New Labrador-set season of survival series ‘Alone’ may be the harshest yet

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TORONTO – To get a sense of what may lie ahead in the ninth season of the HISTORY Channel series “Alone,” one need only look to a bold contestant quote that could well double as the show’s tagline: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”

The line, uttered early on in the reality competition set to premier later this week, is spoken by one of 10 contestants dropped into the frigid banks of Labrador’s Big River as part of an extreme survival challenge.

The competitors’ mission is far from simple: survive among polar bears, lynx, wolves and black bears, while surrounded by mountains and rough North Atlantic winds. These and other factors combine to create what the network has described as “the harshest conditions of any location to date,” with previous settings including Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories and Chilko Lake in British Columbia’s Interior.

Each episode follows contestants’ daily efforts to make it alone in the wilderness, from building shelter to hunting for food to outrunning potential predators. Apart from regular medical check-ups, they are entirely isolated, with the individual who manages to last the longest earning a $500,000 grand prize.

Still, for many watching, the resounding question is likely a baffled, “why?”

Teimojin Tan, one of two Canadian contestants this season, says it’s all about the thrill of the challenge.

“When you ask anyone what their reason is to do something crazy and hard, it’s to test themselves in some regard, because it is very rare in our everyday life that we get to experience and even try to see where our limits are,” he said in an interview from his Montreal home.

“I think there’s something very special about that, because once you know what you’re capable of, you can reach higher and higher and higher.”

Tan is no stranger to wilderness survival — a stint in the Canadian Army Reserve, working as a doctor with a specialty in wilderness medicine and years of traveling the world combine to give him what he describes as a potential edge on his fellow contestants.

“That added on a layer of comfort, because a lot of people, when they’re out there, their body goes through tremendous changes — through starvation, through a hyper-vigilance of looking over your shoulder and hoping that it’s not a huge bear trying to maul you down,” he said. “So if you don’t understand what’s an emergency and what’s not, it can be incredibly terrifying.”

He wasn’t the only one who headed into “Alone” well prepared. Fellow Canadian contestant Juan Pablo Quiñonez — a survival specialist, outdoor professional and wilderness first responder who grew up in Mexico where he learned to trap rattlesnakes, scorpions and lizards — is also well-versed in the dangers of the wild.

“It’s drilled into my head that I need to manage risk and try to deal with all the hazards in nature — you’re also your own hazard out there,” he said in an interview from his Winnipeg home. “So that’s something that was an advantage, and seeing the reward for these risks that I’m taking; that was my mindset from the very beginning.”

Neither Canadian survivalist ever felt particularly scared, though Quiñonez admits having a few restless nights anticipating a possible run-in with a black bear.

As Tan notes, they’re known for stalking and taking down prey in Labrador, “and if they can take down a caribou, they can sure as heck take you down.”

Shivers ran down Tan’s spine, too, after discovering the presence of polar bears in the region. Contestants, he reveals, weren’t made aware of that potential foe until they were dropped off to begin filming.

“To have both of those big predators in our vicinity was incredibly terrifying; at the very start, I had hairs up all the time,” he said, “… but towards the end, I was hungry enough to want to see them so I could kill them.”

Tan said the competition’s toughest moments came on days when food wasn’t on the proverbial table.

“I feel like one of the hardest things anyone can experience is hunger to that degree,” he said. “To experience starvation for myself, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It is one of the worst ways to die and to endure pain. … You have no control; every day is a new day and you either manage to get food or you don’t and you have to deal with whatever outcome.”

But Tan said his brushes with starvation helped him develop “a very intimate relationship” with nature, which essentially became both the contestants’ chief opponent and partner in survival.

“You could feel the age in the roots of the trees and the soil, you encountered animals that had not seen humans before,” Tan said, noting that he saw signs of trees having been tied down by ancient Indigenous people.

“It was really cool to know that maybe, centuries ago, there were people here and there were spirits guiding us through the forest. At times I was reaching out to whatever was out there, and more often than not, when I asked for help, it was just around the corner.”

Coming out of it, Tan says he now has a greater appreciation for his own companionship, while Quiñonez says he’s developed a love for “going out of your comfort zone and discovering joy.”

In facing all the show’s wilderness challenges — along with bouts of loneliness — Tan said he was not motivated by the prospect of prize money he feels could never provide adequate incentive for such hardships. Instead, he said he was driven by a desire to inspire his family.

“This has been the accumulation of years of doing crazy, stupid things in search of adventure and good stories,” he said with a laugh.

“I want to be the grandpa that can share wisdom and inspire my kids and my grandkids to do whatever they want in life, no matter how scary.”

The ninth season of “Alone” premiers on May 26.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022.

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