Heimo Korth lives with his family in Alaska’s arctic wilderness. He’s the subject of author James Campbell’s book debut, a Krakauer-meets-McPhee-style portrait of family life in the bush. Because of the family’s particularly complicated existence, as well as encroaching environmental pressures, the book by turns reads like a selected history of the Alaskan pipeline and the domestic drama of a Midwestern man who escaped a mindless life of welding for the Alaskan interior—a sort of Daniel Boone for the modern reader.
Korth set out for Alaska from Appleton, Wisc., in the ’70s to recreate the life of early fur traders in the American West. He now “lives more remotely than any other person in Alaska” as one of only seven hunter-trappers with a permit to live in the 19.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Korth, his wife and two daughters live 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the only settlers for more than 500 miles (250 miles from the nearest road and another 300 miles to the nearest hospital in Fairbanks). Imagining the distance is truly daunting: “New York to Philadelphia; Chicago to Milwaukee; Los Angeles to San Diego—not a soul in between.”
Campbell carefully recreates a number of trips he made to the Alaskan interior specifically to document the day-to-day lives of Heimo, his wife Edna and their two teenage daughters, setting the accounts vividly against an intimidating background where temperatures may fall to 50 or even 60 below, albeit in a present tense that is somewhat awkward and tests the reader’s patience. Though present tense can lend immediacy to a narrative, in Campbell’s case it is too often clumsy and unrealistic. When relating his first night in the interior, a night that has reached nearly 30 below, the author writes:
“Despite the slap of cold, I linger outside my tent, amazed by the spectral colors of the aurora borealis (literally ‘dawn of the north’), charged by cosmic particles unable to escape the earth’s magnetic field. Radiant pinks, pulsating whites and luminous green light up the Alaskan night like the swirling phosphorescence of a Cape Cod bay after the sun has set. The northern lights dance, whirl and shimmer, then they fade. The Inland Eskimos of Anaktuvuk Pass call the aurora ‘spirit light,’ and I feel a sense of grace in this, my first night in the Interior.”
While the moment is certainly evocative, even sensuous in its details, the description and careful reflection undoubtedly came afterward, when the journalist was snug in his sleeping bag or at home in front of the computer. Slow, careful language in a foreign wilderness at 30 below is not a luxury the writer gets when using the present tense. Not only does it lend a trite romanticism to the moment, but it also serves to undermine the very careful objectivity Campbell later uses when detailing Heimo’s methods of trapping and skinning the fur-bearing animals that constitute the bulk of the family’s food and modest income.
Besides chronicling his own time with the Korth family, Campbell, who has written for National Geographic Adventure and Outside, sympathetically traces Heimo’s antagonism toward his father, Erich Korth, a reluctant and abusive German immigrant. He also deftly weaves Alaskan history into the family’s tale, showing how the recent influx of developers and ecotourists makes the trapping life “more of an anachronism with each passing year.”
Though Campbell effectively weaves these three parts into an enjoyably readable narrative, he never really manages to get into the mind of Heimo Korth himself—which, it would seem, is the whole point. Part of the problem is that for most of the narrative Campbell never seems to lose his awe of Heimo—who, by the way, is his cousin—and essentially treats his subject as a fan treats a rock star.
It is only toward the end of the book, in two instances, that Campbell goes beyond his legend-padding illustration of the Midwestern boy turned Alaskan trapper and begins to speculate as an objective observer. In the first instance, Campbell carefully—one might even say beautifully—recounts the tragedy of Edna’s and Heimo’s first daughter, who died in a canoeing accident and whose memory alternatively troubles and comforts the family. In the second instance, their second daughter, Rhonda, fails to successfully make the transition to high school in “civilization” (Appleton, Wisc.). “It was all too much for her: the freedom—it was the first time in her life that she was away from home for more than a few days, and she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes, after talking with her on the phone . . .it struck me that she was trying to sabotage her experience, trying to force her father’s hand, test his love.”
In both instances Campbell effectively debunks the romantic myth of the wilderness and begins to grasp Heimo’s powerful motivation for living the way he does; it is a motivation that goes beyond a simple inclination for the outdoors and beyond the alcoholic father who never understood. But because this kind of analysis happens too late in the biography, it is mostly ineffective, appearing almost as an afterthought.
By the mid ’70s, countercultural attitudes had impelled so many wilderness seekers to Alaska that writer John McPhee gave an account of them in his classic 1976 book Coming into the Country. And here James Campbell has written a worthy sequel, one that chronicles the extraordinary existence of a family that has carved out “a subsistence like no other.” But though The Final Frontiersman is written with vivid and sensitive detail, there remains a hole in the center of it—right where the frontiersman himself should be.