Family portrait offers a poignant view of Alaska

From the Bookshelf

Posted: Thursday, December 01, 2005


  The Final Frontiersman by James Campbell. Published by Atria Books (Simon & Schuster). 317 pages. 2004. $14 (softcover); $25 (hardcover).

The Final Frontiersman by James Campbell. Published by Atria Books (Simon & Schuster). 317 pages. 2004. $14 (softcover); $25 (hardcover).

Heimo Korth and his family, alone in Alaska’s arctic wilderness reads a line on the cover of “The Final Frontiersman,” the award-winning first book by James Campbell. In a nutshell, that is indeed the subject. But to think that is all there is to it is like saying that “Moby Dick” just describes a whaling voyage.

The cover blurbs suggest this is another gee-whiz story about eccentric people having dashing adventures in the Alaska wilds. But “The Final Frontiersman” is something far more insightful and significant.

Heimo Korth came to Alaska in 1975, part of a wave of young men inspired by counterculture dreams of living off the land. Nearly all those back-to-nature boys backed out of the bush in short order. Some others died pursuing their vision, and a few killed themselves when the vision became a nightmare.

Heimo lost 50 pounds in his first two months in Alaska and nearly died twice his first fall alone in the wild. But he endured, learned and stayed, making a home in the southern section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, between the Brooks Range and the Porcupine River.

His story includes plenty of adrenalin-pumping wilderness adventure, from hypothermia to whale hunting. But what really sets The Final Frontiersman apart from other outdoors books is its candid heart and family focus.

Campbell is not only an experienced magazine writer, but also Heimo Korth’s cousin. After an initial rebuff, he eventually spent much of 2002 with the shy family at their cabins, visiting for weeks at a time during various seasons to develop a feel for life on the land. The book shows intimacy, affection and understanding of the family dynamics that probably would have been impossible for an outsider to attain.

For starters, Campbell already knew the unfortunate impetus for Heimo’s personal odyssey: a dysfunctional relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father. His early life followed a predictable trajectory toward boozing and dead-end factory jobs, until his keen love of the woods and woodcraft inspired him to escape northward.

His persistence and humility impressed Alaskans. Sourdough trappers, Native elders and friendly bush pilots mentored him. He became an Alaskan in a way that few people, even lifelong rural residents, still are as the 21st century begins.

His indissoluble bond with the Alaska landscape — the only wilderness large enough to patch the considerable hole in his heart and move his spirit — had already been established, Campbell tells us.

It was a grand and ultimately costly obsession.

The author describes the Korth family’s arduous but amiable lifestyle of tiny cabins, mosquito-infested summers and bone-chilling winters, and endless rounds of hauling water and hunting for meat for the table.

Interwoven with these descriptions, he flashes back to trace the lives of Heimo, his Yupik wife, Edna, and their teenage daughters, Rhonda and Krin. Settings include the remote Interior, the Bering Sea, Fort Yukon and Fairbanks. How a loner from Wisconsin came to marry a single mother from Savoonga makes for an unusual love story. Heimo and Edna’s fierce devotion to the land, each other and to their children shines through the narrative.

The Korths are luckier than most people in having found a love, a place and a life that stirs their souls. But they have not always been lucky in other ways, and their story contains heartbreak and disappointment alongside ambivalence and joy.

Campbell stresses their lives are not a rustic idyll from another century. He discusses the poverty, risks and maddening loneliness that afflict people so far from others.

One former trapper, Ron Bennett, told him, It was a lonely, hard-luck life, so goddamn reclusive. Looking back, it’s hard not to think that it was a colossal waste of time. I have a saying — the only guy dumber than a fisherman is a trapper. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t wish a woman would appear from the woods.

The author also notes that Korths, for all their devotion to a simple life, embrace modern conveniences that fit their attitudes. It is incongruous to picture them using a satellite phone to check e-mail messages from their traveling daughter.

[Heimo] struggles to keep it simple, but he feels no compulsion to fulfill anyone’s romantic notion of what he should be, Campbell says. Romantics never last long in the bush.

Campbell adds depth to the Korths’ story by thoughtfully exploring the context of their unusual lives. He includes Alaska history and vignettes about men and women whose lives parallel or touch the Korths’.

Most significantly, the author discussed the status and prognosis of the remote trapping lifestyle with an array of experienced Alaskans.

They conclude that the Korths are anachronisms. Only a handful of people still live so intimately with the land, and the lifestyle that once built our nation and our state is headed for extinction soon, they told him.

Campbell, who lives in Wisconsin, writes with ability and charm. In “The Final Frontiersman” he gives us an intensely personal and thought-provoking view of a vanishing life and sympathetic heroes. The book offers much to contemplate about what it means to live on the last frontier. It provides a darn good yarn, too.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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