World-famous “Survivorman” Les Stroud has been on countless adventures in his life. He has traveled the world’s continents and its diverse ecosystems, each time experiencing new challenges. Armed with only a couple of cameras and his deep knowledge of reliable survival tactics, Les Stroud has overcome a lot of obstacles. Some of them were rewarding, while others were a learning experience. The following are the top-10 adventures Les Stroud has been on and how they have changed his life.–Ryan Lee Price, editor
It’s the first thought that comes out of my mouth: “The high Canadian Arctic.” That’s my answer whenever I’m asked to name the most beautiful place I’ve been. As far as natural beauty and splendor go, I like to say in the Arctic you could basically drop your camera on the ground and it would still get a good angle.
I was fortunate to have filmed not one, but three survival shows in the Arctic—and that’s not including going to Labrador for another. Survival in the Arctic, the same as anywhere, is not focused on the beauty and splendor.
It was a whole different ballgame to not have a forest full of trees ready for burning for warmth or with which to build shelters. I had to focus on my gear, which included the mandatory rifle to protect against polar bears. Before I got there I was told, “You will be able to walk across the rivers on the backs of Arctic char!” When I got there, I was told: “Oh . . . that was last week.” Yet probably the most iconic moment of making the Survivorman series there was when, after four days without food, I finally did land four big Arctic char using the fishing tackle I had on that particular survival expedition. Like the surroundings, it was pure magic!
Unlike most people, I absolutely love hot and wet—at least, if I am going to be in the most iconic jungle on the planet. From dodging jaguars and pumas to avoiding the most painful sting on the planet, that of the bullet ant, there is no relaxing in a jungle. The number of poisonous plants, insects, and reptiles in the Amazon make Australia, noted for having the most numerous types of venomous creatures, look tame.
In Auzzieland, the creatures are spread out; but in the Amazon, it’s different—they’re under every log, on every tree, in every creek, and flying in the air. In the Amazon jungle, you can never just sit down. First you must check over every inch of where you’re going to rest and then check again and then maybe gingerly sit somewhere but only for a minute or two, before you need to check for something crawling on you all over again. And the irony of surviving in the Amazon jungle is that there really aren’t many plants to eat. Just a lot of big, green, wet drooping leaves hiding some kind of spider you’d better not touch!
There’s a lot of romance, excitement, and lore associated with far Northern Ontario in Canada. This is the land of the Voyageurs and the home of my favorite way to travel—by canoe. But the region’s historical beauty can be deceiving in that it conceals the fact that survival here can be tougher than in most places, if you face the wrong set of circumstances.
During my very first ever Survivorman, I spent a week in the area known as Wabakimi and I got hit with a freak heat wave that brought back an insane horde of black flies to torment me through the long nights. In the second Survivorman, I went back during the winter and the temperature dropped to minus-45 degrees F. It was so cold that my camera’s top, which was metal, snapped off by the handle.
Yet survival can always be helped along by a strong and confident emotional state. And this area was, after all, where I learned to become an outdoor adventurer, so feeling “home” made a big difference in my handling of the bugs and cold!
I’m always asked, “Which is worse to survive, the hot or the cold?” My answer will always be the cold. But when my wristwatch, which was black in color, was put out in the sun on the sands of the Kalahari desert and it read 160 degrees F, I was prepared to give the heat its due respect.
It will always be about water in the desert. The methods I was given, such as getting a small drink out of the root of a plant in the sand, may work well enough for the San Bushmen who have grown up in and are perfectly acclimatized to the region. However, for this frost-bitten Canadian boy, the Kalahari was an exercise in surviving dehydration and heat stroke. In fact, the scene from Suvivorman in the Jeep where my head drops due to heat stroke is one of the most dangerous situations I have ever been in and nearly cost me my life.
The vast sand dunes offered me one little advantage—the opportunity to catch scorpions by the dozen to cook up shish-kebob style! In addition, the intense sun made the attempt to start a fire actually doable with the freakish method seen on “YouTube” of a pop can, chocolate, and sand!
The Tropics (Cook Islands and Tonga)
Where is the easiest place in the world to survive? Well, let’s think about it for a minute. Basically, Gilligan’s Island! Give me an abundance of coconuts, a freshwater stream, and the ocean shores to gather from and I’m not coming home until I want to! Yes, you can have perfect survival in various other geographic regions, but it is easiest in a place like the Cook Islands. The temperature is perfect.
Your worst-case scenario is simply hiding from the hot sun, which is easily done under a palm tree. In the Cook Islands Survivorman episode, I pretty much laid out the nicest feast I have ever had during a survival expedition. I think it was only bettered by my time in Tonga with Bob Wilson, when we caught fish and octopus after gathering more coconuts than we could eat. If the toughest survival is in the cold, the easiest by far is in the tropics, with one condition—you must have fresh running water somewhere or you’re drinking a lot of coconut water.
Norway was a double bonus expedition for me during the filming of the Survivorman series. First, I had planned to extend my time out to 10 days. And second, I wanted to include some situations that truly happen in survival ordeals and would help me to teach a fuller story of survival. Those lessons were not only what you should really do if stuck in your car, but also what about breaking into cabins you might find?
I uncovered a lot of good lessons about the mistakes people make when stranded with their car; however, my trek down the mountainside to the fjord taught me once again the importance of humility during a survival ordeal. I got cocky. I figured the walk down would be literally a “walk in the park.” Instead, I found myself soaked to the bone from both sweat and freezing rain, while slipping down icy slopes unable to go back up, with cliffs I couldn’t cross in front of me. Before even my heat stroke in the Kalahari, this trek in Norway was the closest I ever got to perishing (due to hypothermia) and it happened because I was overconfident.
Les Stroud in Alaska
The power and beauty of Alaska is evident the moment you make your way into her unmatched wilderness. Yet, ironically, at least while surviving on its ocean shores, there was an abundance of food. This, of course, is the lesson of the ocean in general—it provides. Although, usually that is associated with much warmer climes.
During the filming of this Survivorman, I hit a relatively forgiving week in terms of weather. I know too well that the coast of Alaska on any particular week of the year could turn into a survival challenge of the highest order. But when it’s nice, it’s beautiful.
My time there was easily spent gathering ocean greenery to eat, not to mention the odd dead fish an eagle had left behind. Yet, this expedition also showed that even with various forms of scrounged fishing gear, if the fish aren’t hungry, “they ain’t bitin’!” It was during this week, too, that I got a little careless and nearly burned down my entire shelter during the night. Years of experience always can be rendered moot when you’re tired and hungry.
If the high Canadian Arctic is the most beautiful place I’ve been to, then the Utah Canyonlands are either a tie or a close second. This is the magic of survival expeditions. On the one hand, the Utah desert offered me little in the form of sustenance—especially water. Yet on the other hand, it offered much in the way of psychological survival.
Even when suffering from dehydration, the cold, the heat, lack of sleep, hunger, and fear, when you are surrounded by intense scenery—and I mean really beautiful scenery—it somehow all seems okay.
Survival of the mind is vital if you are to come out alive. What good is an abundance of food and water if you grow despondent and die of a broken heart or loneliness? What the desert lacks in available resources, it makes up for in a mystical and powerful beauty that seems to calm your mind and spirit and helps you get through to the next day’s search for food and water.
Utah has beauty, mystery, and magic to spare.
There are a lot of survival myths, anecdotes, assumptions, and (these days especially) bad teachings I like to lay to rest. In the Survivorman show, Temagami expedition, I was actually within walking distance of my own personal cabin in the woods that I have owned for many years. I was within walking distance of other cottages, as well. Yet the reality is that survival ordeals often take place within a mere two miles of your home (or cottage). So being there gave me the familiarity and comfort of an ecosystem I knew like the back of my hand, yet that does nothing to help out when the mosquitos are numerous enough to pick you up and carry you away!
And they certainly were, on this ordeal. This location gave me yet another opportunity to show that when people say, “Oh you’ll be fine, just go pick a ton of blueberries”—their helpful, well-meaning advice only truly works for two to four weeks of every year. If you’re not there during that month—you’re out of luck. It’s a strong reminder that, particularly for survival, everything has a season. Hit the season at the wrong time, and you’d better have a Plan B.
Not all Survivorman expeditions turn out the way I want them to. Argentina was possibly the worst. I trusted the pictures I was sent and the information I was given that the pastures would be green and the skies blue. I endeavored to actually spend 10 full days out on the land. But the weather turned ugly and a freak snowstorm came in. Even though I had a very old gaucho cabin I could hide in out of the blizzard, I had no proper clothing, no food, and my only water was going to be the snow I melted.
To make matters worse, I wanted to do this ordeal by horseback and, to be blunt, I suck at riding horses. This one particular horse seemed to know my weakness and would not cooperate in the least, making it impossible for me to get my survival footing and keep moving.
After a week or so of scrounging what I could out of the cabin, I made a run for it to get out and back to safety. What followed, which included my crew coming in to try to find me and lead me out, could fill the pages of a book based on that one long night, alone.
The same as the brief examples of places in which I have had to survive, and which I shared with you on these pages, this is a more involved survival story for another time!
This article is from Survivor’s Edge Survival Experts Handbook 2018 Special Edition. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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