Her cancer is now in remission, but the crisis changed her family profoundly as they made the decision to leave their Alaskan outpost for California

By Patrick Gomez
February 28, 2019 09:00 AM
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After decades living in the Alaskan bush, starting a new life in Washington State has been an adjustment for the Brown family.

Ami Brown, 55, and her husband, Billy, 66, had lived with their children—sons Matt, 36, Bam, 34, Bear, 31, Gabe, 29, and Noah, 26, and daughters Bird, 24, and Rain, 16 — in the remote state, weathering brutal winters and even bear attacks but relishing the freedom that came from living off the grid.

Thanks to their reality series (Alaskan Bush People, which returns for season 9 on March 3 on Discovery), the family became unlikely celebrities. Then, in the spring of 2017, Ami — who particularly cherished life in the wilderness — was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and given a 3 percent chance of survival.

Her cancer is now in remission, but the crisis changed her family profoundly as they made the decision to leave “Browntown” — their Alaskan outpost — for Southern California, so that Ami could be treated at UCLA Medical Center.

Giacomo Fortunato

“It was very scary,” Ami says of her cancer in the current issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. “But I never gave up hope.”

Because of Ami’s medical needs (she and Billy fly back to Los Angeles every three months for her checkups), the Browns permanently relocated closer to civilization, buying a 435-acre property in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

Billy and Ami Brown
Giacomo Fortunato

The family has faced additional hardships — Billy has suffered seizures and other health setbacks and their oldest, Matt, has just completed a second stint in rehab — but they’ve recently shared some good milestones as well. Noah married Rhain Alisha Merrill, 28, in August and the couple just welcomed a baby boy, while his brother Gabe married Raquell Rose, 22, on Jan. 14.

And there have been other shifts: adapting to a milder climate, enjoying the ability to purchase fresh produce and bread and having reliable cell phone service. Ami’s favorite thing to do on the property, which they’ve christened North Star Ranch, is to ride a tractor Billy gave her for her birthday in August.

“How many people can get their wife a little tractor and she’s tickled to death with it?” Billy says with a laugh. Adds his wife: “It’s pretty cool. And I might have me an orchard for the grandbabies.”

Billy and Ami — who wed in 1979 and lived in their native Texas before opting out of the “9-to-5 life”— first contemplated settling in northern Washington after the birth of their first child.

“We fell in love with the whole area,” says Billy. But it was Ami’s health crisis that finally prompted him to return to the area and find the perfect spot to restart their lives last year. The couple fell deeply in love with the property as they experienced a changing springtime far from the Arctic.

“Every week there’d be more revealed” as the snow melted, says Billy. “We’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s ours.’ We started realizing just what God really gave us. There’s still pieces [of North Star] that, on purpose, we haven’t gone and seen yet so we can explore it later when Ami feels better.”

Although she still loves living in the rugged outdoors, Ami has yet to regain her strength after undergoing grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“In over a year I hadn’t walked hardly at all, so walking around here can be really taxing on my legs,” she says.

Like his wife, Billy is trying to take it a little easier.

“Alaska beat the crud out of me,” he says, detailing injuries he’s sustained after years of pushing himself to the limit: a detached muscle in his arm, a torn meniscus, lungs that are “about gone” after years of pursuing diving without any scuba gear.

As the older Browns come to grips that they aren’t “spring chickens anymore,” as Ami puts it, their kids—most of whom sleep in tepees on the property or trailers when the weather gets too cold—are doing the hard labor of developing their land.

  • For more on the Brown family, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“It’s good to be strong enough to do what your parents did for you when you were young,” says Bear, who recently built a barn on the property alongside his siblings. “[You] look out for them like they looked out for you.”

Through everything they’ve been through in the past few years, the Browns are thankful for the strong faith and family ties that make their simple life possible.

“This is what we always wanted but just couldn’t have up north,” says Billy, who is making plans to build a home for Ami while his children are designing adjacent dwellings of their own.

“The Lord tells us if a man’s quiver is full, he is highly blessed,” says Ami, with a smile. “And we’re very blessed.”