How to win a survival reality show

Jim & Ted on Labradr’s Adlatok River.

[The following article contains explicit language]


It’s 2011. My brother Ted and I are paddling hard into driving rain and headwinds. It’s early September in interior Labrador, and our group of four is catching the tail end of Hurricane Irene. Starving hungry, soaked, and cold, we pull over to make camp, and the rain doesn’t let up. It’s getting dark, and we’re starting to shiver. It’s Day 22, our stove broke 17 days ago and we need warm food and hot tea. Amazingly, my spirits are high; I can’t speak for the rest of the crew though.

“Maybe we just set up the tents and crawl into bed,” my buddy Marty voices with a tinge of fear.

I disagree. “C’mon,” I say, “This is a great opportunity to practice rigging a comfortable camp in miserable weather.” I grab the axe, since our saw was also broken.

“Practice?” Marty asks as his eyes widen. “I don’t think this is practice, man. This is the real thing!”

I force out a laugh and get to work. Ted and Marty set up the tarp, as I seek out and cut a standing-dead spruce. Under the tarp, we split wood and whittle out the dry center as rain and wind hammer the tarp. I produce a dry lighter, and soon a fire is going. Not long after, we’re happily downing tea and fresh trout with a side of moldy pita and walnuts — even after having dumped gas on them, no less. Three days later, we begin a two-and-a-half-day, trail-less portage after narrowly avoiding an angry sow bear with cubs.

Marty on the portage

Over the next five years, I would have some more notable trips … and get out of a couple more sticky situations. For example, in 2014 I soloed the whitewater of northeast Ontario’s Kesagami River while dealing with a nasty burn on my hand. In 2015, I paddled northeast Quebec’s East Natashquan River, which involved a two-day portage on a nearly nonexistent trail. And earlier in 2016, I spent 36 days walking solo across northern Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula in winter, where I was faced with a depleted food supply, and relentless blizzards. I also finished a two-week canoe trip down the Porcupine River in Northern Saskatchewan, just before I headed to B.C.

Jim during his Ungava winter trek

In early October 2016, there I was: Quatsino Sound, British Columbia. I was on northern Vancouver Island, about to be thrust into the wilderness to film myself surviving on History Channel’s hit show Alone. My brother and I were one of seven groups selected out of 7,500 applicants for the show. Winning it could be my ‘big break’ as an adventurer, I thought. Along with the exposure, a $500,000 reward was on the line.

Still I had doubts in my ability to pull it off.

I had never really considered myself to be a survivalist, or a “bush-crafter.” Yet when all was said and done, and the cameras stopped filming, after surviving for 75 days eating whatever we could get our hands on — and losing 26 percent of my body weight — Ted and I outlasted all the other groups. We won. So, I guess it turned out I was a survivalist after all. But the experience changed my perspective on what it means to be one.

Jim and Ted’s canoe from season 4 of HISTORY’s ‘Alone.’ Courtesy HISTORY

We didn’t win because I had the skill to whittle paddles out of a log, or because Ted built a canoe out of wire, sticks, and a tarp. We won because our canoe trips had taught us the best survival skill of all: Not giving a fuck.

And by that, I mean not giving a fuck if you’re cold. Not giving a fuck if you’re wet. Not giving a fuck if your starving. Not giving a fuck if you have to eat slugs for dinner. Our tough canoe trips had greatly extended our breaking points. Because of my accumulated bush experience, I knew when something like feeling cold, getting cut, or eating something rotten is actually a concern, and when it’s not. That way, I don’t need to be scared.

Not giving a fuck is a skill that cannot be learned on YouTube. It cannot be learned in your backyard. It only comes from experience — real bush time. It’s the skill that our ancestors had in a much larger capacity than we do, and is why they could survive better than we can. When you put yourself in real situations (like the ones I’ve faced on my trips), you start to enjoy misery because it’s not really misery any more. Others would be breaking, but you’re still having fun. A lot of people practice survival and think it’s fun. But when it’s not fun anymore, they go home to a warm house.

Survival is not fun. So, if if you’re having fun practicing survival skills, you’re not really practicing survival. Bow-drill fires can be rewarding to build. Try lighting one after you haven’t eaten for five days, having walked 10 miles through the sopping woods, totally exhausted.

There is a big difference between the textbook world of survival-slash-bushcraft and the real one. And that is one of the major lessons I learned on Alone. This is because we take for granted how much time and energy it really takes each day to hunt, fish, and/or gather enough food to sustain oneself long-term; it’s a full-time job and then some. And when you’re hungry from the minute you realize you’re in a survival situation, the time and energy for large projects — ones that could increase your comfort or your potential for harvesting a sustainable food supply — is very limited.

A true survival situation is a losing battle in all but the lushest climates, or the most abundant seasons and locations. A good woodsman has learned how to prevent a survival situation like what you see on ‘Alone’ from happening in the first place. But at the same time, survival skills like how to start a friction fire, or how to tell direction without a compass, will significantly boost your confidence and ability in the bush, even if you always carry a lighter and compass with you (and you should).

For years I’ve read up on primitive skills, bushcraft, and survival skills, and have practiced them from time to time. They’re fascinating, fun to learn, and would definitely come in handy if shit hit the fan on one of my canoe expeditions. But I don’t have the specific skills of many survival experts whose books I’ve read, or that I’ve seen on TV and YouTube.

Jim and Ted on ‘Alone’ in the canoe Ted built out of wire, sticks, and a tarp. Courtesy HISTORY

So going into the show I was nervous, thinking, I’m not lighting bow-drill fires, knapping arrowheads, tracking animals, and sleeping in shelters on my trips. Shit, on my trips I bring about 10 lighters, a GPS, a couple loaded food barrels, and an $800 mountaineering tent … I didn’t know If I’d live up to the skills of the survival experts they’d selected for the show. 

In the end, however, the skill, cunning, and experience honed from expedition canoeing was the best teacher. It taught me to be tough, and to keep going, which I now realize is more important than any specific survival or bushcraft skill you read about in a book. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many survival, or primitive bushcraft skills you know. If you’ve never been in the middle of nowhere, while cold and wet for days on end, carried a canoe on your shoulders for miles while getting chewed on by black flies, felt starving hungry but kept pushing on, dealt with consistent pain of a nasty injury, and paddled endlessly into roaring headwinds, you are not going to survive as long as the person who has.

As canoeists, and expedition paddlers, we sometimes forget that we have a lot of other skills, and that the skills we use to paddle, along with the boats we sit in, are really just a means to get from one place to another. It’s not about the canoe, it’s about where it takes you, and we need so many other skills than canoeing to get there. It is the very honest pursuit of all that encompasses canoe travel itself that ties us to the land, and how to live with it. 

This is what separates paddling as a sheer athletic pursuit, like you see in the Olympics, compared to the exploration side of the sport. We are more than canoeists. We are, survivalists, and woodsmen, but we don’t know it.

Jim and Ted’s excellent adventure in 2015 on the Labrador’s Adlatok …

… prepared the duo to win season 4 of HISTORY’s ‘Alone.’ Courtesy HISTORY

— Check out ‘The Things We Carried‘ on the 10 pieces of gear essential to Jim and Ted’s survival success. Watch Baird’s Lessons From the Trail, a 15-episode C&K series following an expedition through Quebec’s Côte-Nord region.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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