Alaska: The Last Frontier and The Life Lessons We’ve Learned


The Kilcher family and the adventures they face while living a pioneer lifestyle on their homestead in Alaska is the stuff of the American spirit. The family makes up the cast, and they are all distinct characters with practical viewpoints on life and living it well. Collectively, they have the wisdom which comes from caring for 600 acres of land and each other. They have the close family ties which bind those who struggle to survive under difficult circumstances.

They are Alaskans with an international heritage, sharing their talents, occupational skills, humor and values with their television viewers. Some point to their genuine and frank ways as contributing to their long-lasting popularity.

The saga of the Kilcher family began when Jules Kilcher left Switzerland to homestead 160 acres in Alaska. He left when the Nazi’s were overcoming Europe, and started a new life by Kachemack Bay in the 1930s. Jules was a Senator and helped to write the first state constitution for Alaska. He married Ruth, and they raised eight children together on the homestead.

Jules’ sons Atz (with his wife Bonnie) and Otto (with his wife Charlotte) lead the Kilchers now. Atz has four children, including Shane and his family, country music star Jewel, Atz Lee and Nikos. Otto’s children include Eivin, Levi, August and Torrey, his step-son. Eiven’s wife Eve and Atz Lee’s wife Jane also live on the homestead. Eiven and Eve also have son Findlay and daughter Sparrow Rose. Atz Lee and Jane have Piper and Etienne, which are not on the television show. Atz and Otto have a net worth, when combined, totals about $9 million.

Life is Teamwork

Atz Lee: “There’s definitely high tension, high stress…”

When the men needed to get to a moose hunt location across Caribou Lake, the horses which would provide their transportation had to swim the lake, because their wheeled vehicles could not reach the hunting area. Atz Sr., Atz Lee, and their neighbor Bruce Willard led the horses with a motor boat. So, the group guided the horses and young colts, alternating between encouraging them to swim after the boat while pushing them away from the boat motors which could potentially harm them.

Atz Lee had never guided the horses across the lake and he mentioned how glad he was once they arrived on the other side of the lake. He knew Bruce was trusting them to keep his horses safe and the horses were depending on the men to lead them through the water.

Achieving Adventure in Life Requires Determination

Eiven Lee: “It’s about really going the distance.”

Atz, Otto, Eiven and Atz Lee head out on the Kilcher’s annual expedition to their cabin at the head of the bay. They need to take everything necessary for a year to the cabin, but an early thaw turned the normally frozen ground into muddy flats. The slushy mud has filled their tires and boots with enough extra weight to make progress arduous. They decide to wait where they are, and resume their trek before the sun rises the next morning.

The decision proves correct, and they push across the frozen ground to get the supplies to the cabin. Waiting out the freezing temperatures overnight and muscling across difficult ground before sunlight brings the family easier traveling and eventual success.

Live to Hunt Another Day

Atz Lee: “You don’t run from a brown bear. That just makes them want to chase you.”

Atz Lee and his wife Jane decide to try to hunt down a bear. They need to stock up on meat, but it’s not brown bear hunting season. They know they need to find a black bear. But, luck is not on their side. Tracking fresh bear scat, they see a large brown bear up ahead and know they cannot legally shoot it unless it attacks them. The bear charges toward them. They crouch down, guns ready, and hope for the best.

They need the meat badly, but do not shoot. The bear, fiercely growling, runs past them. Atz Lee decides they better leave while they can. He tells Jane to keep her eyes on where the bear went, just in case it returns. They leave, backing out for safety, as quickly as they can.

We Can Go, But We May Not Always Conquer

Atz Sr.: “We came, we saw, we saw Billy. He was smarter than us though.”

In recent years, due to warmer seasons and increasing population, the Kilchers have been forced to search for game further and further away from their homestead. They eat only what they hunt, fish, or grow. Atz Sr., Atz Lee and Jane set out on a mountain goat hunt. Atz Lee describes goat hunts as always involving “steep terrain, cold temperatures, and cliffs”. The three spend hours climbing up a mountain.

Facing incredibly harsh and dangerous climbing conditions, they spot a goat and decide to divide to get a clear line of sight with a spotting scope. Atz Lee spends considerable time “side-hilling” to get the best shot. The three can see the goat, until it inexplicably disappears over a ledge. It’s gone, and they have no choice but to retreat down the mountain without any goat meat for all their trouble.

Stand by Your Family

Jane Lee: “I still support him; because that’s what you do.”

Jane was glad when her husband Atz Lee returned home from the hospital after his awful fall off the cliff while hiking at Otter Cove. He had suffered a broken arm, broken hip, broken ankle, punctured lungs and crushed his ribs. He had four surgeries and came to their cabin to recover. She was understandably glad that he survived. But, he eventually decided he needed to head out to work on their new homestead.

He left with Atz Sr. to travel the 33 miles to the homestead to begin the process of harvesting logs for lumber. His dad knew that only 6 months had passed, but his son was struggling to overcome the accident and rebuild his body. Atz Lee said, “If I can make it through it, I know it will make me a better person all the same.” He admitted that forging the new homestead would soothe the PTSS symptoms he had been suffering since the accident, and he needed to get away from home, even though it meant leaving Jane.

Jane admitted her reluctance to move away to the new homestead where she would be alone, and couldn’t use drinking to cope because she “doesn’t drink alone”. Allowing Atz Lee freedom to leave, and return, was Jane’s way of showing her love for him.

Expect, and Prepare for the Worst

Eiven: “You never know when it’s gonna be your last day.”

The devastating earthquake ruins Eve’s food stored in their root cellar. She worked hundreds of hours over the summer canning jars of food including vegetables from their garden, meat they had hunted and fish they had caught. She had literally caught, smoked, cooked and prepared everything in the cellar only to find much of it broken open on the root cellar floor.

Eiven set to work creating extra shelves and supports for the earthen walls and ledges and doors to help contain the jars in the event of more tremors. His carpentry work enclosed the open shelves to provide more protection for Eve’s work, realizing that his family depended on every item put up for the winter.

You Must Disregard Pain Sometimes to Keep Going Forward

Otto: “So far, my hernia’s taken a back seat again for a little bit.”

Otto’s hernia has been around for about 15 years. His doctor pushed it back into place at one time to buy him some extra time. Otto believes he can’t just take time off from the homestead to recover from a surgery, so he pushes onward. The doctor told him that his hernia must be repaired or it could strangulate and he would be dead in 24 to 48 hours. Charlotte caught Otto lifting heavy logs as the family works to repair the earthquake damaged beach road. Otto had been mumbling about “hernia logs”, but any pain he felt, nor Charlotte’s reminders not to lift the logs stopped him from working.

There is a Season for Everything

Otto: “Birth to death, it’s all part of the deal.”

The Kilcher cow had been a like a family friend. August, Eiven and Mike came over to help because Otto felt that it was important that all his children learn about the process of life. He said that it wasn’t an easy thing to do, because old cows are smart. He made the decision to shoot her in the pasture where it was green and peaceful and she could enjoy some grain.

He didn’t have the heart to do the deed himself, so he gave it to his son Eiven. He fed her some extra grain, and teared up as he spoke about how he also had to teach his children how to take over from where he had left off. He said he did not have the heart to pull the trigger.

He found it more and more difficult to take life. He also realized that he had to teach his son how to take over the reins. Eiven had bottle-fed the cow when it was a calf. Atz fed her some extra grain himself, and they gathered to complete the task together.

Mother Nature Sets the Timeline

Otto: “Earthquake, winds…its almost kinda Biblical!”

When a 7.1 earthquake hits Alaska, the Kilchers face severe problems. Right after the initial quake, 100- mile per hour winds blow the roof off the hay barn. To add to their woes, their main access in and out of the homestead, Kilcher Beach Road is damaged. Half the road fell away into the canyon below and the hillside above fell onto the remaining road, blocking it with mudslides. They must open the road to have access to medical help, fishing, and access to food for their livestock.

Eiven, Charlotte and August arrive to help Otto repair the road, while the earthquake aftershocks continue to rattle everyone’s nerves, keeping them all on high alert. They bring in heavy equipment to shore up the holes, packing them in with earth and clearing away the mudslides brought down with the rain. Eiven uses the excavator to begin repairing the road. He nearly rolls down into the canyon, but the precarious road must be fixed. He said about the road, “It would probably scare the piss out of people.”

Family is the Most Important Thing

Charlotte: “Good job, huh? Meanie…”

As Charlotte, Eiven, August and Otto struggle to push through the job of clearing out the Kilcher Beach Road, Otto becomes grumpy. Eiven comments that its typical behavior for Otto, though he wishes that Otto wouldn’t grump at Charlotte quite so much. Otto tends to yell over the machinery noise, and she thinks he’s yelling because he’s annoyed with something she has or hasn’t done. Otto knows he yells, but says he yells so she can hear him.

She often just walks away for a moment, and then comes back saying something which will get them both laughing. She did it when they were dealing with the hay barn roof failure, and she does it again on the road project. Otto said that he is so happy to Charlotte around to help him and take part in his life.

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