I started watching a reality television show called “Alaska: The Last Frontier” a few years back. It centers around the Kilcher clan, two brothers and their respective families, and it chronicles their lives on their homestead just outside Homer, Alaska. All of the show’s stars are presented as rugged outdoors-people, living hard lives exclusively off the land. They hunt, fish and raise domestic animals for their meat. During the short growing season they preserve hundreds of pounds of vegetables to last through the long, hard Alaskan winters. Of course the show specializes in those particularly dramatic scenes suggesting dire and grave consequences from the family’s daily trials and tribulations. While not necessarily the inspiration for my trip, the show certainly enhanced my interest in our 49th state.
I visited Homer this week. And I deliberately made the drive out to the Kilcher place just to see it for myself. As you might expect, it wasn’t quite what the show portrayed it to be. The Kilchers live among several large subdivision lots just northeast of town. There is a family trust that includes access to public lands for grazing rights and like everyone else here they have free access to thousands upon thousands of acres for hunting, trapping and foraging. But the Kilchers don’t exactly live in isolation either. In fact, there’s even a pizza place just a mile or so from their homestead… Locals have unofficially and affectionately dubbed it “the Kilcher winter hunting grounds.” I did have a chance to speak to a few local folks after my pilgrimage. The Kilchers are well liked in the community; after all they certainly do their part to encourage tourism. And they seem to be well respected too. The family does live largely off the land, but this is mainly out of respect for history and tradition if not out of any particular necessity. It isn’t unusual to catch one or two of them in town buying groceries… I must admit, I think I like the real story even more than that which is presented weekly on the Discovery Channel.
Isn’t that usually the way of it? This is why I enjoy traveling the way I do. Instead of an experience limited to the sanitized (and often sensationalized) narrative of a tour operator, my experience is one of slow and long-term immersion.
I have borne witness to majestic snow-clad mountains, abundant wildlife, and the rugged individualism of this last and resplendent frontier. But beyond the edges of the postcard exists a more typical reality of everyday people living everyday lives, people who don’t consider themselves particularly Alaskan, but just people.
Yes, they often live hard lives up here in the land of the midnight sun, and there is abundant pride of place. But they still like to drink a beer and chat up anyone who is actually interested in hearing a more real version of reality than popular culture might be willing to portray. That’s my brand of reality.
Check out all the new uploads in the gallery. And until next time…
Viva la vida Bohemia!