This article originally appeared on Outside
Imagine the Tour de France peloton sitting on the start line, preparing for three grueling weeks of cycling through the Alps and Pyrenees. Suddenly, a cyclist dismounts his bike, walks into the woods, and reappears astride a 1962 Ducati Scrambler motorcycle. In this strange setting, the Tour allows riders to use whatever they find along the road to help them arrive in Paris. The rider happily speeds ahead of the group on his bike, leaving everyone else in his dust.
This vision appeared in my mind while watching the first episode of OnlyThe ninth season last week. Contestant Jacques Turcotte, a 23-year-old expedition guide from Alaska, was looking for food when he found a spring-loaded animal trap, the kind that Elmer Fudd could gracefully step into while he hunted Bugs Bunny. the Only The rulebook allows contestants to salvage any man-made items they discover, and in previous seasons, contestants have built pontoon boats, fishing lures, and even a makeshift hot tub out of trash. But this was the first time that a Only cast member once found a functional tool ideal for catching rabbits, beavers, and other small game. Turcotte’s find seemed like manna from heaven to the survivors.
(Spoilers ahead.) So you can imagine my surprise while watching episode two when Turcotte became the first person to drop out, returning home after 15 days in the wild. His reasoning was twofold: the daily ritual of killing animals left him emotionally drained and he missed his girlfriend and his dog.
This is not the first time that a Only contestant has struggled with these psychological pressures. In season six, Ray Livingston of Vancouver, Washington broke down in tears after killing and eating the chattering squirrel that had become his only companion in Canada’s Great Slave Lake. “I betrayed him,” Livingston said after devouring the rodent.
And, way back in the third season, school teacher Jim Shields left after only three days in Patagonia because he missed his wife and two children.
Still, Turcotte’s departure marked one of the biggest twists in the show’s history. Not surprisingly, the television cameras lingered on the trap hanging from a tree while Turcotte packed up his belongings and left.
Catching small game may be the key to winning Season 9. After two episodes, the contestants begin to learn what food sources the coast of Labrador, Canada has to offer. The waterways are full of river trout, but the fish seem to come in two sizes: small and tiny. Plumed grouse flutter through the woods and squirrels jump from tree branches. While contestants have seen mounds of bear droppings, there have been no signs of larger game like elk, deer, or muskox that could provide enough protein for weeks or months.
So I assumed the trap would have given Turcotte an endless supply of squirrel or rabbit meat: the motorcycle in the bike race. But Turcotte’s narrative arc taught me a new lesson about Only: an advantage in eating does not guarantee one in the daily fight against isolation.
Last minute preparations for the desert
The initial episodes of any Only The season has a familiar ebb and flow, and so far season nine is no different. We were introduced to the contestants on the field and then briefly taken to their homes, where we saw previously filmed footage of them preparing to leave and saying goodbye to their loved ones. Karie Lee Knoke, 57, says goodbye to her secluded yurt; Tom Garstang, 35, said goodbye to his girlfriend; Benji Hill, 46, hugged his wife and daughter.
It turns out that these parting scenes are the end of a somewhat hectic period in the life of a Only cast member.
The contestants find out that they have been chosen between one and a half and two months before the departure date. Then, just a few weeks before leaving, they discover their fate.
During this period, they are like college students preparing for an exam. When producers disclose the location, they research the local flora and fauna. They also brush up on their bushcraft skills like crazy and try to master the ones they lack. Nicole Apelian, a contestant on seasons two and five, says that she practiced making fire with a crowbar and began carrying a sharp survival knife with her wherever she went.
“I would put cedar bark in water and spend hours every day working with my knife to make firewood. I would also practice knotting,” says Apelian. “You want these skills to become ingrained, so your muscle memory can take over when you’re tired and hungry.”
Throughout this period, the contestants also fill up on food in an effort to build up valuable fat stores. Jordan Jonas, the eventual winner of season six, knew his wiry body put him at a disadvantage, so he embarked on a harrowing regimen to gain weight after learning he’d been cast.
“I tried drinking those Mass Gainer shakes but I got so fed up,” she told me. “So what I would do is drink half a bottle of Sure, then fill the rest with olive oil and swallow the rest. I did that several times a day.”
Jonas says he gained 25 pounds in just one month.
Woniya Thibeault, who lasted 73 days during season six, took a different tack to prepare her body. Instead of gorging herself, Thibeault followed a ketogenic diet, with intermittent fasting and regular plunges into cold water, to prepare her body and brain for the periods of starvation and frigid temperatures she would face in the Canadian sub-arctic. Then, in recent weeks, Thibeault was eating like crazy.
“A lot of people go out cold, without really going without food for a long period of time, and the feeling catches them off guard,” he says. “The biggest thing I see when I watch the show now is that no one practices going hungry and then having a lot of really physical things to do. That’s the universal part of everyone’s experience.”
Finally, after the contestants leave, they spend a week together at the location before embarking into the woods. During this stretch, they meet the other cast members, get up-to-the-minute information about the location, and practice using the camera equipment. Turns out this last week isn’t always fun.
Apelian said that the cast of seasons two and five spent the week developing friendships and bonds. But Thibeault and Jonas said prickly attitudes and egos swirled within the group during season six.
“It was a weird dynamic,” says Jonas. “You’re trying to make friends, but you’re also in this competition, and it was hard to read if people were really being friendly or just trying to connect with all your information.”
Turcotte’s departure was another difficulty for me, because I cast him as one of the strongest cast members after the initial episode. His experience in ice climbing and arctic expeditions gave him an advantage, as Labrador is covered in snow and ice in winter.
Three other contestants caught my eye as possible favorites: Canadians Juan Pablo Quiñonez and Teimojin Tan, and American Adam Riley. Quiñonez recently completed a 100-day solo survival trial in the frozen Manitoban countryside, an experience that likely primed him for starvation and bitter cold.
Riley may not have the same backcountry skills as the others, but he has experience tolerating isolation: In 2018 he sailed the Pacific Ocean alone, a journey that took 80 days. And then there’s Tan, a doctor specializing in wilderness survival. Tan is also a member of the Canadian Army Reserves, where he was trained in Arctic survival. On paper, he probably has the strongest resume in the world.
But of course therein lies the compelling nature of Only. Survival training, past expeditions, and even recovered animal traps can take a contestant only so far. At some point, everyone wants to go home.
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