People living off the grid or a subsistence lifestyle in Alaska have always been a constant source of fascination for the American viewing public. When “Alaska: The Last Frontier” made its television debut in 2011, there was no doubt in everyone’s mind that Shane Kilcher’s family was the real deal when it came to this way of life. It was backbreaking work, so it might not have come as a surprise to many when he sustained injuries while working on a cabin in 2017, which was believed to have caused his prolonged absence from the TV series.
- 1 Established the Kilcher homestead
- 2 The Kilcher family
- 3 Get to know Shane Kilcher and his family
- 4 “Alaska the Last Frontier”
- 5 Details surrounding Shane’s accident
Established the Kilcher homestead
The Kilcher family patriarch was born Julius Jacob Kilcher in Switzerland in 1913, and changed his name to Yule Forenorth Kilcher when he came to live in Alaska. His interest in anthropology had him hitchhiking his way through Europe and North Africa when he was 16, and having seen and experienced the value of living in the simplest conditions on his travels, he began to acquire the skills needed for it, such as building log cabins in the Carpathian Mountains, and from Swedish carpenters.
Upon his first visit to Alaska in 1936, he found it to be an idyllic place, and decided to settle there. He went to Switzerland in 1939 for a short visit to encourage like-minded people to move to Alaska as well, and returned to Alaska in 1940 – he married Ruth Helen Weber merely three days after she arrived in 1941; she was from Prattein and trained as an opera singer. Some said she was his girlfriend who followed him, while other reports say that the two barely knew each other when they tied the knot in Anchorage, where he worked at that time building US bases.
The government granted him 160 acres of land to establish his homestead, under the conditions that he would live, build, and plant a crop on it. In 1944, the couple moved to a former fox farm outside of Homer, overlooking Kachemak Bay where they cleared the meadows, and lived in a one-room cabin with no running water and electricity; it was only in 1952 that their homestead had electric power. They lived off the land, foraging and hunting game as well as fishing, raising poultry and cattle, growing vegetables, and planting fruit-bearing trees. It was said that Yule filmed his family’s homestead life on a 16-mm film, and on slides, and presented it as a documentary entitled “A Pioneer Family in Alaska” and “The Last Frontier” around Europe in 1947-48 and then again in 1956-58.
As his family grew, so did his home and land, eventually becoming a 640-acre homestead, about 260 hetares. While Ruth managed their home and farm, Yule was away most of the time as he became busy with politics and other matters. He was one of the 55 delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention (1956-57), and held a seat in the Senate (1963-1967) as a representative of the Kenai Peninsula. In the early 1990s, he set up a conservation easement, which was said to be the first and the largest of its kind, and the Kilcher Family Trust to preserve the whole property for future generations. His children could reside and live off the land, but it couldn’t be subdivided among them.
In 2013, the documentary “A Pioneer Family in Alaska,” was the final feature in the “Year of the Homesteader Film Festival” at the Homestead National Monument of America’s Education Center.
The Kilcher family
Yule and Ruth’s marriage lasted for 29 years, and they had two sons, Atz and Otto, and six daughters – Catkin, Fay, Mossy, Stellavera, Sunrise and Wurtilla. The children were raised in a subsistence lifestyle, and eventually attracted the attention of the media for preserving their way of life. In 1984, a documentary was made about them entitled “The Difficult School of the Simple Life”, directed by Alfi Sinniger.
As for the couple, they divorced in 1969, and Ruth moved to Tennessee where she worked as a translator, journalist and writer. She was the National Federation of Press Women regional editor, and Alaska Press Women president in the 1960s. In 1971, she married a former military officer named Charles Rod Mariott in New Mexico. Ruth died in 1997 during her visit to Homer, and Yule died the following year.
Get to know Shane Kilcher and his family
Shane was born on 5 May 1971, to parents Atz Kilcher and Lenedra Carroll. He had two younger siblings, Atz Lee and Jewel, who went on to become a singer-songwriter with four Grammy nominations, and who’s sold more than 30 million albums. After Atz’s US military service in Vietnam, he married Lenedra in 1969, and lived in an old cabin on a 160-acre property on the shore of Kachemak Bay, 10 miles from the family homestead, and 20 miles from Homer.
Their family was dysfunctional with Atz as an abusive and alcoholic father, who had been raised by a volatile man doling out punishments in a big way as a means to teach him and his siblings a lesson, and reward ‘good behavior’ by simply not inflicting pain on them. Yule often left his wife and children to fend for themselves, and on the rare occasions he was home, he was hard on Atz. Ruth was prone to depression and hysterics, and as the man of the house, young as he was, Atz had to deal with a lot – it became a case of the abused turned abuser.
Atz and Lenedra divorced in 1982; she left her family when Jewel was only eight and moved to Homer. Later on, she believed she was free to live life the way she wanted, ‘to jump with abandon into the unknown,’ because Atz Lee, her youngest, was already 16 and living with his father while her two older kids were away at school. She left Alaska and carved a life for herself in San Diego. Lenedra later managed not only Jewel’s career, but also her finances. Despite Jewel’s success, she was broke and millions of dollars in debt when she was 30, and blamed her mother for it.
Some believed Lenedra was a little unhinged, and used her daughter’s money for whatever she divined as the right thing to do. Through her book, she shared about finding enlightenment through meditation and prayer, and listening to a voice that directed her choices in life. Lenedra established a humanitarian foundation called Higher Ground for Humanity, with Jewel as the biggest donor.
Shane served as the director for The Clearwater Project, which was launched in 1999, to provide potable water to communities in Mexico, Honduras, and Tasmania. While this was admirable, what she did to her daughter was not.
As for Atz, he had a relationship with a woman named Linda who bore him a son, Nikos Kilcher. He later married Bonnie Dupree, who had two children, Hanna and Karl, from a previous marriage.
Not much was known about how Shane fared in their home, although people could easily surmise what his life was like during those early years through the memoirs of his father, in “Son of the Midnight Land” (2018), Jewel in “Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story” (2015), and his mom in “The Architecture of All Abundance” (2005). Atz and Lenedra battled with their own demons during their marriage, and it was their children who bore the brunt of it.
Shane met his future wife Kelli Ware in Anchorage when he was in senior high school. Soon they began dating, and after being in a relationship for three years, they tied the knot in 1992. She continued her education, and graduated with a degree in nursing from Maric College, San Diego, California in 1999. They had four children: Jareth, Jenna, Keena Tarik and Reid.
“Alaska the Last Frontier”
The 49th state is the largest in the US by area, and with most of it unexplored, it was nicknamed ‘the last frontier.’ So much of it remained a mystery, which was why shows about people living there generated considerable interest. Discovery Channel was constantly looking for good material on Alaska, and someone mentioned the Kilcher family to them. A producer contacted Yule Kilcher’s grandson, Eivin, via his Facebook account, about the possibility of his family appearing in a reality show.
“Alaska: The Last Frontier” mainly featured Atz and wife Bonnie, Atz Lee and wife Jane, Otto and wife Charlotte, and Eivin and wife Eve, as their day-to-day life at the homestead was documented. During summer, the family had to do three things to prepare for winter: stockpile wood for heat, winterize their home, and secure enough food not just for themselves but also for their animals.
— Atz Lee Kilcher (@AtzLee) January 13, 2017
They were as authentic as they could be when it came to homesteading, but the show received criticism whenever they made it appear that hunting game and chopping down a tree in preparation for winter were survival matters. While it might be true back in the day when they lived solely off the land, it wasn’t the case anymore at the time the show was filmed. Homer, the town proper, was just a short trip away, and they could easily buy food and other supplies. Some believed that what was often shown were reenactments of what occurred in the past, to show the viewers what they did to survive the harsh weather and difficult terrain, or what a self-sufficient lifestyle meant.
The TV series premiered on 29 December 2011 and introduced the Kilcher family with Atz and Otto relating the story of their father Yule settling in Alaska, because it was where he could live freely and raise a family living off the land, without much need for cash, and where there was little intrusion from the world at large. Otto said that a homesteader was someone who could make something out of nothing, and find all he needed to make it. He didn’t have to hunt as he relied solely on his cattle for food and income. Atz saw himself as a protector of the land, people and cattle.
Kilcher family thanksgiving
They celebrated thanksgiving in 2015 at the old barn. That year, they wanted to pay homage to Yule and Ruth, so each one had to do something the old-fashioned way – what they’d learned from their pioneering parents/grandparents – to contribute to their dinner. As for Shane, he said that since Yule chose the site of their homestead for its rich land, bountiful sea, and southern exposure to the sun, he used all three in fermenting food. He and his wife went to collect water from the ocean where he believed it to be the saltiest, so he could use homemade sea salt to ferment cabbage from their garden to make sauerkraut. A Kilcher gathering wouldn’t be complete without music, so before the night was through, they were all singing.
Details surrounding Shane’s accident
Moving to the homestead after Kelli’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis
On the bluffs above the Kachemak bay, Shane had been working for over a year to construct a new cabin that would ensure the well-being of his wife Kelli, aired in 2015. Apparently, they just moved back to the homestead the previous year after she was diagnosed with MS, a demyelinating disease in which the covers of the nerve cells in the spinal cord and the brain were damaged, causing a variety of symptoms that were mental and physical; hers included numbness on her left side, nerve pain in her feet, lightheadedness, and fatigue. A healthier lifestyle would lower the risk of an attack or flare-up, so living in the homestead would be ideal.
Kelli’s symptoms were manageable so far, so she was able to help Shane out, but they were behind schedule, and it made her feel discouraged. One never knew when she would have an attack, so it was imperative that they finished the construction as soon as possible. One of the things that worried her the most was that her memory was not good due to her MS, making it harder for her to get things done. She felt bad for Shane who had to step up and do those things she was supposed to do. He constantly assured her that everything would work out, and that despite the obstacles they faced, he would find a way to make things happen for her, saying that he wanted to take care of his wife and family. Fortunately, his father, brother and uncle Otto helped with the construction whenever they could.
Falling off a ladder
While Shane was working on the cabin in December 2017, he fell from a ladder and broke his back – a horizontal fracture to the L2 vertebra that extended two-thirds through the bone. He ended up celebrating Christmas in hospital in Homer. Kelli was worried about his condition and what it could mean to the family, to the work at the homestead, and to the construction of their cabin, as she said, ‘How bad is it going to be in the long run?…He’s not moving, and if he’s not going to be able to get around, then… He’s supposed to take care of things…’
Update on Shane’s health
Based on Kelli’s Facebook posts, it appeared that Shane had fully recovered from his injuries, as he engaged in various outdoor activities such as fishing with friends, driving a four-wheeler, performing a song he wrote at an event, and even going up onto the roof of the family barn to clean the chimney.
Update on the construction of their cabin
Many of the comments that fans left on their Facebook page were questions about the progress of their work on the cabin; they couldn’t wait to see the construction when completed. In Kelli’s November 2020 post, she said that their cabin remained unfinished, as they were unable to work on it since Shane’s accident as they were still trying to save up for it. She shared that someone set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for them. Despite receiving hateful comments from some netizens because of it, Kelli was grateful to those who gave their support. That said, she didn’t know if the account was still active or not, saying that because they appeared in the TV series, people thought they were rich, but it wasn’t true.
By December 2021, it seemed that the cordwood cabin was finished, based on the photo she posted online, but she said that it only looked good at certain angles, as there was still more work left to be done.
Absence from the show
Shane and Kelli were no longer under contract with the Discovery Channel after the accident. No reason was given, and it surprised many of their fans, considering Shane was back on his feet by 2018 and had made a full recovery. When his brother Atz Lee was injured, he’d continued to be part of the show. According to Kelli, from having a recurring guest status, she and Shane became ‘extras’ during holidays, or whenever their assistance was needed on a project. This cleared up some of the rumors about them deciding not to participate in the series anymore, and that they abandoned the cabin project and left the homestead, simply untrue.
From following the series, “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” there was no doubt that Yule’s legacy lived on, as his children made sure to pass on the skills and knowledge of the old ways of homesteading to their children and grandchildren.