An Athabascan hunter and trapper who grew up in the hinterlands of the Yukon-Koyukuk region will this year become a featured player in the well-known television program Life Below Zero, a multi-Emmy winning National Geographic production.
Ricko DeWilde, 43, from the village of Huslia in Interior Alaska, is one of 14 children who, like his siblings, never attended a public school until his senior year in high school. “We were home-schooled and grew up in our camps, living off the land, hunting, trapping, and fishing,” he said.
DeWilde said television producers, at BBC Studios in Los Angeles, found him on video postings he submitted to YouTube of his adventures in the wilds of Alaska.
Joseph Litzinger, Executive Producer of Life Below Zero for BBC Studios, said of Dewilde:
“Ricko DeWilde brings a compelling new perspective to our already authentic and expert cast. Ricko's pride and love for Alaska and his Native traditions shows in every frame of footage shot. His lifestyle illustrates the virtues of living off the land and the significance of giving back to it. As an expert hunter and devout family man that tirelessly works to provide for his children, Ricko has shown the importance of his Native Alaskan Athabascan traditions in a way that makes it entertaining and informative for the National Geographic audience and beyond.”
DeWilde said his father and mother built several cabins along the rivers outside of the village where the family lived in summer and winter, moving from one site to another, keeping up with the abundance of the land.
DeWilde’s uncle, Warner Vent Sr., 78, of Huslia said he watched all the children grow up.
“I’ve known Ricko all his life. They all grew up around here. He was always out at camp. They know how to survive,” Vent said. “They had a nice camp out there, a two-story house,” he added.
DeWilde tells his story in his own words
“I’m an Athabascan Indian from the North Fork of the Huslia River. I grew up 100-miles upriver from Huslia with my late mom and dad who raised 14 of us children out there in the remote wilderness. My late dad and mom were very strong and independent from society and the welfare or industrial system, so you can say, ‘there were times we had it tough.’”
“We lived by the seasons as far as how we traveled and what game we had available to harvest for food on the table. My father built a lot of cabins in different areas where we lived so that we were able to either hunt, trap, or farm for foods in different areas with the changing seasons and opportunities.”
“My mother did a lot of sewing to keep us in warm gear. She also made the fishnets from twine, cooked, harvested small game and gathered berries, trapped fur-bearing animals for clothing and money, and did many other things that came with surviving off the land. Both my mother and father were always busy keeping us warm and fed and also teaching us all the tricks of the trade to survive in remote Alaska.”
“Every spring after the breakup we would travel by wooden boat and a 9.5 hp motor to Huslia to get the majority of our supplies and mail for the year. This was always a very exciting time for us to be ‘going to town’ as we would call it. We would be also very nervous with the thought of mingling and adjusting to society and all of our friends and cousins.”
“We did not have comforts of traditional everyday people in town. My mattress was a big canvas bag filled with moose hair, with small wool blankets and no sheets. The cabin had no insulation on the floor. It was just a wood floor, hand-ripped from the trees. The insulation between the logs was moss from the land, the roof was also sod moss and the cabin sat halfway under the ground.”
“To be thrown from that world into society was a surreal feeling. My senses would go wild. If the wind was in our favor we’d be able to smell the exhaust from the diesel generator and vehicles within the village long before it came into sight. The soft feel of blankets, smooth floors, pillows, tissue paper, running water, restrooms; the sight of bright electric lights, television, and even the food boxes like cereal and everything else was soothing to the eyes.”
“All the sweet flavors of society was overwhelming to the taste buds after living off straight wild game for a year. We would see pancakes with syrup, as more like candy whenever it was available.”
“After turning 18-years-old, I moved from camp life to society — as all my siblings did. It was a very tough transition for me. It would take a lot of writing to explain the pains I suffered in this culture shock experience.”
“I do go home and spend time hunting for elders in the fall as well as well as hang out to trap, hunt, fish, and travel all over on the Yukon River and Koyukuk River. I also spend a lot of time at my cabins where I was raised. I have my own family now, so it’s very important that I bring them out and teach my children their Native traditions that were passed on to me.”
“I did some YouTube episodes in the past while hunting moose back home and that is how Life Below Zero — a television show which is produced by BBC Studios and shown on the National Geographic Channel — discovered and contacted me. I enjoy being on the show. They basically follow my time in the woods back home and film me doing things like trapping, hunting, fishing, along with the many chores that one must do to make it possible to live out in the bush and maintain one’s cabins, smokehouses, caches, etc.”
“On February 19th the season finale will be shown. I have a huge part in it with the fall hunt. I hunt moose for my Aunty to ensure that she has meat for the winter. As Natives in rural Alaska, we don’t have it as hard as our ancestors, but we still hunt for our elders and they communicate with us on the best areas to hunt so we are able to move around and harvest food for our families just as our forefathers have for thousands of years.”
“I’ve been on this show since November 2018 and am very excited to continue working with them to try shed some light on our Native culture and how important it is for us as Natives today to keep practicing our way of life. Our traditional methods of survival and hunting are how we are here today, but I feel this ancient knowledge is in jeopardy as we get more and more comfortable with today’s technology. The knowledge of survival that’s kept us alive for millennia is rapidly disappearing and is being replaced by a system that we rely on today which isn’t even 100-years-old. I’m afraid, that like the old timers and medicine men predicted, times are going to get tough again, and we won’t be ready for it like our ancestors and forefathers were. If the knowledge dies then perhaps we are setting ourselves up for failure,” DeWilde said.
For more information, visit the Nat Geo 'Life Below Zero' program page here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/tv/life-below-zero/
Life Below Zero airs on the National Geographic Channel on Tuesdays at 9/8c.