The Final Frontiersman by James Campbell

I live in Wisconsin so one of our winter sports is discovering what might be a possible relief from the deep cold.  How about reading an account of the life of Heimo Korth and his family who lived alone in the Alaskan arctic wilderness refuge? 

Campbell is Korth’s cousin and as an adventure and outdoor writer, he became interested in interviewing his relative who had left Wisconsin as a young man to become an outdoorsman.  Fired by a desire to escape his father and to use the skills he acquired in the woods of Wisconsin, Korth moved to Alaska in the period of the late 60s and early 70s when there was a movement afoot to live off the land as a nature intended.  The puzzlement of this book is did nature intend to have anyone live off the land Korth chose:  the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Campbell chooses to tell this story with a distorted timeframe.  He bends it, showing Korth’s Wisconsin roots in a dysfunctional family, his career as a solo adventurer in the wild leading to his marriage where he proves to be a loving father willing to sacrifice all for his children.  This mixing of stories over a landscape that does not see change makes each story more meaningful because the reader realizes quickly the relentless power is the environment itself. 

Having a family is rather important for these loners because when your nearest neighbor is over one hundred miles away as the crow flies over the tundra, suicide is a common practice.  In fact, this area is so remote that your best friends become a knife and some matches.  The number one lesson learned from this book is that in this environment, anything can kill you.  The Korths learn this lesson the hard way. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this family life to me was discovering that their two girls, raised in the remotest part of our country, listen to rap music and compose their own songs.  While their education is important to the parents (how it is accomplished is another fascinating revelation) the gas for the generator is not going to be “wasted” running a cast off laptop from the Alaska school. 

How odd that this issue of energy be raised for its loneliest residents while the Arctic Reserve’s oil deposits are in demand by the rest of the country.  The sad fact that Campbell reveals is that all the oil that would be pumped out of this pristine wilderness would only amount to 2% of what we consume on a daily basis. 

Campbell calls Korth “The Puzzle,” saying that he is “a gun-toting, park-hating, anti-animal-rights trapper with a soft side.”  Perhaps the quote from Dan Ross, a former wildlife refuge manager, nails Korth even better:  “Heimo’s the only full-time trapper left in the refuge who’s still living off the land.” 

As the book ends, ecotourism is bringing more people to the territory and making it less of a wilderness for Korth and his family.  There are so many ironies contained in this tale that it would seem any book group could find plenty to discuss with this title.  Combine it with John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and the movie Into the Wild and there will be an abundance of wilderness to explore.   



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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