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

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

by James Campbell

ISBN: 9780743453141

Publisher Atria Books

Published in Science/Nature & Ecology, Biographies & Memoirs/Travelers & Explorers, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs

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Sample Chapter


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.


Excerpted from "The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" by James Campbell. Copyright © 2005 by James Campbell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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