It’s impossible to watch Tyler Selden carry home a moose’s rib cage by wearing it like a backpack without thinking about the Oregon Trail. There’s an inevitable part of that computer game where you shoot a bunch of bison (because they’re the biggest, slowest targets), and the game then informs you that they’re too heavy to bring back with you. On The Last Alaskans, you watch Tyler and his wife Ashley haul massive, steaming hunks of moose back to their tiny cabin in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and you realize — that bison on Oregon Trail was not too heavy. The game characters just weren’t trying hard enough.
The Last Alaskans, which moved from Animal Planet to the Discovery Network in its second season, is now streaming its first season on Hulu. It follows several of the last remaining families who live in the Arctic Refuge. Some of them are older — Heimo Korth and his wife Edna, and Ray Lewis and his wife Cindy have adult children. Bob Harte is in a place where he has to confront the fact that living in the wilderness is no longer physically feasible. Tyler and Ashley Selden are younger, and talk about wanting to have children. The series is a part of that massive cohort of reality shows that ask the question: “Who are these people?”
However interesting or nuanced the portrayals end up being, for most reality shows, the first answer to that question is usually pretty simple. These people are celebrities, or polygamists, or obese, or unexpectedly pregnant, or wealthy, or from a large family, or addicts, or their closets are messy. For The Last Alaskans, the answer is a little harder to come by. These are people who choose to live out in the middle of an empty, frigid wilderness even though their 2-year-old daughter drowned there decades ago. They’re people who grew up in New Jersey and read Daniel Boone books, and based on that alone, decided to learn to live in the Arctic Refuge. These are people who live hundreds of miles from other humans, and who describe that life as “living in the woods,” which is quite the understatement.
So maybe there is actually an easy answer to the "who are these people" question: These people are crazy.
One of the many delights of the show is how different its participants’ version of craziness is from so many of the usual reality personalities. They proudly present their lives to the camera and speak reverently about what it takes to live “in the woods,” what their lives mean to them, and how closely they flirt with true, life-threatening danger. But there’s no interpersonal drama staged for the cameras, nasty fights, or sexual musical chairs. Even more palpably, while people like Heimo and Bob and Ray speak feelingly about how special their lives are, despite being on a reality show, there is zero discernible lust for fame. The opening credits note that cabin locations have been concealed for privacy, which is understandable for a group of people who crave solitude. (Who would, or even could, track down this cabin for the sake of reality tourism?)
The Last Alaskans is hardly the first reality show to take on an Alaskan premise. You start with Yukon Men, Alaskan Bush People, Alaska: The Last Frontier, Ice Road Truckers, and Deadliest Catch, and by the time you get to Alaskan Women Looking for Love, the idea that there are more reality shows per capita set in Alaska than anywhere else starts to seem quite plausible. It is as alien a place as Americans can watch that still feels like a part of ourselves; maybe it’s a bit like that weird moment of disconnection when you stare at a limb that’s fallen asleep – you know it’s a part of you, but it doesn’t seem that way. It’s ideal reality fodder: Everything is simultaneously familiar and completely foreign. (Plus, until last year, when you filmed in Alaska there were great tax credits.)
I’m not sure that the huge body of other Alaskan reality shows is the best context for The Last Alaskans, though. It’s a quiet show. (In season two, sadly, there has been a very slight increase in dramatic bass lines to accompany big hunting scenes.) There’s no narration, and not a whole lot happens. Tyler Selden’s moose is far and away the biggest, most gripping moment in the first several episodes of season two; the other candidate, Bob Harte’s decision to leave the woods, is less dramatic than it is tragically inevitable. Eventfulness on The Last Alaskans is more about process than actual incident. How to set a net for salmon, how to gather moss to insulate a cabin, how to hunt for duck, which berries to pick, where to set a snare for lynx — it’s less like a reality show than it is like one of the slowly, plotlessly delicious how-to guides of middle-grade frontier fiction: Little House on the Prairie, My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet.
More than the dramatics-free episodes, the quiet and otherworldly lives these crazy people choose is the thing about The Last Alaskans that feels most unusual. It feels so unlike other reality shows because its sparseness, naked ideology, and process-focused stories allow you to imagine yourself in the cabin. Like those memorable, formational frontier texts for kids, The Last Alaskans lets you watch for several seconds as Heimo carefully rubs his moose-skin boots in the morning to loosen all of the hairs and give them traction. “Ah,” you think. “Good tip.”
In this way, it’s more like a cooking show, where you watch a chef making an elaborate lamb roast with ingredients you’ll never buy. It’s fascinating to learn about the physical realities of another life, especially when you yourself are watching people freeze at 50-degrees-below while you sit on a sofa watching TV. But lest you forget how mad these intrepid people really are, The Last Alaskans regularly couples its brilliantly tangible small practicalities (an animal’s shin bone rubbed against a tree makes a good moose call) with reverent, almost religious statements about what it takes to live this life. “We just live in a good place, a rich place,” Selden says, describing his frigid, exhausting haul of salmon. “It’s beautiful,” says Harte, as he packs up to leave with his health fading. “And the freedom to do what you want — I wouldn’t want to lose that. I can’t lose that.”
Or, as Heimo Korth says about the very tops of trees, “Even like in big cities and that, like in New York and Central Park, there’s a place that no human’s ever been, and that’s a lot of the tree tops, the very tips. It’s only birds and bugs going there. That’s it.” In its straightforwardness, understatement, and naked lust for empty space, it’s as apt a description of The Last Alaskans as any.