New to Me
A few weeks ago I stumbled across a TV show that I had never heard of before. The name of the program was Alone, and it originally aired on the History Channel. It can now be found on a number of streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Netflix is where I discovered it, and here is how they described the series…
“Isolated and equipped with limited resources, 10 lone survivalist experts must endure the harsh conditions of the wilderness. The last one standing wins!”
I was immediately intrigued. I’ve long had an interest in bushcraft and wilderness survival, which certainly stemmed the TV westerns I watched as a kid. Later, stories about a subculture of survivalists who planned to carry on in the event of a Cold War nuclear exchange fed the same curiosity about the subject. I found the idea of living off the land without the advantages of modern conveniences absolutely fascinating. I wondered could it really be done?
Would this Show be Different?
I have tried to watch programs of a similar vein in the past and had always been disappointed. The shows I tuned into had always been a little too contrived or cartoonish for my tastes. I wasn’t immediately convince that Alone would be any different. So, it was with some trepidation that I began watching the first episode.
The show began with the contestants being dropped off at various rugged and remote locations around Chilko Lake in British Columbia, Canada. Right away I began to be put off by the constant narrative reminders that the contestant were all alone in the wilderness. Sure they’re alone, I thought, except for the camera crew following them around everywhere they go! I was just a few minutes in to the first episode, and I was already beginning to believe Alone was going to be no different that the other similarly themed programs I had tried in the past.
But wait a minute! After only a couple scene changes, it became abundantly evident that the contestants were not being filmed by a camera crew. Instead, the contestants were recording themselves. They really were alone!
It turns out that each contestant was responsible for recording their own daily activities–an added burden to their already difficult wilderness survival challenge. The participants used a combination of video recorders and trail cameras to capture footage of themselves. The videos document the contestants’ survival efforts, interspersed with monologues about their trials, tribulations, and current state of mind. The show is then made up mostly of narrative-forming montages of the various contestants’ recordings. Recognizing that these folks really were alone and unaided gave the show a credibility I didn’t expect it to have. My interest level ratcheted up a notch.
The next revelation came when it became clear that the bushcraft being used by the contestants was absolutely authentic. In many cases it was completely primitive, and it was always spontaneous. It was at this point that I was hooked and certain that I wanted to see more. By the end of the first episode I was completely engrossed!
After watching episode one, I was off to the internet to learn more. The premise of the show works like this… Alone pits 10 bushcraft experts against each other to see who can survive the longest in a remote wilderness area. With only limited equipment, each person has to leverage what the land can provide in order to secure food, water, and shelter. The contestants have the ability to “tap out” if there is an emergency, or if the challenge otherwise becomes too difficult to continue. The last one standing wins a $500,000 prize.
Digging a little deeper, I discovered that the contestants are dropped off in different places around the same remote wilderness area. Each survivalists is restricted to their own area by predetermined geographic boundaries. This is so that they do not come in contact with each other over the course of the competition. The locations are chosen by the show’s producers in a manner designed to ensure that the available resources are roughly equivalent from contestant to contestant. The participants also have to abide the local hunting and fishing laws–another albatross around their necks!
The show’s participants have to be prepared to stay for as long as a year (thought a few months is the typical stay). They come to their wilderness sites equipped with the clothes on their back, camera gear, first aid kits, emergency communication devices, and 10 pieces of survival kit that each chooses from a longer list of equipment the shows producers have formulated. Each contestant gets to pick the set of tools and gear that they feel will give them the best chance for success. The list includes survival equipment such as camp saws, axes, tarps, cordages, snare wire, fire starters, bows and arrows, etc.
Time to Binge!
Now with a better understanding of how the show worked, I was back to watch the rest of the series. On this viewing, new and deeper aspects of the program began to emerge. Over and above the challenges, successes, and failures of the individual contestants, what quickly becomes very fascinating about Alone is what it reveals about the human condition in general. Alone pulls back the curtain on what it really means to be human in this world we live in. One thing that becomes crystal clear is that the human animal is very ill-equipped for wilderness survival without a supporting community. Even more to the point, without specialized training and modern tools, not a single contestant would have had a chance for a long term stay.
People need each other. We need a community. Survival is nigh impossible without leveraging the talents of many people, and without sharing the workload and responsibilities. The human species is so ill equipped for individual survival that it seems that a genuine Garden of Eden–rich with resources–would have been required to give early humans a toehold while they worked to developed a culture of skills, knowledge, and cooperation over the course of generations. It’s remarkable really. Alone we are inadequate in so many ways, but together there is little we cannot do. The gulf between the two extremes is immense.
Another compelling aspect of this show is what it can teach us about nature and how we typically think about it. People tend to view nature as being singularly beautiful and benevolent, but there is much more to it than this. Just like everything else in life, nature is a dichotomy of both good and evil. Most of the contestants begin in awe of their new wilderness surroundings—the beauty is undeniable. But nature also has a dark side, and when it come to human survival, the challenges far outweigh the acquiescences.
Even wild plants and animals do not get a free pass on the ugly side of nature. For most, wildlife survival is a fierce competition where death is the ultimate consequence of losing. Every organism is striving for a leg up or a vulnerability in others to exploit. Predation, disease, and injury are ever present dangers. Even the mightiest predator carries with him a host of parasites sapping more than their fair share of the creature’s vitality. Ultimately, the end comes for us all.
Almost immediately after being dropped off the difficulties of wilderness survival begin presenting themselves to the contestants. The show refers to this as, “Drop Shock.” Shelters must be build. Fires must be started and maintained. And most importantly of all, reliable food sources must be established. But the land gives up its resources reluctantly. Tools are difficult to make, materials are challenging to process, and food and water are very difficult to secure–even in a place of seeming abundance.
Bushcraft and an in depth understanding of flora and fauna are the answers to these challenges, and most of the contestants were quite competent in at least a subset of these skills. Many of the participants came to the contest well equipped with bushcraft skills. Shelters were competently constructed. Fires could be started and sustained. But there was more variation in competency when it came to knowledge about plants and animals. Some of the contestants were skilled foragers. Others were better equipped to to hunt or fish. Some were surprisingly lacking in either or both skill set. And as you might expect, many of the early tap outs were due to inadequacies in these areas.
Another mistake that drove some participants to a premature tap out was viewing bushcraft for its own sake as a survival skill. Unfortunately, the ability to carve a spoon, or to build a camp chair does not directly translate into food on the table. And while there is definitely some psychological benefit to keeping your mind and hands busy with a daily set of tasks, not all activities are of equal value in a survival situation. After a shelter has been secured, and the tasks associated with firemaking have been completed, the acquisition of food must become the top priority. All other activities must be saved for a rainy day when the weather hampers your ability to do anything else.
One of the interesting aspects about developing survival skills is that the only way to truly gain a competency is to use those skills in order to survive. It’s kind of an all or nothing proposition. You can practice some of these skills in a less than absolute situation, but the urgency and consequence will never be quite the same as in a real life wilderness survival situation. In a case of genuine gravity, your abilities will either be adequate to meet the survival challenges or they will not. If they are not, then you simply do not survive. Becoming proficient is only possible if you have some real ability to begin with.
The Psychology of Survival
In addition to the bushcraft challenges, the participants must also struggle with the psychology of survival, endurance, and competition. Because each contestant knows that a return to civilization is just an emergency button push away, they are faced with powerful and compelling temptation to give up when things start getting tough.
In the end it may be the the psychology of survival that is the most challenging to overcome. Being alone creates a powerful set of mental issues, each of which is compounded by starvation and other survival difficulties. It was fascinating to watch how each contestant attempted to deal with these complications.
One important technique all of the participates seemed to embrace is the idea of keeping your mind busy with planning and doing. Idleness is a problem even in a modern civilized setting. It may even be one of the most serious mental heath challenges we face. Idleness is typically a disease of prosperity, but it’s no good wherever it crops up. Idleness allows us time to dwell and fixate on our problems. In that frame of mind one can quickly develop a state hyper-self-involvement–a problem that quickly leads to self destructive and counterproductive thinking and action. In a wilderness survival situation, it is a demon that must be kept at bay.
But the catch 22 is that in a survival scenario is that calorie use must be economized, and that requires extended periods of inactivity. The calculus then becomes finding a balance between two competing priorities–do you burn calories on projects designed solely to keep your mind off your difficulties, or do you conserve energy and risk letting negative thinking intrude on your downtime? It was fascinating to watch how each of the contestants chose to struggle with their individual versions of this internalized battle.
The Power of Fear
Another major psychological aspect of the competition was the management of fear. For example, there was an instance in one episode where a contestant had an encounter with a Grizzly Bear. The person quickly moved to put distance between themselves and the bear–certainly the right thing to do. But in the process, this person lost sight of the bear and could no longer track its position relative to their own. It was at this point that the contestant recognized the vulnerability the lost of situational awareness had created. The bear had the upper hand now, and could easily sneak up and conduct an ambush. There would be little or no recourse.
The human contestant responded by breaking down into tears.
This moment in the show struck me as maybe the most profound of the entire season. At the single most mission-critical juncture in this person’s wilderness survival endeavor their psychology failed them completely. I was stunned by the paucity, but the truth is any number of people would have responded the exact same way.
So, then I began to wonder where the survival benefit in this reaction was–certainly there must be some, or else it wouldn’t exist. For a person alone, this kind of response seems to have very little value. So, why would nature equip us to have a breakdown rather than to flee or to coolly calculate?
After a little though, I decided that community was the answer here as well. With a group of people some will respond the same way this person did. Others will come to the rescue, and others still will offer comfort to the victim. All of these actions work to reinforce the social structure and interdependence of the members. The bonds of community are strengthened–which is the real key to our survival as a species.
Is the Reward Worth the Sacrifice?
The season completes when a winner is declared–the proverbial last man standing. Up until that point the lone remaining contestant has no way of knowing how anyone else has been doing. They do know, however, that winter is coming like a freight train, and that things will soon get much more difficult. They can only guess how much longer they may have to stay. When the last participant is finally informed that they have outlasted the others and that they have won the contest, the moment can be quite emotional. The sacrifices made by the contestants are so great, and they are endured for such a long time, that to discover that their hardships are at last over opens a flood gate of relief and joy. It’s a very moving thing to watch.
It was at this point in the season when I began to question whether the sacrifices were actually worth the reward. It’s strange to acknowledge that we now live in a world where a sudden windfall of $500,000 might not necessarily be enough to change your life for the better.
It’s clear from the monologues that many of the contestant do believe the $500,000 prize will make a huge difference in their lives going forward. But the first thing that diminishes the power of the prize is the taxes that will become immediately due on the winnings. After taxes might leave the winner with $350,000 or so. That’s just enough money to allow someone with an average income to seriously over extend themselves if they use it to purchase luxuries that continue to generate expenses. An award of this size is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m sure most everyone would rather have it than not have it, but it’s real power to change a life for the better would likely come from investing it, rather than spending it.
The other nine participants get nothing except for the wonderful adventure and life experience. A second place finish is especially bittersweet–there is only a matter of a few short minutes difference between the length of their stay and that of the winner.
Would participating be worth the sacrifice without winning the grand prize? I think probably yes. The life of somebody who has engaged in a challenge of this magnitude will be changed forever. They will become a different, better, and more appreciative person. My suspicion is that most, if not all, would consider their lives greatly enriched by the endeavor.
What does it take to Win?
Many of the participants came to the competition with excellent outdoorsman skills, but only a few were able to translate those skills into a long term stay. Even fewer were able to thrive. For most, the experience became a contest to see who could out starve the others, and at that point the show became less about survival, and more of a contest of wills.
In a wilderness survival situation like the one presented in this show there is no substitution for real nutrition. Some of the participants came prepared to pursue hunting and fishing, and others did not. A tremendous advantage was gained by those contestants who could secure reasonable quantities of fish and meat. Taking a big game animal was a game changer. Vegetable matter alone just does not suffice when the body is stressed to this level.
The winner in season eight of Alone had some personality traits that seemed to enhance their ability to persevere. This person was stoic by nature, no nonsense in their approach, and they possessed real competency. They were confident and strategic in their planning. But others that lasted nearly as long brought a different set of personality traits into the competition. Some were more passive by nature. Others lacked seriousness. In the end the real difference between the winner and the loser may have boiled down to mostly good old fashion luck.
When I first stumbled across Alone, Netflix had only one season available to watch–Season 8. I soon learned that Alone had been airing on the History Channel for nearly a decade. Alone premiered in June of 2015. There have now been a full 10 seasons since then, and a number of spin offs, including: The Beast, Frozen, and The Skills Challenge. Once again I found myself late to the party–very late! Many of you have certainly already seen this program, but if you haven’t, you might like to give it a try. If you HAVE watched it previously, then it might be time for a revisit!