The true value of wilderness is simply that it's there, wrote the late Edward Abby. You do not have to go, but knowing you could provides comfort.
Knowing that others have done it can also be uplifting, which describes the appeal of "Braving Alaska," tonight's "National Geographic Special" on PBS, (at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television and Washington's WETA-Channel 26, the originating station).
The final show of the series' season focuses upon four families living in the vast bush country of the 49th state, whose entire population is smaller than that of many cities in the lower 48. In many places, notes narrator Martin Sheen, "there is virtually no one."
We first meet Heimo Korth and his family, including his native Alaskan wife, Edna, and two daughters. He lived six years alone in a cabin 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle before marrying, and in his entire life has never had a water bill nor owned a light bulb.
"I couldn't handle the masses of people" in cities, he says.
His wife always wears a pistol for protection against grizzly bears and his children wear bells, like a pet cat, in case they wander out of sight.
Yet they are in touch with civilization through periodic visits by a bush pilot and by listening to a radio program called "Trap Line Chatter."
Nearby neighbors -- in relative terms, for the distance is 50 rugged miles -- are the Hayden family, parents Richard and Shannon and five children. Producer Mark Stouffer's cameras follow 15-year-old daughter Susan on a self-reliant trip into the bush to run the family's trap line.
By contrast, Errol and Rebecca Wilson have made their cabin on the Yukon River relatively modern, with electric generators powering a washing machine, TV/VCR (their tape library includes such pioneer fare as "Lonesome Dove" and "The Call of the Wild"), vacuum cleaner and even a sewing machine.
"You still like to be comfortable," says Rebecca.
We also meet Randy and Karen Brown, who have raised two young boys on the banks of the Kandik River but plan to move soon to Fairbanks to give their sons a broader exposure to the world.
Errol Wilson observes that the number of people still choosing to live so closely with nature is ever dwindling, with the result, "It's almost like we're the endangered species, now."
"AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE" -- A historical pioneer experience is the substance of "Thousand Pieces of Gold," a film presentation also on PBS stations tonight (at 9 on WETA and 10 on MPT).
Rosalind Chao portrays a Chinese woman sold to a marriage broker in 1880s San Francisco and taken to live in an Idaho mining town.