Callie Russell, contestant on Alone, season 7 in the Arctic

This past weekend I felt really alone and isolated, so against my better judgement I started watching Alone, season 7, in the Arctic on Netflix. I’m not into reality TV, but I am a fan of the Arctic as I want to grow up to be a sea lion, I also thought, well I am alone this weekend, feeling desperately lonely and I write about being alone, so I should count this as research.

The premise of the show is ten experienced survivalists are heli-dropped onto their own five square mile plot with only their clothes, ten “survival items” and shit ton of camera equipment. To win the million dollar prize they must survive for one hundred days. I wish the show had taken some time to be transparent about how the contestants film themselves, charge the batteries, etc. I also wish they told us which ten “survival items” each contestant chose and what they could choose from. I figured out over time that things like an ax, a saw and a tarp are some of these “survival items.” Arrival, getting oriented and setting up camp requires the most time dilation and we only watch about four contestants per episode for the first several episodes.

I’m quickly sucked into the show by the landscape and the creative industry of solving survival problems like building a shelter, trapping animals and the most coveted, fishing. Everyone has their own approach to these problems, but there are also clear overlaps in knowledge, mostly demonstrated in shelter building and setting snares. I’m fascinated by these skills, watching these people fell trees and assemble shelters with impressive efficiency and learning what a gill net is and how productive it can be. But as a viewer, I’m quickly assessing the contestants’ caloric outputs versus the likely success of their efforts. It's pretty obvious early on that this will be a caloric competition and it won’t be easy. It's also pretty obvious early on why humans live in community; it is actually impossible to survive on one’s own in the Arctic wilderness, between building a shelter, trapping, fishing and occasionally hunting food, processing said food, defending said food from other predators and avoiding injury, parasites and illness, any contestant that made it to day twenty is already starving and has lost significant weight, up to a pound per day for one contestant. If there were even two humans working together, this scenario would become almost a living, one person hunting while the other defends the food cache would significantly increase success without, for example, much increase in effort in building the shelter. Get four people together and this environment would seem damn near hospitable in comparison.

Callie begins the show disorganized. She seems like an under qualified hippy, falling in love with everything, while setting up a shelter in a poor spot only to move to another location and setting up another shelter. She complains that nowhere in her plot is there level land for a shelter, and I’m thinking, “Good god woman, you’re using way too many calories, and does it really matter if you sleep on an angle?” Her biographical backstory piece shows her living like a Native American and weaving baskets and I try shush my critical mind exclaiming, she’s so white, who does she think she is living like an indigenous person? I try to quell this critique by recognizing that her appearance does not truly reveal her ancestry or upbringing. But pretty much, I’m like, she’s screwed by her idealism.

After the shelter debacle, her trap line produces well, once with a four hare day! And she kills a porcupine with her bow and arrow, which I learn is a really valuable fatty animal. Meanwhile at least four other contestants have tapped out, one lost his fire starting flint, one has depression and an over ambitious shelter design, one got sick from what would turn out to be a parasite, one really misses his family.

Callie’s turning point for me comes on Halloween, half way through the goal of one hundred days and after winter has really set in. We wake with her delightful and contagious, “Good morning!” and big smile close up into the camera with full eye contact into the lens and with us. She then updates us about her current state of affairs, but is interrupted by something she sees off camera, “What is that?” The next cut is a shape moving behind Juniper trees, and for a moment, I was with her, what IS that? But then, I see its her, creeping towards the camera, silly and dressed in fur! Right up into the lens again, she says, “Happy Halloween!” and explains that her costume is made from the porcupine skin of her earlier catch. I’m blown away. This woman, alone in Arctic, living off her own body fat as much as anything she can catch, just made a film! I loved it, I loved her and I’m intrigued by her ability to continue to have humor and curiosity day in and day out while starving and freezing.

Several episodes later she address this directly. She says to the camera that we the viewers must be curious about her daily delightful morning addresses into the camera and she shares with us an inside joke between her sister and herself that she thinks of to lift her mood. While telling us this story, she can’t stop laughing. She has an ability to bring the emotional support of her people with her in a way that no other contestant has, and with this realization I think she’s going to win. The other remaining contestants are really struggling with missing their people. I also wonder about how I could incorporate at least some of her survivalist approach into my own lonely life. I know that she has advantages both genetic and environmental that have empowered her with this approach to survival, but I insist there is still value in her example I can pull from.

Unfortunately, Callie doesn’t win. She is defeated by frostbite on her toe. Roland, who clearly has the most knowledge and experience in surviving these conditions wins, while having revelations about his neglected familial relationships. I can’t help but to be a bit disappointed that his colonial, pioneering approach to survival wins over Callie’s holistic approach. In one of his last shots he stands in front of a living tree that he’s carved his initials into along with large violent ax clefts marking each of his one hundred days. I couldn’t help wondering if the tree would survive his damage. I also want to give a special call out to third runner up Keilyn who ugly cries over everything both good and bad! I could hear the complaining of viewers everywhere over her “hysterical” emoting, but I love her for being unabashedly a woman, a fucking badass tear stained woman! I wish that the show, during their post episode recaps would’ve addressed menstruating while surviving in the Arctic wilderness.

So going forward I’m remembering Callie’s approach to hardship and isolation, yet another tool in box chronic illness tool box. Thanks Callie!



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Swimming Alone

Swimming Alone

Thoughts on the interconnectedness of a solo life. Thoughtful rule breaker. Wild woman. Chronically ill.