Skip to main Content

A YouTube star takes on Alaska

Remember that viral video of a guy skipping rocks across a frozen Alaska lake?

The rocks sounded like lightsabers on the ice. The man reacted like he'd seen a double rainbow.

The video blew up last week, showing up everywhere from NBC News to the Weather Channel to perhaps your own Facebook newsfeed.

It has been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube.

The man who made it is Cory Williams, a professional YouTube star who just moved to Alaska from Los Angeles. The video was shot at Edmonds Lake, off the Glenn Highway in Eagle River.

Having made a full-time living on YouTube videos for more than seven years, Williams considers himself the world's pioneer of online video stardom.

It has become a formidable industry, with top YouTube content makers earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in ad placements and endorsements.

Williams, who goes by Mr. Safety or DudeLikeHELLA online, is one of them: He claims to have made more than $100,000 per year for the past seven years making YouTube videos.

Now his camera is turned on Alaska.

Mr. Safety

Williams is a lanky, frenetic 33-year-old with graying hair around the temples, vividly white teeth and the vibe of a camp counselor who puts a lot of effort into the end-of-summer talent show.

On a recent afternoon, he sat in the chalet at Kincaid Park looking out on the first snowfall of the season. The carpet of snow elicited a level of genuine excitement more typically encountered when talking to a 4-year-old about dinosaurs.

"I'm a California kid," he said. "I've never really gotten to play in snow before."

His camera, attached to a pole that allows Williams to film himself, sat nearby.

He was showing his girlfriend's parents, visiting from out of state, around for the day and simultaneously filming a video blog post. The snow was calling.

Williams grew up near Turlock, California, and worked as a firefighter and stuntman -- hence the nickname Mr. Safety -- before he started making goofy videos for the Internet in 2005.

Back then, it was hard to even get video online. The file sizes were prohibitive.

He got his break on MySpace. His first big hit was a video called "How To Make Poop."

"I had 20,000 friends, which for MySpace was unheard of," Williams said.

Eventually, as YouTube became the dominant video sharing platform, he moved his efforts -- and audience -- there.

Since then, he's posted more than 2,000 videos.

The most popular garner millions of hits. A 2006 paean to his skittish cat, "The Mean Kitty Song," has more than 79 million views.

His shtick ranges from stunt humor -- in which he tries to paint a picture while wearing a shock collar, is filmed eating the world's hottest pepper or wages "Nerf War on Girlfriend" -- to confessional video blogs that chronicle his everyday life.

"Some are over-the-top ridiculous," he said. "Others would be really deep."

Most of the money comes from the advertisements that roll before the videos play. Some comes from what he called "branded videos," like the ones he does for Gillette shaving cream and other big corporations.

The money is inconsistent. All professional YouTubers struggle with the question of what's going to draw views.

"That's the tough part," he said. "It's not a paycheck every day."

The rock skipping video wasn't an orchestrated attempt to go viral, Williams said; he had no way of knowing the rock would make a cool noise.

"It was just me documenting daily life, which is what I do every day."

Williams says he's comfortable enough with his popularity that he ignores some topics he knows will translate into views (read: cat videos) because he's tired of them. His audience now just wants to follow his life, he says.

"If I'm not happy, it's going to show in my art."

Fodder for videos

Alaska has provided a fresh slate of experiences for Williams' video blog.

Williams and his girlfriend -- known only as Kristin to his YouTube audience -- moved to Eagle River in August after she found a job here. Williams won't say what she does for a living.

Leaving media-saturated, spotlight-hungry Los Angeles also seemed like a good idea.

"Los Angeles is full of people making online videos, and so many have a big online presence," he said.

So far, he has produced almost 50 videos of his new life in Alaska. Among them: car shopping, house shopping, waiting in line at the Moose's Tooth, riding the Great Alaska Beer Train and appearing on KTVA's morning show. Most of the video blogs seem to get between 20,000 and 50,000 views. They often have hundreds of comments.

Williams says he has been approached by reality TV producers salivating over the combination of personable YouTube star with a huge following and Alaska. Williams said he's not interested -- unless the show would allow him to be unscripted and would offer him new experiences.

Pretty much everything about Alaska is fodder for videos. He looks forward to having a moose wander through his yard. He wouldn't be upset if he got snowed in for a few days this winter. It would be even better if the power went out. He wants to video blog about salmon fishing. Earning a pilot's license.

If he's enthusiastic about Alaska life, he's also admittedly a bit of a cheechako. Pointing to the Alaska Range in the distance, he said he wants someday to fly around the biggest peak of them all.


No, he said: Mount McKinley.

No longer able to contain himself, he cocked his camera into selfie mode from the end of a long pole and began to cavort on the thin layer of snow. He decided against asking to borrow a sled from a nearby family.

His girlfriend's parents -- an engineer and an accountant from Tulsa -- gamely shivered nearby.

"I'm making extreme snow angels!" he shouted to the camera. He fell down. Maybe on purpose.