In the sprawling genre of survival television, there is one man who has managed to earn both huge ratings and the respect of bearded guys with big knives on their belts: Les Stroud, a.k.a. Survivorman. Stroud, 52, grew up in Toronto watching Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan, then became a rock-and-roll addict with dreams of being the next Neil Young. At 25, disillusioned by the music industry, he took a survival course at a Toronto college and was hooked. He went on to train for years with elite survival instructors and honed his skills on numerous wilderness forays, including a yearlong honeymoon with his wife in the remote woods of northern Ontario, during which they lived off the land and used no metals or plastics. Early on, Stroud had the idea of creating a home-video series to teach survival skills, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he pitched a more ambitious idea to the Discovery Channel: just him, alone in the bush for a week, filming his struggles—building fires, catching game, fending off the cold.
The runaway success of Survivorman spawned a string of copycat programs, from Bear Grylls’s Man vs. Wildto this year’s over-the-top Naked and Afraid, in which a nude man and woman are stranded together in an extreme environment. But only Stroud has pulled off a literal one-man show—producing, writing, filming, directing, and starring. In 2009, he temporarily switched gears and created Beyond Survival, a series for Discovery in which he studied the wilderness skills of indigenous people around the planet, then returned in the summer of 2012 with four Survivorman specials. In December, he’ll be back with a full season, including two episodes featuring his teenage son, Logan. Here and on the following pages, Stroud shares his hard-earned wisdom about wild places, why he considers Grylls a phony, and what it takes to live through almost anything:
The first night I spent in a shelter I’d made myself, with my feet sticking out and the rain coming down and the mosquitoes buzzing, I said, “This is what I want.”
You wouldn’t watch a ski jumper on TV and then the next day, having never skied, strap on a pair and go jump. And you don’t watch Survivorman and then say, “I’m going to go out alone in the wilderness this weekend.” It took me years to learn these skills.
There’s no such thing as passive survival. Survival is proactive. You’re doing every-thing you can to deal with the situation.
You know those lemons that come up on Vegas slot machines? When I was teaching guides, we’d always say, “When you hit that third lemon, stop—get out.” Maybe the first lemon is an injury. Then the second lemon is exhaustion. Third lemon, storm’s coming. Done, go home, you’re finished.
There’s been too much emphasis over the years on “stay put, stay put.” Survival and first-aid courses all say that. Why stay put if you can walk out? People might be looking for you, but they’ll stop as soon as you get to a phone.
You do have to stop and ask some questions: How far is it to get out? Do I know the way? Am I confident I can find it, or is it a crapshoot? Do I have the strength to make it? Is anybody looking for me if I don’t?
I go out and go through the experience of survival and document it. I hate the concept of reality television. I’m a documentary filmmaker.
Initially, I think people watch out of morbid fascination. But when you see me really struggling, when you see the sweat on my face and know that I’m really going through it, then it strikes a deeper chord: If I had to, could I survive?
All these other shows are created by TV producers. Anything they can do to get higher ratings, be under budget, get it done fast—that’s what they do. It detracts from what it really takes to survive in the wilderness. Many of the things Bear Grylls and other guys do is completely bogus. Wrong skills. Dangerous skills.
Have I ever been pressured to do it differently? To fake it? Once, very heavily by one producer, and I said no.
My son, Logan, started asking to do a Survivorman episode with me when he was 12—way too young. When he was 15, I said, “OK, let’s do this.” Honestly, I’ve been doing Survivorman for over 11 years. I’m tired of being alone out there.Realllllly tired of being alone out there.
You should trust your guide but never rely on them. Before you start the trip, go to them and say, “Can I see a map with the route?” You look at it and maybe you see there’s a road three miles to the west the whole journey. If anything happens, now you know that. A good guide will be happy you asked. They like it when someone takes an interest in his own safety.
In survival situations, go with what you know. If you can turn around and go back the way you came and reach safety, even if it’s 50 miles back, why are you pushing on into the unknown?
We always want to follow the path of least resistance. That’s what we do as humans. It looks good to go downhill. It feels easier. You have to fight this and use your head. The easiest way can be the most dangerous.
Nature is nature. Christopher McCandless was an extremely charming individual, and he charmed his way through a lot of situations. But Alaska didn’t give a shit how charming he was. It’s Alaska.
Everyone who does wilderness adventure of any kind should take a survival course and a wilderness first-aid course. They enhance your experience, and you’ll have greater confidence.
I can see getting to that place where you say, “I’m done. I’m not going to make it.” Hey, I’ve had my moments.
“I DIDN'T LIVE a lot of lies,” Lance Armstrong says at the beginning of Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “but I lived one big one.”
The film’s title, The Armstrong Lie, suggests an exposé, but that heavy lifting has, of course, already been done. Rather, Gibney looks at the Lie as a thing that took on a life of its own, regarding it from every angle. And that includes Lance’s. Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, had unprecedented access to Armstrong’s tightly guarded camp from 2008 until his teary-eyed Oprah confession. So while there are other retellings in the works—Hollywood is reportedly working on two biopics, and New York Times reporter Juliet Macur’s forthcoming book Cycle of Liesis also slated to go to film—The Armstrong Lie is the first and last Lance pic you’ll ever need to see.
In 2008, Gibney set out to chronicle Armstrong’s return to cycling as a friendly embedded in the Lance camp. He was on the Astana bus as Armstrong spied on teammate/rival Alberto Contador’s press conference. He was in the team car as director Johan Bruyneel hatched race strategy. He was at Armstrong’s Aspen house, camera rolling, when the drug testers showed up. The following day, when two more sets of testers came calling, Armstrong snapped: “This is fucking ridiculous!” Watching the film, even this nonfan had to agree.
But then, well, stuff happened, and Gibney was forced to drop the celebratory doc he—and, no doubt, his subject—had planned to make. He phased through stages of disillusionment, anger, and finally confrontation. After Armstrong’s downfall, Gibney goes back, camera in hand, to ask his subject some tough questions.
Gibney performs a masterful balancing act, being tough on Armstrong while remaining fair, although he largely skips over Livestrong’s role in buttressing the Lance myth, as well as the final remaining chapter in this whole saga—the $100 million lawsuit being pursued by the Department of Justice. Regardless, The Armstrong Lie will appeal to curious rubberneckers and cycling fans alike. We hear from two key players who have been largely silent, teammate George Hincapie and Dr. Michele Ferrari, who oversaw Armstrong’s training regimen until doping suspicions forced him to the sidelines. In one scene, a shunned Ferrari, stopwatch in hand, watches on TV as Armstrong tackles Mont Ventoux during the 2009 Tour, still intently tracking his protégé from afar. And we’re offered a few mini scoops, including a suspiciously timed $100,000 donation to cycling’s governing body, the UCI, in 2007, around the time it cleared Armstrong of positive urine-sample tests from 1999.
There are at least four Lances on display here: the teenage Texas punk who drawls, in a priceless archived clip, “Ah just love beatin’ people!”; the shameless liar who won the Tour seven times; the cocksure 2009 Lance, certain that he can win it once more; and the chastened, post-Oprah Lance, who is far more reflective and sympathetic than the jerk we saw squirming in his chair.
To hear him tell it, Armstrong’s decision to dope made perfect sense: he set out to beat the Europeans at their own game, nothing more—and nothing less. Not surprisingly, Armstrong still shows no remorse. “I know what it took to win those Tours,” he says. “Well, it was a little different from what you guys were told, but I know what it took.”
CV: Grew up in Everett, Washington. Married Donna Ayres in 1954. Worked in Everett-area pulp-and-paper mills for 42 years until he retired, in 1994, at 60. Completed the first of 45 marathons in 1976. In April, Iffrig, wearing a bright orange singlet, was nearly finished with his third Boston Marathon when he was knocked down by shock waves from a pressure-cooker bomb. A photographer captured him sprawled on his back, with three policemen standing above him and smoke filling the air, an image that went viral and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Iffrig got up and staggered to the finish. “I would have crawled there if I had to,” he says. He finished with a time of 4:03:47.
35: USA Track and Field national championships Iffrig has won in his age group.
Up Next: Another fall marathon—location TBD.
On Staying Young: “My parents loved to have a good time and drink too much. My mother died at 64, and my -father died at 67. They both could have lived so much longer. I have a beer once in a while, but I don’t abuse it. I’m going to stick with running. It’s kind of fun to win a lot.”
CV: Founded GoPro in 2002. Initial goal was to make a wrist strap for a waterproof disposable camera to snap shots of friends surfing. When he couldn’t find a camera sufficiently tough to handle the rigors of the ocean, he decided to come up with his own.
$35,000: Amount he borrowed from his mom to get the company off the ground. After 11 years, the GoPro has become the best-selling camera in the world, and the company was recently valued at $2.3 billion. “They used a GoPro camera in the Chilean mine rescue,” says Woodman. “That was when I realized that this thing goes way beyond sports.”
Up Next: Documenting fatherhood. “My favorite thing to do with my GoPro is chase my two- and three-year-old sons around. Just put it in your mouth and chase ’em around with your arms out.”
I USED TO HAVE a recurring nightmare about climbing a fragile ladder straight up into the sky. The ladder wasn’t leaning against anything and the only way I could keep it balanced was to continue to climb as fast as possible. The view was great, but inevitably the ladder would topple and I’d fall to my death, over and over as the dream occurred. Needless to say things weren’t going well back then. I was trying to support a wife and two daughters on less than ten grand a year. Things got better after I wrote Legends of the Fall, and I no longer have this desperate dream.
I grew up on a farm for a while where death is so obvious. You chop the head off the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Your favorite piglet dies for no reason. A massive draft horse drops dead while plowing, still in the harness. Quite a job to bury it.
As I aged, I expected to think about death far more than I do. My favorite epitaph is the one that my hero, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote for himself, “We loved the earth but could not stay.” Wonderfully concise. But what do we do before we go? As a writer I’ve never stopped. I’ve written more in my seventies than ever before. Of course, I frequently wear out, a condition I have countered by becoming a master of naps. The first of the day comes in the morning, soon after walking the dog and five cups of coffee. Coffee has never kept me awake an extra minute. I doze about 20 minutes under the idea that I’m clearing my head, maybe an illusion, but then it works. The next nap is what Henry Miller called a “full dress nap.” It comes after lunch, the official siesta time in Spain. This one takes an hour or more. You have to take off your clothes and get in bed. At no time may any nap be taken with your socks on. This is likely a superstition, but I stick to it. I also believe in the Resurrection, because it never occurred to me to stop believing in it. The third nap takes place after dinner and is a matter of habit. For years I had to work at full-time jobs and then write at night. I’d take a nap after dinner and then work until well after midnight. I still take the naps but rarely work at night anymore, because my mind would become clinically fugal, which means that it would slide into an uncontrollable whirl. Not pleasant.
I have been teased relentlessly by laymen and other writers about my naps, but then I just published The River Swimmer, my thirty-sixth book, and they didn’t. In Buddhist terms, my naps are a Noble Truth. My father’s message was, “Get your work done,” and I am still at it. I’ve had books published in 29 countries, which mystifies me. There was the recent addition of Bulgaria. Why do they want American fiction in Bulgaria? Would Bolivia be better?
Aging brings around illnesses beyond the head-cold range. Late last fall, I had extensive spinal surgery, and the recovery hasn’t been fun. Before surgery I couldn’t walk at all, which was hard on my dog, who became melancholy without our walks. After surgery, I wasn’t recovering fast enough and was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where I learned to walk again, a pleasant talent compared with sitting. I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.
Which brings up the sporting life. For 30 years, I spent a couple of months each fall and winter hunting game birds—grouse, woodcock, quail, and doves—in various parts of this country. I loved it, even for eight exhausting hours a day. After my spinal problem, I can’t keep up with my friends and bird dogs anymore. I have thus perfected the art of log sitting. Similar to a bed and naps, I find a nice log and sit on it, usually for as much as 40 minutes. My bird dog occasionally comes back for a visit, perhaps to commiserate, and then she is off again to where the action is, her singular imperative. I don’t mind. I’m old, semi-crippled, and want her to have a good time. She was my main motive for back surgery. Dogs don’t live long and deserve walks every day.
Of course, your sexuality vastly diminishes in your seventies. Perhaps this is the gods getting you out of the gene pool. You used to while away hours concocting electric fantasies, but now you are far too realistic and pragmatic. You know very well that those beautiful girls and women you see wandering around New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t pray after work, “Lord, gimme a geezer tonight.” This is hard to accept, but don’t sit under an apple tree until you get the long-lost constant hard-on that plagued your youth. The apples will ripen and fall on your head before anything happens. I’ve read that you don’t help matters by drinking and smoking too much, but these ingrained habits help me want to live. French red wine is as necessary as oxygen for me.
As a matter of plain fact, life has become pleasantly smaller and simpler. Lucky for me I live in Montana and can still fly-fish for trout. About 90 days a summer and fall will find me gliding down rivers in a guide boat. When I get even older, we’ll drop an easy chair into the bow. I can make the throw sitting down because I had 20 years of salt-water fly-casting in Key West. Those were wild days and nights, with social diseases lurking in the alleys. I lived through them and try not to think about them anymore. They were just life in its simpleminded prime. Now I’m so wise, I share nasty oatmeal with the dog. She’s getting older but still loves life.
Jim Harrison'sBrown Dog, a collection of novellas, will be published in December by Grove Press.