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Part Three of Four: Heimo the Celebrity 6/15/2004

One evening, Heimo and Edna’s girls, Rhonda and Krin were over at our house visiting with me and Steph- but mostly Steph. Whenever Rhonda and Krin were at our place for a while, Edna would often come over, looking for her girls, and she would end up staying to visit. Eventually Heimo would come over looking for his wife and then end up staying to visit as well. This was a pattern that repeated itself with some regularity, and we were glad because we enjoyed all of their company. On this particular evening all four of them were over and they were telling us about what they refer to as “up home” where the girls have lived most of their lives. They were telling us stories about how they spend their time and how they make their way being so isolated for most of the year. They each told their stories with a kind of nostalgia that told us that they missed being “up home.” Then the girls told us about a video that was made some years ago about them and asked us if we wanted to come over to their house and watch it. Heimo rolled his eyes and groaned at the idea of watching “that damn thing” again. It turns out that when the girls’ ages were in the singe digits (they are now fourteen and eighteen), National Geographic Explorer sent a film crew to their place and filmed a documentary about this family. The film was called Braving Alaska, narrated by Martin Sheen, and was an interesting look at their life. There were two other families featured in the film as well: two families that, according to Heimo, are no longer living in the bush, but have moved in to the city since the film was made. The next day, I got on the internet to look for this video. I figured it might be interesting to own a copy. I entered his name in to Google and retrieved more than 500 hits (the number has since doubled). I found the video right away, but I found other things as well. I found an article written by him that was published in (if you can believe this kind of thing exists) a trade journal about trapping. It was like any other academic journal where he had written a paper with a title like “The No. 5 Snare: Its Usage and Merit,” or something like that. But the most intriguing thing I found was a book about Heimo that had not at that time come out. It was scheduled to be released in mid May. I couldn’t believe that this guy had a book written about him. I pre-ordered the book on Amazon.com and told Stephanie about what I had found. At that time we were still getting to know Heimo, but one thing we had already learned was that he liked his privacy. I didn’t think I could just go up to him and ask about this book. So we waited. Eventually, I think one of the girls told Stephanie about the book, and then maybe Stephanie asked Edna. Finally Heimo brought up the book one evening, and once he began to talk about it, the book became a regular topic of conversation. We asked him about the whole process of the book's coming to be. His stories were fascinating, and we were all growing impatient to see the finished product in print. The day my copy arrived from Amazon.com I called him and told him, and in less than a full minute he was in our living room looking at it. He had not yet seen a finished copy.

The book was a surprisingly good read. It told about Heimo’s background and the life he has made for himself and his family in the Alaskan outback. It was strange to read an intimate account of this man’s life when we were just beginning to become friends. Our knowledge of him and his family has leap-frogged over their knowledge of us, but we hope to catch them up. This coming August, Stephanie and I will be chartering a bush pilot to fly us north to the Korth's cabin on the Coleen river for about ten days. Stephanie and I have talked about flying into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a number of times, and this is the most ideal opportunity to do so and visit our friends at the same time. You can read more about Heimo in the book about his experiences in Alaska, The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness by James Campbell. It available on Amazon.com and should be in bookstores everywhere. The June edition of Field and Stream magazine has an excerpt from the book and a handful of good pictures of Heimo. Check it out!

One of the things we had heard about since the moment we arrived in Alaska was the drama that surrounded the thawing of the Yukon River in the late spring. Everyone calls it ‘break-up’ because the thick slabs of ice that cover the river finally break in to pieces the size of the typical house foundation and float down the river. These pieces crash and grind against each other with deep booming sounds. The river is at its yearly high at break-up and steadily diminishes all year. The gouging and digging work of the ice causes significant changes to the river each year, and the potential for flooding is always the greatest at this time. If the ice jams up and doesn’t flow down smoothly, the river can run across the county flooding it for miles. I’ve been told that in the sixties, the military would send over fighter bombers to bomb the ice jams in the river to prevent flooding in Fort Yukon. How wild it would have been to see fighters flying over and bombing the river. As the river begins to recede, some of the large chunks of ice are stranded on the banks and sand bars of the river. These slabs and chunks remain until they finally melt away in the sun, their deep blue cross sections exposed to view.

Shortly after break up the geese return to the arctic. People around here get very excited when the geese are flying. That is one of the sure signs of spring’s return. People talk about it. They stand at the post office and greet each other with “Geese are comin’.” When the geese come, attendance at school drops. Everyone heads out to their favorite spot to hunt the migratory ducks and geese that fly in by the tens of thousands. Some of those spots are not very far out of town. For the two or three weeks that the ducks and geese were passing through, we could hear distant and not-so-distant shotgun blasts at all hours of the day and night. These same birds that spend the summers on the north slope of Alaska are migrating up from East Texas, Louisiana and northern Mexico where they spend the winters. Some people go out on the river to stake out a place to hunt them. In one day, Heimo went out on the river with another buddy of his. In that one day, Heimo and his buddy shot fifty-six geese! When they got home that evening they had a regular plucking party. Stephanie and I went over to pitch in and found eight people crouching around a tarp spread on the ground. Each person had a goose and was plucking away. The mound of feathers was huge.

The following Saturday, the Korths were wanting to take full advantage of the short migratory season and were ready go get more geese. When they invited us to go along we were thrilled to go. We went about an hour downriver on Heimo’s boat and stopped on a large sand bar in the middle of the river. It was actually more of a glacial silt bar instead of sand. This is the very finest milky-gray silt and it is very easy to sink calf deep into the muck. This bar was probably four or five acres in size and was strewn with these ice slabs that were remnants of break up. They were melting but still prodigious in size. Stephanie and I found one of those house-foundation-sized slabs that had split down the middle. The crack had melted away enough for me and her to stand between the two halves. It was like a WWI trench and it was a perfect blind from both directions. While we watched the skies and waited, we did see a few trumpeter swans as big as goats fly past, and a perfect v-formation of cranes fly high above us, making their distinctive squawking sputter of a call that I imagine a pterodactyl might make. Unfortunately, after two or three hours, it was apparent that the spring waves of geese had gone just as suddenly as they had come in. We only saw half a hundred or so, and an even smaller handful flew within range. That’s okay though. It was one of the best days I’d spent in Alaska so far. And I did manage to down the only goose of the day.

Posted on Tuesday, June 15, 2004 at 09:07PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | CommentsPost a Comment

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