- How Les ended up as a wilderness survival TV star
- Why Les thinks all the other wilderness survival shows are fakes
- The most important wilderness survival tip every man should know
- How the wild has affected Les’ music
- And much more!
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now I think most guys at one time or another have gone through this scenario in their head. What would happen to me if I was dropped in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness like in Canada, with nothing but clothes on my back and my wits, would I be able to survive? Well, our guest today has made a living answering that question for himself but in front of millions of TV watchers. His name is Les Stroud, better known as Survivorman, you probably have seen his show, where it’s just him and a camera that he is operating himself, trying to figure out how to survive in different locales around the world. But besides being a survival expert and TV star, Les is also a musician and in today’s episode, we are going to talk about Les’ just fascinating career how he got into survival training, how he developed the idea of Survivorman, we are going to talk about tips and know-how he thinks everyone should know if they want to survive in the wild if they find themselves in the middle of nowhere with nothing clothes on their back and their wits, and we are going to talk about his music career, how wilderness survival training has changed his music. So, it’s interesting podcast, stay tuned. All right, Les Stroud, welcome to the show.
Les Stroud: Hey, thank you very much.
Brett McKay: Okay, let’s start off by talking about yourself. I know people who are listening to you they know who you are, they are big fans of your show, what you do but I am sure lot of people aren’t and I am sure people who know about you don’t know about your history or your career history and I think it’s really interesting because I know there are lot of young men who listen to our podcast and they are at their stage in their life when they are trying to figure out what they are going to do with their lives and they feel they have to figure out what they are going to do now and they don’t realize that opportunities come up. You never know where life is going to take you. Can you talk a little bit about your career history, because you didn’t start off a wilderness survival guy, right?
Les Stroud: No, I didn’t, it came by honestly in terms of my early path, my childhood, in that I was a big fan of Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan movies and I went to my cottage a lot and loved going out in the back, so I had that within my childhood sort of DNA, but I also left it around the age of 14 when I discovered Rock ‘n Roll and focused entirely on being a musician for a good solid 10 years easily and it was around the age of 25, I had been doing pretty decent and pretty well as a singer-songwriter and so on but not well enough and I was extremely disillusioned with the industry during the mid 80s, I hated the music of the 80s and didn’t like where it was going and felt lot of it lost its soul and so I decided to make a big decision and quit all that I have known. I mean really everything that I knew was about music. That’s all I ever wanted to do and quit it all and when I made that decision two things happened, the world lifted off my shoulders in two ways and the first way was it lifted off my shoulders in that the responsibility of trying to be that thing and music was going and then it was lifted off my shoulders in that what do I do next came up and I knew right away, it’s just wilderness adventure. Didn’t have a clue what that meant but I knew that was the direction I wanted to go and I was 25 years old when I made that decision to start to look into what it meant to be involved with wilderness adventure.
Brett McKay: So the wild called you back?
Les Stroud: Oh! Absolutely, I don’t think it ever left my soul. I know that even as a later teenager not doing anything to do with the adventures and outdoors, my buddies, my party buddies still used to nickname me Euell Gibbons because for some reason I knew which plants to eat. So, it must have never left me somehow because I got that nickname for a reason, but it was certainly kept away from me until my mid 20s.
Brett McKay: You decided to make this big leap and it was wilderness adventure that’s what you wanted to do. Was it sort of serendipity that led you toward the whole survivalist aspect of it?
Les Stroud: Well, let’s be careful with that word too, I never call myself a survivalist not at all, I am an outdoor adventurer, a wilderness adventurer, I am not a thrill seeker, I am a documentary film-maker and those things, and I am an entertainer and I have combined all of those things. Survivalism is a very tricky word to use because it conjures up images of preppers and building bunkers for the apocalypse sort of thing which I am not, sorry, what was the question?
Brett McKay: So, how did you get started I guess not the survivalist aspect but learning how to live off the land, learning how to just live with nature when you are out there by yourself?
Les Stroud: The first thing I saw, I did the obvious thing, I started looking in the newspaper. I didn’t even know what to look for. I didn’t know that you could do things, that you could be a canoe guy, I didn’t even know, I just didn’t know it was available to me, I was just a kid from the suburbs and I always thought that when you went overseas to Africa or some place like that, or South America, I thought that was only for privileged people, I didn’t know that’s something lot of programs have been developing that you could have access to. So, I looked in the newspapers and I saw little article that was for wilderness survival training and of course I thought, well that sounds like me, I had no idea what that meant, it just sounded cool, and I took the leap and I enrolled in class and every Thursday night you meet in a classroom in the local college and there is some guy and he starts to talk to you about wild edible plants and man, I just soaked it up, it was like, okay, we went out into the – first thing we did was okay, everybody get up, we are going outside, and off we went to the valley and as soon as I was in a classroom where we went out side and into the bush, I knew I was home, I was in the right place to learn the types of thing is wanted to learn, at that point it just as ever expanding world of knowledge to partake of, from being able to dog sled and canoe and kayak to edible and medicinal plants to survival methods to wilderness spirituality to everything. There was certain areas that–I actually I went after everything and certain areas that I really took on well and of course survival was a big one for me.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it sounds like you just mentioned you are kind of an entertainer at heart, you are in the music industry, did you have any involvement with television and film before this too?
Les Stroud: Absolutely, as a musician I worked in rock videos, so I did a lot of filming with rock videos, fast forwarding to the future and 10 years of nothing but wilderness adventure under my belt, not having picked up my guitar for 8 years and don’t nothing with cameras or anything, I started to have experiences to do things in the outdoors that I as an entertainer, as a creative person, as an artist, thought, well these would make some great films and the only thing that existed back then at that time really was like the Warren Miller ski films. People weren’t really filming their adventure. You couldn’t because the cameras were too big.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Les Stroud: And so I knew though that I had some great stories happening. The first thing I did when I was married was our honeymoon, we spent a year living in the bush, we did it as if it was 500 years ago, no metal, no matches, no plastic, no nylon and when we partook to do that, when we went to do that, I knew that, okay, this would make a great documentary film, and I do remember how to be creative and so I took it upon myself to film that year. That opened a lot of doors for me.
Brett McKay: Is that how you made your segue into television host or film creator?
Les Stroud: I would say yes, yeah, because that became a calling card, it would be like, look – And then I started thinking this is fun, now my creative juices that never left me but were little dormant could now be combined with my adventure desires to create film work and lo and behold my past dream world of Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan, if you think about it that’s what Survivorman is, it’s a hybrid of Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan. And yet there I was in this position having something completely unique. No one else had ever done before and able to say, okay, I am going to film my adventures and then I thought, hey, wait a minute, I really specialized a lot in survival, why don’t I film survival, that would be cool and yeah that led me to a cold call to pitch Survivorman, it was nothing else like that on television at that time. Mark Burnett Survivor series had come on air, but it was a joke. It was not survival but it also helped me to think, wait a minute, this idea I have it might be able to take traction, with that thing sort of distracting everybody, and everybody going, Oh! survival is kind of cool, yet it’s all bull, I thought well, let me show them the real thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s talk about–for those who aren’t familiar with the show, talk about Survivorman differs from all the other survival shows that are out here on the Discovery and History and all these other–what makes Survivorman different?
Les Stroud: The only one that’s real.
Brett McKay: It’s just you, right, you and a camera. You don’t have a cameraman, you don’t have a crew.
Les Stroud: That’s right. I mean everything else came along after because Survivorman became such a strong show and a hit that then the creation of Man Versus Wild and Dual Survival, and Man and Woman Wild, and Naked and Afraid, and Marooned, all of the stuff came along after. In fact, the only one who is actually out there doing it and I still knowing production as I do, I have my questions as the guy doing Marooned, he seems to actually having his shit together and be doing something for real. The rest of them are all staged and if they are staged they are not real and if they are not real then why are they pretending to hurt, you know what I am saying?
Brett McKay: Yeah. That is interesting. I have watched their shows and like, yeah, it doesn’t seem like they are in any type of danger.
Les Stroud: They are not, it’s completely set up and it’s completely a matter of television production. The difference is when Survivorman was created it was created by me, a guy who teaches survival, I love survival, I taught it, and first thing I wanted to do was just simply teach. I just wanted to teach the skills. The other shows came from the side of television producers what they wanted to do was jump on the bandwagon and produce a TV show and hence a guy like Bear is nothing like a TV host, that’s all he is, he is not a survival anything. I wouldn’t say the same for Cody. Cody knows his shit, he is a good survival instructor but the show Dual Survival is still just setup and staged. So there, in lies a difference, mine came from being instructional really learning good shit and the other shows came from TV producers jumping on a bandwagon.
Brett McKay: What do you think? I mean these shows, all these shows are pretty popular. What do you think is going on? You are an artist, you are a creator, I am sure you think about this, what’s going on in the culture that would make these, people would be drawn to these shows, like they would want to watch you in the middle of nowhere surviving just you and your wits, what do you think that’s going on with the wider culture that makes people drawn to this.
Les Stroud: Yeah, I won’t comment on the other shows because I think that’s primarily entertainment. In my case, I was very lucky, I mean to back up a bit, to say when I would create these shows, I would always concentrate and even meditate on the thought that, okay, I want to make something, I want to do something today that’s inspiring to people, that will take them to a positive place and be a positive influence in their life. And lo and behold, I would get all these reactions by email, exactly that going on, things that has nothing to do with survival, just making building shelters and making fire, how can that be inspirational but yet it was. I think that in a larger perspective the survival itself it touched on certain people’s way of looking inside and going, man, I wonder if I could do that, I wonder if I could have nothing and be like a cave person and survive like I was a cave man and so we got that inner sort of thing of fantasy thinking, I wonder if I could survive if I threw everything anyway and just get my water, my food, to cover myself from the cold. Wouldn’t that be cool? And then I think the other more fun superficial level are those sort of what’s more out of morbid fascination is like, Oh! my God, are you really going to eat that That’s the more fun side of it. That brought people together too but as a result the demographic is wide, from young kids right on up to senior academics and everything in between because I think it was really one of those big questions, I wonder if I could do that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think all of us in modern life have that question.
Les Stroud: We never get to answer it but Les Stroud, Survivorman does get to answer it, and that’s the cool part.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s very cool, are there – have you had any close encounters with death during the filming of the show?
Les Stroud: Yeah, I have had a few, the two most biggest recollection is Norway episode going down the mountain side and the potential for hypothermia there. That was more potential than anything that I narrowly escaped but the heat stroke in the Kalahari Desert that was very dangerous. I mean I did get heat stroke and it took 5-6 hours just to cool down and that was a very dangerous situation for being for sure.
Brett McKay: Have you had any since outside the show, like before it’s just like, holy cow, I can’t believe I did that and I survived.
Les Stroud: But more I suppose being chased up a tree by a 1500 pound moose was, that one of those crazy moments, that was pretty dangerous. I have been slightly hypothermic on lots of things but the thing is I know what I am doing and in many ways I am boring because is I know what I am doing. I set things up so that I don’t have errors and problems. That’s sad, I have found myself sweating to the bone and trying to get to my cottage this last New Year’s Eve with -45 degrees Celsius, it was ridiculously dangerous situation and there I am, Survivorman, I am supposed to know what I am doing. And yet, I was caught in the middle of a frozen lake pouring with sweat trying to get my cottage, that was dumb move, struggling against slush and trying to pull a sled through. So those things happen but the closer to death are probably more the adrenalin things where I have been on a wild river paddling, that’s a situation where it’s – you know, a couple of those, but by definition I am not an adrenaline junkie, I am very much about calculated risk.
Brett McKay: I think that’s interesting, I think a lot of people who are drawn to that extreme sports or survival, they would say – I have talked to a lot of them, they say I am not an adrenaline junkie, I like the risk but I am definitely not there for the rush.
Les Stroud: That’s a different game all together.
Brett McKay: You traveled all over rhe world, is there any place in particular that you just loved filming at?
Les Stroud: It’s so hard to name but absolutely the High Canadian Arctic is always a thrill and High Peruvian Andes is a thrill and Utah Canyon Lands. Those places are the types of places where I would like to say, you can throw the camera on the ground and it’s still going to get a good angle.
Brett McKay: It’s beautiful out there. I mean I have been to the Utah Canyon Lands but none of those other places. We are going to a short break for a word from our sponsor. This episode of the Art of Manliness podcast is brought to you by Squarespace, the all in one platform makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio, when you decide to sign up for Squarespace make sure to go to Squarespace.com and enter the discount code or offer code MAN to get 10% off your subscription and also to show your support for the Art of Manliness podcast and now back to the show. So, kind of – I like to ask some practical tips from people who are experts. Say, one of our listeners finds himself stranded in the wilderness for some reason. What are the most important things a person should do in that situation in order to survive and make it in the wild?
Les Stroud: The big thing is to remain calm, always always always remain calm, and the way I like to describe the way to do that is I sort of devised this, in my instructions, you know I have got some books out and stuff like that and I want to do an updated version of my book called Survivor, just a manual because I have sort of come up with a new methodology, I called it the zone of assessment and that is when you find yourself in a situation like that you look at your three zones of assessment. Zone #1 is your body, your pockets, your coat whatever you are carrying with you, and ask what have I got? Am I injured? What’s in my pocket? Zone of assessment #2 is the immediate surroundings, same questions and zone of assessment #3 is the further beyond, what’s around the corner, once you do that and you determine whether it’s a cabin half a kilometer I have got a backpack full of food and a tent and I have got a broken ankle and I got food in my pocket. Once you get all those answers you now can make a proactively based decision or make a decision and then become proactive because you have answers, and that helps you to be even calmer and that is what people forget to do, they run around and they get panic and they forget. If you just sit down and do your three zones of assessment, you have enough information that you will know what to do next, and that’s what’s vital.
Brett McKay: All right, so stay calm, that’s the most important thing. Any advice for people who are listening there, like, I want to do this too, I want to learn about wilderness survival, anything they can do to get started with survival training?
Les Stroud: Yeah. Firstly is to remember that philosophically speaking they have to understand something, this is a contact sport. Survival is a contact sport. It’s not like you watch an Olympic ski jumper and the next day you stamp on skis and go off to jump. You don’t do that. Don’t watch Survivorman and then head off into the bush next week. Doesn’t work like that, you could die. It’s as simple as that. The wilderness is a completely neutral zone. There is nothing to be for it or against, wilderness is just a wilderness. If you screw up, you screw up, it doesn’t screw up for you but anything can happen, so you have to realize that to get involved in survival is to get involved in something that is a demanding level of skill required, learn properly, go take the classes, go out with groups, I went out for two years before I was doing solo stuff, with groups and other students and instructors, people who had my back, that’s what you really need to do these skill sets and then when you can go on your own and stuff, boy, it just feels amazing but it’s definitely not something you learn in one weekend and then you do.
Brett McKay: So, you talked about in the beginning how you left music Rock ‘n Roll for 8 years, it was 8 years before you picked up a guitar but now you are playing and you put out a new album, I think you have another one coming out soon, is that correct?
Les Stroud: Yeah.
Brett McKay: How has your experience being out in the outdoors has that affected your music at all or influenced it all?
Les Stroud: Radically so actually. What’s happened is my creative juices have never stopped. I love being creative, I love being an artist, I love being prolific, so I write books and so on. Well, musically speaking I allowed it start to seep back in to my life a number of years and it has just been growing and growing, and now I am at a place where I believe that once a writer always a writer and I am at a place where my music it’s just it surrounded with the influence of who I had been and what I have done as Survivorman from the crazy ceremonies that I did with remote cultures, filming the Beyond Survival series, to being alone in the middle of the mountain as Survivorman to all of my adventuring, which has taking me down a strong path of environmental concern and wanting to celebrate nature and the Earth and also wanting to protect it. So my music embodies that in a very big way and my performances have large video screens and story telling and imagery from around the world combined with music. It’s like Dave Matthews meets tool, sort of thing, and so very much so it’s all a blend. If you come to see a Survivorman show, Survivorman in concert you are going to get Survivorman telling you stories and keeping it and there is also going to be a rock extravaganza and videos and all of that, so yes, it’s very well blended. You know what I like to say is come on, I am over 50, nobody wants to hear me do a love song, so I do what I know really well and speak on subjects that I know really well and go from there.
Brett McKay: So what can we see from you this coming year in 2014?
Les Stroud: Well, right now we are still rolling out brand new Survivorman shows, new Survivorman classic shows, Survivorman and Son where I went out with my 16 year old son, Survivorman Big Foot where I am the trail of Big Foot and everything is doing so well, yes I will definitely be doing more filming and more Survivorman work and in addition I have got two new albums coming out and hopefully very soon launching a tour, a world tour on Survivorman and in this respect, I am hoping it’s everything from opening up for a major act as a solo artist or my own stage with my full band and large screens where you come and it’s just the whole extravaganza and everything in between and as you know, the only thing that I really maintain a virtuosity on is blowing good blues Harp and so I like to take the stage and festivals and rock people’s socks off but all of that is what you can expect because I really feel at my prime, I really feel full of energy and passion still, it has been 12 years of doing Survivorman.
Brett McKay: Wow!
Les Stroud: Yeah, and yet I feel more energized now than ever before and I am happy to keep up to honor those that are the Uber Survivorman fans and bring them into the new world of everything else that they do as well.
Brett McKay: Very good Les Stroud, it has been a great conversation, thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.
Les Stroud: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Les Stroud, Les is the star of Survivorman where it’s just him and the camera tying to survive in the wild. Definitely recommend that you check out the show, check your local listings for air times and you also found out more about Les’ work at lesstroudca, you can read his blog and you can also find out more information about his music. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and until next time stay manly.
Last updated: October 1, 2015