The alternate title to this post could be "The increasing urbanization of America and the clear dichotomy of experience-based opinions about wilderness adventures." Or simply "Don't hate the camper, hate the camping."
Early in the first season of "Man vs. Wild", the critically-acclaimed, highly popular (most popular show on the Discovery Channel currently) program in which Bear Grylls, former member of the British SAS is dropped into wild locales with only a few tools and forced to find his way to freedom, an episode was aired in which Bear floated himself down whitewater rapids without a boat or floatation device...or so we were initially led to believe. It was later revealed that the local authorities had required Bear to wear a lifejacket under his clothing, for fear he might die and they get sued. From the moment that was disclosed, the show's tenor changed, and it added disclaimers as the show returned from commercial breaks claiming: "Some situations may be presented to Bear so that he can demonstrate survival techniques..."
And so began the polarization of the show. On the one hand, you had people who still loved it, because Bear was a charismatic host, because watching him eat live spiders was fun, or because they simply enjoyed the wild locales and learning how to survive in them. On the other hand, you had a group of people who cried "fraud!" and talked about how "his crew is always helping him" or "his clothes got dry unnaturally fast" or "Survivorman is real, but Man vs. Wild is staged."
For myself, I love, absolutely love, the show. Bear is obviously fearless, and I find that incredibly entertaining. I also love the places he goes, because I love the wilderness. I love being places where you can't hear the hum of society, can't even hear the nearest highway. I love sitting in natural places, with mosquitoes buzzing around me, and just listening to my own brain tick away. I took a vacation with two friends to Rocky Mountain National Park 2 years ago, and we pitched camp the first night as flakes of snow the size of quarters fell so heavily we couldn't get a fire going. In the morning, we awoke to 4 inches of snow. My boots were frozen solid, and there was a layer of ice on the outside of the tent that had to be broken up before we could pack it. I loved that night.
Sometimes I wonder, just as an idle thought, what would happen to the world if something collossal and terrible happened. What if a blast of electromagnetic energy from the sun wiped out every electronic thing on earth, and in a moment, we were plunged into a Bronze Age? What if a virus wiped out massive swaths of the human population, and those who survives found themselves in a state of anarchy? Who would survive that? Who would go crying to the government for help? Who would be rounded up into camps? Who would go into the wilderness and face a life like those who lived 200 years ago?
Part of the appeal of Man vs. Wild is the idea that by watching it, I somehow become a tiny bit less pathetically helpless. I convince myself "oh, I could find clean water in the Amazon by cutting water vines," and somehow that placates my fear that if all Hell broke loose, I'd be a victim and not a victor.
As for the claims that Survivorman is more real than Man vs. Wild, that is probably true. But what else is true is that Survivorman is boring and hard to watch, as it's basically just Les Stroud sitting around, complaining about his joints and playing his harmonica while he hopes he catches a rat in his fall-trap for breakfast. Simply put: Survivorman is boring. Man vs. Wild is awesomely fun and active, with Bear glissading down mountainsides at 45 mph, climbing 200 ft. rock faces at the edge of the ocean, eating the eyeballs out of a frozen sheep corpse, using a camel's stomach cavity as a tent, etc. etc. Bear does fun things, Les doesn't do anything. If I have to choose Gryll Survival or Stroud Survival, give me Man vs. Wild!
I remember one episode of Man vs. Wild, where Bear was walking across a frozen lake, and for some reason, he decided to show us how to make two holes in the iced lake surface, strip down to undies, and jump into nearly frozen water and swim from one hole to another. It seemed like an incredibly stupid thing to do, and immediately afterward you got the sense that Bear had regretted it. And honestly, it didn't really teach the audience anything about survival other than that you can successfully swim 12 feet under ice and not die.
But I came away from that moment of the show, as I have many times in the show, with a sense of marvel at the resilience of the human body. When Bear clings to a rock face for 2 hours before he gets to the top, when he eats food that logic tells us is not fit to eat, when he bounces his body down through a river rapid, it teaches me deep down that although I probably won't ever be in those situations, when I am in tough situations I absolutely can survive them. I'm not dumb enough to get lost in the Canadian Rockies. But I am dumb enough to camp overnight in early May in the American Rockies during a blizzard, and I survived that.
Man vs. Wild may not teach you anything that you will use during your lifetime, except that you can survive.
And the next person that tries to tell me that Les Stroud is more legit than Bear Grylls, please click this link. Or this link. Or this link. And for a laugh this link.