A self-described bookworm from Lake Crystal, Minn., Ashley Selden wouldn't have expected to spend each winter in Alaska's bush country and to star in a reality TV show about her and her husband Tyler's unique way of life.
Having met as students at the University of Minnesota Duluth, the Seldens decided to move north after Tyler, 32, graduated in 2006. They settled for a year in Cold Foot, Alaska (population 10), where they worked at a truck stop often featured on the History Channel reality show "Ice Road Truckers."
They then migrated to Fairbanks, finding jobs as log peelers. It was there that they were introduced to a network of trappers who worked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When they had the opportunity to acquire an established fox and wolverine trap line in the bush, they jumped at the chance. It was not just adventure they sought but an alternative way of life.
For the past seven years, the couple have left their home in Fairbanks to spend September through March in the isolated Alaskan wilderness. They live in one of only seven permitted cabins left in the ANWR, which is the size of South Carolina and covers more than 19 million acres. The Seldens' daily lives are documented in a new show called "The Last Alaskans" on Animal Planet (7 p.m. Sunday). With all remaining permits to live in their area to expire in less than 100 years, thereby eliminating human presence in the ANWR, the series chronicles the last age of frontier living in Alaska. The show premiered Monday.
In a recent interview, Ashley Selden, 30, spoke about the challenges of their daily existence in the harsh Arctic wilderness, as well as the perpetual awe she experiences in nature.
On building a relationship that centered on the outdoors
When we were at UMD, Tyler and I would always get on the trails around the North Shore and hitchhike back to town at the end of the weekend. They were some of the best times in our courtship, spending that time outside together.
On deciding to move to Alaska
When Tyler graduated I had totally fallen in love with him and he desperately wanted to go to Alaska because he had been working in Denali in the summers. I was in school in the criminology department, and all I could see myself doing was some sort of indoor job in a prison or something. I felt like it was a road that wouldn't interest me and I wouldn't be happy. It was all fate that I went to Duluth, though, because I met my husband there and we were able to create this amazing life together.
On getting to their cabin each fall
We land on whatever gravel bar is accessible to the plane. The river near our cabin is always changing, so every fall we don't know what to expect. Once we had to land a mile upriver with our entire load — 2,500 pounds of gear — that needed to be moved to our cabin area. We landed on an island, so we had to go across water to hike everything in. It took almost three weeks. In the meanwhile, we had to camp out next to our gear and food because there are a lot of grizzly bears.
On learning to mush as their main form of transportation
The biggest part of our learning curve that first year out there was the dogs. We got our team just two weeks before we went to the trap line. We had never had dogs before, and then suddenly we had this whole team of big Inuit dogs and we had to learn to mush. The dogs maybe knew what they were doing more than us.
On fear in the wilderness
I'm not afraid of the cold or other animals or the river, but I am afraid of grizzly bears. We have a lot of them because we have a salmon run on our river, which is a huge draw for them. There's never a doubt in my mind that I'm going to see a few every fall, and I'm always bracing myself for those encounters. I just try to tell myself that bear attacks are rare.
On living off the grid
It really puts you in your place in the world. You see how small you are. I think your ego diminishes because you aren't thinking of yourself in relation to other people. You just feel like another animal and you're as vulnerable as anything else.
On how life in the bush has affected her relationship with her husband
Sometimes it almost feels a little dangerous how much I love Tyler because we are completely dependent on each other. That other person means so much to you when you're alone out in the wilderness. Sometimes my love for Tyler is so strong, it takes my breath away.
On their surroundings
We see a lot of shooting stars and aurora, which is really wonderful. Sometimes you get these cool mirages, like in the desert. But when it's really cold and we're on the lake, you'll get a mirage that goes across the stars and the moon. It's crazy and witchy-looking. There have been moments when I've been out there on the lake mushing with Tyler and I say, "If this is eternity, I would be OK with getting locked into this."
On rewards in the wild
I get to do something that most other people don't get to do in the wilderness. It's not like the world is full of vast wildernesses like this anymore, so it's pretty special. I feel like I'm standing for something. That's another reason I feel so lucky — to show that this lifestyle can still exist.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.