I watch a fair amount of nature shows and documentaries but lately I've been totally captivated by one called The Last Alaskans. I've never quite seen anything like it. This may be the quietest TV show ever made. Only The Yule Log has less dialogue. Somehow this eight-episode "docuseries" from Animal Planet manages to create the same ruminative, even meditative, state of mind as staring into a fire while being infinitely more fascinating. The Last Alaskans is about people who live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 19 million acres of wilderness in northern Alaska. As the opening sequence explains, the U.S. government banned new human occupation in the refuge in 1980 and only seven families remain—their permits will run out when their youngest children pass away. It has been accurately been described as "hypnotic" and "cinematographic" but that's really only a small part of why it's so unique: this is reality TV that actually manages to reveal something amazing and powerful about people and wilderness.
The format of The Last Alaskans is recognizable—the show’s producers weave back and forth between characters, splicing in interviews and the characters' commentary to build narrative in each episode. But the story lines are unrecognizable from any show out there. They are about judging the integrity of new ice, setting trap lines, tracking caribou and wolves, the psychology of solitude, hunting animals, scarcity, the change of seasons, and the nature of change itself. We meet Heimo and Edna Korth, a tender couple who raised four daughters in refuge, as they begin their 40th year living in a one-room cabin and hunting and gathering food. We follow Ray Lewis, tall, mustachioed and in possession of a quietly philosophical nature, trapping beaver to help his family through the winter. And we meet Bob Harte, the oldest of the group at 65, whose struggles with aging coincide with a string of misfortunes—an invading bear, a bush-plane crash–that threaten his cherished-isolation and freedom. These aren’t the stable of freaks (Alaskan Bush People), hippies (The Legend of Mick Dodge), or adrenalin junkies (Running Wild with Bear Grylls) presented to us in wilderness shows by television networks attempting to grab viewers. These are people who have chosen lives of solitude so far from our own, so astonishingly different in their day-to-day concerns, that it will make you look anew at your trip to a grocery store or car ride down the freeway. The Last Alaskans immerses us in a world without roads or stores or media, and in the process reveals how far modern society has departed from a mode of existence directly dependent on nature.
Because this is a reality TV show there is still the predictable creative editing and sound design intended to build drama and tension into scenes and the infrequent flashbacks. But for the most part there’s a remarkable amount of restraint. This might be because the risks of encountering winter bears or crashing a bush plane don’t really need to be fabricated. They’re real enough on their own. “It’s easy to die up here,” says Harte in Episode Two, “everything else is work.” The exquisite visual aesthetic of The Last Alaskans is remarkable too. The episodes are full of long shots and slow-motion close-ups. The camera people, who spent five months filming, capture images of shadows on sandbars or pike thrashing in the air. There are stunning aerial shots and what's communicated is the starkness of the Arctic landscape, its incredible changes in light, and overwhelming quiet. More about this quiet: a few episodes in, I began to notice that nearly everybody seems to have some sort of vocal tic—a faint stutter, a halting cadence. This struck me as strange until it occurred to me that what all the characters have in common is they probably don't talk a lot. Whole scenes The Last Alaskans are frequently conducted in hushed whispers. Lewis describes how it takes several weeks for his ears to stop vibrating after returning to the refuge from "town."
One of the show’s unforgettable scenes takes place in Episode Five, when Tyler Selden, a young man who came to the refuge six years ago with his wife, catches a lynx in a trap. When Selden reaches it, the animal is snared but not dead. The cat’s back is arched, its teeth bared, it’s almost shockingly wild and alive. Selden kills it by strangling it with a wire noose on the end of a birch pole. It’s almost unbearable to watch but the camera never flinches. It’s one of the most honest things I’ve seen on television at a time when nature shows abound but rely on anthropomorphizing (Meerkat Manor) or sensationalizing (World’s Deadliest Animals). “It’s just part of it. I mean, I just killed an animal, right?” says Selden after. “A lot of people would feel bad about that…it’s a heavy thing to do. It’s not something I enjoy." The show repeatedly returns to this subject as if challenging our distaste as well as our hypocrisy. And we get the benefit of hearing the moral logic of individuals who have chosen to make explicit their dependence on animals for survival by killing them with their own hands. “It’s not the pursuing or the killing of the game that makes me happy,” says Lewis in Episode One. “It just gives you a perspective how everything is connected together. You have to study the terrain, the country, you really have to study the habits of the animals, you get to the point where, you know, you’re a part of it.”
I think the real reason I fell so hard for this show is it made me reconsider a long-held assumption that television about nature mediates our experience of the real thing to great detriment. The Last Alaskans is still a mediated experience but it gets a lot right that other nature shows barely attempt. Rather than distort or degrade a natural landscape by packaging it to fit into human dramas, The Last Alaskans is all about showing humans trying to fit themselves into a landscape impossibly bigger than them. The thoughtfulness and skill required to survive in the refuge is truly impacting to watch, you start feeling grateful that these folks let you in for a little bit.
The fact that these are indeed some of the very few remaining individuals who will live in this place is powerful. It reminded me that while delineating wilderness from civilization and protecting it from its impacts is good conservation, much is also lost when the vital relationships between people and wilderness are severed. "I hope this life doesn't go extinct,' says Bob Harte in Episode Eight. In James Campbell's' book about Heimo Korth, The Final Frontiersman, he writes: "The Arctic is a wilderness, but it has been inhabited for perhaps as long as 10,000 years by descendants of those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge. Modern definitions of wilderness won't allow for the presence of people, however; in fact, they demand their absence."