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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

A ‘perfect location’ for Alone’s starvation, bear attacks, and mind games

How Vancouver Island set the tone for a hit survival reality show

By Tristan Wheeler
August 12, 2022
Vancouver Island
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

A ‘perfect location’ for Alone’s starvation, bear attacks, and mind games

How Vancouver Island set the tone for a hit survival reality show

By Tristan Wheeler
Aug 12, 2022
Joe Robinet, a contestant in season 1, prepares to give up. Photo: A&E (Submitted)
Joe Robinet, a contestant in season 1, prepares to give up. Photo: A&E (Submitted)
Vancouver Island
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

A ‘perfect location’ for Alone’s starvation, bear attacks, and mind games

How Vancouver Island set the tone for a hit survival reality show

By Tristan Wheeler
August 12, 2022
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A ‘perfect location’ for Alone’s starvation, bear attacks, and mind games
Joe Robinet, a contestant in season 1, prepares to give up. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

Spoiler alert: Skip the first paragraph if you're currently watching Alone Season 9 and don't want to know who won. You have been warned.

Manitoba survivalist Juan Pablo Quiñonez has won half a million dollars, it was revealed this week, by surviving 78 days alone in the Labrador wilderness. Quiñonez is the latest winner in the popular History Channel reality show Alone.

Since 2015, the series has been putting 10 survival experts at a time, from amateurs to professionals, in the middle of some of the most isolated, inhospitable environments in the world—including, at its very inception, an out-of-the-way corner of Vancouver Island.

Contestants on the show are dropped off with only a small, curated selection of supplies: 10 items in total. From there, they must see how long they can survive on the land. Shelter, food, warmth, and water are all in the hands of the contestants. Whoever lasts the longest wins a cash prize of $500,000.

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The show has run nine seasons while spawning spin-offs like Alone: The Beast and versions in Australia, Denmark, and Norway. 

But before all of that there was Vancouver Island. The show’s home for its first two seasons was the traditional territory of the Quatsino First Nation near Port Hardy.

Location scouting

Ashley Adams arrived in Quatsino territory in preparation for the first season of the show, having never stepped foot in the region. Her job was to scope out the area after it was chosen from a surprisingly small list of viable shooting locations. 

“There actually aren’t a lot of locations,” she said, where a show like this would be possible to even attempt. 

As the vice president of production and later co-executive producer on the show, it was her job to select the location for the first season—a critical decision for an unproven concept they were hoping to get off the ground. 

She spent weeks meeting with the Quatsino and getting to know the area.

The part of Quatsino territory where shooting would take place. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

“It looks wild and it looks remote—even though Port Hardy was just a 30-45 minute boat ride away,” she said.

It quickly became clear that Vancouver Island had what the show needed to work.

“You have internet, you have a town, you have hospitals, you have so many boats you can rent in Port Hardy,” Adams continued.  

“We've never been able to find a location like that since.”

The show has since taken contestants to Mongolia, Patagonia, the Northwest Territories, the BC interior, and, this year, coastal Labrador. Each place has its own challenges and its own features, and is selected based on what the producers are hoping to get out of the season.

Alone has never been filmed in a warm climate, and that’s been a deliberate choice since the beginning. For the inaugural season, they wanted an emphasis on cold weather and rainfall. 

Despite its reliance on remoteness, the show can’t happen without at least some of the logistical support a nearby community can offer. “It’s all about access,” said Adams. 

This includes essentials like hunting and fishing laws as well as all the other logistics every production has to deal with, like transportation and lodging. 

Fishing and hunting are essential parts of the show, with more contestants eventually calling it quits because of starvation than any other single factor, and food gathering being one of the main narrative arcs that make up each episode. But to do so in Canada, you need permission—fortunately for the show, the Quatsino allowed contestants to be put on their hunting and fishing permts.

As part of the deal, the Quatsino asked for archeological studies to be done on the areas where the contestants were filming to minimize the potential for harm to historical sites. 

The First Nation did not respond to requests for interviews on the Quatsino role in the production.

With the site logistics taken care of, it was time to introduce the contestants to one of the most difficult parts of the production for survivalists and producers alike.

Anti-reality show

The contestants were well acquainted with survival gear: many had made fire steels, tarps, hatchets, and bows as much a part of their lives as others might use a coffee grinder or a bike. But alongside that gear, they also needed to know how to use professional, television-grade camera gear.

That’s because the show’s premise—that the contestants were truly alone out there—would be completely undermined by camera crews following them around. 

“It was kind of the anti-reality show,” said Ryan Pender, an executive producer on the show who was involved in the show’s inception. 

Pender said that the main focus was to “relinquish control of the producer role over to the people actually doing it.” 

This meant that the artistic hand of the producer would not be involved in the filming process; it would all be in the hands of the contestants—at the time, a novelty in reality TV.

The contestants gather in Port Hardy before heading off into the wilderness. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

“It was unheard of that we would truly put people out there and just say, ‘Hey, just give us footage of what you're seeing and what you’re doing,’” Pender said. 

The show puts prospective participants through a movie-making boot camp, teaching them the basics of framing, camera operation, and storytelling.

“I would show them parts of old westerns and explain storytelling without always using your voice,” said Pender. The clip he often shows as an example is the opening sequence of 1968's Once Upon A Time In The West.

But along with the technical part of the experience, there’s, of course, the very real survival aspect. So the boot camp did double duty: to teach the camera skills necessary to produce a show worth watching, and to “weed out” the participants down to only the most capable individuals.

‘Eat some bugs and build some shelters’

Joe Robinet, from Windsor, Ont. was 32 when he joined the show’s first season.

After seeing an online advertisement for Alone, he applied as a challenge to himself, fulfilling a lifelong dream to try an intense survival situation, and as an opportunity to promote his fledgling YouTube channel. He was “elated” when he got the call—he’d be going to Vancouver Island as one of the 10 contestants in the first season of this new show.

He recalls the training camp as being “all old hat” for an experienced survivalist like himself: “I was the first guy to get a shelter built, a fire going and everything.”

"They made us clean rabbits they got for us and trout,” said Robinet. "[We would] eat some bugs and build some shelters.” 

A contestant prepares to eat a mouse on episode 7. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

As someone well versed in the world of videography as well as outdoor survival, he felt he would be a great contestant. 

Having someone who knows what they're doing behind the camera goes a long way for the show's producers—“But ultimately what you get on camera is what you get,” Pender said.

“There are no pick-ups; there's no going back for more audio or more video.”

But this emphasis on filming cuts both ways.

“I exhausted myself running back and forth for camera shots and getting different angles,” Robinet said. “I just really, really, really, really focused on filming way too much” 

He wasn’t alone feeling that way. When Wayne Russell from Saint John, N.B. was first contacted by the show, he thought it could have been a scam. He received an email after his YouTube channel caught the eye of a recruiter.

“I just played along and then I finally found out it was legit.” said Russell.

But, Russell missed his best shot of the show—he was too busy surviving an encounter with a bear to catch it on film.

After being charged and stalked by an aggressive black bear, Russell escaped to a hill near his camp. 

“I had no place to run, so I turned,” he said. “I got my axe and I got my pepper spray and I waited for him…. I wasn't going down without a fight.”

Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t running. The bear didn't come for Russell, but it did cause him to tap out of the competition. 

“But that's why it bugged me,” he said, “Knowing what I was going to do—hand-to-hand combat with a 1,000-pound bear—and then I was told [by viewers and internet commenters] that I was 'less of a man.'”

Working a camera is the bane of a lot of contestants, even season one runner-up and season five winner Sam Larson. 

“When it comes to Alone, my Achilles heel is that I legitimately do not enjoy using the camera,” he said.

Larson, who didn’t have a background in video, was picked after someone from the show found a blog post he wrote about survival. “One of the six or seven views was someone from Alone,” he recalls.

For Larson, filming was a chore. 

“I'm waking up every day to be in the wilderness, which is something I’m enormously passionate about, and then on the other hand I have to film it, which is as miserable as any miserable job.”

‘When you’re wet, you’re miserable’

As Islanders know well, unforgiving terrain and soggy weather can conspire to make even an afternoon hike or weekend camping trip feel like an exercise in survival; that goes double for actual survivalists trying to eke out a living on the coast.

The contest started right at the front end of the rainy season.

“The rain makes it that much more difficult for the participants,” Adams said. “When you're wet, you’re miserable.”

In a voiceover, as Robinet gets into the helicopter that will take him to his location, he sounds optimistic. 

“When I first get dropped off, it’s going to be an ‘Oh, wow’ moment, I’m sure,” he says. 

It was—but not the good kind. Robinet’s was one of the few locations without immediate beach access.

“They put me in the shittiest spot,” said Robinet.

“They dropped me in a cedar swamp that had no beach... I had marsh where ducks were.”

Any wood he may have been able to use for shelter or fire was “soaked through like a sponge,” he recalls. “I could literally take my hands, wring it out, and water would pour out of it.”

Josh, a contestant, works to get a fire started in the rain. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

Larson, who has spent most of his life in Nebraska, was thrust into a whole new world when he got to the island. 

“I had no business at all being on Vancouver Island,” the midwesterner explained. Even the tides were a new concept.

“I had no idea. I was really confused about the fact that the ocean was in a different spot in the middle of the day than it was in the morning.”

But Larson was set at ease by the fact that he had the ability to make a fire.

“I could stay warm, I could stay dry.” 

While dealing with the unpleasantness of fighting to survive in the temperate rainforests of Vancouver Island was new to Russell, he still thought of it as “camping,” something he’s accustomed to doing in much colder temperatures.

But even for him, the environment of Vancouver Island did its best to make comfort an elusive prospect.

“[Making a fire] was rough. It was tough because of the humidity and being dropped off at the start of the rainy season. Everything was soaked.”

Despite the rain, he managed to conquer that basic need. “I had fire every time I needed it,” he says.

Tapping out

Except in usual emergency circumstances, Alone only ends when the contestants themselves say so by “tapping out”—making a call on their satellite phone. 

That decision is usually the most dramatic part of an episode, as the contestants agonize over whether to pull the ‘chute; some tap out because they’ve been injured or are starving, while others miss home or get bored. Both Russell and Robinet left relatively early in the show. 

Robinet tapped out of the show because he lost his fire steel—a piece of metal that sparks when struck with a knife or rock—searching for it in the sand for hours. 

“I had already lost the will to be there if I lost my fire steel. I was being so hard on myself, like, ‘you don't deserve to be here if you can’t hold onto that.’”

The lost tool came at a moment when Robinet finally began to feel in control of his situation.

“I was crying. I let myself down, I let my family down, I let my audience down. I thought, ‘This is the end of me; I'm a failure, I'm a phony.’”

Robinet taps out. Photo: A&E (Submitted)

As for Russell, his own tussle with a bear was more than enough to have him tap out. 

“I was told by my wife that, ‘This is something you love, you’re able to go out, but if your life is in danger, come home, because it’s not worth dying over,’” he said.

Once the show aired, Russell was besieged by nasty comments online. They just “need a hug,” he says.

Robinet’s return to “civilization” was also complicated by online hate, with the worst experience coming after the episodes aired. 

“I just got fucking bashed online,” explained Robinet, “For probably a year after it came out I was pretty depressed.”

For Larson, the ending was more gradual than Russell’s and Robinet’s. 

The Nebraskan lasted 55 days on the northwest coast.

“I think I had just had enough,” Larson said.

A really bad storm had just swept through, leaving Larson mentally drained and soaked.

“I was extremely worn out and ready to be done.”

What he didn’t know, however, was that he was just one of two contestants remaining. Hanging on just a little longer could have meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Had he known it was down to just the two of them, he says, “I might have rethought a couple of things.

“But part of Alone is, that's all a mystery to you.”

While Larson returned to the show for a later season, he remembers coming home from his time on the first season of Alone and being “so happy to be back around the people I love.”

As for Robinet, he has since come to terms with his experience on the show and has produced an incredibly popular YouTube channel, which currently has over 1.5 million subscribers—success he attributes to the fire his early departure from the show lit under him.

“It was a blessing in disguise.”

Russell also found an audience on YouTube and continues to camp regularly in his home province of New Brunswick. 

While Alone has been filmed all around the world—from Mongolia to Argentina, to the United States—and continues to place its contestants in intense survival situations, the show’s producers still struggle to find places as perfect as Vancouver Island.

“I wish there were more locations like Quatsino Bay and Port Hardy,” Adams says, of the place where all but a few contestants starved, sparred with wildlife, or otherwise struggled to stay healthy and alive for weeks.

“Perfect location, in my opinion.”

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