Friday, September 4, 2015

Alone: A show for true Survivors

Way back when, sometime around the turn of the century, I remember hearing about a new television show that was in production. The concept, as it was explained to me, was to abandon a group strangers on a desert island where they would be forced to survive with little or no supplies. That show was to be called Survivor, and I still feel disappointed when I remember watching the first few episodes.

It was immediately apparent that this show had nothing to do with surviving. In fact, even though billed as such, it wasn't even a reality show. It was a game show, arguably scripted, and the primary concern of each contestant was not how to catch a fish, kill a bear, or build a fire, but rather how  to make friends and then stab them in the back. It wasn't about surviving, it was about lying, manipulation, and betrayal. In short, it was television for sociopaths.

Well, I guess I'm on the outside here, because that show did very well among American audiences. It's not only still in production, there are several spin-offs. I don't plan on watching any of them. However, I have been watching History Channel's Alone. For any of you out there who feel the same disappointment with other so-called survival shows, this is one to check out.

The premise: Abandon ten survival experts on Vancouver Island. Allow each survivor a choice of ten pieces of equipment (choosing from a list of about 40 items), including such gear as an axe, a tarp, and a sleeping bag. Give them cameras to record their activities and place them approximately ten miles apart, so they are completely isolated and surrounded by impassable forests, mountains, freezing seas, and literally tens of thousands of black bears and cougars.

Pretty simple, huh? These guys are out there alone in the wilderness facing bitterly cold and wet weather, generally miserable conditions, and thousands of deadly predators. All they have to do is survive. Sounds easy, unless you've actually tried it. For example, have you ever tried starting a fire with only a ferro rod? It can be a lot harder than it looks, especially in northwest Washington state, where it can rain more than 250 inches per year! Some of these individuals chose to bring axes and saws, others brought a bow and a small supply of arrows, but when it came down to it, I was amazed at how difficult staying alive on this island proved to be. Many of them ended up surviving on kelp and seawood, and the occasional fish. One of the survivors even turned to field mice as a source of protein, and another was thrilled at the opportunity to boil up some slugs!

I won't tell you how the first season ends, but I can tell you that all of the long-term survivors lost a considerable amount of weight. I will also share this one spoiler: Over half the survivors were gone in the first week.

I have to be honest, I have always wanted to do something like this. As a kid in Montana, I spent a lot of time hiking and camping up in the woods by myself. My grandfather's ranch, where I lived until I was eleven, was up against a national wilderness. My parents were divorced and my mother usually wasn't home, so I had free run of the place. I built forts and tree houses, I climbed mountains, I rode horses (remember that scene in Disney's Brave when the little girl was shooting arrows at targets up in the trees from horseback? That was me. Except male, of course, and blond. I literally did that as a kid.).

Frankly, I'm not sure how I survived. I was up in those mountains alone with mountain lions, wolves, moose, and black/brown/grizzly bears. In fact, the area where I spent my childhood playing was a well-known drop-point for grizzlies out of Yellowstone. See, in Yellowstone Park, grizzly bears sometimes lose their fear of humans and start attacking us. When that happens, rather than kill them, the Forest Service shoots them up with PCP and drops them out of a helicopter in the remote mountains of Montana. Conveniently, those remote mountains were my backyard. Looking back, I truly believe it was only by the grace of God that I'm still alive. But I digress...

I have a lot of stories about the old ranch, but the point is that I always felt like I was just this side of Grizzly Adams. I was out there in the woods, often alone, doing everything short of literally living off the land. But I always had home nearby. I always knew that I was just a few hours away from food and shelter, and because of that, I never really got to find out if I could truly survive out there. Of course I was only a child at the time, and when I got really, really hungry I just headed for home.

While watching Alone, I couldn't help marveling at some of the decisions the survivors made. Each person took a different approach. Some I never would have considered. I found myself swinging back and forth between "Why on earth did he do that?" to "Wow, that was pretty clever."

I'm not sure I would attempt something like this at my age and stage of life. Most of my camping these days is done in a 25 foot trailer, or at the very least on a cot or air mattress. However, it was enjoyable as a vicarious experience and I even learned a few things that I can utilize in my own life, or even bring to my writing at some point. My family and I were drawn in, captivated, and we even learned a thing or two. That's value entertainment. I can't wait for Season Two.

By the way, they're taking apps on the website if anyone's up for the challenge!