A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Les Stroud, known on the internet as Canada's version of a lumberjack MacGyver, has historically been the guy credited with kickstarting the survival genre of reality TV. Filming shows for networks like Discovery and OLN for well over a decade, Stroud has become known in the survivalist culture as a no-bullshit, no-nonsense explorer who sells everything from Les Stroud-branded pucks to Les Stroud-branded harmonicas on his website. He also sells DVDs of concerts performed by his band, Les Stroud and the Campfire Kings.
A few days ago a video shot during the filming of the upcoming season of his show Survivormanwas released online. In the clip, shot in Mongolia, Stroud is seen moments after he was involved in a car accident in which he and his crew's vehicle skidded off the road 25 feet and rolled twice.
Stroud tore multiple muscles and broke a few ribs in the crash, which effectively ended all filming for the new season. Now, nine weeks later, he spoke to VICE about his past as a pot-smoking rocker, the creation of Survivorman, and his vision for the future.
VICE: Let's start from the beginning. According to the internet, you were born in Toronto—Mimico of all places. How did you go from the urban life to building fires in the wild?
Les Stroud: My upbringing was in a west-end suburb of Etobicoke. It was very white-bread. Just a flat-out boring existence. You know, I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Styx, smoking pot, and drinking beer… the regular stuff back then. I think I always wanted to escape, but as I got older, I discovered how much I loved rock and roll and that's what I did for a long time. Because of that, I've been in and out of music since then, but back when I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of videos of Jacques Cousteau and I had this strong desire to one day be a National Geographic photographer. I just thought it was the coolest thing.
Eventually, at some point in my mid-20s, I decided that I really wanted to go for a wilderness adventure. I didn't even know what that meant—I just came up with that phrase in my head, but I started looking around and I found a course on survivalism. Once I went through that, it was like a marriage made in heaven.
When did you first start filming your own treks into the wild?
Coming from a background of music and performing, I never lost that desire to be a performer and to entertain people. I used to work on music television for a while and that job gave me skills such as editing and camerawork, so it wasn't too long after I got into doing survivalism that I realized how there was virtually no film work at all that showed real survivalism to its fullest. There were home videos, but they were pretty lame and pathetic. People either didn't know what they were doing or it was poorly shot, which are both death rattles for anything that people want to watch. I saw a need—I saw a need to display survival skills on film and not only teach but entertain people through my experiences, so I started applying what I knew from the wilderness and my time as an entertainer.
You mentioned home videos and the lack of a market for survival videos, so I can't imagine you started off with a hit TV series. Did filming your survivalism always pay?
Surprisingly, it did. My plan originally was just to make a high-quality, DIY, home video-type series, but I eventually decided to try my hand at pitching it to a television network instead. They actually bit pretty quick, so once I was able to get it on television, it changed everything and ended up starting the entire genre of survival TV.
Tell me how Survivorman came to be.
I had made my own film called Snowshoes and Solitude which I filmed out in the bush, so in combination with that and my experience working at MuchMusic, I had a very focused pitch I brought to the producers. I told them, "Listen, I can go out into the wild for a week with no crew. I can bring you back footage with commentary, I can edit, I can do it all, and have an episode to you." They saw a perfect combination in me, I guess, so they approved a pilot episode for a science show.
After that, I followed up with more episodes, along with a summer and winter version of a show called Stranded. I pretty much made it clear how easily this could become a series—a guy stuck in different locations trying to survive and put on a good show—and they loved it. The rest is history.
What are some of your favorite places you've been?
Well, I'm still a big, big fan of jungles, although it's not a fun place to survive. Same thing goes for the high Arctic or the Peruvian Andes—I mean, these are places that really resonated with me, despite how difficult they were to actually navigate and thrive in.
What's the craziest situation you've ever been in?
I'd say the most dangerous thing I've done was a descent down a frigid mountain in Norway for a Survivorman episode. I almost became hypothermic because of how cold it was and I was in a serious bit of jeopardy during that show. The most memorable was definitely filming the series Survivorman: Beyond Survival where I went out and survived with a lot of Native and Indigenous groups that live very remotely and very close with the earth. Meeting those people and living with them was an incredibly profound experience.
Let's talk about your most recent episode in Mongolia. According to the video, you got into a pretty bad car accident while filming the new season of Survivorman. Can you walk me through what happened?
Basically, we had two more shows to film out in Mongolia and we were far out from the capital city when it happened. We really don't know exactly why the car flipped because it all happened so quick. Whether it was driver error, or whether something gave out in the steering, we don't really know. One minute, I was looking sleepyheaded out the window and the next minute, we had skidded out 25 feet and rolled twice. It was over like that.
So once it flipped, you checked on your crew, then, once the pain set in, you told your producer to film you. Where do you draw the line between putting a show on and actually focusing on your own survival?
Honestly, once we flipped and the car stopped, I knew the show was over. This was it. There was really no way I was going to finish the episode. So, being how my mind works, I told my producer Max to turn the camera on and document everything that was about to happen. I knew that this was going to be something that would turn out to be garbage and be dumped from the show, or would be one hell of a post on Facebook. It thankfully turned out to be the latter.
The video says that along the way back, because the helicopters couldn't pick you up, your shoulder reset itself back into place and that you wanted to continue with show but were flown back to Toronto anyway. Were you able to finish the Mongolia episode?
Unfortunately, no. That ended the season. I had a punctured lung and that was only nine weeks ago. We might do something neat with it in the editing process though.
You seem to be always thinking of the audience. Do you ever draw the line with some of the shows you're doing when you're not comfortable filming something?
It has happened in the past, sure, but because I mainly film everything myself or run with a small crew, it's not a major issue. There were a few moments when filming stuff for Shark Week that I said, "All right, this is a little much." We were in the middle of South Africa's Shark Alley and there were great whites all around me. I had almost no backup divers or anyone there to pull me out if I were to get bit. It was definitely something that made me uncomfortable and I raised my concerns to the crew. We still did the shoot, though.
Speaking of retreating: there are a lot of comparisons made between you and Bear Grylls, someone who has been called out in the past for possibly staging some of his shows. With his new show out now, what are your thoughts on that comparison?
I understand why the comparisons get made, but there really is no comparison. This is not me with pretentiousness or bravado or ego but I actually don't think there is overlap. I go out there to survive, to show people real-life scenarios and to make my show informative and entertaining. What I created with Survivorman had never been done before. All of these other shows are produced, staged, faked, scripted, set up, and done in a way so that they can produce numerous episodes, some of which do it horribly and blatantly so.
What some forget about Bear Grylls back a few years ago is that they did try to hide [the staging of the episodes], and I know because I was there. I was with the network when it all went down and they tried to hide it until they couldn't do it anymore, which started backpedaling on their end.
All of the shows that have come since then such as Dual Survival or Naked and Afraid are carefully orchestrated, just like many that have come before them.
Can you get into detail? Are these shows straight faked or are the survivalists just pointed in the right direction?
A little bit of both. In shows like Naked and Afraid, a lot of the times, you'll see somebody who has a fear of caves just happen to conveniently run into a big, dark, scary cave as the only form of shelter, or an episode will put emphasis on wolves early on only to have a direct confrontation with, low and behold, a pack of wolves later in the episode.
All of this stuff is a sham. It's not genuine survival. The producers of these shows want to push the envelope more and more each season because the whole escalation lies in the next biggest thing. They have to fake these scenarios in order to achieve that consistently. Even worse is those shows that have those instructors, like Bear, or Cody [Lundin], or Matt [Graham].
I say it with this tone because I honestly think that most people who watch television need to wake up. These shows are bullshit. Reality TV is shit—it's not real at all. If you watch these shows for entertainment, fine, but don't for a second think you're seeing anything that's real, true, or demonstrating genuine survival skills.
So you have never backed out of a situation or had your crew accommodate you with, say, a nice cot to sleep in?
Absolutely not. I am the only guy in charge, I am the only one who makes decisions. The only times we have been pulled out was in Utah once because I was extremely dehydrated and couldn't go on, along with one time in Labrador because my crew could not handle the conditions. I was OK, but I look out for my crew. When it comes to my own experience, I don't half-ass these things like a lot of the reality stars do.
Finally, in the wild, do you ever drink your own piss?
That's not something I do, no.
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