Nothing really happens on ‘The Last Alaskans,’ which is why it’s still the best reality show
Discovery’s “The Last Alaskans” remains TV’s purest and most respectful example of what reality television might have been if the genre had a soul.
In our comparably mild winter chill and shortened days here in the Lower 48, I often find myself thinking of the handful of Alaska residents who, as part of a 1980 congressional act, got to keep their cabins within the 19.2 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the far northeastern part of the state.
In its fourth season (currently airing at 10 p.m. Sunday nights), “The Last Alaskans” continues its intimate, ongoing portrait of these hardy few, who are determined to persevere in the refuge for as long as they (or their heirs) can maintain this intense yet peaceful lifestyle.
The subjects of the series are separated from one another by dozens and even hundreds of miles in different directions. They show up after the floodwaters and insects retreat each September, intending to live through the winter (part of it with zero sunlight) and work their trap lines, collecting furs to sell next spring.
No electricity, no internet or phone. No media, besides a faintly heard nightly radio show that relays messages to those living remotely.
Set story arc
Each season has followed a set story arc, and it’s somehow surprising to see the episodes are as fresh and uninterrupted as when the show’s cameras first came along: The residents arrive by boat or small airplane, open up their cabins, wash away the summer mold and set about making repairs while the weather is still on their side.
The primary goal during the hasty fall season is to hunt and fish as much as possible, hoping to kill enough moose or caribou to eat for the next five months (brains and all), and, in the case of Tyler and Ashley Selden, catch enough salmon to feed their sled dogs all winter.
If “The Last Alaskans” were required to meet a typical viewer’s (and network executive’s) standards for reality-TV action, it would fail miserably. The hunters often come back empty-handed. The families never argue. Winter comes and they hunker down in between monotonous excursions along the trap lines.
Compared with all the other Alaska shows on Discovery and elsewhere, “The Last Alaskans” is short on camera-needy kooks, drunken brawls, gold-digging desperados and interpersonal conflict. It’s hard to tell one episode from the next.
Heimo Korth, who, with his wife, Edna, has lived in the refuge since the 1970s, acts as the consistent, narrative center of the show, explaining to the camera the circle of life as it pertains to nature and hunting, as he’s done probably 100 times. Tyler Selden, too, has held forth an equal number of times about the gratification of living in the refuge.
Do they repeat themselves because the producers keep asking them to? Or is there not much else to discuss, given that “The Last Alaskans” steers far clear of politics and other hot-button issues? Would the show be even better if the subjects weren’t tasked with explaining their every move?
It’s an interesting thought, because as a work of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), “The Last Alaskans” is both visually and aurally addictive. The footage is vividly presented in high-definition, using the latest tricks of the trade: aerial drone cameras capture the vastness of the refuge in a way a widescreen vista cannot quite achieve; the crew has learned to hang just over the shoulder of its subjects without ruining their hunts.
Slow-motion is used to both enhance the beauty and admit that there’s rarely enough going on out here to fill all 41 minutes in a one-hour reality show. The sounds, when nobody’s talking, are mostly wind and water.
It is deeply calming. The routines are arduous yet simple: Wake, work, eat, ponder, sleep. Television, which so often seeks to enhance the noise and anxiety that are part of our modern lives, is so rarely this cozy. Maybe “The Last Alaskans” gives to me that ineffable sense of wintry soothingness that others get from Hallmark holiday movies.
Some actual events have occurred since last season, qualifying as big news around here: Tyler and Ashley had a baby girl and figured out a way to install a water pump and well inside their cabin, hopefully negating frequent trips to the river to haul fresh water. Heimo and Edna’s daughter, Krin, decided to spend the winter in the Korths’s spare cabin with her husband, Scott, and their baby boy, with an eye toward taking over the family’s rightful legacy.
Most notable is how the show handled of the death in July 2017 of 66-year-old Bob Harte, who moved to the refuge in the 1970s and lived proudly in a cabin that seemed to always have just been recently ransacked by bears. In a New Jersey accent that he never shed, Bob talked constantly to “The Last Alaskan’s” cameras, as if he’d been waiting decades for them to show up and ask him about his life.
His loneliness was as palpable as his boasts of self-sufficiency; he spoke often of his daughter and ex-wife and the years they spent together in the cabin. The women wound up caring for Bob as his health declined. He lived out his final days with them in Fairbanks, pining to return to his land.
In last Sunday’s episode, Heimo kept a promise to Bob and made a 50-mile downriver journey to check up on Bob’s cabin and retrieve a few sentimental items for his survivors – a handmade rocking chair, his ham radio, his guns and knives. Already nature was doing its thing, reclaiming Bob’s cabin for its own.
Space to think
Contrast this with “The Last Alaskan’s” youngest resident, 20-year-old Charlie Jagow, who is also going it alone, tending to the trap lines established by his father. Last season, Charlie built his own cabin, cutting trees and assembling logs with a mathematician’s obsessive precision and patience.
Charlie’s busy isolation has years to go before it might transform into Bob’s loneliness; the show doesn’t needle him about finding a mate.
Instead, it’s nothing but respect and, for many viewers, envy. To be that far away from it all, to live with such quiet. Curl up and imagine: all that time and space to just think.
Hank Stuever is a Washington Post writer.