Litzi Botello was one of the residents of Port Protection, Alaska, featured in the National Geographic reality television show named after the said place. She might have appeared late in the series, but viewers were instantly drawn to her, and many were saddened when they heard the news of her passing in 2021.
About the show
“Port Protection” followed a small tight-knit community in the census-designated place called Port Protection in the northern end of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. As it was set on the shore of Summer Strait, with the Tongass National Forest and Mount Calder in the background, people were constantly amazed by the incredible view. Located 98 miles northwest of Ketchikan and 145 miles south of Juneau, it’s quite remote, and only accessible by seaplane or boat.
It seemed like an ideal place for people wanting to get away from all the buzz, stress, and chaos of city life, but the question that many were asking was if people could actually live there. With the population at 36 based on the 2020 U.S. Census, which was a little bit lower than when the documentary style series premiered in 2015, it appeared that not many could survive the harsh environmental conditions of the place. It was said that setting down roots in Port Protection required a commitment to living at the edge of one’s limitations.
One had to learn how to become self-sufficient, and even if it was preferable to keep to oneself, it would be best to get along with the neighbors, as there was nobody else on whom one could rely or ask assistance in emergencies. There was no law enforcement, no local government, or hospitals. With wild animals abounding, rough terrain, and treacherous waters, it could become dangerous especially at night, so residents were careful not to be alone, wandering around when night fell – it could take a while before anyone could come and help if one was lost or hurt.
There were no roads, but people could get around using wooden walkways. Their running water was from a water system fed by a spring, and a resident was tasked to check the pH balance. There were no stores except for a trading post, but it only had the barest of essentials such as fuel. If one wanted something from a grocery store or hardware store, one had to travel 40 nautical miles to get to the port of Wrangell, Alaska. It had become one of the rules in their community that if one were to go there, everyone could ask for supplies or whatever they needed. Looking out for each other was also how the people here managed to survive and thrive.
“Port Protection” is a spin-off series of “Life Below Zero” produced by BBC Studios for the National Geographic Channel. While both shows gave an inside look on people living in remote Alaska, the executive producer, Joseph Litzinger, said that the original was focused on the ‘How?’ while the spin-off was more on the ‘Who?’ and ‘Why?’, explaining that ‘Port Protection leans into character moments to create a fully dynamic cast, using the dramatic Alaskan backdrop to unite and inspire those who are drawn to it.’ After three seasons aired from 2015 to 2018, it was re-branded as “Life Below Zero: Port Protection.”
Only about 15 percent of the Alaskan community were featured in the show. Here are some of those who made an impression on its avid viewers, with a glimpse into their lives:
He’s a local hunter, trapper and fisherman who has been living in Port Protection since he was two. Sam said that residents here used the barter system to acquire what they needed – all he had to do was ask someone who had ‘it’ and then replaced ‘it’ in kind – it could be sausage for a piece of scrap metal or fish for lumber. A local mechanic named James was looking for old motors; Sam had one, and in exchange, he could go through the junkyard which James managed, for supplies he needed to make a stove that he could take along while out hunting.
Sam Carlson journeys out to a kelp bed to fish for kelp greenling to use as bait in a mink trap. New episodes of Port Protection: Alaska air Tuesdays at 9/8c on National Geographic.
Posted by Life Below Zero on Wednesday, February 3, 2021
In preparing for winter, he along with a neighbor went fishing. After they caught a few nearly 400-pound halibut, they filleted the meat for consumption and storage.
Timothy “Curly” Leach
One of the main sources of livelihood in Port Protection was the sea. Tim sold a skiff to a new resident, Amanda Makar, who said that she got a deal as he hired her to take care of his vessel “Lil’ Pelican” to help pay for it. One time, he went halibut fishing and took Amanda with him so she could learn to do it on her own. The fishing technique they used was longlining in which baited hooks were attached at intervals to the main line, with anchors at either end along with a buoy. Later, when they retrieved the line, it snapped and the fishing gear was lost to the tide. He didn’t give up and went back to where they lost it. They dropped anchor and somehow the line got caught and they recovered the gear. The day ended well, as they caught plenty of halibut after that.
She grew up in the city, but learned how to hunt and fish, and it helped her a lot when she moved to Port Protection to enjoy the freedom and sense of community it offered. In one episode, she shared that the people here lived by the weather and the tide, as it was their gauge in how they mapped out their day in what they were going to do. With her hunting supplies running low, she had to get to town for ammunition. It was an arduous journey having to contend with the spring storm as she maneuvered a small boat, went on an uphill climb, and then drove a truck for a hundred miles on a rough, old logging road full of potholes. It would take her three hours to reach the shop, and then another three going back. There was always the possibility of getting stuck along the way, so she always came prepared, bringing with her food, a sleeping bag, and a gun, which made her feel safe. Her kids lived in the city, and they were doing well. Talking about them made her teary-eyed, as she missed them terribly and remembered the good times.
She was from Anchorage, and came to Port Protection because of a guy. The relationship didn’t work out, but she stayed on as she was drawn to the place and the people. Being new meant that she had to learn what she needed to survive – fortunately, the residents here were generous with their time and knowledge. Mary taught her how to use firearms, not just for protection but also for hunting food. She also took Amanda into the wild to teach her how to track animals. Amanda initially lived in a rental cabin, but later had to move out, so purchased a boathouse named “Why Not” in Port Baker, but the engine wasn’t working, so Stuart Andrews, dubbed as ‘the captain’, towed her boat back to their little town. It wasn’t meant to run anyway, and she only planned to use it as her home. Stuart and Mary, who was a former auto-mechanic, helped remove parts of the boat that had rotted out or weren’t needed so that the engine could be extracted safely. She fireproofed her boat, so Sam Carlson could install the stove he constructed out of salvaged materials, to keep her home warm.
He was considered the village elder. Even when he was around 70 years old, he could still make it to the roof of his house to rid the chimney of creosote caused by burning wet wood all summer. Also, he went off the beaten path on another island to go deer hunting, and ensure that he had enough meat to last through the winter. When his ATV broke down, he said he just had to do it the hard way, and go into the Alaskan bush on foot. There were times when he would go hunting for two weeks and returned home empty-handed. Fortunately that day, he shot a big doe and immediately drained its blood before making a backpack out of it, to carry it back to his boat. He said that he was proud of himself for retaining the knowledge he learned over the four decades of living here.
Gary was a funny old man who was always cracking jokes whenever he was explaining on camera what he was doing. He once ate a raw clam and joked about how it was best to eat it right then and there so he would know if it was fit to eat or not. He said that if after half an hour, his lips started tingling, he would know that he had paralytic shellfish poisoning, and would bid everyone goodbye.
Meet Litzi Botello
Cecilia “Litzi” Jovita Botello was born on 22 November1958, in Norwalk, California. She was 22 when she met a fisherman named John Bean, they fell in love, and were married on 21 May 2000, in Port Protection. They had two sons: their eldest, Leland Caulder Botello Bean born in 1991, and they welcomed their youngest, Johnny Duarte Botello, in 1996.
Losing her kids
It was said that no parents should have to bury their child but that was what Litzi and her husband did. Johnny died in July 2015 – according to reports, he lived in Thorne Bay and was on his way to work as a fishing deckhand when the 1993 Nissan pickup truck he was driving crossed the center line and almost had a head-on collision with a 1996 Kenworth logging truck on Boundary Road near Klawock. Both vehicles were totaled, but the 63-year-old driver of the logging truck didn’t sustain injuries. Investigation revealed that alcohol was not a factor in the accident. Johnny, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was in critical condition and had to be medevaced to a hospital in Seattle. However, after a month he succumbed to his injuries. Leland also passed away in the same month in 2017 but details weren’t revealed to the public.
There was a mother’s day blog that a guy posted online in May 2019 about how Mother’s Day could be a cruel reminder of what one was missing, but the writer wanted to give people a different way of dealing with loss during special occasions. He said that he looked at life as a long hike with loved ones and that for those whose children have died, it meant that the children had run ahead of them, had finished the race and were waiting at the finish line. Litzi was comforted by this, leaving a comment and sharing that her sons were both avid hikers and hunters, had always tried to get her to hike more. She hoped that she could get her husband to read this as well.
Litzi on “Port Protection”
She first appeared in the hit NatGeo series in its fourth season as Gary Muehlberger brought her along when he went on a fishing trip. The two had known each other for nearly 40 years, since she began living in Port Protection, and he said that he had a lot of respect for her, while she considered him family. The two got along well, as they both had a zest for life and loved to laugh. Gary shared that they knew stories from way back, so he could start telling a story and she could finish it. He even said that fishing with her was as good as it got.
The ‘one-arm Mexican woman’
She was often described as ‘the one-arm Mexican woman’ as she lost one of her arms in an accident, but it never hindered her from functioning well and following an off-grid and subsistence lifestyle. She knew she could do a lot of things and she only needed to figure out how, and in the series, she was shown driving a boat alone and chopping firewood.
Litzi had been a sculptor for more than two decades, and in 2019, two of her art pieces made from clay were on display at a gallery for the fifth annual Artists of Ketchikan Invitational, hosted by the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council. One of them called Jellyfish could be seen behind her, as she posed for a photo for an article about the exhibit.
It was reported that fishing with her husband inspired her to create aquatic art. Later, however, she found herself unable to do it, as she faced major difficulties in her life explaining, ‘I think to be in a really creative space, to create something beautiful that you think is good, you have to be in the right head space.’ It took her some time before she was able to get back to it and found it to be therapeutic. She said, ‘It’s fun to create something that you can look at and I guess be proud of, you know?’ She also enjoyed listening to good music, walking on the beach, traveling with her husband, and talking to strangers.
What was Litzi Botello’s cause of death?
When Litzi failed to appear in recent season of “Port Protection,” one of her fans who missed her took to the show’s Facebook fan page to inquire about what happened to her. John, her husband, replied that Litzi passed away on 25 June 2021, in Port Protection at the age of 62. She was preceded in death not just by her sons but also by her brothers Orlando and Joe as well as her mom Elida Botello.
There was much speculation on the cause of her death at first, as she lived in a place fraught with danger, where each day was a matter of survival. However, her husband shared that Litzi died of ovarian cancer, having had surgery on the day that her friend Gary passed away. Apparently, the Alaska State Troopers received a report in March 2021 that the village elder’s house was on fire and he was missing. Human remains were seen among the fire ashes, and many believed that he had been fixing his propane hot water tank and it exploded. One could only imagine how devastated Litzi must have been upon hearing the news of his passing, when she woke up after her surgery.
Not much was known about Litzi, but her photos compiled in a video uploaded online for a memorial tribute spoke a lot. She was among friends and family celebrating milestones and life in general. Some were taken in the city, and the rest in her home in Port Protection. In a couple of photos, she was shown asleep surrounded by women believed to be dear to her, and many thought it was during her last moments, or after she’d died.
People who lived in Port Protection like Linzi showed true grit considering every comfort and convenience known to man could be found some place else. Despite the difficulties she faced, she felt in every cell of her being that she was where she was meant to be in this secluded place in Alaska. The series continues to draw the interest of viewers, as each day brought new challenges to its residents.