Gary Muehlberger gained the public’s attention when he was cast as one of the central characters in the reality television series “Port Protection,” a spin-off from the Emmy Award-winning show, “Life Below Zero.” It premiered on 19 July 2015 on the National Geographic Channel. The Alaskan sourdough quickly won over the viewers with his wry humor, personality, and the way he lived his life. News of his passing in 2021 shocked many of his fans, who of course wondered what happened.
Early life and family
Gary Muehlberger was born on 15 December 1945, apparently in Washington State, USA. Not much is known about his early years or his family, except that for most of his life he had been out on the beaches, and his parents used to take him and his brother for clam digging; he recalled that they always had clam chowder with their Christmas dinner.
His brother passed away, but he had so many wonderful memories with him. It’s known that Gary was in the US Army for three years.
The show featured a group of people living in the census-designated place called Port Protection in the Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, with a population of less than 50. It was discovered by the explorer, George Vancouver, who took shelter from the heavy storm in its protected bay in 1793, and its name was said to have come from a small cove that protects all who live and work here from the vast wilderness and unforgiving seas. The village is quite isolated with no government, law enforcement, hospital, or stores. There are no roads and the only way one could get around is through wooden walkways. Access to the village is via seaplane or boat; Gary had a fishing boat named Margaret T that was built in 1919.
He also had a dog named Trapper that kept him company, except whenever he went to town.
The village had running water as they had their own water system that was spring-fed, and a resident checked the pH balance from time to time. Everything that one might need to survive could be found in the forest or the sea, but that could be a problem if one didn’t have the knowledge and skills to harvest everything. Gary had said that many people romanticized the place, and wanted to live here without thinking of the work they had to do. ‘It’s hard to live here,’ he said.
The people in Port Protection follow a subsistence lifestyle. To survive there, one needed to be self-sufficient even if everybody helped each other out. When Gary first came to Alaska, he said that the old-timers showed him the way. In turn, he wanted to pass on his knowledge to young people such as teaching them how to skin and tan a beaver for its fur so they would carry on after him, and pass it on to somebody else.
In their community, people also looked out for one another like his friend, Tim “Curly” Leach, who made sure that he would get home at night.
Gary lived in a floating house for several winters. He said that he had no real home back then, and that he worked hard to build a 40×50 log float. Then, friends from work helped him put a bunkhouse on it. If someone wanted to visit him, he had an air horn on land that served as his doorbell. When it no longer worked, they just had to fire a gun to get his attention. Later he went to visit the float house that had long been abandoned, and was saddened to see its state, saying, ‘Well, they say one man’s garbage is another man’s gold but I think this garbage is…garbage.’ He said that he’ll just remember it the way it was when he lived there. He was glad to have found a photo of the place that was taken by a pilot, and took it with him as a memento.
The village had a trading post owned by an old man named Jack, which had just the barest essentials such as ice and fuel.
Gary Muehlberger "The Village Elder." Having lived in Port Protection for 40 years, Gary's self-taught subsistence survival skills are legendary amongst the community, who seek out his teachings.
If they wanted something from a hardware store or grocery store, they had to go to Wrangell, which was 40 nautical miles from their place. Gary said that the rule of thumb in their small community was that if somebody were to go to town, everybody could call in for what they needed and have it brought back to the village. Whenever it was his turn, he’d get things done in town, then eat pizza, drink beer, and visit with friends. He was never there long, but couldn’t wait to get back to his boat and head home.
Gary couldn’t think of leaving Port Protection, saying ‘This place has made me into what I am.’ He could move to the city and get a job, but he wouldn’t be happy. He could also build a cabin in the woods and be okay living there on his own, but he liked the comfort of having neighbors around and the camaraderie with them. He said, ‘I don’t have any money but I’m wealthier than most people. I’m lucky in what I get to see, what I get to do, and how I live. I think I’m a rich person.’
When he reached his 70’s, things became a lot harder to do. Gary said, ‘I’d seen a lot of people retiring and quit doing anything. They’re not alive anymore.’ However, he had that drive to keep going no matter what life threw at him; he survived cancer and had hip surgery. He was a very independent man who didn’t really like to accept help, because he took pride in doing things on his own, and not having someone come and help him. At his age, he would be up on his roof, cleaning his chimney of creosote that came from burning wet wood. He said that a hardworking man never had any problem sleeping, so he was always doing something. However, he did accept the assistance extended to him when it comes to rebuilding his boardwalk, as he didn’t know much about carpentry.
The residents of Port Protection knew that Gary could do many things, although he admitted, ‘I think some people think I’m tenacious…and I know some people know that I’m lazy.’ He also revealed that there were those who used to call him a hippie, but he said that he was just ‘a well-groomed mountain man.’
Gary’s self-sufficient lifestyle in Port Protection
Having lived in Alaska for more than half of his life, he’d explored the neighboring islands and coastlines. At first he was afraid of getting lost, but he had soon learned how to make it safe for himself and find his way back. He was at home in the woods, and found it exciting just walking around. He acquired many skills over the years and became a jack of all trades. Gary used a boat to get to the other islands where he could trap, hunt, or cut wood. Once there, he had an ATV or truck waiting so he could go deeper or farther into the island. He had said that all you need to feed yourself in Alaska were a fishing pole, shovel, and point-22.
Trapping had been a big part of Gary’s life. He said, ‘I live off what I shoot and what I catch…land otters, beavers, martens.’ It was something he enjoyed doing, and not just because he needed the income.
He sold the martens at the Canadian fur exchange or fur harvester auction, where they were graded by size and color to determine what they were worth.
Fishing was another source of income as well as of a fresh meal. It was said that everyone in Port Protection looked up to him when it comes to fishing. Even if there were two Orcas in the water, which he acknowledged to be the greatest fishermen of all, he still managed to catch a couple of King Salmon. Catching one still gave him a little bit of a rush. He shared his catch with his friend, Jack, as his mom had always taught him the value of sharing, that ‘it makes you feel good, it’s good for you.’ Sometimes he would go shrimping with borrowed pods from another resident, Hans Porter, not to earn money but he just wanted to eat some. That time, he only caught shrimps enough for a salad and a few black cod.
Foraging when the tides were low was something he took advantage of; as the tides swing in a matter of hours, he only had a small window to gather food such as abalones or sea urchins. One time, he found a rock scallop but it was the last one so he didn’t take it. He knew where to dig for clams, as they squirt water at low tide. He’d eat one so he’d know if they were good to eat or not, saying, ‘If my lips started tingling here in a half hour, I’ll know that I got paralytic shellfish poisoning and I guess I’ll say goodbye to you guys.’ When catching octopus, he used a hose to feel the ground under the rock, and if he felt an octopus there, he’d blow on the other end of the hose to coax the sea creature to come out of hiding. That night, he’d have clams and octopus fritters for dinner.
Hunting deer was necessary not only because his staple red meat had always been venison, but it would also give him enough food that would last through winter.
Gary shared that he was nine or 10 years old when he first killed a deer with his brother, back in Washington and that he was grateful for all the things that the latter taught him. Over the years, hunting deer had become more difficult and he had to put at least 2.5 nautical miles between himself and his village to improve his chances of bagging one. He usually drove an ATV when he went out hunting, as it made things easy for him but if he couldn’t use it, he’d just walk.
Gary said that when things didn’t go as planned, it shouldn’t stop you from doing what you needed to do, even if you had to go about it the hard way. He said he might be old but he could still give the young guys a run for their money when it comes to hunting, because of his experience. Besides, he was still in good shape as he exercised a lot. He found and shot a doe after hours of tracking, and had to make a backpack out of it so he could carry it as taught to him by his brother.
Gary could also hunt small game such as a blue grouse or hooter, which was known for its dark meat and savory taste.
Cutting trees was a simple task for him, as he’d been a logger for over ten years, but he was never careless as he’d learned never to tempt fate. He said you had to look at a tree like it could kill you, sharing that he’d lost a few friends while logging. Gary revealed that a lot of people made fun of him because he would put much effort just to get a particular wood – a bull pine tree. He said that a dead standing bull pine became drier and harder with each passing year, so its wood would burn more efficiently than other trees.
Harvesting it could be more work than it’s worth for others, but not to him as he said that it keeps his chimney clean; he would search for hours to find one. There was a time he found a 40-foot-tall bull pine, but broke the pull cord of his saw. He’d forgotten to bring the necessary spare part, but found something in his truck to fix it.
He successfully cut down that tree, and acquired weeks’ worth of fuel to warm his home; he used a hydraulic splitter to split his firewood, because he was getting too old to do it using an ax.
Gary said that the No.1 rule in Port Protection was to never be alone in the woods at night. Even if there were only a few spots around the village that were unknown to him, accidents happen, and it would be quite a while before someone would come looking or even find him. Wild predators from bears to wolves lived in the woods, and if that wasn’t scary enough, then those stories of Kushtaka should be; it’s a shapeshifter that could assume human form and that of an otter, as the natives believed. Residents said that it was what made the hairs on the back of their necks stand when they were out there.
It was also dangerous to be out on the skiff at night; Mother Nature was something Gary never took for granted or wasn’t mindful of.
Whether he accomplished what he set out to do or not, it was safer to be home before the sun went down. However, he would sometimes be out hunting or trapping for several days, and his boat would serve as his campsite, and then there were also times he would stay out on the beach at night, having a relaxing time with a fire going and drinking beer.
What happened to Gary Muehlberger?
The death of Gary Muehlberger was announced on the official website of “Life Below Zero” on 19 March 2021. The post stated: ‘He had an incredibly big heart, epitomized so much of the human spirit and welcomed the world into his life with open arms. He will be deeply missed.’ Gary appeared in over 30 episodes of “Port Protection”, and had gained a loyal following; thousands of fans expressed their condolences on his passing.
We’re extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Gary Muehlberger, a legend to the Port Protection: Alaska community & the #LifeBelowZero family. He had an incredibly big heart, epitomized the human spirit & welcomed the world into his life with open arms. He will be missed. pic.twitter.com/Vsd2RlFakD
— Life Below Zero (@LifeBelowZeroTV) March 19, 2021
Alaska State Troopers received a report before noon on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 that Gary’s home was engulfed in flames, and none had seen the old Alaska resident before it happened. Port Protection had no official fire department, but they had a few volunteers who had skills and experience with firefighting. However, with the lay of the land and the way the residential houses were positioned, it would be tricky to get there in time to extinguish a fire.
A Deputy Fire Marshal from Anchorage was scheduled to arrive on Friday to investigate the origin and cause of the fire, but was delayed due to bad weather. Human remains were identified inside the burned-down house by the people in the community. On the 23rd of March, the fire was ruled as an accident. Details weren’t revealed, although it was believed that the hot water propane tank exploded. The State Medical Examiner’s office confirmed on the 26th that the human remains found were Gary Muehlberger. he was 75 years old. His beloved dog, Trapper, was found alive and well.