The Heavy-Metal Welders of ‘Alaskan Steel Men’

A scene from Alaskan Steel Men.
A scene from Alaskan Steel Men.Brad Carper / Discovery

In Alaska, everything can be a challenge – just getting from place to place is often a major logistical headache. This suits Dennis Butts just fine. The master of emergency marine repair craves adversity to such a degree he spent most of the eighties in search of harder and harder places to practice his already difficult craft. In the first episodes of ‘Alaskan Steel Men,’ premiering Friday at 10 pm on the Discovery Channel, Butts’ underwater welders have to dive in icy oceans to try to keep barges and trawlers from sinking. The man found his element.

“Everything is harder here,” says Butts’ wife, Theresa, who is the accounts manager for Quality Marine of Alaska. “That just makes things more interesting and more fun.”

Easy for them to say. The Buttses and their crew have a philosophy that those of us in less onerous lines of work would do well to emulate. “Their whole lifestyle is about playing down the danger, the stakes,” Theresa tells ‘Men’s Journal.’ “If they run into a problem, they don’t make a big deal out of it. That’s just really natural for most of them.”

That’s an unusual mind-set for this kind of tough-gig reality programming, which Discovery and other networks have mined so successfully in recent years. The producers of shows like ‘Alaskan Steel Men’ are typically on the hunt for drama, peril – and infighting among cast members.

“It’s kind of like the captain of a vessel,” says Butts of his job as the company foreman. “I got a crew I have to deal with, and I have to know them inside and out. Our crew, we do a lot of recreating together. We’re all friends. I know ’em pretty well.”

They do, however, have the sort of daredevil attitudes that the camera loves. “He’ll turn the four-wheeler off the road and go over the top of a mountain, just because it’s there,” Theresa says of her husband.

Which is not to say they take unnecessary risks on the job. “We pride ourselves in not having issues,” Butts says. “We don’t get excited about things. We do meet our deadlines, and we’re very serious at work. It is a serious business.” He pauses before adding with a chuckle, “I’m a little worried about how they’re gonna portray us.”

He hasn’t watched any rough cuts of the show, which is debuting in a three-part series. And he’s only recently seen a few episodes of ‘The Deadliest Catch‘ and other shows that have attracted a similar audience. “The thing is, none of us on the crew have TVs or cable,” he says. “We can’t watch our own show in our own house.” For the premiere, they’ll gather at a fishing buddy’s place.

That kind of isolation would seem to play into the rest of the country’s perception of Alaska. “It skids both ways,” says Butts. “Either they think it’s a big city and we all live nice, or we all live in cabins with outhouses.

“A lot of people do still live the old style, in a cabin with an outhouse, without running water,” he says. “It is the last frontier.”

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