The Universal Notebook: Fantasies of Alaska

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Sometimes it seems as though all Alaskans have their own reality TV show.

There’s “Life Below Zero,” “The Last Alaskans,” “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” “Alaskan Bush People,” and “Port Protection,” just to name the ones I watch. Then there’s “Bering Sea Gold,” “The Deadliest Catch,” and “Ice Road Truckers,” the ones I don’t.

The appeal of these pioneer lifestyle series is that most 21st century Americans are totally divorced from the need to hunt and gather food beyond the aisles of Hannaford and Shaw’s. We buy into the romantic fantasy of rugged individualists living free, self-reliant, and independent, far from the social safety net of the nanny state. I have to keep reminding myself that reality TV isn’t really real.

I readily admit that if you dropped me off in the middle of Alaska I’d be dead in a couple of days, probably frozen stiff or eaten by a bear. Maybe both. I have no survival skills beyond words and you can’t start a fire with invective, or reason with a grizzly.

That’s why I have often thought that I should have a bumper sticker printed that reads, “If the world is coming to an end take me to Mahoosuc Guide Service.” Having canoed the Allagash and gone dogsledding on Richardson Lake with co-owner Polly Mahoney, I am convinced that if anyone in Maine survives a nuclear winter it will be Polly and her partner in the guide service, Kevin Slater.

Polly spent 10 years living in the Yukon bush and that’s Polly and her dog team in the opening scenes of the film “Never Cry Wolf.” She’s got the survival skills to make it anywhere.

As much as I admire can-do people, however, the whole homesteading thing leaves me cold. The Alaskans on TV trumpet the value of doing everything for themselves, but it does not escape notice that most of them own more stuff than a public works department. And because they can’t run to Home Depot for parts, most of them have unsightly junk piles rusting away in their little piece of paradise. 

I may be pathetically dependent on consumer capitalism, but at least my lifestyle does not require dogs, dog sleds, snowmobiles, backhoes, bulldozers, a fleet of boats, a sawmill, a generator, a fish wheel, an arsenal, a tangle of nets and animal traps, and a string of cabins to support it. Those folks aren’t free. They’re slaves to food and firewood. 

And while the televised Alaskans may live in remote places, they have film crews following them night and day and they get paid a living wage as reality TV stars. 

My “Life Below Zero” favorite is Agnes Hailstone, a relentlessly chipper Inupiaq woman with a felon for a husband and a tent full of lovely daughters. But the most interesting of the latter-day hermits was Glenn Villeneuve, son of a wealthy Vermont lumber dealer, who lived in a cabin no bigger than an outhouse without the benefit of snowmachine or sled dogs. He just tramped around the Brooks Range shooting caribou and moose with his Ruger 30-06 equipped with scope and suppressor.  

When I saw Villeneuve hike to the top of a mountain and then soar down to a frozen lake on his paragliding wing, I realized this wasn’t something a man alone in the wild would do. “Life Below Zero” producers soon decided Villeneuve didn’t fit their survivalist formula and cut him loose.

He wasn’t struggling to survive. He was having way too much fun in Alaska.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.