The Last Frontier

Reality shows set in Alaska offer a fiction of self-sufficiency at the brink of societal collapse

My father was one of the last homesteaders in Alaska to receive free land in exchange for his labor. Despite losing most of his eyesight from an injury, he earned the deed to 80 acres in 1974 by building two cabins on the land. The nicer cabin sat above a pond, facing a mountain range with three glaciers.

During a trip to the cabin when I was eight, the temperature plummeted, and we entertained ourselves by playing cold games. At 30 below, we flung melted snow into the air and watched it evaporate into a white plume before reaching its peak. When it fell to 50, the water turned to ice before it could vanish, the jagged shards landing heavily in the snow.

I was surviving in a place that did not care for humans, and I was sure it was because of my own merit

Back in the cabin, pulling off the black encasement of my boots, I felt a fierce pride. I remembered sitting in gym class, watching our school’s annual frostbite video: People missing fingers, noses, entire limbs, warned about the dangers of wandering off trail, getting wet, letting the snow machine run out of gas. Winter, they seemed to be saying, was waiting for a single mistake. My face was puckered with cold, but I hadn’t made a mistake. The sun would set in a few hours, darkness would fit around the cabin like a glove, and I would sleep. I was surviving in a place that did not care for humans, and I was sure it was because of my own merit. The gear my parents had bought, the paved highway we had driven along, the flags marking the route to the cabin, and the firewood my father had cut all escaped my notice. It is my first memory of the pleasure of overlooking another’s work, of claiming luck as a virtue.

In 2010, a prominent TV channel approached my father about filming a reality show at the mountain cabin. He told them no. Two years earlier, the Alaska Legislature had started offering generous tax subsidies to companies filming in Alaska, hoping to create local jobs and bring in more tourists. Within a handful of years, at least 20 different shows were being filmed in the state, a number that would more than double by 2017. At first, networks mostly imported reality television templates wholesale from the lower 48 to see what worked. Their successes and failures reveal how the American frontier fantasy has adapted to the 21st century: Alaska proved to be an environment that could, in popular imagination, justify modern-day American self-sufficiency ideology.

Some shows flopped so quickly that they lasted a season or less. The worst used fish-out-of-water stories or compiled cheap stunts. In 2013, Alaska Women Looking for Love followed six Alaskan women bumbling through Miami clubs in Xtratuf rain boots and Carhartt workwear, while 2012’s Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp, showed Palin reacclimating to life in Alaska after having spent time away in the lower 48. These mimicked shows like The Simple Life, which dropped socialites into the “reality” of farm life. The Simple Life punched up; Alaska Women did not. MTV’s Slednecks, released in 2014, was pitched as a revival of Buckwild, a hillbilly comedy that followed the drunken antics of recent high-school grads in West Virginia, and was canceled after a 21-year-old star died while mudding. Slednecks featured the same stunts on a much more dangerous playground, and shed viewers from its first episode: People wanted a sense of danger from Alaskan shows, but they didn’t want to watch teenagers get hypothermia while partying.

The networks learned from their failures, eventually settling on two commercially successful formulas. The first shows characters working blue-collar jobs made dangerous by Alaska’s deadly climate. Ice Road Truckers follows truckers crossing frozen Arctic rivers and lakes; Deadliest Catch follows commercial fishers; while Alaska Wing Men and Flying Wild Alaska show bush pilots landing on strips of frozen lakes and empty roads. These jobs are dangerous  — commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the U.S. — but they remain some of the most lucrative professions that don’t require a high school education. The risk imbues them with a sense of virtue: Workers risk their lives on the job to ensure others get food, supplies, equipment.

The second format exaggerates an area’s remoteness, presenting semi-developed places as wilderness where characters struggle weekly with starvation and calamity. These shows dramatize a “frontier” that doesn’t exist — the filming locations are often populated areas accessible by roads and within a few miles of modern amenities. In Alaskan Bush People, Discovery claimed to have found a family with children raised so remotely that they’d developed their own accent. The network implied that the show was filmed in this remote location, though it was actually filmed outside of a small city. The family was later found guilty of fraud: They did underreported the time they spent in the lower 48 in order to qualify for dividends from the state of Alaska.

Discovery’s Alaska: The Last Frontier follows three generations of the Kilcher family as they fight to maintain their self-sufficient existence on their homestead. The family’s patriarch announces that the land is so remote, and the winter so brutal, that normal rules of society do not apply. In almost every episode some member of the clan appears to be in danger of death by starvation or exposure. When two family members suddenly realize their food supply has dropped precipitously during the winter, they are forced to snow machine 30 miles through a blizzard to ice fish. The fact that a McDonald’s and a Safeway grocery store are both a 20-minute drive from the homestead is never mentioned.

Remoteness, here, signifies freedom: Men are able to create society as they wish, unconstrained by government interference or social norms. These shows are a nostalgic return to the 19th-century conception of the frontier as a place where white settlers can earn land and success through hard work, with race, class, and luck playing no role. Such a place doesn’t exist, and never existed, so it’s fitting that the locales are embellished or falsified.

Reality shows set in Alaska cast nature itself in a judgement role: A dangerous, all-encompassing force that measures the worth of each character. Only those who are tough enough to survive the harshest climate earn the right to live as they see fit. The idea that nature hardens and improves people is not new: In his 1861 essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau argued that outdoorsmen were more heroic, smarter, and more self-respecting than city men. Of the mild men who spent their days indoors, Thoreau wrote, “I think they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”

A more extreme version of this idea was codified in 1893 by the popular historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner believed that life at the frontier line made men adaptive, independent, and free — traits that were uniquely American, he argued, and necessary for a functioning democracy. He believed that the mere existence of the frontier imbued American men with these traits, no matter where they lived.

Reality shows set in Alaska cast nature itself in a judgement role: A dangerous, all-encompassing force that measures the worth of each character

Turner’s thesis gave form to an attitude that many already held: The colonization of the west was an integral part of America, and the process made the country vital. Turner’s ideas eventually fell out of repute in academia: Among other things, he ignored the majority of the country’s population by only considering free white men, and conceptualized the frontier as unoccupied land, erasing its inhabitants and the brutal realities of colonization. Still, these ideas continue in popular media.

Turner’s influence is clear in Edge of Alaska, the first Alaskan reality show that claimed to profile an entire town. The show follows businessman Neil Darish as he tries to develop tourism attractions to draw more people to the small town of McCarthy, while farmsteader Jeremy Keller fights to preserve the old, “frontier” way of life. The idea that nature toughens men is so entrenched that the characters sometimes seem like parodies of frontier mythology: As Jeremy Keller says while cutting firewood, “Chop trees down with an axe, man, and you won’t need viagra ever again.” Jason Lobo, an eccentric loner who speaks to his pigs in French, describes the effect of living in the wild in milder language: “McCarthy sorts out people that are cowards, that are weak.” According to the U.S. Census, the town they shoot in is mostly male and 100 percent white. There is little mention that the land was once occupied by the Ahtna, an Alaskan Native Athabascan people.

The show explains that McCarthy is made up of 42 hard-working “pioneers” who survive in “extreme isolation.” The town is presented as a desolate place where inhabitants battle starvation and the elements to live in a state of absolute freedom. Ample evidence to the contrary is edited out: When the show was being filmed, the town, which is surrounded by a federally-owned national park, had 20,000 visitors every summer, a grocery store, government-maintained roadways, electricity, cell service, wi-fi, maintained hiking trails, information kiosks, and crews of dedicated park service rangers who double as law enforcement.  

The show depends on the tantalizing fantasy that the cast has opted out of society and is building their lives from a blank slate. “All of us who came to McCarthy came here for the same reason,” Jeremy says, “because for 100 years, it’s been a place that anyone can forge the life that they want to lead.” Since law enforcement, the voice-over narrator warns us, is hundreds of miles away, residents must handle their own problems. When Jeremy worries that an outsider is prowling on his property, he doesn’t reach for a phone or radio to call for help. Instead, he straps guns and knives to his body before investigating. When Neil slings a stoplight between two trees to prevent speeding ATVs from kicking up dust, the show’s narrator warily announces that the light is “bound to anger locals who live off the grid to avoid the constraints of society.” Jeremy chainsaws down the trees, shoots the stoplight with his gun, and then drops the shattered carcass on Neil’s doorstep. Grinning at the destroyed stoplight, he sums up the ethos of the show: “Your reward for hard work is a life where no one can tell you want to do.”

The dream of opting out of shared political and social life has sprouted across political lines as confidence in U.S. institutions has fallen. Shows set in Alaska use the devices of reality television to dramatize new iterations of an old desire. It’s not a fantasy of resolution — reversing climate catastrophe, for instance, or rebuilding institutions — but of total escape through self-reliance.

The pleasure of watching a reality show character make poor life decisions is often contained in the thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” Edge of Alaska reverse this sentiment. Pursuing self-reliance at the “ungoverned” frontier is presented as an unquestionably moral choice. The pleasure, instead, comes from a quick succession of thoughts: I couldn’t do that, followed by relief — I don’t have to do that. Viewer satisfaction is proportional to the characters’ discomfort and isolation. Edge of Alaska maintains the frontier fiction by editing out tourists, cutting out characters who drive and use cars, ignoring houses that have electricity, and cutting out scenes of characters shopping, talking on phones, and using computers — but viewers are also incentivized to ignore the giveaways that editing can’t hide.

Some nature shows are beautiful enough to watch on mute. Edge of Alaska would be deadly boring. Most of the show’s tension comes from its voiceover actor, John Beach, whose CV includes Apocalypse 101, Catching Monsters, and 20 Animals That Will Kill You. Like an anxious parent with a booming voice, he injects suspense into scenes that would otherwise be mundane by narrating every conceivable danger that the landscape holds. Every time Jeremy crosses a frozen river with his son, Beach reminds us that hypothermia can kill within minutes. During high noon, Beach worries that the sun will set soon, and points to chunks of ice that could, conceivably, fall on someone’s head. He describes winter like a gruesome murderer: the season is deadly and heartless; it kills those who don’t respect it; it cuts men off from the rest of the world then tears them apart.

Like a reality show character whose eccentricity is exaggerated to attract viewers, nature is also misrepresented. Jeremy warns that there are a “different set of physical laws” in McCarthy, but he could easily be talking about the show’s poor editing. Days are mysteriously lopped off at the knees, and characters always find themselves struggling to finish tasks before nightfall. Scene of “freezing” winter days include icicles melting in the spring warmth, hills become mountains, and river ice always seems to crack. Residents are consumed with worry over wolves terrorizing the town and grizzly bears stalking the main street, but the cameras never manage to catch a glimpse of the animals.

Shows set in Alaska use the devices of reality television to dramatize new iterations of an old desire: Total escape through self-reliance

Though nature is dangerous, it also offers a livelihood to those tough enough to survive. The people of McCarthy seem to rely on the bounty of nature to support themselves rather than wages from a conventional job. The show obscures almost all references to money. We’re told by the narrator that Gary, McCarthy’s bush pilot, has “earned a life of freedom as a successful gold miner.” When Jeremy doubles his farmstead between seasons three and four, the fact that he bought the land with money is skated over. Instead, his acquisition is presented as Lockean: the land belongs to him because he mixed his labor with the soil. Jenny Rosenbaum, who works for Neil, appears to be the only main character who works for someone else, and her job is a mark against her. “Jenny lives off the grid, but she still needs money to pay for fuel and ammo,” the narrator tells us. “And as long as she has to work for someone else, she’ll never have true freedom.”

Jenny’s freedom comes as a major plot point at the end of the first season. After Neil interrupts her one time too many, she curses him, yelling at him to shut up in an epic “I quit” moment. Jenny, we’re told, has only a high school diploma, and very little money, while Neil is fictitiously portrayed as the only employer in the town. But Jenny isn’t worried about finding another job; she knows that nature’s bounty awaits her. Jenny’s initial plan is to pan for gold. When that doesn’t work, she tries birch syrup tapping; she already has an old bathtub to boil down the syrup. McCarthy, it’s suggested, is a bartering town: Jenny “pays” Jason Lobo for his labor with a jar of birch syrup, while Mark hauls a scrap pile in exchange for a beaver hat.

Stripping the equation of success to a single factor — hard work — is seductive. It frees one from considering the advantages bestowed by wealth and class; it dissolves the problems of systemic racism and sexism, and ignores the role of dumb luck. Edge of Alaska is nostalgic for a time when these issues weren’t seen as problems at all. Every time Jeremy announces that he has become self-reliant, it is hard not to compare him to the Ivy-league groomed, upper-class 21-year-old announcing he has “earned” a job at Goldman Sachs.

The one reality show that rang true to me is The Last Alaskans, which follows four of the last seven families permitted to live within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a roadless piece of wilderness about the size of South Carolina. Local newspapers have called it “Alaska’s first real reality TV show.” On this show, nature is not presented as a testing ground for human mettle, but rather as an ecosystem complete without humans, where people are privileged to live. One shot in particular felt so familiar that I was transported back to my dad’s mountain cabin: Two characters are knocking snow off birch trees with the butt of an axe. The crystals catch in the sun, turning the light silver before drifting down in crenated clouds. When they settle on the neck of a character’s parka, she laughs. There is no narrator warning of hypothermia, of the danger of falling tree branches, of the number of dark days of winter that remain. There is no sense of danger at all.

The first thing people ask about when they find I’m from Alaska is the weather. What I don’t say is that the winters from my childhood, when water froze mid-air, are vanishing. Temperatures in Alaska are increasing, on average, twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Glaciers are melting and the warming tundra and permafrost are releasing their sequestered greenhouse gasses. Now, three-week cold snaps of 30 below are almost unheard of in central Alaska.

Instead, I describe how the cold air wilts your lungs until each breath hurts, and the way eyelashes can freeze shut in the winter. I describe how a grizzly bear broke into our mountain cabin when the door was left ajar and got trapped, eventually jumping out of the pond-side window. I don’t mention that this happened only once, or that I would rather have a bear break in than a person.

People lean back, satisfied. I could never live there, they say. For a moment, I think about describing how snow falls from the birch trees, the way winter nights light up when moonlight reflects on the snow. But then I think of the expanding cities and newly laid roads and box stores, and find myself delivering a line that feels right for a reality show: Yeah, the winters are terrible. You’d have to be a masochist to live there.

Ella Jacobson is a freelance journalist and writer. An Alaskan transplant to Brooklyn, she writes about class, literature, and the wilderness. To read her most recent work, follow her on Twitter.