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He left Wisconsin as a young man in 1975 and moved to Alaska, not to be famous or well known, but to live self sufficiently and get away from it all. But over time, Heimo Korth became a legend. Today, Heimo and his wife Edna live more remotely than anyone else in Alaska. They are the only permanent residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, having settled there just prior to its designation, and will almost certainly be the last.
Human settlement is no longer permitted in the refuge, and the Korths’ permit to live there expires with the death of their last daughter. A total of seven cabin permits exist in the Refuge, an area the size of the state of South Carolina, but the others only allow seasonal use for fur trapping.
Living 150 miles above the Arctic Circle, more than 100 miles from any sign of civilization, and 250 miles from the nearest road, some might think of Heimo as a crazy hermit. But not if you knew him. Heimo and Edna are friendly and inviting, social and fun. They just choose to live differently than most.
Life in the Arctic wilderness is the ultimate challenge. Every waking hour is spent preparing for winter, or surviving it. Food is scarce in this country, and the Korths must go far and wide to gather it. They hunt caribou, moose and small game, and gather plants, berries and roots. They catch fish in the nearby river. They cut mountains of firewood and haul water daily. To prevent overharvest of the scarce resources, they rotate between multiple cabins each year.
To supply the items they can’t get from the land, Heimo runs a trapline through the winter and sells fur pelts for cash. The main furbearers he targets are marten, lynx, wolverine and beaver. Between trapping and keeping warm, there’s no rest of the Korths, even in the dark days of the Alaskan winter.
Heimo is now in his 60’s, but has no plans of leaving his Arctic home. He hopes to die there. Living in a place where survival is a constant struggle, and work almost never stops, you’d think one might be tired and unhappy. But Heimo and Edna seem to be the some of the most truly satisfied people in the world. There’s something about hard work and living with a purpose that keeps one both physically and mentally satisfied, and the freedom of living on your own terms seems, at least to folks like Heimo, much more valuable than a good job and a retirement account.
The Korths first came into the spotlight when featured in a 1993 National Geographic documentary, “Braving Alaska”. A decade later, Heimo’s cousin, James Campbell, wrote “The Final Frontiersman”, a book about Korth’s unique life and journey (click here to find the book, audiobook or ebook on Amazon). More recently, Vice Magazine spent some time with the Korths and put together a documentary, “Heimo’s Arctic Refuge”. And finally, the TV show “The Last Alaskans” features Heimo and the other cabin permit holders in the refuge. All are well worth discovering; they paint a picture of a lifestyle most can only dream of.