The squirrel steak is too tough; snail puree, too spongy. Flambéed muskrat might make you sick, and don’t challenge me to find a good moose burger.
As a superfan of the History Channel’s reality show Only, I learned that the perfect bush kitchen simply does not exist and that every wild meal has flaws. Some imperfections are due to the seasonality of a food: berries and mushrooms die as soon as the snow begins to fall, and fish disappear after the freezing of rivers and lakes. Other problems are caused by rarity or size: a musk ox can provide months of dinners, but killing one is nearly impossible. Catching a mouse is relatively easy, but eating one only provides about 30 calories.
After watching the first two episodes of Only‘s ninth season, held on the coast of Labrador, Canada, I was somewhat impressed with the foods of the region. Just two weeks later, some competitors were already grilling chipmunks and sucking up boiled seaweed to survive.
That changed during the final moments of episode three, when contestant Benji Hill, a pack goat guide from Bellevue, Washington, discovered beaver tracks in a swamp. Hill crouched in the wetland with his hunting bow and waited. “The best strategy for hunting most game with a bow and arrow is to find a high traffic area and ambush them at close range,” Hill told the camera.
Then he did just that. When a furry mammal finally paddled into view, Hill shot it twice and appeared to be moments away from enjoying a meal of delicious beaver chops. Alas, Hill was unable to locate his kill before sunset and the episode ended on a cliff.
In the opening minutes of Thursday night’s fourth episode, Hill found the beaver dead. The animal was the size of a manhole cover, and it was padded with a precious layer of fat. Hill gutted him, cooked himself a delicious dinner, smoked and saved enough meat to apparently last him several weeks. Then, in the final minutes of the episode, actor Terry Burns of Homer, Alaska shot a beaver with an arrow as it swam in an icy river. Like Hill, Burns was rewarded with what felt like weeks of food.
The episode made me wonder: is the beaver the perfect Only kitchen? In previous seasons, we’ve seen winning contestants rely on rabbits or salmon for food, as both animals provide meals for days on end. A 30-pound beaver is much larger than a rabbit or a fish, and its fatty meat seems to contain much more fat, perhaps the most important fuel source in nature. Canada’s Department of Health and Social Services has even publish this practical document breaking down the impressive nutritional qualities of a beaver.
But unlike big game, such as deer or moose, beavers seem to be easier to hunt. They are slow and seemingly oblivious to a hungry human standing a few feet away. We saw two cast members harvesting some real big game during Only nine-season run, and both hunts seemed incredibly difficult to pull off. In season seven, Roland Welker wounded a musk ox with an arrow before finally stabbing it to death with a hunting knife and his bare hands. And in season six, Jordan Jonas shot a moose on the shores of Great Slave Lake in Canada with an arrow.
I recently spoke with Jonas, who told me how long and hard it was to catch the giant beast. Jonas spent 20 days exploring his area looking for moose tracks. He built a series of corrals and makeshift fences to direct the moose into an area, fashioned a chain of tin cans to work as an alarm system, and then he waited.
“Since the day they dropped me off, I’ve been working really hard to try to create some sort of big animal encounter. Everything was geared towards that,” Jonas said. “It’s a huge bet. If I miss the shot or step on a twig, you’ll blow it all up.
From the comfortable vantage point of my living room couch, killing a beaver seems like a much easier task. There were no stabbings, and Burns said he spent a week tracking the beaver, not three. His experience, however, revealed a major flaw in beaver hunting: after shooting the beaver, it floated lifeless in a deep lake. Burns therefore had to wade through 31-degree water to retrieve the animal. Imagine walking into your favorite restaurant to learn that you must bathe in an ice bath before receiving your steak.
“Mother, I’m sorry you have to see this,” Burns told the camera as he stripped and waded into the freezing depths.
The agony of leaving early
In episode four, we saw a second contestant stop: Igor Limansky of Salt Lake City tapped out on day 20, joining Jacques Turcotte of Juneau, Alaska, who left on day 15. Limansky made a critical mistake that cost him dearly—he never got a good source of protein and instead focused his efforts on building a shelter of heavy, thick trees. After nearly three weeks of hauling wood and eating almost nothing but seaweed, Limansky’s body gave way before his hut was even half finished. “It’s so personal and public, because everyone is going to watch it and have an opinion on it,” he said as rescue teams picked him up.
Every season on Only, there are contestants who leave early, and these scenes are usually more bitter than sweet. It is easy to understand why. Most cast members plan to stay there for months, and those who leave after a few days feel disappointed and embarrassed. Ultimately, it can take weeks or even years to overcome these emotions.
I recently called Jim Shields, a teacher from Pennsylvania who was the first contestant to bail out in season three, after spending just three days camping along a river in Patagonia. Sheilds and his wife had been immersed in the process of adopting three children when he left for the show, and the emotional stress of being away at such an important time finally brought him in. Sheilds said he struggled with the decision every day in the bush. .
“I was mad at myself for going this far with the show instead of being home with my wife. I got a ton of emotions and saw this little pimple that I could press and go home,” Shields said. “I sat there with this for hours and was like, man, don’t do it, you’re a loser. But you have to go home because you’re not supposed to be here.
After calling for rescue, Sheilds felt an intense sense of shame, which persisted for months. He felt it on the boat ride back to civilization and during the two weeks of security checks and then back home. Shields had taken months off from his job as a teacher and returned to the United States without a job to distract him from his angst.
“You get that golden ticket, that huge opportunity to pursue your passion there, and you absolutely think about it when you press the button to go home,” Shields said. “You know it’s over, and it’s taking a long time.”
What ultimately helped Shields overcome her shame and disappointment was the arrival of her adopted children. But it took him a few years to overcome the negative feelings he had about the whole experience. Now, six years later, Sheilds is happy to have participated. But he still wonders how long he could have survived.
“What if it had been another period of my life?” said Shields. “I’d love to say I don’t think about it anymore, but I still do.”