I spent the weekend on North Vancouver Island with ten guys trying to survive on limpets, bull kelp, and sheer will.
It was the History Channel series Alone, the reality show where the challenge is to be the last man surviving in a wet, cold, miserable forest. Sort of a Last Hands On The Buick contest, only the stakes are half a million dollars to the winner.
I watched Season 1 (circa 2015) in a breathless way.
As Day 1 opens, my mind starts to churn. This isn’t about avoiding bears and cougars (though there is plenty of that). This is about doing what needs to be done to get by. This is a show about making a life.
There’s no teamwork here—they’ve been dumped miles apart from each other, with an impenetrable forest between them. Individual ingenuity is what makes or breaks them.
They scramble to figure out the big three—water, shelter, food—and I notice that they are all constantly making things. Sam rigs up a water catch in a rotten log. Adam sees a hole in the ground, envisions his hideout, and quickly begins thatching with hemlock boughs. Mitch needs to get across a bay to safer land, so he fashions a coracle (a circular boat!) out of tree branches and a tarp. There’s weaving—a fish trap basket based on Native fishing tradition. Trotlines made with a scavenged foam buoy. Exquisite mouse traps with delicate triggers.
Lucas seems to be the most skilled maker of the group. He isn’t happy with his campsite, so he decides to build a canoe. His goal? Finding better food resources and a better campsite.
Spoiler: he builds a damn canoe.
Later, once he’s built a fresh new yurt, he stays up all night to make a three-stringed lute from a piece of wood and fishing line. His all-nighter energy is exactly what we all experience when we’re on to something great.
What motivates all these makers? Survival, pure and simple. Yet as they rig up clever thing after clever thing, they take great pride in their creations. When something works, it’s a triumph. They are making the ordinary extraordinary, even when it’s a simple as a wooden spoon to scoop a hard-won fish stew out of the pot.
At the end, the winner shows his wife his campsite, and she is polite about it. I can tell she doesn’t see the art in what he has created out of the materials around him. When he shows her his wooden spoon and asks if she wants it, she says yes in a disinterested way that breaks my heart. That spoon, woman, is not just a spoon. That spoon is huge.
Making a Life: The Conversation
This all dovetails exactly with my bedside reading these days, Melanie Falick’s Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live.
Melanie has recently launched Making a Life: The Conversation, a new online series featuring makers. We’re thrilled that she has set up a conversation with Jeanette Sloan, the designer we’re celebrating in MDK Field Guide No. 15.
When: Saturday, August 8, 1:00-2:00 pm Eastern.
Where: It’s free, with preregistration required right here.
We just received a new shipment of Making a Life. It’s been a very popular book, and Melanie has graciously provided us with beautiful cards she made for you. Available with your order, while supplies last.
It’s a book to inspire any knitter, or survivalist. Clearly, the impulse to make a boat is powerful.
PS Season 1 of Alone is streaming for free at History.com.