The New HGTV: Hunter-Gatherer Life in Alaska’s ANWR




As part of my ongoing obsession for Arctic adventures, I've been watching everything I can get my eyeballs on about high latitudes. In the service of this, I stumbled upon Flying Wild Alaska. Between my nostalgia for the few years I spent growing up in Alaska and real people who are more fun than you could script, I powered through the first season back-to-back-to-back. One of the episodes features a flight to the cabin of Heimo Korth (and family), the last people to live in ANWR year-round. As you might imagine, a cabin surrounded by slabs of meat swinging in the breeze piqued my interest. In some follow-up, I discovered a series on the Korth family by Vice Magazine of all places. I eagerly await their DOs and DONTs ANWR edition, but until then, the full series is below.

Heimo's stated motivations are specifically related to (re)connecting with our food. In fact, he waxes philosophical about the impact of civilization and agriculture on the quality of life for humans. There's also some seemingly random comments implying an intuitive optimal foraging theory. That said, he's certainly no bastion of "paleo" or self-sufficiency in the most absolute sense.

For all of the talk about living off the land and escaping agri-industrial society, he's stocked up on myriad things like brand name pancake mix, oatmeal, and salad dressing. Perhaps most curiously, amidst the context, he kills bears, keeps the skins, and leaves the meat to rot. No explanation for the waste of hundreds of pounds of meat is given. This really struck me as odd, particularly because bear is good eatin'. Adding to the silliness of the waste, most of the time in the video is spent trapping, hunting, and fishing because they don't have as much meat as they need to get through the winter. So... Heimo will be spending hours every day -- during the winter months when the sun never rises -- to trap for small game to continue to gather meat, while bears rot within walking distance.

The polar opposite of HGTV (Home & Garden Television) and HGTV (Hunter-Gatherer Television) is not lost on me. Multiple levels of puns intended.

While watching this, and hearing Heimo speak about getting away from civilization, I couldn't help but think about the demise of frontier that served to check hierarchical domination throughout human evolution. The creation of ANWR in 1980 removed 19,286,722 acres of some of the last frontier on the planet from human habitation. While the habitat is harsh, it's clearly not too harsh for humans. Aside from the Korth family, Inupiat and other natives still live in the area.

Another thing I wondered about is the issue of heritage. The "civilized" peoples tend to look at hunter-gatherers as relics of the past, and somehow among the other. However, as Heimo reminds us, we're all descended from a long line of hunter-gatherers. The notion of being "grandfathered in" on the basis of heritage seems like an ethical problem -- for those individuals among us who would be happy to return to the heritage we all share.