Interview and Video: Director of VBS.tv's "Heimo's Arctic Refuge" On the Most Far Out Americans
Survivalism may be going mainstream, what will all the new cave men and off-gridders. But for Heimo and Edna Korth, survival in the wild has been a way of life for three decades. The last humans to be living in the 19.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and living 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, they are quite possibly the most remote Americans.
As debate lingers over their backyard's role in America's energy future, the Korth's remain mostly detached from civilization, hunting and trapping to survive and taking real pleasure in their natural solitude. But hardships abound: they have had to cope with bears, frigid temperatures, and the loss of their daughter, in a tragic canoeing accident.
In "Heimo's Arctic Refuge," the must-see first episode of VBS.tv's new series Far Out, "the last frontiersman" comes across as a complex, somewhat contradictory figure, and not exactly the "gun-toting, park-hating anti-animal rights trapper with a soft side" described in James Campbell's 2004 book. You can watch the five-part film at VBS or above. (Disclosure: I work at Motherboard, a sister site to VBS.tv.)
Back in Brooklyn, I spoke with David Feinberg, the director of the documentary, about the process of making a film on nature's edge, gaining the trust of the last frontiersmen, and the pleasures of moose heart -- and the occasional Alaskan movie-night.
Treehugger: Something smells a little funny in here.
David Feinberg: Yeah, everyone keeps saying it's stuffy. I think it's because of a 24-hour editing session I did for a recent project. But I've been looking for any dead animals that might have crawled in somewhere. Once after a week of a bad smell, I finally found a dead mouse. It was caught behind my computer, in the cables.
Maybe now that you've lived in the wilderness you can build your own mouse trap next time. That bear that Heimo killed - it really smelled. What was that like?
The smell of the bear was like the world's worst fart combined with the smell of something dead.
It probably wasn't as tough as the cold...
Well, we went when winter was just setting in. And it was unseaonably warm, around 10 and 20 degrees [above freezing]. There were no blizzards, and it didn't get super frigid.
What did Heimo say about the unusual warmth?
He liked it. But this is also a guy who said, "cold is nothing." He obviously doesn't like going out to check his traps at negative 40 but he does it. But what he really doesn't like is the deep snow. In the winter he checks his trap lines every 3 days, traveling around 10km each time. When the snow is deep, he uses a snowmobile.
What were some of your major questions going into this project?
How do you make a story about somebody and the conditions they live in, and spend enough time with them to capture that existence? How do you go into that situation and try to make a narrative out of that, not knowing exactly what you'd capture? This was proved by the fact that we didn't capture any caribou on film. We were hunting for four days, and the third part of the documentary is about being a nomadic hunter, and there we were, searching for caribou and not seeing one in the camera lens even.
We figured that ten days would be long enough to lose track of living in New York, and understand what life was like for Heimo and Edna. To really portray his life, it would require staying with him through the winter months, seeing what trapping is like, through the most severe and dangerous climate conditions. And also see what his liveliehood is based on. A couple months ago he sent us a text message saying it was negative 60 degrees. He takes real pride in that sort of thing. His daughters had been visiting him a week before we came, and they had reset his thermometers from last winter. He was a bit disappointed because he wanted to prove to us that it had been negative 62 degrees.
There was clearly a lot more to capture about their life out there. Heimo's own story sounds fascinating, even if it wasn't the focus of the piece.
The focus of the show is about people living in unique and extreme conditions. We captured what life was like. If you were there for all four seasons, you'd have a lot of material for that kind of focus. We were there enough time to get into their day-to-day rhythms. From that starting point, their life story cuts in and out of the piece.
There's plenty more to be caught though, and it could definitely be a different story. There was so much more that we did capture that was hard to fit in.
There was a lot more about his character. There was a scene that isn't in there in which he's cutting the rabbit fur and putting it around the door. They really use every useable part of every animal they kill, they eat parts you wouldn't expect. Beaver tail, caribou brain, moose nose. That's their real delicacy, moose nose. It was the one piece of meat they wouldn't share with us.
How did you guys like the menu?
Heimo and Edna's biggest concern was us being picky eaters. They had a documentary crew out there seventeen years ago - though they talk about it like it was yesterday - and they didn't inspire much confidence about us. But we loved it. My favorite food out there was the caribou steak cooked over an open flame. It was not the most exotic thing we ate--we had moose heart and caribou liver. But it was all just so solid. I have stomach problems, but I never had an issue. We were eating the most organic, free range meat on the planet. It was frozen in their yard, and it never touches a plate. It doesn't even touch a kitchen. He just saws and cooks it and we eat it right off the grille. It was the best food I ever had in my life.
Did Heimo and Edna get cravings for, you know, more sophisticated food?
Well they eat other things, yeah. On the first day, I mentioned to Edna that I wouldn't mind helping with the food. I told her I could make omelets. And the next morning. Heimo was already chopping vegetables and ham and cheese. Edna told him I could make them, and he popped out of bed early and started working on it. He'd been wanting omelets for so long.
Is that how you guys won him him over?
Once we convinced him we weren't picky eaters and weren't fat and out of shape, he trusted us enough to let us come out there, without even ever having seen anything on VBS, without really knowing who we were. It took many days to fully earn his trust, but by the first night he was disarmed by the fact that we were so young. When he realized we had a young persons' attitude, I think he kind of related to that. In some ways he has a very youthful attitude too, and he realized that compared to other film crews, none of us had an ego, or were focused on making sure that the shooting or camera positions came first. He also respected that we didn't try to stage anything. Our emphasis was on being with them, experiencing their lifestyle, and not letting the camera or filming get in the way.
But he still hasn't seen the piece. I'm definitely looking forward to that because he's a big movie critic.
I was amused by his DVD collection. When and how will he see the doc?
In Fort Yukon or in Fairbanks. They spend their time in Fort Yukon in the summer. They go there for a month or so to escape the mosquitoes, and to go into town and see their friends.
It was a little surprising to me that a couple of hermits so cut off from civilization manage to be so friendly. Were you guys expecting that?
Our expectations were of a hermit-type guy, a very intimidating, larger-than-life figure, based on the book [James Campbell's "The Final Frontiersman"], based on thinking about who this person is, and the mythological aspect of being "the Final Frontiersman."
Even so, he lives a life that is somewhere far from that of the nomadic hunter and much closer to somebody who lived this way 100 years ago. He is also not afraid to embrace things that modern times have brought -- DVDs, gas-powered generators, sat phones. Even though his ideology is focused around living off the land, he somehow finds a happy medium, and is not pretentious about being totally cut off. He's the first to admit he needs bush planes to bring him reinforcements.
And he clearly values human interaction.
Yes. He talks about how he couldn't be out there alone. Even though he likes to be away from civilization, he still needs other people. I think Edna is essential to him. And he's essential to her. And they have a very interesting relationship that is deserving of a whole separate movie. Their relationship itself, their story is a whole different feature film. I'd like to make a feature film about how they met and how they came out there. The Heimo Korth story, starring Bill Murray?
Everyone says he reminds them of Bill Murray.
Ah. Perhaps the Life Aquatic Bill Murray. What did you learn about Heimo's particular ideology?
He wants a lifestyle free from the burdens of civilization, and that includes politics. The way his ideology is portrayed in the movie, that's partly how he sees himself. Even if some of what he says is at odds with being connected to civilization. I don't think we call into question those contradictions as opposed to portraying what his life is like.
He wants less taxes, less laws. The less government, the better. It's partly a libertarian attitude. He's not a Republican or Democrat. In some ways he's really conservative, but in some ways he wants some kind of health insurance really badly.
How do Heimo and Edna manage to stay connected to what's happening in the world? It's kind of amazing that they still haven't seen any footage of September 11.
They have their [shortwave] radio. And they talk to their girls over the sat phone.
What were some of the challenges for you personally?
We wanted to portray him min a way that had dimension and we wanted to get him to open up. But we also had to rely on him for our survival. If any one had any kind of accident, we would have needed to wait to be air lifted out of there.
Even the flight itself was very scary. Bush planes have also been known as flying coffins. Each of us on the crew had his own anxieties. I dealt with that by trying to focus on bringing enough batteries and charging them. I brought an extra camera and enough batteries for the microphones to last four months.
Once when he was young, Heimo dealt with being on the brink of starvation. Once a bear came into the yard and ate their dog alive, and there was a time when Heimo fell through the ice. One time, Heimo and his daughter got caught in the snow because their snowmobile got stuck.
And of course, there was the loss of their daughter. You'd think it would have been due to some kind of arctic blizzard or a bear attack, but it was just a tree log blocking their canoe as they were floating down the river. It goes to show how arbitrary the circumstances of their lives are, dealing with Mother Nature, the elements of the climate and the animal life around them.
Heimo seemed like he had tapped deeply into his hunter-gatherer psyche.
The guy does have animal instincts. You might say in some ways he's primitive because he builds these primitive traps. But you know in a way, he's one of the most advanced life forms I've met. He's got incredible hearing and vision when he's out surveying the land, and he can see better because his senses are heightened. He knows how to pick out a moose or a pack of of caribou in a forest two miles away. When I think about how he's living a primitive lifestyle, I'm also thinking about his human attributes by far surpass anyone in our urban society.
What do you think drove him and Edna to be out there? What keeps him there?
He's not out there because he's a survivalist, but because for him it's a way of life. It would be fascinating to make a feature film about his life and the reasons why he's so compelled to escape society He's not a survivalist, but a survivalist by omission I suppose. By default.
But he is also somebody who spent his childhood in Wisconsin and is a big fan of Fleetwood Mac. As much as he might talk about leaving civilization behind, it's not like he has to leave behind the trappings. He's not hunting for his meat with a bow, he's using traps and ammunition. He's living a modern lifestyle. It just happens to be one that doesn't exist anymore. And it's one that will not exist in that large region after they die. He was pretty certain that their daughters will not take up after them.
Are they proud to be the last?
I don't think they set out to be the last of anything. When they moved out there, it wasn't designated as a wildlife refuge. They didn't want legacy or even fame.
They seem to have everything they need.
The money they have goes a long way. They pretty much wear the same set of clothes. They have to supplement their meat with a few staples that are brought in by plane. They need guns, ammo, and traps. But their life is pretty bare bones. A snare might be expensive but if it lasts for ten years, it's cheap enough. Oil is very expensive though. They use it for the snowmobile and the generator, and the chainsaw and the kerosene lamp.
Speaking of which, what else did Heimo say about drilling in ANWR?
Heimo and Edna rely on gasoline to survive. Heimo wouldn't be able to check his traps in the brutal winter and deep snow without his snowmachine. He was specific in insisting that his snowmachine was not a snow "mobile" and that it's not for recreational purposes whatsoever. But he does need it to trap and sometimes for tracking and hunting caribou from a distance. That's just one example of their need for gas.
But Heimo has his own self-professed theory of mankind that is elaborated in the middle of the film. He believes that man was better of as a nomadic hunter rather than as a farmer. Despite all the luxuries, gasoline included, that are afforded to modern man, Heimo sees the longevity of the species, and the true nature of humans, is connected to its time as nomadic hunters. Once we became farmers, we started to overpopulate the planet and drain its resources.
As far as drilling in ANWR goes -- and he has a very serious stake in what happens there, especially considering it's his backyard -- he looks at the issue through a much longer lens. He's pretty certain the reserve of oil in ANWR isn't enough to make drilling viable, but even if it was, he still reminds us that in a few hundred years, our reliance on oil will likely have depleted it from the earth. You could probably say Heimo has a bit of an overly-mythological inclination when talking about his theory of the nomadic hunter, but I'd say he's really practical or realistic when it comes to the earth. He wasn't strongly anti-drilling, either. For him, it's not a short-term political issue.
You can tell how Heimo and Edna take real pleasure in this land. How do they deal with the tedium of being in the wilderness?
As boring and isolated as it feels, they avoid loneliness and cabin fever, by keeping extraordinarily busy. There's always something to be done. He always knows what day of the week it is, constantly checks the weather and definitely has his own routine. As isolated and far removed as they are, on some level, as incomparably large as their backyard is, they also live in cabin in the woods. The vastness of the landscape always surrounds them but they live in a house. It depends on who are you. To some people it would be terrifying. The vastness makes them feel safe.
But Heimo loves good food. And crossword puzzles, and playing Tetris on his Game Boy. And he loves above all the feeling of being able to provide food for him and his family. And as much as he talked about how going to the supermarket doesn't give you the same feeling, and having someone else kill and make your food for you isn't as fulfilling, he told us the first thing we had to do when we got back to Fairbanks was go to College Town Pizza.