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Book Review:The Final Frontiersman – Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness by James Campbell

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Meet Heimo Korth – a rare specimen of a man.  Leaving his native Wisconsin as a young man in the 1970s he followed the call of his wild heart to Alaska, settling over 100 miles from his nearest neighbour – far north of the Arctic circle.  There he taught himself the skills necessary to survive in the harsh, demanding Alaska wilds.  Trapping, hunting, fishing, canoeing and emergency survival skills formed the basis of his more than two decade stay on the tundra.

While his long solitary winter trapping season was relieved by yearly trips into town to re-stock and sell fur, he lived alone for the first six years in tiny log cabins.  Heimo learned to hunt whales, walrus and seals during spring visits to the barren St. Lawrence Island where he also met Edna, the woman who would become his wife, bear his children and raise them in one of the handful of subsistence living families in Alaska.

Though gregarious and well liked by those with the chance to know him, Heimo values his family’s privacy and distance from the outside world.  Despite his inclusion in a 1992 National Geographic Arctic documentary, Heimo is inherently a modest and seclusive man.  When initially approached by James Campbell – a writer for National Geographic and a cousin he barely knew – with the offer to write his story, Heimo refused.  Campbell doesn’t reveal the reasons for Heimo’s eventual acquiescence; based upon his passion for Alaska’s wilderness I would surmise that it has more to do with providing a written record preserving his vanishing way of life, than with his cousin’s pleas.

Combining first-hand accounts from visits with the Korth family, stories recalled from Heimo’s past and a thorough knowledge of the forces that have shaped Alaska Campbell masterfully portrays the spirit of Alaska as embodied by one man.  Connecting interviews with Alaskans (peppered with the gritty, mildly foul language common to all frontiers) to extensive research on the history of uniquely Alaskan issues: wildlife reserves, land allocation, oil pipelines, native and animal rights Campbell concludes that Heimo’s way of life is no longer freely available or desired by many.  As such, The Final Frontiersman provides what will certainly become a classic snapshot of a dying way of life in Alaska.

Campbell visited the Korths on their traplines and in town, traveling to Alaska each season to more fully comprehend the course of their year.  Volunteering to live in a double-walled tent, heated by a small wood stove north of the Arctic Circle in January requires far more fortitude than I possess.  The discomfort and difficulties that Campbell endured to capture an authentic depiction of the trapping lifestyle pales in comparison to the daily challenges – emotional and physical – that the Korth family faces in order to maintain their lifestyle.  Eight months of winter, frigid temperatures, scrapes with hypothermia, frostbite, and the loss of their first child – the Korth’s have not chosen an easy life. 

Yet Heimo remains fiercely dedicated to life in America’s last wilderness.  His wife Edna, loyal in her support, has come to appreciate their way of life as well – though Heimo’s teenaged daughters, Rhonda and Krin are less certain, despite having been raised on the trapline.  The call of an easier life in the outside world echoes in their ears, proving irresistible and changing the Korth family’s lifestyle, perhaps irrevocably.

The historical segments of the story provide depth and relevance to the Korth’s life – placing them in space and time as the whirlwind of oil development and land allocations swirls across the state.  Not being one to appreciate straight history, my eyes glazed over from time to time during these stretches of text.

Holding me captive and urging me through the side trips into politics and the past were the authentic interactions and shared experiences of the Korth family and James Campbell.  The story of their opening up to him and the reweaving the thin bonds of family between them is captured within this books pages.  Eating moose tail and beaver tongue together, the shared tasks of fishing, hunting, trapping, packing water, sledding at 55 below and making drymeat – these are the ties that bind, and the backbone of this multi-faceted biography.

Whether you’re a would-be adventurer, Alaskan history buff, or a voyeur intent on capturing a glimpse of a nearly forgotten lifestyle, The Last Frontiersman will satisfy your longings.

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About Jennifer Bogart