Outdoors

This Year, ‘Alone’ Contestants Will Be Roughing It in Polar Bear Country

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Chances are you know a couple who are diehard sports fans. They scream at the TV during Lakers games or argue over the latest Yankees trade, and their, um, passion, helps their relationship thrive.

My wife and I are like that, only our fanaticism is focused on the History Channel’s survivalist reality show Alone, where ten wilderness experts are dropped deep in the woods and left to build shelter, catch their own food, and stave off loneliness for as long as possible, all while filming themselves for TV. The last one standing wins $500,000.

Alone is far more important to us than the Olympics or the Super Bowl, and the bushcraft experts and “primitive skills” instructors who star on it are our versions of Michael Phelps or Tom Brady. Every season we choose a new contestant to root for, and then we scrutinize the ten survival tools they’ve chosen to bring into the woods, per the rule book. (You left the gill net at home—c’mon!). We cheer when a contestant eats boiled tree bark or chokes down a belly full of leeches. We develop hot takes on their ramshackle shelters and argue over how best to trap the tasty regional critters.

We do all this despite our own aversion to camping or hunting or going more than a day without a hot shower.

I suspect we’re not alone. The show soared in popularity after the sixth season was added to Netflix in 2020. Then, in 2021, the eighth season drove 18 million streaming views online, a 136 percent jump from season seven, which was broadcast in the fall of 2020. Alone was something of a media darling amid the pandemic, generating stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and even this publication. These articles described how the show helped viewers cope with lockdown and life under isolation by watching people endure lives of solitude in the backcountry.

“Many viewers, including me, seemed to be searching for something deeper while watching the show: a roadmap for navigating the loneliness and hardship of an unprecedented moment,“ wrote Phillip Dwight Morgan in an essay for Outside.

I echo Morgan’s take, and have one of my own: Alone boosts my confidence to pursue challenges in my own life, which feel insignificant compared to what occurs in the show. After watching season seven contestant Keilyn Marrone chip through mattress-thick ice sheets on Canada’s Great Slave Lake in order to land a salmon, I summoned the strength to dig out all the weeds in my front yard.

Superfans like my wife and me are waiting in anticipation for the show’s ninth season, which kicks off tonight 9 P.M. on the History Channel. Those who plan to watch: keep an eye on the Outside website, as I’m going to write a handful of updates throughout the series, complete with interviews with past participants and producers. And if you have any Alone topics you’d like me to look into, please drop me a line.

This is the first season to air with lockdowns and pandemic life somewhat in the rearview, so I asked the show’s executive producer, Ryan Pender, if he expected to lose viewers. He does not, and he believes that the surge of those who ventured outdoors amid the pandemic will continue to discover the series.

“I hope what is here to stay is that fathers and mothers are still taking their kids outdoors to go camping, make Paiute deadfall traps, or just get outside more,” Pender says. “In this current climate of finding our backyard again over these past two years, I hope this stays.”

The easing of pandemic rules had no impact on how producers shot or edited the upcoming season, Pender says. What is new is the location. After staging season eight along Chilko Lake in southwestern British Columbia, the show heads into the Canadian subarctic, to the northeastern coast of Labrador, which holds a terrifying reputation as a habitat for polar bears. And bears aren’t the only hazard.

“We knew the northeast coast would bring storms and bad weather and be really wet, and the constant wind and rain is a big hurdle for these folks,” Pender said. “In that area, there are also 2,500 polar bears, 10,000 black bears, plus plenty of wolves. We know that they will most likely bump up against predators at some point.”

Pender says this season’s contestants are perhaps the most experienced in the show’s history. Two examples include Karie Lee Knoke, a 57-year-old from Sandpoint, Idaho, who has spent multiple decades living off the grid, and Juan Pablo Quiñonez, 30, of Pinawa, Manitoba, who recently completed a 100-day unsupported solo trek in the Canadian boreal. “We have contestants with a lot of past survival experiences,” Pender says. “There are people who have spent time with the Masai, one guy who sailed across the Pacific by himself.”

Alone fans are accustomed to the typical ebb and flow of a season. In the opening episode, we meet the cast as they are dropped off in late summer or early fall, when temperatures are still warm and food is abundant. We start to get some of each person’s backstory, then watch as they scramble to build a shelter and store food before the weather turns bad. Armchair quarterbacks like myself also try to determine whether any contestants stand out as particularly adept at survival, enough to become the possible winner.

It turns out that past contestants also watch the show for clues, and they have a keen eye for how producers edit each contestant. I spoke to three former Alone contestants about what they look for in the early episodes, and all three had a similar answer:

“We know that 99 percent of what we film doesn’t make it into the show, so what we’re seeing is an edited version, so I try not to make too harsh of conclusions about them,” said Nicole Apelian, who was on seasons two and five. “I know that if someone is crying, well, maybe they only cried three times. But when you watch it, it may seem like they were crying all the time.”

Alone, like other reality shows, is a constructed story told by the show’s producers and editors. Apelian noted, however, that everything you see on TV during a season truly did happen. “They do a good job of presenting who people actually are, and they do get at the root of your personality,” she added.

Apelian and others said that, much like my wife and I, they scan early episodes for hints of strong or weak contestants. They analyze each person’s gear choice and scrutinize how they handle the first few days in the bush. Woniya Thibaut, a season six contestant, said she focuses on specific details of a contestant’s bushcraft, like whether a person cooks an animal in a pot or on a stick over the fire. (The latter method wastes valuable fat.)

“I try to assess their resources: How is the fishing? How close are they to fresh water?” she said. “Is their gear choice specifically related to the environment? These are things that add up over time.”

Thibaut and Apelian agreed that picking the eventual Alone winner based on the first few episodes is hard, even for them. Instead, they just enjoy the get-to-know-you segments with each contestant and pick favorites of their own. Jordan Jonas, who won season six, said he is always drawn to contestants who pursue a strategy similar to his own, which was to prioritize hunting and food gathering over building a shelter.

“I’m usually pulling for the people who are not building shelters for a month but instead getting after it and hunting and fishing and really diving into that,” he said. “Sure, I’m also trying to figure out who wins from the way they are edited. Because I know how they edited me.”

Jonas didn’t divulge any clues about how he was edited, nor did he share what to look for in the show’s early episodes if you’re trying to pick the eventual winner. Alas, you’re just going to have to watch Alone and prognosticate like the rest of us. To be honest, I’m glad Jonas didn’t spoil the season by telling me how to spot a winner. This is a type of sport, and not knowing the outcome is part of being a fan. Throughout this season, I want to plop down on the couch with my wife, tune in, and scream at the TV.


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