Sunday July 20th, 2014

Even when I was cranky in the wilderness, when I was hot, hungry, thirsty; when carpenter ants crawled over my face as I tried to cadge a few minutes of sleep, I was careful not to show it. Even when our instructors at the Bear Grylls 24-Hour Survival Academy urged us to dine on leaves and insect larvae – I must admit that the grub I chewed and swallowed had a pleasantly nutty finish – I was courteous and agreeable with them. I wanted to befriend them. After the apocalypse, you see – whether it’s brought on by a simian virus that wipes out 95 percent of mankind  (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) or an unnamed fiery cataclysm that scorches the earth (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) – they will be our overlords. They have the skills that will mean the difference between life and death. Also, they had a cache of snacks and trail mix stashed next to their sleeping bags. They would be good friends to have.

I salute them now – Anthony Handal, Matt Randall, James Turner – for the depth and breadth of their knowledge in wilderness survival skills. While Grylls himself merely haunted the 24-hour survival course that bears his name, the truth was, we didn’t really need him. Grylls helicoptered into our encampment, in a rugged expanse of forest just outside Yosemite National Park, for a brief meet-and-greet, but couldn’t stay long: he’d been filming an adventure with Channing Tatum for his upcoming NBC series, Running Wild With Bear Grylls, and the episode wasn’t quite finished.

That was pretty cool, you had to admit. Did you know that Tatum will be playing Gambit, the Cajun mutant superhero, in an upcoming X-Men movie? But the fact was, my fellow students and I spent 24 hours learning from badass outdoorsmen with actual, real-life superpowers.

Bear Grylls Survival Academy

There was Turner, a schoolteacher from Durango, Col., who taught us, among other things, how to make fire without matches, how to make water potable in the wilderness, how to make snares and traps to capture small animals. Sorry, Peter Cottontail, but in a post-apocalyptic world without Ralph’s, Vons and Safeway, we can no longer be friends. Turner is a birder, hide tanner, tracker, and, I overheard him telling someone, “competitive atlatl thrower” – as if there’s any other kind! He also showed us how skin and dress said game, then cook it over a fire we made sans matches or lighters or – my personal camping trip crutch – Duraflame logs.

Handal, his mane barely tamed by a bandana, is a world-class rock climber and maestro of knot tying. When not talking us up and down steep rock faces (“On belay!”) he taught us a handful of navigation basics that will keep us pointed in the right direction when the grid goes down, and our GPS systems crap out. His refresher course on astronomy, delivered as we stood in a starlit clearing after an evening repast of foraged greens and, yes, cooked rabbit, served as a reminder of how to find the North Star (follow the line formed by the outer stars of the Big Dipper), and why it’s a good idea, every so often, to stand in a clearing and look for it, even if you don’t think you’re lost.

There was Randall, who taught us to see the forest as a salad bar – “This miner’s lettuce might be a good chaser for that earthworm” … “These seeds are like nature’s Tic Tacs!”  … and shared these rhyming rules of thumb for wild berry consumption: “Purple, black and blue: good for you. Green, yellow, white: dead in the night.”

Of course we wouldn’t eat anything without first applying his five tests: 1) Look at the food, “Make sure it’s not rancid, that it’s got no slime on it”; 2) Smell it. “If it smells like peaches or almonds, it’s poison”; 3) Rub it on your skin, and wait 10 minutes to see if you have a bad reaction; 4) Touch it to your lips, see how that goes; 5) Chew it, swallow it. “If you’re in a group,” Matt went on, “only choose one person” to ingest strange, suspect foods, like the designated taster for a medieval king.

On television, that guinea pig has long been Grylls, 40, the ruggedly handsome, Eton-educated  former reservist in the British Special Air Service who parlayed his survival skills and telegenic mien into a succession of popular TV series, the longest running of which was Man vs. Wild.

Bear Grylls Survival Academy

That show’s format was simple: Bear (and his TV crew) find themselves stranded in some inhospitable region. Yes, he wants to show viewers how to survive. But not in a passive, static way that would kill his Nielsen ratings. It’s not about “the slow whittling of spoons,” he told us, making me wonder if he was taking a subtle shot at professional peer and rival Les Stroud, star of TV’s Survivorman.

“It’s about empowering people with dynamic, exciting self-rescue skills,” Grylls went on. “It’s just you, you’ve gotta do it on your own, and you’ve got a shoelace and a broken knife. How can you get off this cliff, how can you get across this river, how can you live off the land?”

He gets that building a shelter and waiting to be rescued makes for rather dull television. He has therefore arranged, on his show, to scale cliffs, skydive from hot air balloons, paraglide off mountains, run through forest fires, wrestle alligators, drink turtle blood and quaff water from a camel carcass. And then there is his diet. Before it mentions any of those stunts, Grylls’ obituary is sure to catalog the terrifying things the man was willing to put in his mouth.

The promotional materials forwarded to me before the Academy included a typically dashing photo of Grylls in nature, his face smudged with what one hopes is mud. So frequently can he be seen on TV ingesting dung or some dung byproduct – deer droppings, berries from bear ordure, the liquid found (who knew?) at the center of an elephant stool – that I found myself thinking, “Please, God, let it be mud.”

That was not the question I posed to him, when the chance arose. A couple of hours into the course, not long after we’d heard the dull thwack of a chopper landing nearby, Grylls materialized in a glade by a stream. After shaking our hands, he talked a bit about these Survival Academies. He’s got a bunch in the UK, one in South Africa, two in the USA – ours, just outside of Oakhurst, Cal., and another in Colorado.

The profits, he explained, go to various children’s charities. There are corporate, team-building courses, family courses, and a more extreme, five-day iteration. “But the one that’s been massively popular,” Grylls effused, “is the ‘Father-Son’” version. We launched it because I get so many my kids friends saying, ‘I’d love to do that with my Dad.’”

When he asked if we had any questions, I raised my hand. Our instructors had already fed us grubs and worms, I informed him, “which made me wonder if there was ever anything you put in that … came out.”

“PUH-lenty!” he immediately replied, to big laughs. Sure, he’s taken a chance on some strange victuals, Grylls tells us. And yes, on occasion, it’s backfired on him. He pantomimes projectile vomiting, to more raucous laughter. But, on the whole, the five rules Randall taught us earlier in the day are golden – “they work, and they can keep you alive.

“But yeah, plenty of times it’s gone wrong.”

“I remember eating a dodgy snake, once. But I thought, ‘Well, it should be all right.’” Two hours later, he was scaling a rock face. Halfway up, Grylls recalls, he felt a bout of diarrhea coming on. “I’m not gonna make it to the top of this cliff,” he remembers thinking. After instructing the crew to turn their cameras off, Grylls dropped trou and, notwithstanding his exposed, precarious position, answered that urgent call. “Whoosh!” he exclaimed. “Like a fire hydrant!”

Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Crisis over, he gazed toward the clifftop, and was dismayed to see that the cameraman had disobeyed, and recorded the entire catharsis – “This is gold!” the fellow shouted – though not as dismayed as those crew members at the base of the cliff below Grylls.

My classmates include two boys taking the course with their fathers. Travis Flower is 14, Brad Peterson is 9: they bond instantly and spend the 24 hours roughhousing like brothers. After the team photo, they’re milling and hovering near Grylls, too bashful to approach him. Even though he’s in a hurry, Grylls approaches each of them, saying, “Let’s get a picture, you and me and your Dad!”

He may take the occasional shortcut on his shows – did he really just chance upon that rattlesnake in the wild, or was it planted there to keep the shoot on schedule? But after today, I’m a Bear Grylls fan.

Grylls puts on 24-hour classes for adults, and also for families. This “is a mix of both,” we’re told. “The pace might be a little slower,” James told us beforehand, because “some of these challenges are harder for the younger kids.” Later, we will remember that sentence, and have a good laugh.

For the duration of the course, none of the grown-ups can keep up with Travis and Brad. They volunteer to do everything first: Brad was so blasé about snarfing down a big, wriggling earthworm that I suspected he’d done it before. (“Be sure to chew it,” a teacher said, “or you will feel it wriggling around your stomach.”

They fight to be the first to climb cliffs on the fixed ropes; to cross the creek using a wobbly rope bridge. After James gives us a primer on how to start a fire without matches (six-word Cliffs Notes: It’s all about your tinder bundle, baby), there is a contest to see who can start a fire first. Travis wins. Handily.

After his snares yield a pair of rabbits, and James asks for volunteers to help skin and dress them, the boys can’t volunteer quickly enough. As they prepare the animal – which, we will all later agree “tastes like chicken” – I hear Bradley complain, “That eyeball is freaking me out.” When James needs a volunteer to skin the second bunny, Travis pipes right up. When his Dad teases him for seeming overly eager, the son says, simply, “What? I want to eat!”

Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Before dinner, we are given 45 minutes to make shelter. The boys and their dad have done this before. Their tight, rectilinear arrangements of boughs and branches are snug, windproof, recognizable as shelters, which is more than you can say for the ramshackle collection of tree limbs beneath which I will (try to) sleep that night.

Why just 45 minutes? I would’ve liked more time to channel my inner Robinson Crusoe. Bear’s philosophy on survival, the instructors explain, is not to settle down, get comfortable, build a rescue fire and wait for it to be spotted by a plane or passing freighter. Whereas Stroud, aka Survivorman, takes this more purist approach – he has to, because, as he frequently reminds viewers, he has to carry all of his own camera equipment – Grylls isn’t waiting on anyone.

As one instructor put it, as we lazed around the fire that evening, “It’s ‘Chill out, we’re gonna be here a couple days,’ versus Bear’s approach, which is, ‘This sucks, I’m getting out of here, I’ll eat crap along the way.’”

He really will.

This sucks, I thought, more than once, while brushing ants off my face and trying vainly to sleep that night under a tangle of detritus that wasn’t so much a shelter as the suggestion of a shelter. The next morning’s activities – calisthenics, some running, wading through a hip-deep stream, rappelling – were a bit of a blur, sleep deprived as I was.

Adrenaline kicked in when we had to self-rescue Greg, another journalist, who suffered a nasty compound fracture of his left leg while we were double-timing it down a fire road after army-crawling through a drain pipe. While the boys prepared the tinder bundle for a signal fire, I stabilized the injured leg with branches, held in place by a sleeping-bag liner. As Greg lay there, looking more bored than anguished, frankly, one of the instructors pleaded with him: “Don’t go to the light,” which made the others laugh, because he hadn’t really broken his leg, of course, and this was all a drill.

As we arrived at the end of the course, I arrived at the conclusion that I preferred Grylls’ more dynamic approach to survival. Because that approach included a long, fast zip line that we took turns going down. Tough to dwell on your work-a-day problems while hurtling through the redwoods 40 feet above the forest floor. If this is what the dystopian, post-apocalyptic future holds, hell, sign me up.

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