Alaska Preppers: The Obligation of Citizenry
Words & Photos / Cody Liska
Audio Production / Ammon Swenson
In 1964, a 9.2 earthquake caused massive structural damage throughout southcentral Alaska. It lasted four minutes and thirty-eight seconds, induced ground fissures, tsunamis, widespread power outages, $311 million in damage and the deaths of about 139 people. Anchorage sustained most of the damage. It is the second largest earthquake ever recorded and Alaskans weren’t ready for it.
That scenario, and the possibility of it happening again, is one reason for Alaska-based militia groups to prepare.
“Ask yourself, ‘if the earthquake of ’64 were to happen tomorrow, in your neighborhood, would you be a hindrance to your neighbors, would you be a burden, or would you be helpful to them,” asks Eric Hecker, founder of the Anchorage Citizen’s Militia. “If you find that you would be a burden to your neighbors, you should join the militia. If you find that you would be able to help your neighbors, you should also join the militia because you should be training for that day now. We’re in Alaska, we already know that day’s coming… You’re either going to be a benefit or a burden.”
The responsibility of citizenry—neighbors helping neighbors—is what Hecker advocates. “Everybody helping out,” he says, “that’s all. Everybody helps each other. You wake up in the morning, ‘hey neighbor, how’s it going? What’re you doing today? Do you need a hand?’ And using your resources together, collectively.”
The annual Prepper, Survivalists and Militia Rendezvous, Rondy for short, is described on their Facebook page as an annual gathering of likeminded folk for the purpose of networking, training and trading. The South Central Patriots, the Anchorage Municipal Defense Force and the Anchorage Citizen’s Militia are among the groups in attendance. The property Rondy sits on, in Talkeetna, is a 51-acre piece of land owned by Ed Wick, an amiable, giant of a man who’s missing one of his front teeth and a couple in the back. “[It’s a] great bunch of people from all walks of life,” he says of the attendees. “We got retired military, I think we even got a couple guys that are probably still in the Guard, you can see wives and kids… If there was ever a severe emergency situation, like a very bad earthquake or something of that nature, these people would support law enforcement. They’d be an auxiliary type thing.”
A number of people walk around the property with handguns holstered on their hips or legs and rifles slung across their shoulders. There are dogs and tents and motorhomes, classes and discussions on self-defense and ham radios, among other subjects, a community campfire and a firing range. Near Anchorage Municipal Defense Force founder Rick Ford’s campsite three rifles lean against the bumper of a pickup. A rifle, a SOCOM 16, hangs across Hecker’s back. It was manufactured by Springfield Armory, a factory owned by the United States government and was the primary source of weapons and ammunition during the American Revolutionary War. A SOCOM 16, or M1A, is the civilian, semi-automatic version of the military issue M14 automatic rifle.
“That’s the bias that the media puts on anything that looks scary, [that] it’s an assault weapon,” Ford says. “Well, you know, an assault weapon can be a stick. Assault is an action, it is not a noun. Anything that doesn’t have a bolt action or a lever action is automatically [labeled] an automatic weapon and it’s not. And that you always reload them by clips, they still can’t get over that. It’s been a long time since the U.S. has had a weapon that is fed by a clip.”
“The relationship with this lifestyle and firearms, I would gather, goes right back to the Constitution and the Second Amendment,” adds Hecker. “I mean, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is kind of integral to that, [in] that you can protect your life and your property. It’s just inherent. And the only way to defend yourself would be through some sort of weapon. I mean, unless you’re a ninja. Feel free to beat people up if they come after you. If they want to punch you and you can punch them, cool. If they have a gun and you still want to punch them, that’s your choice. Welcome to freedom.”
Hecker and Ford agree that a lot of misunderstanding involves vocabulary and the perpetuation of misinformation. “It’s very disheartening when you’re having to address criticism from folks who are completely ignorant on the topic,” Hecker says. “It’s frustrating because you hear a vocabulary being wielded at you incorrectly… For most people, [the word “militia”] has a negative connotation because there’s been the application of intent for people to receive it that way. When our founding fathers put pen to paper, they clearly define it at that time…”
“If you read the Constitution,” interjects Ford, “if you understand where their mindset was, there is no question as to what the citizen’s responsibility is. It’s pretty clear.”
Working out an appropriate definition for a Prepper, Ford says, “it’s not about prepping in the modern term because any farmer is a lousy farmer and an unsuccessful farmer if you don’t prep. If you don’t have your seeds stocked for the next year, you’re not going to survive.” The Prepper philosophy is not so much reactionary as it is proactive, Ford says, because to be reactionary is to do the same job as the police. Being proactive means to anticipate repercussions, nip them in the bud or be prepared for them. Ford says he applies this mentality to his whole life, not just the part about preparing for a worst case scenario. “98 percent of the people on the Seward Highway see a wreck and they will continue driving on or they will be there videotaping you working on somebody… I’ve been through more of them than I can count. One of the more recent ones—there must have been at least a hundred cars [stopped]—[and] I was only like two [vehicles] behind a multi-motorcycle and vehicle crash and six of us got out to help and within an hour there was 200 people, there were literally people walking up videotaping and nobody was willing to help direct traffic or anything. It was like 45 minutes before we managed to get [the Alaska State] Troopers in there to help out. So, we’re stabilizing patients and trying to clear crashed motorcycles and cars out of the way to clear lanes. There couldn’t have been more than 10 people total who were willing to help out.”
Another time, back home in Anchorage, Ford responded to an assault. He saw a crime being committed and he reacted to it. “A guy [was] assaulting a woman on the street corner,” he says, “he had his hands on her throat, she was crying for help. Do I dial 911 and sit there and wait? No, this is a human being assaulted, very physically. I’m not going to stand back and dial 911 and wait for the police. I dial 911, but then I respond [to the situation] with 911 on the phone. I know [the police] don’t like that and they tell you, ‘don’t get involved’ and it’s like, ‘ma’am there’s a woman down and a guy with his hands on her throat. I am responding.’ And I just verbally give [the police] the narrative as to what I’m doing… Four and a half hours later, with the victim in my workshop [at my house]—waiting for the police—and [the police] still never showed. So, we called a relative of hers and got them to come down and get her and get her to a safe place.”
“You have to get your hands in the dirt,” Ford keeps saying. The first time he said it, it was literal, he was talking about getting off the computer, “learn a few skills in real time rather than being keyboard commanders.” He was talking about growing up on a farm, about how he’s been experimenting with different seed stock and how he’s got chickens and bees, two gardens and an orchard full of trees back home in Anchorage. The more he says it, however, the more it becomes a metaphor for practical experience.
“We’re prepping food,” Hecker says, and Ford nods in affirmation. “Hunger has no political persuasion. It’s ridiculous that the media puts a spin on things like this as if politics has anything to do with what we’re discussing. They do that because that’s the benefit of politics, you apply it to anything and right off the bat you get 50 percent of the population has one opinion and 50 percent of the population another opinion and they can fight it out amongst themselves and now it’s a moot point and nothing gets accomplished.”
You have to know how to grow your food, says John Root III, founder of the South Central Patriots (SCP). “You need to learn how to put your food away and you need to learn how to keep your food. That’s what all this is about.”
Root formed SCP in 2008. It was 25 below in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley the day it started, and it consisted of three people standing in a garage around a woodstove. Since then, they’ve made their way to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Delta Junction and the Kenai Peninsula. They have guys in Dillingham, Juneau and Ketchikan. Today, it’s arguably the largest homegrown militia group in Alaska. Looking at his iPhone, Root estimates that he associates with “probably a thousand people. I go through my phone and what’s really weird is I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of them… and we’re all of the same mindset.”
Root says national groups like APIII, Watchmen, Guardian Angels, Soldiers of Odin and Oath Keepers can rely on each other down in the continental United States—“they can get to their neighbors, they can get across state lines,” he says, his Jack Russell Terrier nearby sporting a red, white and blue hairdo—but if something happens in Alaska, those groups can’t be relied on.
“All of these groups are alright in the Lower 48, but as soon as they come up here, they try to tell me that I gotta hand all these people over to them,” says Root, lifting his hand and extending his middle finger. “And this has happened several times with these national groups and I tried to tell these guys, I say, ‘you know, when something happens, we’re on our own [in Alaska]. That’s just how it is.’”
Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 by Elmer Stuart Rhodes, claim to have 30,000 members in chapters across the United States. Members have shown up to protests openly carrying firearms and have been accused of racism. In 2009, Larry Keller, reporting for Southern Poverty Law Center, said that Oath Keepers “may be a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival. Members vow to fulfill the oaths to the Constitution that they swore while in the military or law enforcement.”
Root first ran into a guy from Oath Keepers back in 2013 during a food storage class SCP was hosting. The guy was wearing an Oath Keepers' shirt, “looked all preppy” and was trying to poach SCP members. Military and ex-military, registered nurses, airplane mechanics, anyone with refined skills. “They say, ‘once everything gets created, we’ll come see you,’ Root says of the Oath Keepers. “[I say], ‘I don’t want you down my driveway and I won’t come down your driveway.’ I mean, if I don’t know you and we haven’t had a face to face and we ain’t been able to sit down and have dinner and talk and visit, don’t come down my driveway.”
Root adds: “Ever hear of a guy named Norm Olson? Norm Olson was a founder of the Michigan Militia. He lives down in Kenai. He’s a very smart dude and [he said] there was three things that we had to watch out for and that’s moles, provocateurs and dissipaters. These guys are dissipaters, they’re trying to come in and take and just break apart [what we] started.”
There is a distinct difference between the militia movement in Alaska and that of the Lower 48. “The militia movement, for us, is a lifestyle,” Hecker says. “It is not a weekend warrior type of thing… We know no one’s coming to help us, unlike any state in the Lower 48 that borders assistance.” Hecker, like others in the local militia movement, believe that in the event of a natural disaster, invasion or total collapse of government, no one is coming to help. So, while other militia groups in the Lower 48 are concocting theories about a totalitarian government takeover or looking to the skies for black helicopters, Alaska militias are busy preparing for natural disasters. “I guess we would like to say we’re a little bit more realistic,” Hecker says.
Hecker references a cheatsheet.com article he posted on Facebook titled The Most Dangerous States in America in 2017. “Alaska is ranked number one, with Anchorage showing up very high as being wildly violent,” he says, “and I agree with that. It’s great. I love it because freedom is dangerous. So, the fact that we show up as the most dangerous place to be is really screaming that we’re also the most free.” The appeal of Alaska is freedom, he says, which is also key to the militia movement.
In 2016, John Sturgeon led a landmark Supreme Court case involving federal overreach of public lands in Alaska. The Supreme Court ruled that certain actions are legal and, above all, necessary in a place as remote as Alaska. “All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. Sturgeon spoke at last year’s Rondy about his experience, about the sovereignty of Alaska and the self-reliance of Alaskans. To some, all this talk of self-reliance and community may seem ego-driven and self-aggrandizing, but in a place still as wild as Alaska is, that mentality is best understood as resilience.
“In 1964, a friend of mine was out of power for about six months in south Anchorage, after the earthquake,” Ford says. “Many people went weeks and weeks [without power]. Last year there was [a] power outage in Anchorage. There were places in Turnagain [neighborhood] that had no power for over a week—that’s posh city; that’s expensive housing. We had people who had to dump their freezers because they didn’t know how to can their salmon and preserve the meat that was in their freezer. The zoo ended up with a plethora of great food because people didn’t know how to preserve it when their power went out for a week… I think there is a false sense of security in the world today, people think there’s always going to be somebody there to take care of you—there’s always a program, there’s always extra money to be handed out to you. That’s not always going to be the case.”
Additional reporting by Ammon Swenson.