How the reality show “Alone” got me through the pandemic

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When I found myself setting up a tarp shelter in the dead of winter, I knew I had gone in too deep. My partner, Lauren, stood next to me, shivering as her headlamp lit up my hands. It was a clear night with temperatures in the teenage years. I rushed to set up the ridge line when I still had to touch my fingers, then tightened it and threw a tarp over it. While I was setting up the shelter, a woman with an elegant parka and an even more elegant dog walked past us, speechless and puzzled.

I live in downtown Toronto.

Over the past year, I had been heading headlong into survivalism, purchasing a six inch bushcraft knife (Scandinavian cast), a ferro shank, and all the ropes one could possibly need. It all started when I started to watch the hit tv series Alone during the pandemic. The show has been a mainstay of the History Channel since its debut in 2015, and its popularity has skyrocketed during COVID-19 shutdowns.

The premise of the show is simple: ten contestants are scattered around a remote part of the wilderness, each with ten approved items in tow. Competitors must then try to settle into the discomfort of their new surroundings by building shelter, hunting for food, and warding off predators. As days turn into weeks, they struggle to find enough to eat. Their bodies start to atrophy from malnutrition, and everyday tasks like fetching water or checking traps become much more difficult. The last person left wins $ 500,000.

As I consumed episode after episode, season after season, I realized that my obsession with the series was not unique. Several streaming services, including Netflix, have picked up the show, and recently the actor Ted Danson called Alone “kind of a brilliant pandemic spectacle.” According to Google Trends, global searches for “Alone show” peaked in June 2020.

The experience of watching Alone during a pandemic, particularly in a COVID-19 hotspot, was unusual. Many viewers, including myself, seemed to be looking for something deeper while watching the show: a roadmap for navigating the loneliness and hardships of an unprecedented moment.

Ahead of the show’s eighth season, which airs this summer on the History Channel, I decided to call some of the show’s current and former contestants to find out how they managed to isolate themselves in nature and reintroduce themselves to the show. normal life after leaving nature. I thought their experiences of fear, loneliness and anxiety might help me better overcome the many challenges of this pandemic.

The first person I spoke to was Biko wright, a competitor of the current season Alone, which followed the show from the start. Wright, an Oregonian who sang in a metal band and attended Renaissance festivals, learned his outdoor survival skills from his father, a Navy veteran who was avid hunting and fishing. He has studied the strategies of past competitors but is not an expert. “I’m just a random guy,” says Wright. “I’m not a survival skills instructor or anything like that. I just have outdoor skills, and I love it, and I live it.

Season eight takes place in Chilko Lake, BC, where contestants face the threat of grizzly bears and mountain lions in addition to freezing cold, isolation and food scarcity. Wright handled the loneliness by keeping his mind occupied. “If I didn’t have tasks, then I would focus on the game singing songs and just making jokes,” he says. Wright approached the show in much the same way he approaches everyday life – with ease. “I went out there humble, ready to get my ass kicked for sure,” he says. “I was going to try and focus my efforts on fishing, trapping and finding plants because those are my strengths… I never hunted big game with a bow.

Wright’s experience of testing his mental and physical limits through isolation became a reality for so many when the pandemic struck. In Toronto, Canada’s most populous city and a COVID-19 hotspot, the loneliness was terrible. Over the past 16 months, the city has suffered a series of closures. Many aspects of daily life – walking the streets, shopping for groceries, taking public transportation – have become terrifying endeavors. It is at the heart of this terror that I joined people around the world to turn to the spectacle. My initial interest grew out of a deep fascination: why would anyone do this to themselves? What kinds of challenges would they face? Mesmerized, I watched the first season over a three day period. After that, I watched another season, then another, and yet another.

Biko Wright, “single” competitor. Photo: Courtesy of The History Channel

In season three, I found myself inspired by Callie Blue Heron North, a fan favorite who excelled in the tough conditions of Patagonia. During her 72 days, she built a house, then built herself a chair, a makeshift sauna and finally a wind chime.

I called North, who lives in a small community on the San Juan Islands in Washington. She and her partner, Randy Champagne, also a contestant on the show (seasons two and five), live off the grid and are expecting their first child. North says she and Champagne experienced a “huge explosion” of fans who contacted them at the start of the pandemic.

She can see parallels between her time on the show and being off COVID-19. “Many of us felt that if we looked to the future, time seemed to stretch out forever,” she told me. “But if you were present in your situation, you can understand how quickly time really flies and how this experience will pass – and it is not only the hardships of this experience that will pass, but also the joys of this experience.”

North’s construction projects are what got her through both the wilderness and the pandemic. Having a creative practice has supported her through all kinds of challenges, she says. “I think creativity really has to do with ingenuity and critical thinking. And there’s no better time for that than this pandemic. “

Looking at home, trapped in a 450 square foot apartment with my fiancee and our cat, I had a similar idea for a way forward: bushcraft. I wanted a challenge that required a lot of work and required regular practice. I also needed an excuse to leave my apartment in search of the less traveled corners of the city. So I found myself setting up a tarp shelter in downtown Toronto and later beginning the long and arduous process of making a gillnet. I was now heading headlong into the world of bushcraft and survivalism.

I struggled to get back to what we called “normal” before the pandemic. What is normal when you have spent a year and a half isolated playing with ferro rods and practicing knots?

Of course, another reality of the pandemic was severe illness and death, which Alone competitors gain a lot of face-to-face experience. In addition to coping with hunger and loneliness, North suffered bites from a Chilean recluse spider, which eventually became infected and threatened her stint on the series. It was an eye-opening experience. Alone taught North to ask questions such as “What lessons do we learn from this?” ” she says. “How can we be present, understand that this is a moment in our life that will end very quickly, and not be so engrossed in ‘It’s forever.’ It’s my new reality. I will never be able to. How do I embrace it? What can I do to support my community, both near and far, support my family, provide for myself and my own health, and understand that this time will to pass ? “

In February 2021, a close friend of mine contracted COVID-19, then another, and yet another. Then a family member contracted COVID-19 and was put on a ventilator. From the same couch where I had watched the competitors hunt grouse, build boats, cry, starve and suck in the house, a nurse was now talking to me on a tablet. She took it into the room to show me the fully intubated family member. I spent my days sending updates to family and friends, and helping loved ones overcome the technical and emotional challenges of teledeuil at a time when in-person visits were impossible.

Wright was even more cut off from loved ones on the show during the pandemic. He had to leave his fiancée, who was expecting twins. “She was really crossing hers Alone challenge at home, and it really tore me apart while I was there, ”he says. “We both said that whenever the moon was high we would look at the moon and know that we were both looking at the same moon. This stuff really helped me connect at home even though I was so far away.

I was also curious what the ride home was like for Alone competitors. When North left the series to return to Washington, “the difficulty was very unexpected,” she said. “I think I felt like I would get down to work when I got home and be able to fit in all the work and bring back all that new wisdom. But the physical recovery alone took years, really. This initial phase was incredibly difficult. “

North notes that at the end of season three, the contestants had no support from Alone staff in nutrition or food integration after leaving the show. As a result, returning to normal life was difficult. “There was a lot of bodily trauma that came with it, and the emotional integration of this work was much greater than I could have imagined. This first year has been really, really intense.

Miraculously, a family member survived and began to recover. In May, Toronto also appeared to be recovering. The warning tape was removed from the playgrounds and children could again be heard laughing and playing. The patios began to buzz.

However, I did not feel such relief or elation. I struggled to get back to what we called “normal” before the pandemic. What is normal when you have spent a year and a half isolated playing with ferro rods and practicing knots? I fear now that a return to normal life may not be possible: that grocery stores, crowded bars and fleeting conversations with strangers will never feel safe again.

My newfound social anxiety and the growing number of variations are taking a heavy toll on the places I once frequented; I don’t know when I will be able to adjust to post-pandemic life. But to my loved ones so close and yet so far, know that when the moon is high, we are looking at the same moon. Eventually that too will pass.

In the meantime, I have a new season to watch and a gillnet to finish.

Alone Airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET / PT on the History channel.


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