After watching him munch on critters that most would be squeamish squashing, let alone gulping down with some grainy rain water, it’s sort of strange to see Les Stroud, better known as Survivorman, staring down at a huge tray of fruit and cheese in an uncomfortably civilized boardroom in the big city. The 48-year-old is the first to admit he’d rather be trudging through a blizzard or trekking through the untamed tropics than dealing with the “business” side of his blossoming brand.
“It’s way easier in the jungles,” he chuckles. “The jungles of the television business and music business and performance and publishing and all that, there’s way more snakes than I have to deal with out in the (real) jungle. I enjoy it though. I enjoy the dichotomy of the two different worlds.”
Stroud has been straddling those unique spheres since 2000, when he began boldly venturing into the wilderness of Northern Ontario with some humble video equipment to document grueling seven-day stretches surviving without food and water. He would go on to create and produce two one-hour pilots that would eventually become the Survivorman series that has propelled him to stardom. He also edited the footage, and composed the show’s theme music, proving he understood a basic tenet of staying alive in the fickle television industry —- keep the costs low.
The years he spent as survival instructor and adventurer also taught him to seize opportunities, and whether that involved trapping vulnerable game, constructing a shelter in a timely fashion, or pitching his cost-efficient show at just the right time, his instincts have rarely let him down.
“At some point along the way I saw the void for really good survival films,” he explains in an interview with CityNews.ca. “The survival instructional films they had were boring and dry…and I just had this idea that why not actually go out and survive and film it at the same time…I didn’t ever really think that I would put it on TV until the Survivor series hit big and I was doing interviews about survival and stuff and I thought maybe this is the right time.”
Throughout his years in the wild he’s faced a plethora of dangers and admittedly made some grievous mistakes, but as his moniker denotes, he’s always made it out alive and kicking — barely.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was a classic faux pas, and I say classic because I should have know better, I’m a survival instructor, I’m not supposed to make these kinds of mistakes. But I was actually looking for a location to teach a course and I went way out off the beaten path in Algonquin Park in northern Ontario and nobody was expecting me for at least three or four days, I didn’t tell anybody where I was going or when I was going to be due back, and I went alone.
“Then while I was out in the middle of it I decided to play a little game and I practiced my moose call with a cow moose that was standing not very far away, and I end up getting chased through the bush by a 1500-pound male moose, put up in a tree by the moose, and it was a few hours before I got out of that predicament. He could have killed me. And I got out by running for my life while he chased me. I actually at one point had to get into the water to escape him, and that was a big mistake. That was really dumb on my part, I could have easily been killed.
And while that particular example wasn’t captured on film, some of his close encounters with extremely large, hungry carnivorous creatures have been, giving viewers an adrenaline rush that most reality shows, with their increasingly fabricated plot lines and benign narratives, can’t compete with.
“In the Amazon episode I got chased by a Jaguar, now when I say chased, he was stalking me. He was circling me and following me the whole time.”
Stroud is quick to note, however, that it’s often the little things that prove to be most annoying and problematic.
“I’ve had the biggest problem with ants, I mean there’s more ants than anything else and that’s where I have my hassles, and when you start getting down to the jungles those are serious ants. Canadian ants, they are fine…but in the jungles there’s a lot of serious breeds of deadly and painful ants to deal with. It doesn’t sound as sensational as saying I got chased by a Jaguar but it’s every bit as interruptive.”
His own focus is momentarily interrupted as he eyes the cheese tray. It’s the type of spread he would likely salivate thinking about after days without real food in the woods, but finding nourishment is just one of the many challenges he faces on a shoot. And as Stroud admits, some eco-systems are tougher than others.
“They all have their inherent problems, but I guess I would say the Northern Boreal Forest is at least at the top of the list,” he notes. “It’s a really tough place to survive if you’re stuck in the middle of the forest. You’re not very mobile, there’s not a lot of plants you can pick and eat and it’s tough to get game, so I’m giving that a nod as a very tough place to survive. “
“I’ve had a few shoots cut short, a couple of times on my own volition,” he humbly reveals. “You know…it’s Day 6 and I’ve been without water for so long that I’m dealing with intense migraines, I can’t even pick up the camera anymore, it’s time. That’s the beauty of it, it’s time to do what’s right for survival and what’s right is that I cut this shoot and get the heck out of here.”
Such occurrences are rare, however, and Stroud’s tough but intelligent approach to tackling the elements has riveted viewers from all walks of life, earning him a remarkably expanding fan base. When asked what the allure of the show is, he gives the kind of calculated answer that mimics his calm approach to surviving extreme conditions in the wild jungles, desolate deserts, and beautiful but bleak forests the word over.
“I think it runs the gamut through that vicarious experience, and also morbid fascination, but I think underneath it all is that underlying current of the fact that I’m touching on something very basic to us all and that’s just pure survival.
“And sure there are people who could care less and they live in the city and they really don’t care, but I’m saying they are the minority. I think the majority remember that within us, we all came from that. At some point we all had an ancestor who had to break a rock into a spear-point and catch game. We all had that.”
“If there’s a lesson there that we can pull, it’s you can get through a lot of crap with just your own will, your own will to live.”
And with that he finally takes a peck at the tray of food set out before him, knowing that it won’t be long before he’s out biting things that just might bite back.
More From Survivorman, Les Stroud.
Hearing That His Show Has Helped Others Survive An Experience In The Wild
“The first time I was given a story about someone who survived using my techniques from the show was a boy out in the Calgary area, and he had hit his dad’s leg with his own arrow, and the dad was in serious trouble, and the boy pulled him out and as soon as he got out he said ‘I knew what to do because I watched Survivorman.’ Since that time I’ve had a good 8 or 9 stories. A couple in Colorado were a couple of days lost in the snow, they made boots for their feet out of the seats of their truck because that was something I showed on a show. A boy lost for 5 days on a snowmobile said everything he did was something that based on what he saw on my show. So I’ve had quite a lot of stories and examples come at me of people who have used my skills, things that I’ve shown, and it’s extremely humbling.”
Rock And Roll And His Early Interest In Survival
“The background that I had was originally in rock n roll, I was a performer, I write music, I did that…but going way way back, originally as a kid I was into Jacques Cousteau, I was into Tarzan, I was into anything to do with adventuring outdoors and I used to make shelters in behind my cottage, but I got out of that to get into rock ‘n roll. But when I was around 25, and I was working within the industry, I just wanted a break from it all, so I just dove into anything I could get my hands on adventuring. I became a white water canoeist, a paddler, hiker, sea kayaker, dog sledder, and survival. And I discovered survival courses, and I discovered that I really enjoyed it, I got into teaching it, and one thing always leads to another if you’re ambitious…and I just worked my way up and then I’m running my own company.
Learning To Survive In Different Eco-Systems
“When I first started doing it I relied on the survival skills I had based on North America, which were pretty well entrenched, I was an instructor, so there wasn’t a big fear factor for me to be out there doing what I was doing. That said, with the series itself I quickly started going to deserts and jungles, and different places, I had to learn very fast. Fortunately I was able to transfer my basic survival understanding to these new eco-systems, get trained on the spot there by people who knew those regions and those areas because just because I know how to build a shelter doesn’t mean I know which plants are going to kill me in Costa Rica.”
The Biggest Mistake People Make In The Wild
“By far the greatest mistake people make is to panic. The first thing they do is panic. You can’t panic, you must calm down, as soon as you calm down you can start to assess the situation. You get knowledge, that knowledge is power and that knowledge will save you and get you out of there. But if you panic you run around, you make everything worse.”
Dealing With Loneliness On A Shoot
There’s no leisure, there’s no relax time, as far as any sort of loneliness, yeah, that is probably the toughest of it all, by Day 3 or Day 4, I’m lonely as hell. I’d rather be home. I don’t want to be there after Day 3 or Day 4. I really don’t. I’m not necessarily bored because I’m busy, but I’m definitely lonely and I miss my kids and I want to go home.”
Balancing Family Life With His Adventures
“It is a juggle, but it’s what I do, and my family knows that, it’s what I do. It’s not like I just started it, I’ve always done it. I don’t do 9-5. I can’t do 9-5. I love adventuring and I keep adventuring but I love my family and I have to balance my time with them.”
The Realities Of Living A Green Lifestyle
“I’m pretty good at home, I’ve met the David Suzuki challenge. My garbage is a tiny little bag once a month, everything else is recycled, food is not wasted…I have an off-the-grid place, I live with solar power, a wind generator, 170 acres, I live up there and people are asking me to talk about green living because I have all these green living technologies, and isn’t that great, but yeah I drive a big pickup truck to get out to that property and I’m flown around the world to do keynote speaking, and it’s a life of conflict isn’t it? David Suzuki did a test where he was flown from Toronto to Vancouver and he calculated how much jet fuel it cost to fly his one body and it was astronomical, but it’s a life of conflict, he was there to talk about green living. I live that same life of conflict. You get me back home and I’m enjoying living a fairly minimalist life — minimalist with my pickup truck and I have an ATV. I’ve been there, I’ve lived that more altruistic sort of lifestyle out in the canoe and everything, but nobody is being asked to go back and live in teepees, we can’t do it. Let’s be realistic about it.”
All photographs by Laura Bombier, expect bottom pic by Michael Talbot, CityNews.ca