I was looking for something, though I wasn't exactly sure what. But when the opportunity to be on a reality survival TV show on Discovery came up, I knew it would somehow lead to great things. A 21 day gauntlet of survival challenges in British Columbia, designed to replicate historical ninja training evolutions, wasn’t a hard sell. The chance to test myself in the wild was something I had been longing to do for some while.
At the time, I had just started Savage Gentleman with my business partner and things were beginning to take off. I was also reaching the peak of my MMA fighting career and with a young family (wife, 3 year old daughter, and a son on the way) I felt like I was reaching a crossroads for which direction to take moving forward.
The timing was tricky and I had every excuse not to go (business, family, career) but my hope was that this show would open some doors and other opportunities, and maybe provide a bit of clarity on where best to focus my time and energy.
And while my time starving and shivering in the woods did little to advance the former, it paid massive dividends in giving insight towards the latter.
One of the first epiphanies came part way through the experience. Having successfully completed 3 of the survival challenges, our fourth adventure took us deep into the remote wilderness to hunt and forage for food. With only a recurve bow, some mismatched arrows, a bit of fishing line and a hook, our task was simply to endure the elements for an undetermined amount of time and contemplate the esoteric nature of “energy”.
My first attempts at hunting saw very few opportunities. Being followed around by a camera crew and assistant directors was not particularly stealthy and the area we were confined to seemed to be completely void of all wildlife. Not to be discouraged, I tried my hand at some fishing but only walked away with an empty stomach and a wet ass for my troubles after slipping on a log and going into the drink.
Determined to complete the challenge by securing food and energy for us, I made a plan to arise at the crack of dawn and get ahead of the herd of film crew that came stomping through every day. Before the first hint of light, I grabbed the bow and silently stalked up the path to a clearing by a lake. Laying down on the frost covered grass, I used a fallen log as a blind and waited for the first signs of life. Shivering on the frozen ground for over an hour, I looked and listened for anything that could possibly pass as a meal.
As a more experienced hunter would’ve already known, the animals had far more sense to stay out of the cold than I did. Nothing so much as rustled a leaf until the sun had risen high enough to warm up the frosted landscape. Trying my best to not think about all the calories I burned freezing on the ground ( instead of just staying warm back in my shelter), a blue jay lit high in a pine branch about 40 yards away. I slowly inched my unthawed body as close as I dared, got up on one knee, nocked an arrow, drew back and let loose.
It will come as a total shock to no one that I missed so badly that the bird didn’t even flinch. Doing my best to make the proper aiming adjustments, I let another arrow fly, this time hitting close enough to scare my quarry off.
Looking around from the center of the clearing, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye in the brush to my left. Scanning the wood line, I spotted a chipmunk skittering across the tops of the bushes. Slowly creeping with my arrow drawn, I managed to get within 20 yards of the critter and took my shot.
In the blink of an eye, the chipmunk went sprawling through the air and I was certain my arrow had found its mark. For the next hour (or possibly longer), I searched every inch of the ground and shrubs in that area to no avail. No arrow, no animal, and an expenditure of calories that far exceeded what could possibly be gained from so small a creature.
Dejected and now even hungrier, I headed back to camp to report my failure to the rest of the cast members. Along the way, I stumbled upon a blueberry patch and proceeded to fill my pockets with the last few dozen berries of the season to share with the team.
While it certainly didn’t offset the events of the day, having even the smallest amount of nourishment helped to assuage my disappointment as I sat and contemplated my futile efforts at hunting.
As I ruminated over the mission’s primary focus of energy, it dawned on me that in some ways the conservation of energy can be just as valuable as the procurement of energy. It brought to mind the many times in my regular life I’ve gone in circles, obsessing over some trivial thing that would have little to no positive net outcome. Apparently, it took literally chasing squirrels to recognize the foolishness in such endeavors.
The remainder of the show led to more and more realizations. The lessons I learned surviving in the wild all seemed to have profound carry over to my regular life back in civilization. Enduring all the hardships, overcoming the obstacles, and working through suffering, gave me a newfound perspective not only of myself, but also the purpose of my life.
It took 3 weeks and losing 25 pounds to find out who I was, what I was made of, and what I was made for. Over the course of the experience, I learned that I had an uncanny ability to help the other “ninjas” (many of whom are now dear friends) deal with their struggles while on the show. In hard conversations, in moments of anger and tears, I had a knack of remaining calm and level headed enough to be the voice of reason and offer insightful perspective.
Of course, I didn’t fully recognize that until I returned home and had a long chat with my parents. Recounting all that transpired, I voiced my surprise at this seemingly newfound ability. My dad simply responded with “Oh yeah, we’ve known that ever since you were a little kid. That is your gift, son”.
F*ck. I was absolutely floored. Not only because it was so raw and moving, but also because it had been there all along and I just wasn’t able to see it. “Man, I wish you guys had maybe mentioned that sometime sooner in my life.” I replied, “Would’ve saved me the trouble going through this whole wilderness survival ordeal, lol” (It also would’ve saved me from getting the tapeworm and GERD I picked up while I was out there too, but I digress.)
But if I’m really being honest, I don’t think I would’ve listened had they said it at any time prior. And chances are they probably already had at some point.
I needed to have the experience to not just hear it, not just know it, but to feel it, all the way down to my core. The value of which is worth more than any amount of fortune or fame.
Had I not spent that time breaking down my body and eventually cracking open my mind, I wouldn’t have been able to finally access my spirit.
I needed that incredibly austere environment to find and connect with the essence of who I truly am. Apparently, all it takes is a little time in the wilderness…
The wilds will humble us all . Especially when you are limited to what you can bring. I’ve been applying for the Alone Challenge for a few years and practice with only 10 items. Huge difference in the way you can gather food & shelter etc . But a film crew along would really mess up primitive hunting. Cool story & the wilds really touch your mind & sometimes soul .