MAHARISHI VEDIC CITY — Stellavera Kilcher has been living off the land ever since she was a little girl.
Kilcher spends her winters in Maharishi Vedic City, but every summer she returns to her native Alaska. She is the daughter of Yule and Ruth Kilcher, Swiss immigrants who homesteaded land in the state in the 1940s. The family raised their eight children in a quaint log cabin without plumbing or modern heating, and later became the subject of six documentaries.
Today, the Kilcher family is best known as stars of the Discovery Channel’s series “Alaska: The Last Frontier.”
The show follows the life of Stellavera’s brothers Atz and Otto Kilcher and their families, who have continued to live much the way their parents did decades ago by relying on themselves for food through farming, hunting and fishing and without the amenities urbanites take for granted. Atz Kilcher, who is a renowned singer in his own right, is the father of the Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Jewel, famous for songs such as “You Were Meant for Me” and “Who Will Save Your Soul.”
Stellavera was a member of the first class at Maharishi International University after the school moved to Fairfield in 1974. She graduated four years later with a degree in education.
She now divides her time between Alaska and Maharishi Vedic City, and has very different living arrangements in the two states. She spends the winters in a condo in Iowa, but her summers are spent in a remote part of Alaska where she lives completely off the grid, in an enclosure called a “yurt,” a portable round tent 16-feet in diameter.
Her husband, Michael Olmstead, lives in his own cabin, an 8-by-8 foot building he’s dubbed his “man cave.” The couple rely on an outhouse with no roof, and a propane heated outdoor shower. That lifestyle is tolerable during the warm months, but Stellavera said it’s too rough even for her in the winter, so she heads south.
Those who wish to live life like the Kilchers can stay at Stellavera’s nearby Airbnb, a small building big enough for a bed that she assembled from a greenhouse kit.
Yule Kilcher grew up in Switzerland and attended the University of Geneva, where he studied film. In the 1930s, wartime tensions in Europe propelled Yule to leave Switzerland, and he ended up in the Alaskan frontier. Yule had prepared for exactly that way of living by spending a year studying the principles of Norwegian log home construction, which involves wooden pegs and locking the logs together without the aid of nails.
In the early 1940s, Yule and Ruth settled a plot of land near the town of Homer, about 220 miles south of Anchorage. At this point, much of Alaska was still unclaimed wilderness in public hands. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave pioneers the right to claim the land if they improved it by clearing 1/3 of the land and building a dwelling on it in 3 years. Stellavera said some people think that homesteaders got the land for “free,” but it comes with a “price.” She said her family cleared 50 acres of forest by hand, with no chain saws.
“All the meadows that people see in the television show were once forest,” she said.
Yule used his knowledge of Norwegian building techniques to fashion a log house measuring 18-by-20 foot with a sod roof for insulation. In this humble abode the couple raised eight children — six girls and two boys. For many years, the family had no running water or electricity. Stellavera recalls having to walk 2 miles to be picked up by the school bus, which took her to Homer.
“And if we came upon a moose in the middle of the road, we would turn around. We weren’t going to school that day,” Stellavera recalled.
Many Alaskans have to build moose fences 9 feet tall around their plants or else the animals will eat them when they come down from the highlands in the winter. When Kilcher was growing up, she and the family ate a limited diet over the winter of smoked meats and a handful of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and turnips. She looked forward to the spring when she could finally eat something green like nettles or dandelions.
The Kilchers got running water and electricity in the early 1960s. The cabin has since been converted into a museum showcasing the family’s pioneer days.
Ruth Kilcher made her mark beyond being a mother of eight; she was president of the National Press Women for years and was a published poet. She also wrote articles for the Alaska state newspaper. Yule’s 660-acre homestead on Kachemak Bay east of Homer became a popular stop for musicians, military figures and politicians according to his obituary. In fact, Yule was among the delegates to Alaska’s pre-statehood constitutional convention in 1955-56, and served in the state Senate from 1963-67. He even helped write the state’s constitution. When Yule died in 1998 at the age of 85, Alaska’s governor ordered flags be lowered to half-staff.
About a decade or so ago, a film crew went to Alaska looking for people to star in a reality show titled “Alaskan Mountain Men.” The crew was looking for tough Alaskans who lived off the land. They filmed a few dozen guys, including Stellavera’s brothers and nephews. In creating the “sizzle” reel to submit to Discovery Channel, they thought, “why not do a father-son show?” Discovery loved the idea and in 2011 ordered the first season solely about the Kilchers. Discovery changed the name of the show to its current title, “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” It become one of the channel’s most popular shows, and is in its ninth season with 140 episodes and counting.
The land the Kilchers live on is in a trust, and each of the eight children of Ruth and Yule have five acres to themselves. The rest of the land is shared between them. Though the whole extended family lives in the same area in basically the same way, Discovery Channel has chosen to focus its attention on the two brothers, Atz and Otto, and their families. Stellavera appeared in one episode, episode 7 of season 1.
Stellavera said Discovery focuses on the brothers because it’s trying to make the show seem macho for a male-dominated audience. At one point, the six sisters were going to receive their own spinoff show. However, the new head of Discovery canceled the project because he didn’t think it would appeal to the channel’s target demographic: 25-40 year-old men who would like to be hunters and fishermen according to Stellavera. Stellavera finds that funny because when she travels around and meets fans of the show, she meets more women than men, and only a tiny sliver fit the “target” demographic.
“How has the show lasted nine seasons? It’s character driven,” Stellavera said. “It has become a family show. It shows how disagreements are settled, and we hear all the funny or profound things that come out of Otto or Atz’s mouth.”
When Discovery Channel started filming the Kilchers, the producers had no idea of the gold mine they had stumbled upon. They did not realize Yule was a famous pioneer and statesmen, and that the family had already been the subject of six documentaries. They also didn’t know that Yule had filmed hours upon hours of home movies, 30 years of color footage. Stellavera said her father regarded everything as a “shootable” moment, and that any time something interesting happened on the farmstead, he got the camera.
Yule put together a two-hour silent film promoting homesteading in Alaska, and showed it all over Europe. He spoke 10 languages fluently, and was able to narrate overtop the film in whatever local language he needed to. But that wasn’t all. He and the family entertained crowds with their singing, too, billed as “The Trapper Family Singers.”
The Kilcher family received a special recognition in 2016 when it was honored as one of only three families still living who had participated in homesteading. The family was honored during Homestead Days at Homestead National Monument of America, a unit of the National Park Service near Beatrice, Nebraska.
“It was fun for all eight of us to see our parents acknowledged for their work,” Stellavera said.
Future presentation of ‘Alaska: The Last Frontier’
Stellavera has prepared a slideshow of photographs from her family’s life in Alaska, and would like to give a public presentation in the next few months, especially to those who are fans of the show, “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” Stellavera hasn’t nailed down a time or date yet. In the meantime, Stellavera is busy renovating the pandit campus into apartments on the north side of Maharishi Vedic City.
She said having a woman lead a construction crew is common in Alaska, but she wasn’t sure how her mostly male colleagues in Iowa would react. She said that once the workers learned she’s Otto’s sister from the TV show, they were thrilled to have her as their boss.