The first obstacle to becoming a TV mountain man is the criminal background check. "That's thrown a few out right there," says Chris Richardson, sipping a beer. Richardson, the 46-year-old co-creator of the hit show Mountain Men — a reality series about guys surviving off the land — is sitting in a bar in Yaak, Montana, in February, explaining how he tracks down a real-life Grizzly Adams for the series. "We've found some of our best characters with boots on the ground — just going where you might expect to find someone living off the grid and asking local game wardens and townspeople," says Marc Pierce, 54, the show's other creator. The Montana-based duo discovered the stars of one of the most successful outdoors shows in history, Duck Dynasty, and are now working to ensure that Mountain Men (whose fourth season is airing on the History Channel) spotlights the wildest men on TV — but finding off-the-grid talent is a challenge. "We want guys who live at the end of the road," Pierce says, "or beyond the road."
Debuting in 2012 with three modern-day Jeremiah Johnsons (Tom Oar, a tanner in Montana; Eustace Conway, a subsistence farmer in North Carolina; and Marty Meierotto, a fur trapper in Alaska), the show has now featured eight recluses, hailing from the fringes of New Mexico, Idaho, and Maine — and Pierce and Richardson are always on the hunt for more. "When we moved into mainstream TV, we thought our location here in Montana would put us at a disadvantage," Richardson says. "But it's been just the opposite."
Based in Missoula, Pierce and Richardson's company, Warm Springs Productions, employs 90 people to coordinate and wrangle its stars, and to record their grueling everyday lives. Five-man camera teams live for weeks at a time with the mountain men, often braving extreme conditions with little more than a backpack's worth of supplies — it's one of the more dangerous jobs in TV. Mason Gertz, a cameraman filming Meierotto, plunged through river ice in Alaska in 30-below-zero weather and had to scramble a mile back to a cabin to avoid freezing solid. "I also nearly lost part of my hand to frostbite while trying to film a lynx," Gertz says. "If it weren't for Marty's help, I'd be missing three fingers." Crew members who follow Rich Lewis, a professional houndsman in southwest Montana, have been charged by mountain lions multiple times. "When prospective cameramen start talking about decent hotels and per diems, we know it's not going to work out," Richardson says. "Our guys know how to keep batteries from freezing, lug 50-pound cameras up to 10,000 feet on elk hunts, and make do without electricity for days."
In part, Pierce and Richardson are motivated to push limits and rule ratings due to the show that got away — Duck Dynasty. After working together on fringe outdoors shows like Escape to the Wild — Pierce was the host and Richardson the cameraman — the two founded Warm Springs in 2007 and soon had their first hit. Duck Commander, a show about the patriarch of a Louisiana family with Old Testament beards that owns a handmade-duck-call company, ran for three seasons before getting scooped up by A&E and repackaged as Duck Dynasty. Warm Springs was left out of the deal. "It hurt because we weren't chosen to produce it — we were just the hunting-and-fishing-show dudes," Pierce says. "But it gave us fuel to prove ourselves."
Unlike Duck Dynasty's Robertson family — whose empire has earned more than $400 million, with licensing deals that include beard balms and Las Vegas musicals — the mountain men aren't doing TV in order to upgrade to mansions. Oar, for one, still lives in the log cabin he built by hand, survives off whitetail deer he hunts with a rifle and handmade bow, and drives a beat-up truck. "I sold $600 worth of muskrat skins to pay for that old thing," he says. Although Oar is paid a modest stipend by the show, he still makes most of his income from selling pelts. "I'm doing good trapping," he says.
The next day, Richardson walks through Warm Springs' office in Missoula — an airy concrete-floored space with 19-foot ceilings, where employees' dogs wander the desks looking for someone to play fetch. This summer, Pierce and Richardson will hit the road again, traveling to the farthest corners of the continent to find new mountain men. "We're planning a trip to the Yukon," Richardson says. "It's always got great characters." Despite years of tracking down wild men, there's still no blueprint, Pierce later says, grinning as he recalls a time in Maine when they were led to a guy named Trapper Jack. "The locals gave us physical descriptions like, 'Turn at the third tree, and go to the old junk car.' We finally find the place, and there are all these threatening signs saying trespassers will be shot — we thought, 'This guy could seriously be waiting to shoot us.' " Pierce smiles. "Then he comes out and meets us and is like, 'Mountain Men? I love that show!' "