Blair Braverman Talks ‘Naked and Afraid’
When Discovery emailed Blair Braverman urging her to apply for its series Naked and Afraid, she thought it was spam. But it turned out to be the start of the most exhilarating adventure of her life. What was it really like? Was she given food and water when the cameras turned off? We met up with Braverman at her northern Wisconsin home to ask. Read her full story: “Everything on Naked and Afraid Is Real—and I Lived It.”
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: I can go through any discomfort while I'm out there. I know that about myself. I've endured a lot of sort of sucky outdoor situations. But if I feel like my long-term health is at risk, I'm out. And that's the point that I got to. Come on.
Hello. My name's Blair Braverman, and I am a writer and a dog sledder and adventurer, and this is Flame, and she is a sled dog. Right, Flame?
I'm Blair Braverman, and in 2018 I was on Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel. I didn't actually apply for the show. My husband and I were recruited, because apparently, years before, I had filled out some online form nominating us for some couples wilderness challenge, and that form had made its way to a casting agent. So I had just finished a 440-mile dog sled race in the Arctic. And I opened my email and there was this-- I thought it was spam being like, hey, so do you and your husband want to apply for Naked and Afraid?
I don't have any experience with reality TV. I've actually had, usually a couple times a year, someone approaches me about making a reality show about my and my husband's life and our sled dog team, and we've always said no. We like telling our own story. So it was weird to be like, OK, well, we're going to go be part of this thing. Like, we're going to step into someone else's adventure.
And we had seen the show, and we'd actually talked about it. We'd been like, oh, it'd be fun to be on this, because we're both dog sledders. He was a cowboy. We both like sort of weird adventures, and it seemed really fun to have a weird adventure that someone else would do all the planning for us, because we're always organizing things ourselves. And we're like, oh, if we just had to show up, that would be awesome, and some place we'd never get to see otherwise. And then in August a couple of months later, I went to South Africa and he went to Honduras.
I spend a lot of time in the wilderness and I've been in survival situations, but they haven't been what people call primitive survival, which is where you don't have tools, or you don't have gear. When I'm dog sledding, I have a ton of gear. It's 40-below. Like, you need that.
The months before I went felt like the worst finals week of my life, because I was studying everything. I didn't do that much physically to prepare. I tried to toughen up my feet, but I spent all my spare time just studying survival guides, and studying edible plants, and studying what you can make from plants, learning how to build fires, learning how to build snares and traps and fishing weirs. I was really excited about fishing weirs. It was so strange to feel like every moment's being recorded, and then what happens with it is out of my control. And everyone's like reality TV. They're going to make you look awful. The edits-- like, they can do anything to you, and I was so worried about that going on.
I was so hyper-aware. I was like, if I mention something three times in the course of two weeks, they could put all three of those times in the edit, and it will make it seem like I'm obsessed with that thing. But I also really liked my producer, Rachel McGuire. And I met her, and she's a former journalist. And I was like, phew, OK, we're good, because she's very, very strict about the truth. And she warned me when I went. She was like, you can't bring your wedding ring, you can't have a hair tie. I was like, OK, she does things right, and that was such a reassurance to me, because I was like, OK, she's going to be fair to the experience. That was very cool to see.
It wasn't anything like people warned me, like they're going to exploit you. I was worried it would be, because you don't know, but it was actually a great experience in that regard.
The first time and only time I've seen the show through was at the same time as everyone else, when it came out on TV. I was so scared to watch it back for the first time, because I knew I was going to watch myself sort of come apart on screen. And I was living in the Alaskan bush 60 miles from the nearest road, and I had some friends there who were on a dog sledding trip. And so we all sort of gathered around the television. I've actually never watched it back since that first time all the way through. So let's give it a go.
My partner has done this before. I hope that means they're good at it, because I consider myself less of a survivalist and more of an adventurer. I am a dog sweater.
- Go, dogs. Go, Blair!
BLAIR: I spend almost all my time outside in very cold places. I've never been to a place like the Limpopo Basin. This is completely foreign to me. I am already thirsty, and it is looking very dry around here.
Oh my gosh, I knew they were going to cut me off from water and sunscreen at some point. And I was so annoying, I'm sure, because I kept asking, can I still have water and sunscreen, can I still have water and sunscreen. And then I just kept putting on more layers of sunscreen and drinking more water. When I was in the car, I was still allowed to drink water. And then at some point I was going to be cut off, and I was just paranoid that I wouldn't realize when that was.
NARRATOR: As a dog sledder, Blair has endurance, and is used to pushing through.
BLAIR: Leader, hardworking, tenacious. That's good. We didn't know what our three words would be.
I didn't think I'd be nervous to be naked, but at this moment, here we go.
That was awkward, like taking off your clothes for the first time. I wasn't worried about it. I was just like, whatever, like, I can handle it. And then I got out there, and like everyone hoists the cameras on their shoulder, and they're like, take off your clothes now. And you're like-- Because you're all by yourselves. There isn't anyone else in that situation with you yet. And then by the time you meet your partner, you're like, oh, great, another naked person.
You're Gary. I've seen you on TV.
GARY: How do you know who I am?
BLAIR: I've seen you on TV.
GARY: Blair, nice to meet you. How about a hug, huh?
BLAIR: I was so relieved when I saw Gary. It was just this like instant camaraderie. I could have seen any naked person out there and I would be like, you're my friend. It was such a weird situation, and it's another person on the inside of it. It's this dual kind of survival where you're surviving the wilderness, and you're also quote, unquote, "surviving" being on this TV show. Like, you're going through two intense experiences that are layered over each other.
Yeah, so this part is-- they warned us ahead of time this was going to be one of the only parts that's like-- it's not scripted, because you don't have to say anything, but they're going to tell us where to go. Like, we have to like-- there's that dead tree there, and they had been like, you are going to go to the dead tree. You are going to walk toward it, and your partner will walk toward it, and then our objects would be there. Then they're like, OK, and they don't tell you what to do after that.
I found your dinner, Gary.
GARY: That's beyond Gary even.
BLAIR: Man, that was great. We used that wildebeest for everything. We made shoes. I made a net.
GARY: So I'd soak it, get it reconstituted in the wet.
BLAIR: Man, when you don't have anything-- when you don't have shoes, when you don't have clothes, you don't have anything at all-- everything you see is like an addition to what you have. Like, if you see a piece of grass, that's like more than you own. And so I was just walking along looking for anything. And when we saw that dead wildebeest on the way in, it's like, goldmine. Like, now we have a knife and a dead wildebeest. That's like way more than we had intended to go.
All this footage-- people thought this footage was fake. It was like, the crew came back in the morning, and they looked at the night vision cameras, and they were like, oh my god. Like, you guys almost got stepped on. But elephants are really quiet.
I think there's something nearby.
And Gary just fell asleep. He just lay down and fell asleep, and it took me like three nights to sleep at all. It blew my mind that he could just sleep.
GARY: You see it?
- No, I heard it. It's going around us.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: You know, we knew we had to keep the flames big, which meant I was afraid to sleep because I felt like the fire might go down to coals and then we'd be eaten.
- Watch out.
- There's something big out there. Sounds like an elephant.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: The next couple nights-- and frankly like almost all the nights after that-- we got surrounded by hyenas. And it was like the second or third night. I still hadn't slept. And the hyenas got really close. And we have a radio in there. That's in the emergency supplies.
Like, we can't use it. It's not part of the game, so to speak. But if someone has a heart attack, we have a radio. And we can radio a medic who's like, I don't know where they were. They were like a mile away. They had a tent or something.
And I was like, well, there's a lot of hyenas. So we should radio and tell them that there are a lot of hyenas. Because they'll keep us safe. And Gary was like, I mean, I guess so. Sure if you want to. And I radioed. And I was like, yeah, we're surrounded by hyenas. So just so you know. I don't know if you do anything about that.
And they were like, yeah, well, we can't come out there. There's hyenas. And that was when it really hit home that I was like, oh, like, this is not-- like they are not protecting us.
That is not this game. Like we are out here. And we have agreed to this. And like, we are putting ourselves in far more danger than the rest of the crew. We are not union workers. No one is gonna help us. And then we never called anyone during the night after that, no matter what happened.
I never stopped being scared when things came that close at night. But I did get used to it.
- There' s something big out there.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: You know, you'd see tusks in the moonlight. You could tell by the shape of the tusks if it was an old elephant or a young elephant. And then the young ones were scarier. If it was an old, if there were long tusks, I'd be like, OK, this guy's chill.
They didn't leave us a flashlight in case we heard sounds. You can't aim the fire through the shelter to see what's out there. We just had no idea.
See, oh, I was good at that. The straw, I kept straw, throw it on the fire. And it'll flare up and seem scary. I was on it with the straw. All the time, all night long I always had my hand on the straw. That was like my one survival thing.
- Yeah, it's coming from different sides. It doesn't like the fire. Whenever the fire flares it stops.
- I'm shaking, I don't know.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: See, Gary's a pro. Whenever this stuff happened, he'd pull out his diary cam. And I'd be like, why are you messing around with the camera? There's an elephant.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: And he'd be like, because we're on TV. And we need to film this or else it didn't happen. And like I never quite got out of that mindset.
We were under this big Fever Tree that had just huge pieces of bark that had come off. And we almost always use the bark when we're burning. And then I would lie on that right side with my cheek on the ground. And so this is about the time when I ended up with a weird bite on my cheek. And it's like right here.
We don't know what it is. We don't know if it was a spider bite. It shows some things that are consistent with a violent spider bite, which is like a brown recluse. And we had seen violent spiders in the bark. And so that's one of my leading theories.
Because we knew for a fact that there were violent spiders in the bark. We were burning it every night in vast quantities. And I was lying with my cheek next to the fire. And things came running out of the fire and hit me, like living things. And I woke up. It was just this weird lump. We didn't know what it was. I called the medic to look at it. And he was like, um, uh, looks like a weird lump. And it just started getting bigger and bigger from that point on and like spreading.
But it didn't open up until after I left. It stayed closed. So it just looked like I had like a scab on my cheek. And then when I took a shower after I left it just like open. And all of a sudden it looked like someone had taken a hole punch to my face. And you could just look into this tunnel. And it was real gross.
And I was like, oh, this is not what this is supposed to look like. Like suddenly it made sense that I was swollen all the way down through my neck. Like it was hard to move my head. Like, oh this is not, this is not a pimple.
- I feel messed up.
- Do you? You need to go drink water.
- Does that happen to people this early?
- It does?
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: That was when I was beginning to really feel the effects of everything out there, like the heat, the dehydration. It was around the time I got the bite on my face. And I was worried because Gary it was not showing signs of that at all.
- I'm really lucky to have a very good partner for the first 10 days of this challenge, who is such an amazing human being and is being tough.
I'd rather see her make it than me.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Yeah, he never made me feel bad when I couldn't do things. He was always noticing what I could do. I'd be making a spear or making a net or something. And he was like, I'll carry you out. Like I don't care. And I think he would have, for sure.
- It's our last morning at camp. And hopefully I'll have the strength for the walk today.
- I'll be keeping an eye on Blair [INAUDIBLE] the hike. She's getting sluggish. She's getting fatigued quickly. And it's going to be a hot part of the day. This is going to be taxing.
How you feeling?
- Not very good.
- No? You feeling dizzy?
- I'm scared about the walk.
- Don't let it scare you. Because that won't do you any good. And on the walk though, you set the pace. You stop in the shade. And I don't want you to ever feel bad. We're here to support each other. You know what I mean?
- This morning when I got up I felt like I was going to tip over. This heat is really taking its toll. I don't know about making that walk through the sun. I'm worried that even getting myself there is going to be too much for me.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: I was scared I was going to get heatstroke and die. Like, I am so messed up. And the way the timing worked, we had to go in the middle of the day for filming, like in the heat of the day when it's 100 degrees. And you're going out of the shade. And you haven't eaten. And all you have is the water that you can carry in your little pot for both of you.
- Under Gary's tutelage, Blair has had great success--
- I got a catfish!
- All right!
- --and bonded closely with him.
- You too.
- But halfway through the challenge, Blair still hasn't adapted to the oppressive heat.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: I have not adapted to the oppressive heat. That is correct.
- Her body is failing.
- Being acclimated to the cold, my body just has no idea how to handle this.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: That was our leading theory at the time for why I was so sick, was the heat. And I think it was part of it. It's interesting because that's another response I get. People are like, the show made it seem like you couldn't handle the heat. And that makes you seem less tough.
And it's interesting to me that if now that we know I had like MRSA, or a spider bite, or whatever it was that was like spreading an infection through my body, like that seen as an acceptable reason to be weak whereas being weak from the heat is seen as something I should be embarrassed about, or like they did me wrong by making it seem like that.
And heat messes, I mean, heat kills people. So whenever I hear people say that, and they feel like they're defending me, I'm like no, like don't say that. Like you don't want to undermine. People die from heatstroke. It's incredibly dangerous.
- We're close.
- OK. Good.
- Blair, right there, we're going to that stark tree sticking up right there.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: For most of that walk, I couldn't really see. Like it felt like this huge rushing in my ears. And my vision was just this tiny little like, it was just black with this tiny speck of light. And I could sort of like focus on the shade I was trying to get to up ahead. And then like it felt like swimming. Like I couldn't see. I couldn't hear very well. Everything was like rushing around my head.
And it was strange because I knew that everyone was around me. And everyone was seeing me struggle. And none of them actually knew how hard it really was to get to that next patch of shade again and again and again.
- Hey Matt, what's going on?
- What's up, Gary?
- Everyone made it this far.
- I know, right?
- Oh, look at the strip. That'll be nice, [INAUDIBLE].
- How's it coming?
- Slicing meat.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: I was spending so much time trying to figure out why something was so wrong with me. And I kept being like, if I get meat. Like that was my hope. Like if I can get to the merge. If we have a partner, maybe they have a bow and arrow. Maybe they have something where we can go hunting. OK, then we'll have food and all those things came to pass.
I mean, we met our partners. Within a day, Matt had shot a warthog. And I was eating. And it was what I had thought might fix me.
- How do you feel?
- Like, it's hard to even crouch.
I felt that initial surge of energy from eating the warthog. And I think it gave me so much optimism. Whoa. And I suddenly crashed almost harder than I have since I got here.
I might lie down a little bit so I don't faint with the knife in my hand.
Here I was thinking I was about to feel stronger than before.
- Like what happens like when you stand up?
- I lose my vision and my hearing.
- How often does that happen to you?
- Every time I stand up.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: And it didn't. It didn't fix me. And that's when I was like, OK. Like that was the moment where I was like, OK, I have to leave.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Like, I can't just wait and try to fix this out here. Time for me to throw in the towel.
I didn't tell anyone I was going to tap out the next morning. Because I knew they tried to talk me out of it. And I knew that they would have points. They would be like, we'll carry you out. We'll get your water. Like, all the stuff they'd been offering already.
And I wanted to thank them somehow. So Matt and Molly had gathered what I think was mother in law's tongue, or a similar looking plant. And I was able to make cordage out of it. And so all that night I just made like feet and feet and feet of cordage in every size as like a thank you gift for my partners. Because I couldn't carry things. And I couldn't walk. And I couldn't do anything. But I could make things. And I could make this one thing that hopefully would at least be a gesture that would make their last week a little bit easier.
When I was sitting up all that night and I made the cordage, and I started to make a sun hat for Gary. But I ran out of steam. And I just made the cordage instead. But I had the base of the sun hat. And I put it on. And I was like this is gonna be, this is what I got. This is my one souvenir.
- How are you feeling?
- Not very good.
- I feel like I don't even know if I can stand.
My body is falling apart. It's getting hotter again.
I love my teammates. I love this place. But hit rock bottom.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Oh no. Oh, I was a mess.
- I feel like my body is reaching some sort of threshold. And I don't want to cross that. So it's a really tough call especially with you guys. But I've decided to go home. And what would mean a lot is if you're not disappointed in me.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Oh, it was hard to say goodbye to them.
- I love you guys.
- Yeah, I love you too. I don't want to see you go. But if you want to go, I'm going to be happy for you.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Oh, this makes me miss all my teammates. We've all stayed in touch, but like it's different when you're like sitting up all night with people.
- Thank you [INAUDIBLE].
- You've been with me since the first second.
- Gary showed me the kind of person and the kind of partner that he can be.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: All I can see is my neck. I just have so much swelling [INAUDIBLE].
- I open up to Blair about everything. She became a trusting friend. And I would've done anything for that girl. I'm going to miss you.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Aw, thank you, Gary. You're a good partner.
- The only thing that I would regret more than leaving at this point is staying and having long term health impacts.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Yep, that was my philosophy.
BLAIR BRAVERMAN: At this point I would have tapped out anyway. But I was like, not only do I need to get better, but I need to get better really fast or else everything we've been working toward for a few years is going to be completely thrown off.
Because I knew I was going to have to leave South Africa and hit the road training for my rookie Iditarod within weeks. Because that was September. And the dogs need to start training in September. And I was like, I need to somehow get strong enough that within like a week I'm training 20 dogs for 1,000 mile race. Because it had been a multi-year process to qualify. And I wasn't going to put the Iditarod at risk for this.
When I left here they did like some exit interviews. And I went to the lodge where everyone had been staying, all the crew had been staying, which was a ways away. It was a long drive. And I took a shower. And I walked out of the shower and I suddenly felt naked. Like I was like, oh, my God, I need to put on clothing. And it was the first time I had sense that in weeks. But like something about being clean suddenly it didn't feel normal anymore.
And it like opened up the wound on my face, which turned into a big hole into my cheek. And it also like, all the dirt washed off my skin and revealed this weird rash all over my skin. And went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night. And I couldn't move my head or anything above my shoulders.
And I went to the medic. And we started driving me to the hospital. And at that point I think we were worried about meningitis. And when I got there, like nobody could figure out what was going on. Which to this day we don't know what it was. I had one doctor tell me that she'd never seen anyone look like that and survive. And it's also possible it was something called toasted skin syndrome, which is when you sit too close to the fire. Like we just don't, it just kind of all a mystery. Like I just, I'll never know.
I think the lessons I got from Naked and Afraid are similar to the ones I get from dog sledding, which is just that I don't take comfort for granted. Like every single night when I sleep in a bed I'm like, this is so nice. I'm not on the dirt. I'm not in a snow bank. Beds are amazing.
I think if there's one way I was changed by doing Naked and Afraid, it has to do with how I understand the wilderness around me and how I see it as a resource. And when I started studying for the show I remember, like, it really changed in my head.
I'd walk through the woods around my house. And I would see this branch that could support a shelter, and this branch that would do this. And this would burn like this. And this would do this. And this might be a bug repellent. And this might be edible. And I could use this to filter water.
And that has stayed with me for sure. When I walk around, it's like a whole new layer of interpretation of the natural world that feels like a different kind of engaging. It almost feels more like being an animal. Like when I watch my dogs, they're looking at everything. They're like, can I eat this? Can I lie on this? Can I roll with it? Like, what is my engagement with this object?
And now when I walk in the woods I feel the same way. Like, what can I do with this branch? What can I do with this? And most of the time I don't do it. But I'm thinking about it.
Maybe the wildest thing when I got back was that people would talk to me and they'd be like, what was it, like, was it real? Like, they give you some water, right? Or, yeah, but there's someone with a gun all the time, right? So you can't be attacked. And all these things that they just sort of assume that I was like, if everyone's going to assume I was getting water, and sandwiches, and protection, I wish I'd gotten water, and sandwiches, and protection out there.
Like it's hard to describe. Like, no, it wasn't just real. It was too real. Like this was a weird thing. This was a weird adventure.
Would I do it again? Everything would have to line up right. I wouldn't be against it. I wouldn't be against it because there's all sorts of things that I wanted to try it I didn't get a chance to try. But I'd want to go somewhere different, just for fun.