Life in Copper River country appears to have proven too real for the stars of the “Alaskan Bush People” reality television show, who last week announced to viewers the need to flee their new homestead.
The “Fight or Flight” episode, which repeats this week, starts with this message: “The Discovery Channel was given permission to document the life of a secluded Bush family. During production, an incident occurred and filming was stopped.”
What follows explains the flight of the Browns -- Billy and Ami and seven children including Bear, Bam Bam, Snowbird and Rainy -- from their “secluded” cabin site in a subdivision off the Richardson Highway.
The crucial scene shows the family roused at night by what sounds like two gunshots fired outside. The men rush out, heavily armed, as viewed through the greenish tint of a night-vision camera. “Then the unthinkable happens,” a voice-over intones. A third shot is apparently fired as the men wait in the dark with the camera rolling.
Spooked, the menfolk pull back to the safety of the cabin.
“This land is not worth dying for,” Billy Brown, a former commercial fisherman and author, tells the camera in a scene shot later. The family leaves and eventually ends up living on a boat in Ketchikan, back where they started.
A year and half after the episode filmed and the family disappeared from the homestead, it’s still not clear just what happened to chase them off.
A reporter’s efforts to get to the bottom of the potential shootout uncovered another, stranger reality. The Alaska State Troopers say no one affiliated with “Alaskan Bush People” seems to have reported any shots fired. But a helicopter filming part of the show ran into another situation that was reported to the troopers.
The crew told troopers that a neighbor of the Browns shot fireworks at the helicopter, forcing them away from the cabin.
That’s right -- a neighbor.
The 5 acres of so-called Alaskan wilderness where, as the show claims, the “recently discovered” family shunned modern society to eke out a simple existence deep in the Bush turned out to be right next door to someone who liked his slice of Alaska without the whir of chopper blades.
Pizza and bear guard
The property, abandoned after filming ended in late 2012, sits in a subdivision less than 10 miles south of Copper Center, easily accessible from a dirt road just off the highway. There’s a pizza place about a half-mile away. The surroundings are wild enough -- the production crew even hired someone to carry a shotgun for bear protection, numerous locals say -- but the area is by no means wilderness.
And yes, the Browns had company living right next door: Jason Hoke, a 46-year-old regional economic development director originally from Albany, N.Y., but an Alaskan since 1996.
Hoke said he grew increasingly frustrated during the show’s production by vehicles speeding up the dirt road, the shouting from next door and the constant buzz of chainsaws.
He said he never fired any shots toward the cabin. What he did, Hoke said, was shoot two or three mortar-type fireworks into the air when a helicopter capturing aerial footage roared over his house while his family was eating dinner.
“The entire house is shaking; my youngest boy Ethan, who was about 4 at the time, is crying,” he said. As he saw it, the helicopter was pounding away just above the treetops over his property.
After trying unsuccessfully to wave it away, Hoke said he “decided to shoot a couple in the air, not in the vicinity, and let them know ‘Hey, get away from my house!’”
According to Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters, a trooper did respond to an Oct. 10, 2012 report of fireworks near a helicopter from a neighbor of the Browns. The trooper reviewed footage of the incident, but no charges were filed, she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration, however, hit Hoke with a $500 civil penalty for deliberately shooting three “artillery-type fireworks” near the Robinson R44, according to an order signed by a senior FAA attorney in February 2013. The fireworks “posed an imminent threat to the safety of the flight and the three individuals on the aircraft.”
Up in the helicopter, Daniel Zatz was filming when his pilot spotted a green flash an estimated 40 or 50 feet from the R44, he said. Zatz, an Emmy winner who owns a Homer-based aerial cinematography company contracted by the “Bush People” producers, got the second mortar on film. Then they climbed out of the area and called the troopers.
“I think he didn’t understand it takes the tiniest thing to hit our tail rotor and we’re just dead,” Zatz said.
He called Hoke’s description of the helicopter’s altitude at tree-top height “a pretty severe exaggeration” since it’s not safe to fly that low. He said the lightweight R44 doesn’t cause enough vibration to make a house shake.
Still, Zatz said the producers on the ground should have communicated better with Hoke before the overflight happened, and now, he said, he tries to make sure production crews reach out to neighbors before he starts filming from the air.
“What I can appreciate is he moved out to where he did because he wanted to have a quiet life, and when a helicopter came into his neighborhood, he didn’t have much patience for it,” he said.
“Alaskan Bush People” is one of more than a dozen Alaska reality shows filmed in what are supposed to be middle-of-nowhere locales. The shows feature people braving Bering Sea ice storms for crab on “The Deadliest Catch”; racing across icefields on “Ultimate Survival Alaska”; or dredging the frigid waters off Nome in “Bering Sea Gold.”
Like the others, “Alaskan Bush People” capitalizes on the 49th state’s reputation as America’s wild playground. The Copper River basin isn’t Manhattan, but it’s not the middle of nowhere, either.
The rugged basin holds about 2,500 people scattered across an area the size of Ohio, from Eureka to Mentasta and Paxson to Thompson Pass, above Valdez. Most appreciate the subsistence lifestyle, remarkable backcountry access and quiet. Others seek privacy for less law-abiding reasons.
Some local residents didn’t take kindly to the sudden arrival of people carrying cameras and refusing to say what they were doing in order to preserve the pre-screening secrecy of the show, says Billy Williams, who owns Grizzly Pizza, a Richardson Highway restaurant that pops up in two episodes. The helicopter flying overhead really sealed the deal, Williams said.
“Some people were very upset about them, didn’t want them filming them, didn’t want them around, didn’t like the way they were portraying the community,” he said. “I didn’t think they did such a bad job, and I’ve lived here all my life.”
Williams said his wife headed “a parade” of people who filed down to the Brown property to help build the cabin. And the episode where winter threatened was the real deal, he said. “(Discovery) did try to make them live in the tarp shack. At the end of the last scenes here, it started snowing on them. It was 10 below and it was snowing on them. They got caught by the weather.”
More than a dozen crew members stayed at the hotel in Chitina and came out for post-work relaxation at Uncle Tom’s Tavern, which also appeared in the show.
Owner Tom Wesner appreciated the business but also the newcomers’ good manners.
“I didn’t have any problem with anybody that was doing the shooting of the film,” Wesner said. “The family members came in when they were filming only. It was all set up. They set up the camera in here, did what they did. That was about it.”
The show brought “a sense of economic stimulus” in the fall, when tourists usually disappear from the area, said Matt Lorenz, editor and publisher of the Copper River Record, the local newspaper out of Glennallen.
Still, Lorenz continued, the overall feeling was negative. He published an editorial in October 2012 that referenced “skeptical residents” wondering about a film crew with more than 20 members from the Lower 48 asking around for airplanes, horses and single women.
“Wary of supporting publicity driven attempts to settle in the Copper Basin after witnessing first-hand the Papa Pilgrim debacle and also wary of seeing the Copper Basin misrepresented by Reality TV, numerous community members have contacted the Copper River Record (CRR) seeking reliable information concerning the family’s back-story and the film crew’s legitimacy,” Lorenz wrote. But a group of people filming in the middle of the subdivision road refused to answer any of his questions.
“Ninety-five percent of the people pretty much saw the farce there,” Lorenz said by phone last week. “I compare it to wrestling, professional wrestling, as far as reality TV goes. There’s always some people in the audience that really think it’s real.”
So did somebody open fire on the Browns’ cabin or not?
The episode’s sudden twist baffled reviewer Ryan Berenz, who writes for Channel Guide Magazine.
“We’re told that someone, angry about the Browns bringing TV cameras with them, opened fire on them. We’re given few details about what happened next. Did the authorities get involved? Was there an investigation?” Berenz wrote in an online post published Wednesday. “Look, I know law enforcement is probably pretty stretched in these parts, but I think death threats and someone shooting at you is probably enough to get a visit from Alaska State Troopers (a whole different show!) in the very least.”
Troopers spokesperson Peters said no one ever contacted troopers about gunfire in the area.
Discovery Channel’s communications director, Sean Martin, said that along with the incident involving the helicopter, there “were also additional shots fired over several days.”
Martin said Discovery Channel “won’t be commenting further” when asked why the show didn’t use video footage from the helicopter and why nobody apparently filed a report with law enforcement.
The production company identified on the show, Park Slope Productions, didn’t respond to a request for information.
Hoke says he never heard any shots fired around his property, which backs up to the Brown cabin.
He says the production crew dropped the ball on community relations, then generated a show that insults the Copper River Valley.
“We live a different lifestyle here. We’re not in the city. That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of wackos,” Hoke said. “Stop portraying Alaskans like we’re idiots.”
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.