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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


North Knife River, Manitoba Canada

I recently got a call from a casting director in California. She was casting for a new TV show, similar to “Survivor”. The idea was to pit an expert wilderness traveler (who often spends weeks in the wilds) against a gear-head with limited backwoods time. The wilderness pro will have basic stuff: map and compass, knife, matches, traditional woods clothing etc. The gear-head will have the most advanced synthetic clothing and high-tech devices. I don’t know the details of the show, but I surmise it to be a race through the wilderness to a finish line.

Admittedly, I was thrilled to be considered for the wilderness pro part, but I bowed out for two reasons: 1) I am a very competent wilderness canoeist and camper, but I am NOT a survival expert. Indeed, I think survival stuff is vastly overrated. Airplanes fly over almost every part of this planet; if you’re lost and dutifully attend a smoky fire (that is, if you have the skill to make one when conditions have deteriorated!), you will probably be found within the week. If you have water, shelter and fire, you’ll last quite awhile (2) my age. I turn 79 in September—that’s too old to be bashing through the bush chasing TV trophy money.

I’ve always believed that “skills are more important than things” so you would think I’d give the wilderness expert the edge in this competition. Maybe not. If the gear-head is cool-headed, in top physical condition and money-hungry, and his high-tech stuff doesn’t fail, he could push the envelope and gain an edge. But if anything goes wrong, he will be in deep trouble.

An expert wilderness traveler knows he can’t beat nature so he doesn’t try. Big money won’t encourage him to take chances or do stupid things. If a lake crossing looks dangerous, a top paddler will either pick a longer sheltered route or stay put until it’s safe. He won’t second-guess a “marginally canoeable” rapid. He’ll line or portage it! If there are several routes to the checkpoint, some short and dangerous, others long and slow, he’ll go with slow and safe. The techie may do quite the opposite, believing his high-tech “stuff” will save the day.

When I read about boating “first descents” down wilderness rivers, I smile. Fact is, most every river in the world has been successfully traveled by native people and their families. No, they didn’t do them in record time. If the weather was uncooperative, they stayed put, sometimes for days or weeks. Time of passage was not part of their agenda. Safety was the main concern. And that, I think, is the major difference between wilderness experts who travel for long periods of time in harmony with nature and weekend warriors who believe that the right stuff will cure all ills.

I recommended to the casting director three wilderness experts whom I thought would be competitive in the new TV show. Naturally, she asked to see photos of my choices. Gotta look good on TV, you know! Which brings me to a story:

Several decades ago, I wrote a “Guide to Camping” supplement for Field & Stream Magazine. It was a compendium of practical outdoors tips, surrounded by ads for outdoor gear. F&S liked the piece and I was invited to star in a field modeling experience that promoted the advertised products. The photo shoot would take place in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I would stand proudly on a craggy hill, wearing the advertised clothing and gear, smiling and looking tough. The photo shoot paid $10,000 (beyond what I earned for the article!)—about equal to a full year of my teaching salary. Boy, was I excited! Now, this was before the Internet and digital photography, so they asked me to mail a color photo of myself. Soon as they saw my skinny 135 pound frame they never contacted me again. In my place they hired a big burly man who looked like he just stepped out of a Ford F150 commercial. He looked the part but knew nothing about the wild outdoors. And I lost ten grand!

Size or sex doesn’t determine success in the wilderness. Skills and heart do! Many of the greatest outdoorsmen—Daniel Boone, George Washington Sears andHorace Kephart were little guys. Nuff said.


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