Alaska: The Last Frontier- is Atz just Otto’s ranch hand?

Discovery Channel’s widely successful reality show “Alaska: The Last Frontier” (2.7 million viewers per episode) features three generations of the Kilcher family who live off the land that Yule Kilcher homesteaded over 80 years ago.  The Kilcher family resides and lives off of their 640 acre homestead, just outside of Homer, Alaska. There are many episodes that feature the family either hunting, fishing, cattle driving (using horses) cattle rearing, or range riding, making the show appealing to a wide variety of t.v. viewers.

So why is FillyGirl writing about Alaska: The Last Frontier?  Because we have  burning questions that have gone unanswered.  For example, why does Atz spend his whole summer in a tiny cabin, away from his family, range riding on his horses, for his brother Otto’s cattle? Why doesn’t he have his own cattle?  How did he become the cowboy in the family? The answers should be simple, but when you look at the facts, they just aren’t. The cattle ranch hierarchy/structure that we are familiar with, just doesn’t seem to work here. If you watch the show, you’ll note the following: Atz consistently, and perhaps overly, refers to the cattle as “Otto’s cattle.”  As opposed to just saying “the cattle,” it’s almost as if he’s jealous or bitter about it.  Perhaps their father left the cattle exclusively to Otto? Did they both have the chance to invest and start in the cattle business, but only Otto was willing to take the risk? The point is, they don’t share or co-own the cattle.  You’ll also note that there are probably only 50-70 heads in the herd. That means this isn’t a “big business” and in fact, Otto claims they just use the beef from the cattle to either barter with or eat. Why is this important?  Because in the typical cattle ranch hierarchy, you’ve got the ranch owner who pays a ranch foreman (if the owner doesn’t oversee the daily activities himself), and ranch hands (cowhands) to work his land and tend to his cattle.  One would think the arrangement between Atz and his brother Otto is simple- Otto probably pays Atz to fend off bears, rescue cows stuck in the mud, castrate and tag calfs, and look after the overall well being of his cattle.  But if Otto isn’t making money off his cattle, where does he get the means to pay Atz?  Not to mention the money to pay for all the fuel his tractors, bull dozers, quad bikes, chain saws, snow mobiles, and a river barge (that he once used to move cattle) consume.  Oh, and let’s not forget his generator that seems to operate for over half the year, with diesel in Alaska costing about $4 a gallon. He wasn’t always a rich t.v. star, so where did the money used to come from?

Between the success of the show, his famous daughter (singer Jewel), and all his other activities like songwriting, recording artist, entertainer at private parties, and more (you can read everything he does at www.Atzkilcher.com) Atz may not need money now.  But maybe he once did, and it still doesn’t explain why he would make the sacrifice to live alone at the Head of the Bay all summer long. Unless, of course, it’s not a sacrifice and he’s happy to escape the close-knit family for a while. His bio says he writes songs and weaves his baskets while there, but why do all of this for Otto? He could live in solitude a couple of months out of the year at the Head of the Bay, and not have to endure the rigorous life of a range rider (he’s no spring chicken as he’s the eldest of 8 children). Is it simply because he’s the oldest Kilcher living on the homestead? That would make sense if they were “family/community” cows, but they’re not. How did Atz become the cowboy of the family anyway? Why doesn’t he rear his own cows or at least partner with Otto? Why did it take Otto 10 years to introduce a new bull (from the lower 48 states) to his herd?

The more we learn about the show, like the fact that Eivin (Otto’s son) admits to using electricity from the power company, the more questions we have.  I mean, Discovery Channel describes the show as a family living “off the grid.”  I hope this doesn’t turn into another “Bear Grills controversy” (another show that was produced by the Discovery Channel).  Not to worry, either way, we’ll keep watching for all the cattle and horse scenes.  Plus, that Otto is one funny guy!

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9 comments to this article

  1. Susan Osgood

    on September 24, 2017 at 12:01 am -

    We love the show. Those that do not should sumply not watch it.

  2. Saddle

    on May 2, 2017 at 5:35 pm -

    Thanks Vince! I think that’s one of the problems with all of these reality t.v. shows…because they only show us bits and snippets of the characters’ lives, and purposely only let us see what they want us to, we’re often left with more questions than answers. Take another hit Discovery show- Fast n’ Loud. There’s an age old question that’s been plaguing viewers since season one. No, nothing to do with the relationship between Richard Rawlings and Aaron Kaufman, but rather, “what product does Richard Rawlings use in his hair?” 🙂 As for the Kilchers, yea, there’s no money being exchanged between family members, but that’s no different to you helping your brother or sister out when they get that new Ikea entertainment center made up of a 100 different pieces. There’s less bartering going on in Alaska: The Last Frontier than you think. I don’t believe Jane swapped halibut steaks for that brand new rifle she got a few seasons ago, or if they pay their electric bill with fresh vegetables. If you want to live as close as you can get to a barter system, you can join Chip and Agnes Hailstone from the reality show Life Below Zero, on the Kobuk River in Noorvik, 19 miles North of the Arctic Circle. Based on what the producers show us on that t.v. show, they live pretty close to a subsistence lifestyle and operate using the barter system with their neighbors. With the Kilcher family, at times, it seems like we’re just watching their weekend DIY projects, and the hunting/fishing they do as hobbies (even though that’s not entirely true). Personally, I find the use of out-houses on one level, and using electricity in the house (and possibly natural gas for the stove) on another, hard to reconcile. During one of the first few seasons, Otto once brought out a “clothing washer” that wasn’t electric- it required manual/physical labor to use it. Outside of humbling his wife, and “keeping it real” for the show, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just buy, and use an electric washer. Yes, electricity is expensive, but so is the fuel he burns for his large barge and all the other machines he has. Speaking of clothes, at least Otto wears his dirty overalls and looks the part. Some of the younger cast members are wearing designer outdoor gear! Not that it’s wrong, or they shouldn’t, but it is just in direct contrast to the image of a true “homesteading family, living off the land” image that the producers initially tried to portray in the series. I do think the younger cast members struggle the most between balancing an old way of life vs. using the modern comforts available to them. A great example of that comes from a recent episode where I think Ivan was preaching about how “fire is underappreciated” in today’s society, and he was demonstrating how to build a fire the old fashion way (without a lighter or matches). He was sampling wood from around the Kilcher homestead, to be used by rubbing two sticks together to create friction. But, the next thing you know, he is (cleverly mind you) using a cordless power drill to rotate one of the sticks, to create the friction! I think one of the reasons these Alaskan reality shows are so popular is because as viewers, we like to see how we’re not living. How, perhaps, we might like to live, even though we know it’s impossible for us to realistically do so. Getting involved and watching their world, is like an escape from our own. So when I see things like the power drill, or find out that the Kilcher homestead is only a few miles from the town of Homer (which makes the statement “if we don’t catch, we’re not going to eat” much less meaningful), or find out that at least some of the houses on the homestead are hooked up to the electric grid, it doesn’t necessarily make me feel “had” or “fooled,” but it does take something away. I can’t quite watch with the same thoughts and feelings I used to when I was ignorant to their true ways. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still enjoyment from the entertainment value of watching the hunting, fishing, gathering, and ingenuity displayed, but it doesn’t evoke the same emotions. I guess there’s less “wow” factor. So as far as asking questions, and searching for answers regarding these Alaskan reality t.v. shows, be careful. The more you find out, the less “wowing” they become.

  3. Vince Dobson

    on April 21, 2017 at 10:38 pm -

    I see Kelli helped answer the question l had. From watching all of the shows, l see they don’t really keep a score card and money seldom if ever changes hands. Whatever someone needs they pitch in and do. It it a wonderful system l wish we could all live under.

  4. Vince Dobson

    on April 21, 2017 at 10:32 pm -

    I searched trying to answer the question of why is it Atz that looks after Otto’s cattle all summer. Great, found an article top of search. Read entire article — huh, a waste of time, for all you did was ask the same question! Where are the answers?

  5. Saddle

    on March 28, 2016 at 7:19 pm -

    Thanks… not sure who “Kelli” is. Does Shane’s wife from Last Frontier spell her name the same way? Enjoy the show! UPDATE: Indeed, she does spell her name with an “i”…

  6. Tia Colvin

    on March 28, 2016 at 7:00 pm -

    fillygirl…not sure until I send if this page even exists anymore…but here it is March 28th, 2016 and the last post was December 1st, 2014…

    Just wondering if the “Kelli” who responded to your article is Shane’s wife? Wouldn’t that be interesting…and amazing…I love this family and can’t find any information if season 6 is ever going to happen…

    I don’t have cable so will just have to wait and see I guess…:D

  7. Linda L

    on December 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm -

    To be fair, the show does make it out like they live in the back of beyond. I mean they made a point of showing/highlighting how Otto and his wife do laundry outside with a non-electric laundry machine. They could clearly have, and use, an electric washer. So I do think Discovery edits certain parts for effect.

  8. Saddle

    on December 1, 2014 at 8:14 am -

    Thanks for catching that Kelli. You are correct- Atz is the eldest MALE among the eight children. You have to remember- the Discovery Channel makes it seem as though the Kilcher Homestead is far, far away from the nearest town. It sounds like you’re a local, so we appreciate your insight.

  9. Kelli

    on November 30, 2014 at 9:40 pm -

    atz is not the oldest of the eight kids. He is a retired music teacher and has money from that plus he sells his art work and music. He loves the head of the bay and Bonnie often goes with him. Otto bought all his cows and atz doesn’t want to own any. He helps with other people’s cows up there too for the cattlemans association here. Otto and Eivin use their equipment to do jobs around the area for others to earn money also.

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