A Real Homesteader


Homer is the hailing port of the Kilchers, the family whose adventures in homesteading are featured on the long-running TV show, Alaska: The Last Frontier. You’d never know it from the show, of course, where story lines and careful editing leave one with the impression that the Kilchers live moose-miles from the nearest telephone pole, but that sense of remoteness is manufactured.

Things have changed in Homer since the clan patriarch, Yule Kilcher, arrived on the peninsula from Switzerland in the 1940s. Back then the unincorporated area, referenced in a 1920s census simply as “Homer Spit and Vicinity,” was a mere 300 hardy souls scattered over 100 square miles of mountain and bog. Services included a couple general stores, a dock, a dirt airstrip for bush planes and generous helpings of nothing else.

Roll forward 75 years and the town is a small city known widely as “The Halibut Capitol of the World.” The year-round population of some 6,000 is connected to Anchorage, Alaska’s supply hub, by a wide, well-maintained highway and an airport that lands four or five commercial flights a day. Homer has grid electricity, city water, a small fleet of snow plows; a modern public library with computer stations and WIFI; regular UPS deliveries and even access to Amazon Prime.

Ten minutes from the Kilcher Ranch is a Safeway and a McDonalds.

In effect, then, what homesteading the current generation of Kilchers do is largely voluntary. “Getting in your meat,” a phrase used to describe the fall big game hunt intended to stock the winter larder, once key to surviving the long, dark, frozen months, is now sport, and if you forgot the steak sauce, you can dash into town.

This is not a deprecation of the Kilchers or their hybrid way of life. For all its conveniences, Homer is still 250 miles into the back of beyond. And the work involved in voluntary, fame-generating, reality TV homesteading is, nonetheless, hard work. I’ve dug through the Gear Shed bolt bins along side Eivin, whose hair is as rumpled and hands as dirty off camera as on, and shared a stool at the Honda Parts counter with Otto Senior. The ranch still takes running, and to all appearances, the Kilchers run it.

But it does beg the question, is honest-to-god, make-or-break homesteading still alive on the Kenai peninsula?

In a word, yes.

Meet my neighbor, John.

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John lives in a blue school bus across from where Gjoa currently sits on stands at the Homer Boat Yard.

He’s from Juneau, and has been at various times a salmon fisherman, a jewelry maker, and totem pole carver. For a month he’s been camped in the yard busily outfitting his bus for a journey that will commence at the next exceptionally high tide. It’s the rarity of these “King” tides that are keeping John captive. His carefully timed, early April arrival in Homer was a day too late. He missed that month’s great surge, and the next opportunity won’t come till May 5th.

On that day, John will drive his bus onto a barge in the harbor and be transported north overnight to a piece of coast on western Cook Inlet only briefly accessible at maximum high water. Here John will drive off the barge and pick up a dirt road that extends for sixteen miles into the interior before dead-ending at Lake Illiamna. John will then splash the dinghy that lives on the roof of the bus, fill it with supplies, and row the ten miles across to a beach on the lake’s north shore. And when he gets to that beach, he will have arrived at his property. He and his relatives own several hundred acres here, but none have ever laid eyes on it. None have been willing to make the trek before John. 

John will homestead the old fashioned way because he has no choice. He will built his shelter, hunt and grow his food, and be his own entertainment in a location that is, without doubt, moose-miles from anywhere.

And John is doing this alone.

Some evenings we meet for coffee in his bus, stacked to the ceiling with containers of rice and beans, boxes of tools, five sleeping bags, three rifles, two generators, and a chainsaw. If the day has been cold enough, he will run the engine for its heat while we talk, though he can hardly spare the fuel. And on these evenings, his undertaking often weighs on him.

A typical theme is how he’ll build the log cabin, his first major project: how he’ll select smaller trees that he can move himself, how he’ll cement the cracks between the logs against the wind, where he’ll cut for the window, how he’ll make a wood stove from a 50 gallon drum. He savors over the wood stove. But here the conversation falters; he’s not solved how to loft the cabin roof on his own. He lights a cigarette. “This is some serious shit,” he’ll say. “Gotta have a cabin for winter. Guess I could always retreat to the bus. But man, this is some serious shit.”

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