The squirrel steak is too tough; Snail puree, too soft. Muskrat flambé could make you sick, and don’t get me started on the challenge of finding a good elk burger.
As a superfan of the History Channel survival reality show. OnlyI’ve learned that the perfect artisan kitchen simply doesn’t exist, and that every wild food has flaws. Some imperfections are due to the seasonality of a food: berries and mushrooms die once it starts to snow, and fish disappear when rivers and lakes freeze. Other problems are caused by scarcity or size: a musk ox can provide dinner for months, but killing one is nearly impossible. Catching a mouse is comparatively easy, but eating one provides only about 30 calories.
After watching the first two episodes of OnlyThe ninth season of ‘s, held off the coast of Labrador, Canada, I wasn’t one bit impressed with the food from the region. Just two weeks later, some contestants were already roasting chipmunks and slurping on boiled seaweed to survive.
That changed during the final moments of episode three, when contestant Benji Hill, a pack goat handler from Bellevue, Washington, discovered beaver tracks in a swamp. Hill crouched in the wetland with his hunting bow and waited. “The best strategy for hunting most bow-and-arrow game is to find a high-traffic area and ambush them at close range,” Hill told the camera.
So he did exactly that. When a furry mammal finally appeared, Hill shot it twice and seemed minutes away from enjoying a delicious meal of beaver chops. Unfortunately, Hill was unable to locate his victim before sunset, and the episode ended on a cliffhanger.
In the opening minutes of Thursday night’s fourth episode, Hill found the dead beaver. The animal was the size of a manhole cover and padded with a valuable layer of fat. Hill gutted him, cooked a tasty dinner for him, and smoked and preserved enough meat to apparently last him several weeks. Then, in the final minutes of the episode, cast member Terry Burns from Homer, Alaska shot an arrow at a beaver while swimming in a frozen river. Like Hill, Burns was rewarded with what seemed like weeks of food.
The episode made me wonder: Is the beaver the perfect Only kitchen? In previous seasons, we’ve seen the winning contestants rely on bunnies or salmon for their livelihood, as both animals provide food for days. A 30-pound beaver is much larger than a rabbit or a fish, and its fatty meat appears to have substantially more fat, perhaps the most important source of fuel in nature. The Canadian Department of Health and Human Services even publishes this handy document that breaks down the impressive nutritional qualities of beaver.
But unlike big game like deer or elk, beavers seem to be easier to hunt. They are slow and seemingly oblivious to a hungry human a few steps away. We’ve seen two cast members garner a truly big game during only nine-season career, and both hunts seemed incredibly difficult to pull off. In season seven, Roland Welker wounded a musk ox with an arrow before finally stabbing it to death with a hunting knife and his bare hands. And in season six, Jordan Jonas shot down a moose on the shores of Canada’s Great Slave Lake with an arrow.
I recently spoke with Jonas, who explained to me how difficult and time-consuming it was to catch the giant beast. Jonas spent 20 days exploring his region for moose tracks. He built a makeshift series of pens and fences to direct elk to an area, fashioned a series of cans to act as an alarm system, and then waited.
“Since the day they left me, I’ve been working hard to try and create some kind of large animal encounter. Everything was geared towards that,” Jonas said. “It is a great bet. If I missed the shot or stepped on a twig, you ruin everything.”
From the comfortable perspective of my living room sofa, killing a beaver seems like a much easier task. There was no stabbing, and Burns said he spent a week stalking the beaver, not three. However, his experience revealed a major flaw in beaver hunting: after shooting the beaver, it floated lifeless in a chest-deep lake. So Burns had to wade into 90-degree water to retrieve the animal. Imagine walking into his favorite restaurant only to find out that he must take a dip in an ice bath before receiving his steak.
“Mother, I’m sorry you have to see this,” Burns told the camera as he stripped off his underwear and stepped into the icy depths.
The agony of leaving early
In episode four, we saw a second contestant quit: Igor Limansky of Salt Lake City dropped out on the 20th, joining Jacques Turcotte of Juneau, Alaska, who left on the 15th. Limansky made a critical mistake that cost him dearly: he never got a good source of protein, and instead focused his efforts on building a shelter made of thick, heavy trees. After nearly three weeks of hauling wood eating almost nothing except seaweed, Limansky’s body gave out before his cabin was even halfway there. “This is so personal and public, because everyone is going to see this and have an opinion about it,” he said as rescue teams picked him up.
every season in Only, there are contestants who leave early, and those scenes are often more bitter than sweet. It is easy to understand why. Most of the cast members plan to stay there for months, and those who leave after a few days are disappointed and embarrassed. It turns out that it can take weeks or even years to get over these emotions.
I recently called Jim Shields, a Pennsylvania wilderness skills teacher who was the first contestant to drop out during season three, after spending just three days camping by a river in Patagonia. Sheilds and his wife had been in the process of adopting three children when he left for the show, and the emotional stress of being away at such an important time finally wore him down. Sheilds said he wrestled with the decision every day in the bush. .
“I was mad at myself for going this far with the show instead of being home with my wife. I had a lot of emotions and I saw this little button that I could push and go home,” Shields said. “I sat there with it for hours and said, Dude, don’t do it, you’re a loser. But you have to go home because you’re not supposed to be here.
After calling for rescue, Sheilds suffered from an intense sense of shame, which persisted for months. She felt it on the boat ride back to civilization and during the two-week process of going through security checks and then traveling back home. Shields had taken months off from his teaching job and returned to the United States with no job to distract him from his distress.
“You get this golden ticket, this great opportunity to pursue your passion, and you absolutely think about that when you hit the button to go home,” Shields said. “You know it’s over, and getting over it takes a long time.”
What eventually helped Shields get over her embarrassment and disappointment was the arrival of her adopted children. But it took her a few years to get over the negative feelings she had from the experience on the whole. Now, six years later, Sheilds is happy to have participated. But she still wonders how long she could have survived her.
“What if it had been a different time in my life?” Shields said. “I’d like to say I don’t think about it anymore, but I still do.”