I Spent 16 Weeks Alone In The Wilderness: Here's what I learned
In the spring of 2014 I was sitting in a garage carving a canoe paddle, when I got a phone call about a new reality survival show. They asked if I wanted to audition, and after several emails, interviews, and evaluations, I found myself on a sea plane, flying over the wilderness of British Columbia.
The idea for the show was simple. The ten of us participants would be dropped into separate locations in the wilderness. Our task was to survive for as long as we could, while filming every part of the experience, remaining completely ALONE. The winner received a cash prize, but as I would soon find out, no one leaves the woods empty handed.
I spent over seven weeks in British Columbia before the storms of the Pacific Ocean and the draw to be home with my wife, who was expecting our first child, overcame my desire to stay in the woods. Only one other person remained.
Three years later I received another phone call. Participants who had previously been on the show were being invited back for a “redemption” of sorts. Although I didn’t feel a need to “redeem” myself, the pull to go back to the forest and to be alone was strong, and six short weeks later, I was flying to Mongolia. After two months alone in Mongolia’s Khentti Mountains, my wife was flown in to tell me that I had won, and shortly after the most emotional reunion I’ve ever experienced, my wife and I were flown by helicopter to a remote yurt, where I would start my transition back to civilization. After two days of hanging out and listening to what my family had been up to while I was gone, my wife was flown home to take care of the kids (we had two by this time) while I finished up the last few days of my transition.
Again, I found myself alone. This time however, I was in a warm yurt, well fed, and without the obligation of cutting my own firewood. This was my chance to reflect on my journey, and to unpack what I had learned and experienced. I still hadn’t truly wrapped my head around what had happened to me. Over the course of these two experiences I had spent well over 100 days alone in the woods. But, what had I learned? What had I truly experienced, and how would these experiences effect my life?
This blog post is my attempt at explaining my mental journey, and the thoughts that helped me to persevere, and ultimately, win.
There’s always something to be thankful for.
Hunger was no stranger to me during these wilderness experiences. I sometimes went as many as four days without a bite of food. One experience comes to mind where I got up to check the twenty traps that I had set over the course of a week. All of them were empty. I could tap into my emergency rations, but that would be even more disheartening than an empty stomach. I cut some firewood, grabbed a handful of pine needles, and headed back to my shelter for the evening. After starting a fire and getting a pot of snow melting, I added the pine needles to make tea.
I sat back in a chair that I had constructed from birch saplings and watched the flames kiss the bottom of my pot. Each day inevitably ends with reflection. What happened? How did I feel about the day?
Honestly, it was difficult for me to name a positive at first. It was cold and my once plentiful supply of firewood was dwindling, pushing my wood gathering further and further from camp. And of course, the stinging reality that my traps were empty… again.
I saw my tea start to boil, so I removed it from the fire and poured some into the wooden cup that I had made. I put the cup to my lips and slowly sipped the hot liquid. I poured another cup of pine needle tea, this time taking a few seconds to stare at the steam pouring off the top before taking another sip.
‘I have this cup of tea,’ I thought to myself. ‘I have this cup of tea that is really just hot water with pine needles in it, but for today, that’s something to be thankful for.’
There’s an intensity in silence. That intensity leads to clarity.
We live in a world of distractions. I remember looking around in our food tent after returning from my wilderness camp and seeing the paper tab of a teabag urging customers to follow them on facebook, the first advertisement I’d seen in months. It was my first “culture shock” and I hadn’t even left the mountains. From traffic lights to advertisements to cell phone notifications, our attention is always in high demand. My weeks in the wilderness provided me with an opportunity to forego these distractions for a significant amount of time. So what happened?
I was finally able to complete my thoughts and to delve into life’s big questions. Was I really being the best father and husband that I could be? What mark was I leaving on the world? Was I cherishing my time with loved ones? At times I felt overwhelmed by the thoughts. I would unpack a portion of my life, attempting to wrap my head around what kind of a person I really was. After all, other people’s perceptions of you really don’t count for much when you’re all alone.
I thought about my life for days. This was the most critically uplifting and (sometimes painfully) raw time in my life. I would sit and stare into the fire for hours, often laughing or weeping (occasionally both on the same night), or just staring in silence.
After weeks of this routine, my thoughts became clear, precise and extensive. I had no idea how beneficial it would be to simply slow down, and be silent.
Life is defined by a series of challenges, and how we react when confronted with these challenges
The number one question in my mind, particularly in Mongolia, had to do with my breaking point. During my first adventure, I left the wilderness by my own decision. In Mongolia, I decided to either win, or push myself to my breaking point. I find that this is what scares people more than anything. It’s easy to think of a hypothetic breaking point, based off of previous experiences. It takes true courage to look your breaking point in the eyes and pursue it. This is why I have so much respect for the other participants, and their journeys.
When confronted by obstacles in a wilderness setting I’ll do whatever is necessary to survive, even if I'm stranded with nothing but a used diaper and a rusty butter knife. I came to the conclusion that giving up wasn't an option.
However, this decision to take on a massive challenge followed years of less-than-sexy challenges. Long nights at a cubicle trying to pay off unreasonable amounts of debt, devastating health issues, and dealing with the anxiety that is injected into a person when they’re thrust back into society after long-term wilderness isolation, just to name the ones that I’m not still too embarrassed to write about online. Not every challenge has a happy ending and we don’t emerge from every challenge unscathed. The moment I realized this I remember thinking to myself,
“I can’t always decide my own destiny by simply ‘trying harder,’ or ‘being brave,’ but if effort and bravery are integral to success, at least I will fail knowing that I couldn’t have done anything more.”
After all of these days and nights alone in the woods, this is what I’ve come away with. I’d like to sincerely thank you for reading my thoughts, and I invite you back to this blog whenever you have the time. There will always be more adventures, and there’s no telling where a good adventure may lead.
About the Author
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Sam Larson is a husband, father, and lover of the outdoors. He’s had the privilege of training with world renowned instructors in many different environments.