snowmachine, gives it some gas, and nearly jerks me out of the sled.
Although Heimo and I usually spend a portion of our time on the trapline telling stories, joking, and exchanging insults, today he has been a predator, checking and setting traps, and examining every track he sees with the taut alertness of a wild animal. Just by looking at a track, he can determine so much: the animal's size, its age, direction of travel, how fast it's moving, if it's breeding. And his ability to remember where all his traps are situated is nothing short of extraordinary. He wrestles his machine through a featureless forest and suddenly he stops, and I'm left wondering why. Then I see him clear the trail of a snare. Even when we're checking a side line on snowshoes, I fail to notice these snares. I walk right into them, realizing my mistake only when I hear the guide sticks snap or get tripped up in the wire. Heimo finds my ineptitude amusing. To me the forest has a bewildering uniformity, and one spruce tree looks no different from the next. For him, it is an intimate world that reveals itself in nuance.
Because he feels that maps impose an artificial order on the world, Heimo is not in the habit of using them. When he first came to Alaska he did so, but that was in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he was still developing an eye, and a feel, for the country. His map now is a mental one, as reliable as a topographic map, covering 500 square miles from the Yukon Flats, north over the elevations of the Brooks Range, to the foothills and the coastal plain, from the Chandalar River east to the Old Crow drainage and the Canadian border, an area larger than all of Grand Teton National Park.
One hundred feet before we reach his last set, Heimo whoops. He stops the snowmachine. "Wolverine!" he shouts, and celebrates with a short victory dance. He points in the direction of his trap and even I can tell he's caught a wolverine. The area has been denuded as if a Biblical cloud of locusts swooped in and devoured everything. In its struggle, the wolverine has cleared the six-foot-high tree of every one of its branches and torn up all the brush within a twenty-foot circumference. As we approach the site, called a "catch circle" by trappers, I feel my pulse quicken. Twenty feet away I can smell the pungent musk from the wolverine's anal glands, which it has sprayed all around the trap site. I dare to walk closer, and I see the wolverine's eyes staring at me, watching my every move. I imagine that its eyes burn with something like hatred. As I approach, it snarls and lunges at me. I step back and study it. It has short legs, a long snout for rooting, a small, flat head, a bushy tail, paws the size of salad plates, and it is built powerfully, low to the ground. It seems entirely unafraid, hunkered down in the dirt and snow as if it is preparing to spring on me. I have the unnerving suspicion that if the chain that attaches the leghold trap to the tree were longer, it would shred me with its rapier claws and its one-and-a-half-inch canines, and then crush my bones in its massive jaw.
Heimo tells me to step back, positions himself, and dispatches the animal with a .22 shot to the heart. The wolverine collapses and heaves twice before it dies. Heimo kneels beside it and shows me the small bullet hole, which hasn't damaged the fur. He separates the jaws of the trap, removes the animal's foot, and then skins the beast where it lies, making quick work of it, deftly cutting the thick, pungent, yogurt-colored fat and then peeling back the fur and fat from the purple-blue flesh and sinew. Wolverine fur, Heimo tells me, is the finest there is. It doesn't mat or freeze to the skin, so Alaskans use it to make hood ruffs or for anything else that may touch the face.
The wolverine fur is a lush, beautiful brown with a band of gold running from its front shoulders to the base of its tail. I run my hands along the gold strip. "That's called the 'diamond,' " Heimo says. "Fur buyers love that."
Wolverine fur brings remarkably good money. A fur buyer will pay $350 for a large male, according to Heimo. When I express surprise at the sum, he explains that in addition to the time he puts in on the line, it will take him at least eight hours to prepare the fur. "My philosophy is that you take the animal's life, so you should treat the fur with respect," he says. "And that takes time."
Heimo is fond of the wolverine, there's no doubt about that. The wolverine is a solitary, seldom-seen animal a bit like Heimo in his early years with a range as large as the wolf's. Early French trappers called it the "devil bear," and some Eskimos call it gulu gulu, the glutton. The Indians of north-central Alaska's Koyukuk River call it doyon, which derives from the Russian word toyon, meaning chief, and they regard the wolverine with reverence. Wolves and even grizzlies are common sights in Alaska compared to the loner wolverine. The naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton only saw two wolverines in his entire time in the field in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1800s. Wolverines are stinky and surly and decidedly not cute, but Heimo admires them for their versatility. Though they are not even half the size of an adult wolf, they are pound for pound the strongest mammals in the Arctic, and they have been known to scare off bears and bring down caribou and Dall sheep. One day they are top predators; the next, lowly and insatiable scavengers.
To think that Heimo would pass up trapping a wolverine because he admires it, though, is to be ignorant of what motivates him. He is not shy about expressing his love for the land apart from its ability to yield fur, but he also cherishes his way of life. He can simultaneously extol the intelligence of an animal and talk of ending its life.
Heimo puts the wolverine carcass into a large flour bag and sets it in the sled. He says he'll sell the head to a skull buyer for $35 or to a university, where it will be used in a biology lab. He'll use the carcass as bait for attracting other furbearers, but the wolverine is nothing that will ever grace his dinner table. Though the Korths eat lynx, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, and sometimes grizzly bear, they observe the old Athabaskan Indian taboo against eating wolves or wolverines or any other member of the weasel family because they sometimes carry trichinosis.
"You can watch me work on the wolverine tonight after supper," Heimo says, straddling the snowmachine. "You might like that. Now let's get the hell outta here. I'm hungry."
It is January 20 and we are above treeline, beyond Rundown Mountain, another peak that Rhonda and Krin named as little girls. January 13 came and went, and the sun didn't arrive, but today, for the first time since late November when the sun disappeared below the horizon, the clouds have lifted and the sun fills the land with light. Heimo shuts off the snowmachine and bounds out into the snow. He's been waiting for this day since November 27 and is as excited as a child by the sight of his shadow. He chases it briefly and then stops as if he's suddenly aware that I've been watching. High above, a transarctic jet etches a white line across the electric-blue sky. At 35 below, its roar, even at 30,000 feet, is almost deafening. Heimo waits for it to pass. "I listened to Enya last night," he says, closing his eyes and raising his face to the sun. Since his musical tastes usually gravitate toward Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, I express my surprise. "Yeah, that's right," he says. "Enya. It suits the landscape." To the north the peaks of the Brooks Range look like gleaming white gods, and in the valley frosted spruce trees are glistening in the sun's brittle light.
We are finished checking the traps for the day and must now only reset the trail snares on the way back to the cabin. This is our third day in a row without so much as a marten, the Alaskan trapper's bread and butter, but Heimo looks far from unhappy. He has driven the snowmachine and sled into the sun and hasn't said a word for the last five minutes, which is unusual for him. Heimo is garrulous and good-natured a real talker hardly what I expected from a reclusive hunter-trapper. But to live deep in the Alaskan bush requires, if anything, a healthy sense of absurdity and a lissome capacity for happiness. Sweat the little things and you won't enjoy a moment of peace. Fail to appreciate the warmth of the returning sun, the brief moments of joy, and you disavow your reason for being here.
I am on the trapline with Edna, who once a week leaves the cooking, all of which she does on a woodstove, to the girls. Given the option of cooking a meal on a woodstove and checking a trapline by snowshoe, I'd choose the less taxing of the two the trapline. One of the myths about Alaska is that it's a man's world, but Edna is as capable and tough as most men.
This wasn't always the case. When Edna first arrived in the bush in 1981, she was a woman on the mend. She had a girl and a boy from previous relationships. Melinda, or Millie, who was six, was the daughter of Edna and a Swedish biologist, to whom Edna was engaged shortly before he was killed in a plane crash. Merlin, her son, was born in late November 1977. He was the child of Edna and a ne'er-do-well Eskimo from Nome. Millie accompanied Edna when she first joined Heimo in the bush. Later she lived with them for only part of the year and spent the rest of the year with Edna's parents in Savoonga, where she felt most at home. Merlin, on the other hand, stayed with Edna's parents full-time. In Savoonga it was not uncommon to pass on children to one's parents or relatives. Still, it went against Edna's instincts to leave either child behind, even if it was for only a few months at a time, and it saddened her, but reason eventually won out. She'd be making a new life in an unfamiliar and dangerous place, and she had no idea what to expect. The children, her parents told her and she knew it, too would be better off in Savoonga with them. So Edna let go.
After checking most of her traps, Edna and I return to the mountain that overlooks the cabin. The afternoon sun shines on us at an oblique angle, filling the forest with orange shadows and a beneficent glow. For the past week, the days have been nothing more than rose-tinted promises, but now the sun has returned, and the snow reflects hundreds of smaller suns. Ahead of me, Edna moves agilely, economically, like a dancer, her long ponytail swishing against the synthetic material of her parka as she walks. "It's nice to see the sun," Edna says so quietly that I can barely hear her over the scraping of my snowshoes. Like many Eskimos, Edna's English is slow and soft with a musical, singsong quality. The words originate deep in her throat, a melodic gargling sound, and her lips and jaw hardly move at all. A raven cries somewhere in the distance and suddenly Edna stops. "The raven?" I ask. "Sshhh," Edna whispers, and points in the direction of a clump of small black spruce trees. "Siberian tit, I think," she says, speaking of a bird that many birders spend decades trying to add to their life lists. Like Heimo and the girls, Edna is fond of birds, and she is clearly excited by the prospect of seeing the rare Siberian tit. Then she makes a gentle whistling sound, like wind leaking in through a little crack in a car window, a long expulsion of air like the shriek of a hawk, but soft. Standing perfectly still, we watch the trees for nearly a minute. Then Edna takes her snow stick, which she uses to rid overhanging spruce boughs of sabotaging snow buildup, and hits the trunk of a tree with it, hoping to scare the bird from its hiding place. Still no bird. She does it again and then shrugs her shoulders. "I don't know. Maybe a Siberian tit. Maybe not." Just before Edna's last snare we run into fresh lynx tracks, and when I suggest that perhaps she's caught it, Edna smiles broadly. "Lynk," she says, using the Alaskan trapper's name for the cat. "That would be good." When we reach the last snare, there is nothing. We check three more polesets and discover marten fur in the final one. A marten has sprung the trap and stolen the bait. "Marten never get too trap smart," she explains. "Maybe I'll get him next week."
Before we get back to the cabin, I hear the sound of sawing. When we get close enough, I discover its source. Krin has the large hind leg of a caribou propped up on the sawhorses and is using a bow saw to cut steaks for supper. At 35 below, Krin is dressed only in jeans, a sweater, and mukluks, which the Korths call kamiks, pronounced "gummocks," preferring the Yupik name for the sealskin-lined boots. Krin has already cut three steaks and is on her fourth one when I ask her if I can try.
"Sure," she says, handing me the saw. "And don't forget to bring in the steaks." Then she grabs Edna's hand and the two of them skip away like little girls.
Very quickly I realize that Krin stuck me with a tough job. Sawing frozen, rock-solid steaks is harder than it looks, and I am sweating by the time I finish the fourth steak, though I know I shouldn't be surprised. There is nothing easy about this life; everything in the bush is labor intensive.
I saw through the fifth steak, trying not to bend the blade, and by the time I return to the Arctic oven, the sun has moved briskly beyond the hills. Though it is only 3:30 the light resembles the last embers of a dying fire. Thirty minutes later the orange light of dusk has been replaced by the blue shadows of night.
For supper I eat a large, delicious caribou steak, fry bread, and a plate of white rice to replenish the calories I lost on the trail. And after a day on Edna's trapline, I am dehydrated, so I drink nearly a half-gallon of ice water, which earlier in the day I helped the girls to haul.
Hauling ice is no easy task either. At a special gathering spot on the creek, the girls use a six-foot pick to break away the ice in large chunks. Along a line that divides the cloudy overflow from the new ice, whose interior is pure and blue, the girls chip with the precision of diamond cutters. The ice must be chipped and then lugged to the sled barehanded, regardless of the temperature a sensation that feels like holding your hands to a candle flame so that their gloves, which the girls use for everything from fetching wood to setting traps, will not taint it. Back at the cabin the ice is added to a plastic tub and boiling water is added to melt it. Hauling ice is hard work, and it's a job that the girls do every day.
After supper I walk back to my tent to stoke the fire, and then I return to the cabin. Approaching the front door, I hear a drumbeat, strong and resonant, and the sound of laughter. I shuffle my feet loudly, then knock just in case, and everything inside comes to a stop. "Come in," I hear Heimo say, and when I do, they all burst out laughing. Edna is quick to tell me that they are not laughing at me. The radio is tuned to a station out of Barrow, a coastal town on Alaska's North Slope, which is playing Eskimo music. Rhonda says that Edna and Heimo have been dancing. When I encourage them to continue, they look at each other sheepishly. Then the girls weigh in, "Please, pretty please!" Heimo and Edna agree, and Krin turns up the music. "Ready, Mom?" Heimo says. Edna moves her arms in slow, beautiful arcs, as if she were a longtime follower of the Grateful Dead. Rhonda tells me that in Eskimo dances women imitate the movement of waves. Heimo's motions, on the other hand, are abrupt and powerful. Men, Rhonda explains again, enact the story of the hunt, the violent spearing and harpooning of walrus and seal. When the music stops, Heimo, who spent every spring from 1976 to 1981 with the Eskimo hunters of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, adds that fifty years ago, when a young man from Savoonga killed his first seal, the elders removed his left nipple to commemorate the occasion; when he killed his first walrus, they removed his right one. When drums introduce the next song, everyone encourages me to dance. Edna, again, moves like the ocean, and Heimo teaches me my steps. I follow as closely as I can, but manage only the savage lunges, the simulated harpooning. The girls laugh at my efforts, hooting and nearly falling off their sleeping platforms.
We listen to a few more songs, and then Heimo puts on a long, plastic butcher's apron and rubber surgical gloves. He has been working on the wolverine fur for the last three nights and tonight he is determined to finish it. His sinewy forearms strain and bulge with each sweeping knife stroke, as he "fleshes" the fur. The fat and flesh curl like wood shavings. When he's done with the body, he fleshes the wolverine's foot pads. Then with his knife, he splits the lips. Only the ears remain. He makes a fine cut on each ear and turns them inside out. Then he tacks the fur, skin side up, using pushpins, onto a five-foot stretching board shaped like the blade of a canoe paddle. Lifting the stretching board toward the ceiling, he hooks it onto a nail.
Heimo sweeps up the shavings of fat and flesh into a dustpan, throws the mess outside, and returns to the cabin. "Done," he announces, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his wrist. "Finally."
Nobody pays attention though. Edna is sewing, Rhonda reads a teen magazine, and Krin is sounding out words from the dictionary. Trying to grasp the nuances of a new word, Krin announces, lisping slightly, "You all are so con-spir-a-tor-ial." Rhonda looks up from her book, getting the gist of the word, smiling mischievously, and suggests that since this is one of my last nights with them until April we should all go sledding. Heimo is scrubbing his hands in the plastic washbasin. "Not at 44 below," he says. Krin agrees to go, setting the dictionary aside, then Edna, then I. "We're feeling conspiratorial," I say to Heimo. "Are you in or out?" Krin challenges him. "Out," Heimo shouts, "definitely out," at which Krin and Rhonda jump up and tug at his shirt and pat his bald head. "Okay, okay," he says, relenting. "I give up. Sledding it is."
Ten minutes later, bundled against the bitter cold, we gather on the slope of what the girls call House Hill. The full moon, which won't set until morning, hangs just above the spruce trees, casting the Brooks Range in a hauntingly blue light. Heimo looks on while Edna and Rhonda get settled on a large piece of plastic, hoping to be the first ones down. But Krin is too quick. "Look out for the Suicide Sled," she shouts, grabbing another piece of plastic. Then she lets out a triumphant scream and hurls herself headfirst down the hill.
Copyright © 2004 by James Campbell
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Meet 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.
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I loved this book. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes reading about adventures and Alaska. Heimo Korth is an awesome person to read about.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in knowing more about what life is like living in the interior of Alaska! Fascinating this man could adapt himself to such a climate and way of life.
Scott and I are fans of the tv show The Last Alaskans so I thought it would be nice to learn more about my favorite family. Heimo and Edna seem like such geniune loving and nice people and after reading this book I have even more respect for both of them. The story starts with Heimo in his home town of Appleton, Wisconsin and moves on to his dream of moving to Alaska and how he came to live in the bush. Let me tell you it takes a very strong person to do what he has done. It is not for everyone. I found this quote in the book about people who move to Alaska and loved it - they call these people sourdoughs "soured on this country and ain't go no dough to get out" Makes a lot of sense to me. Alos they say if you live in Alaska two years your feet will be frozen in. Heimo happens to be one of only seven people with a cabin permit in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge which is 19.5 million acres. Out of those seven he is the only one who is a permanent resident. I liked how there was a little history of the Eskimos included and it made me very angry to see they were treated just as bad if not worse than the Native Americans in the lower 48. In fact over 2/3 of the tribes were descimated. All for greedy people. For me this was a good, very informative book and am happy that I took the time to read it.
After meeting Heimo through The Last Alaskans TV show, it was nice to get some background into how he came to be one of the last cabin permit holders to live in ANWAR. Includes adventure annd his views on the future of the refuge and what we may be losing as a culture by not allowing the subsistence lifestyle to exist for those who accept the challenge. Enjoy this book. It may be one of the last books about living free and independent off the land.
A masterful tale of unbelievable courage and determination. This is a must read for all who enjoy stories of those who endure all that the 'final frontier' has to offer. Korth and his family have my unabated admiration.
Sits crying softly, missing Nate.