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  • Ken Ilgunas

The most invigorating month of my life

It all started in 2021 when I got a strange email from a survival show called "Alone," inviting me to apply to be one of ten contestants who'd compete to survive somewhere in the Canadian wilderness I declined, but the moment I finished watching my first "Alone" episode, I wanted to be on it—both for the escape (living alone in the wild for 2-3 months), but also for the pot of gold that goes to the winner ($500K). I had none of the tangible skills to succeed, so I enrolled in a year-long bushcraft course in which I acquainted myself with shelter-building, bow-making, tanning, and doing other bushcrafty things. The final stage of my bushcraft education was learning how to shoot a bow, which I did this past winter by enrolling in a beginner’s course taught by members of a local archery club. For six weeks, I fired arrows alongside fellow students —mostly nine-year-old boys and girls — in a church hall. The whole time I knew that this "Alone" thing was a low-probability venture. (Thousands apply to be on the show each year, and if I got on, I’d only have a one-in-ten chance at making any money.) To get on the show, I knew I’d need to be, in my embellishments, shamelessly reckless. When I applied, I told them I was a "hunter"—of white-tailed deer, hare, and ptarmigan. All of that was technically true, but I neglected to mention that I never actually killed (or had seen) any of those animals. I also called myself a “fisherman” (in that I am a “man” who has “fished”) and an “outdoorsman” (following that same logic). I had to make an impression with my skillset because I don’t exactly have a TV personality. With neither the charm of a Bear Grylls nor the effervescence of a Steve Irwin, I’d be the Calvin Coolidge of the outdoor community—taciturn, averse to ostentation, with a face that often conveys no emotion, apart from pensiveness and cluelessness. Plus, I am another middle-aged white loner trying to get on a show (full of white loners) that is working hard to diversify its cast. But I applied anyway. I got a phone interview within a day, which went well until they started asking questions. How would you skin a rabbit? Describe two deadfalls traps. How would you gut a trout? What are the best rocks for flint-knapping? What are the uses of yarrow or plantain? The specificity of these questions made it impossible for me to outwit my interviewer using my usual powers of bullshitting. I changed tack to frank honesty — answering “I don’t know” to some of these — with the hope that they’d prefer my refreshing candor to someone who could actually acquire food in the wild or heal themselves using medicinal plants. I went to bed that night feeling pretty certain I’d never hear from the "Alone" people again. My "Alone" goal has been in the back of my mind for two years, but it only took me eight hours to get over it. In the morning, I felt relieved. I could move on and think about other projects. Plus, I recognized how unprepared I was. When I got a text that morning that read, “Hi Ken, can we talk about next steps,” I felt doomed. And so began the month of March (“the most invigorating month of my life”). The “next steps” involved compiling hours of video footage of me doing all the things I didn’t know how to do, whether it was coastal fishing, finding wild meat, or starting a friction fire. I spent days on rocky Scottish shorelines, whittling a hobo reel, casting hooks lined with limpet flesh into an angry and not-exactly-plentiful sea. From salty boulders, I cut raw kelp, took a skeptical look at it, and then couldn’t stop myself from stuffing salads of it into my mouth. (Seaweed may look slimy, but it's actually crispy and it has the salt content of a potato chip, making it a wonderful wild snack.) It had been years since I fished. I realized that the process of filming myself was providing me with necessary practice for "Alone." At night, I’d prepare my hooks and lines while watching YouTube videos of professional fishermen. I met up with a local forager who’d help me identify edible mushrooms. A fellow bushcraft student came over and gave me an education in igniting a friction fire using a bow drill. (When I ignited my first friction fire, I was so pleased with myself. It felt like I’d reclaimed an ancient skill.) I didn’t read my bushcraft books casually; I read them with urgency, seeking out key nuggets of information that might give me an edge, such as how to call in a moose or build a chimney using earthen cement. I told my wife that I wished life was always like this—full of nature, urgent learning, novelty. Maybe it was just the novelty — sewing up my deer-skin sami pouch, brewing nettles, hacking down bullrush shoots for their oniony insides — but maybe it was something more. I wished I could spend a season of every year as a hunter-gatherer, applying all his cunning and craft, living moment to moment in a still forest or on an abundant sea; striving to achieve his simple, but also complicated, daily tasks. As I tried to master each skill and capture it on camera, I felt like I was in the middle of a Rocky-style survivalist montage video. I had wind in my hair, sun on my skin, sand in my socks, and road-kill in the boot of my car. I picked up a run-over hare when driving my daughter to nursery. I needed the hare to show the producers I was capable of acquiring food, and this being Britain (where hunting is only practiced by gamekeepers and the well-to-do), I had to take anything I could find. I pinned up its two hind legs behind my compost bin, cut off its head, and peeled the fur off. I was able to remain pretty detached throughout the process, even when I rolled out all the lumpy guts. I cooked half the rabbit in a backyard stove, mixing in some wild garlic, jelly ear mushrooms, and bullrush shoots. It was delicious. Within five minutes after consumption, I begin to feel disoriented and confused, as if I was drunk or experiencing a bad high. I wondered if it was from the vapors of the fire, the mushrooms, or the rabbit. (Probably the mushrooms.) Before, I’d cheekily texted my vegetarian wife a picture of the dead hare. But two hours later she got another text that read, “definately not feeling well…” The only advantage I had against some of my competition was my ability to edit videos, so I cleverly edited out the 48-hour gastrointestinal horror movie that followed my woodland feast. My wife came home to see me laying on the couch at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. She walked into the bathroom and said, “That’s your bathroom now.” I told myself, in my semi-delirious state, that I don’t belong or even want to be on this show. But the human mind has an incredible capacity to forget. I was back in my movie montage the next day. If I was going to have a chance at winning this thing against superior opponents, I knew I needed to start preparing — not when I got a spot on the show — but now, before anyone else started preparing. If I couldn’t out-hunt my opponents, I figured I might be able to preemptively out-eat them. I figured if I could increase my weight by about 25% (175 pounds to 220), then I might be able to out-starve everybody. So I started spooning pints of Ben and Jerry’s Dulce De-lish into my mouth, drinking a nightly Guinness, and eating cereal at unforgivable hours of the day. In two weeks, I was startled (and a bit disturbed) to learn that I’d gained an astonishing ten pounds. Alas, it was all for naught. I got a pro forma email thanking me for my submissions and assuring me that my survival skills must have been top-notch to have reached the video submission stage. Now, I’m left with an archery hobby I probably don’t have time for, an expensive row of bushcraft books that would have taught me things (such as tying 101 knots or making cordage from nettles) that I probably no longer have use for, not to mention the ten pounds of inconvenient flab. That night my wife scolded me for letting my daughter play with a fire lighter and warned me not to let her handle dog food. She excitedly brought up the prospect of falling asleep as early as “10:30 p.m.” I was shaken from my hunter-gatherer daydream and I had to reorient myself to the fact that I live in the land of the barely living. Here, I gather my food in cloth bags at the local grocery store, not from my local river. Here, I work on my computer in the corner of my bedroom, not outdoors. When failing at something, it's possible to feel disappointment and relief at the same time. So I felt those things, and I also felt like there was something pathetic about depending on a reality TV show to provide me with the escape and chance at fortune that elude me in my normal life. Sadly, due to all the usual financial obligations, most of us don’t have the liberty to live the "Alone" dream, or a life anything like our hunter-gatherer forebears. I was lucky to have had the freedom to live a bit of that life for a month. The next day, I could have started shedding all of my extra weight, but I took my daughter to McDonald's, where I got her a Happy Meal and where I raided their Saver Menu. My daughter — now three-and-a-half — smiled eagerly as she waited for her food and I was happy that I wouldn’t be away from her for months while she’s at her peak cuteness. It remains to be seen if my bushcraft education will be of any use to me in the future, or if it was just a waste of time (probably) and a huge distraction from writing (definitely). It’s our 21st-century task to find the sublime in the spoilt and extract invigoration from the imperfect. I may not be able to live my hunter-gatherer dream on the show or in my local environs, but I at least got this out of my project: I know there are trout in the river behind my house; that there are, just a short drive away, cliffs and crags where kelp clings, seabirds caw, and mackerel are hungry for a hook; and the odd forest where, if I choose to, I might reclaim an ancient skill.

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