Many of us know Heimo Korth from The Last Alaskans, where he and his wife, Edna, are followed as some of the last people living permanently on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As the series focuses on the Refuge, for many episodes we follow Korth’s life and adventures.
Although he may be familiar to you from The Last Alaskans, the reality is that the Korths have been reality TV sensations since 2009, when VBS produced Surviving Alone in Alaska, a documentary which focused entirely on the Korths and their lifestyle. However Korth’s life had been featured on the TV before, in Braving Alaska in 1992, and he had even been the focus of a book by James Campbell, The Final Frontiersman, in 2004. From looking at his extensive bibliography and filmography it is pretty clear that Korth is interesting to documentarians, survival fanatics, and ecologists alike. So what gives? What makes this man so deeply fascinating?
Although outdoorsman lifestyles, ruralism, survivalism, and living on wildlife refuges are hardly rare occurrences, people like Korth retain our fascination just for how intrepid and bold they are. His lifestyle is truly extreme, and it is not out of necessity, but out of choice. What is the worst nightmare of the average modern Western citizen was his ultimate dream.
Heimo Korth started out his life rurally as well. He was a welder during his teens, but craved a life that offered more freedom even than that. Travelling from Wisconsin to Alaska, Heimo decided that the life of a reclusive mountain man was ideal for him, and he worked hard to make his dream a realistic future. He has lived on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since before it attained its refuge status, having moved in nearly forty five years ago. It suffices to say that his mission was, therefore, a success.
Heimo Korth worked hard to build his own home, to find his own food, and to survive off what the land offers him. He hunts, he forages, and he lives most of his life without things we would consider basic amenities. Not only does he not have internet access or a phone line, but due to the extreme climate he lives an antiquated way of life for nine months of the year. For this entire time he will live without any electricity, any running water, and most human contact other than documentarians and his wife. Despite these harsh circumstances, Heimo is a deeply contented man.
Heimo and Edna have even successfully raised a family a whopping 400 miles from any civilization. However even this pursuit was not without its trials. Living away from civilized society may mean giving up on the torments of civilization, but it also means giving up on its safety. He and Edna lost their first daughter, Coleen, at the tender age of two when she suffered an accident at a river. This pain did not, however, drive him away from his goals and lifestyle. Many of his friends and family wanted him to leave all of it behind, of course. They feared for his well being, and that of his wife and future children. They desperately wanted him to change his mind now that he was starting a family.
But for Heimo there was no other way to live. He did not wish to return to civilization, for all its luxuries, and leave behind the natural ways of a wild life. Rather, the loss he experience made him more determined to provide for his family and create a safe and loving environment for them away from the rest of the world. He fought hard in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to name a mountain after his daughter. And from then on he continued to fight to live his life of freedom, with her forever in his memory and his heart. He did, however, make some exceptions for his next children. Their remaining three daughters grew up closer to civilization, ending up strong, healthy, and intelligent, but have long since flown the nest, leaving their parents to continue their eccentric lifestyle.
Heimo has previously noted, and regretted, how little he sees his daughters and grandchildren. Although it is part of the life he has chosen, years can go by between extended visits, and at one point over two decades had passed since they were all united at his home. He always looks forward to when his daughters and grandchildren can visit him, and cherishes them dearly.
Not only are his own children and grandchildren a long way away from him, Heimo and Edna Korth are destined to live in relative isolation due to the Refuge status of the land they live on. As they moved in since before it was a Refuge, they were permitted to stay, but besides them there are only a handful of other people who have the right to live out there. Nobody else will be moving next door any time soon.
Then again, it could hardly be said that the Korths are without support. Although they have little need for material wealth, being able to largely provide themselves with everything they need to survive, Heimo and Edna have amassed a net worth of $150,000. Not bad for people who do not even work a 9-5!
Heimo and Edna, however, are not your typical egoistic reality TV stars. He reiterates that his main reason for appearing on TV is not the money or the fame, but showing people that a different way of life is possible. Living so close to the land has left them humble and pragmatic. Heimo won over audiences with his grandfatherly attitude and way of speaking, where his wisdom and love shone through. Edna was a much warmer figure yet, and it is hard not to relate to her good nature and motherly love.
Above all, what makes them stand out is their true love of nature. Heimo always shows a respect and an admiration for the natural world which is rarely seen any more, and it is honestly refreshing to see someone who still has such simple, honest values.