An American reality television show might not have launched without help from a Vancouver Island First Nation. In the hit show Alone, now in its fourth season, contestants are left alone in the wilderness with almost nothing as they attempt to live off the land.
Producers’ initial concerns centered around wildlife and water. But that’s where the Quatsino First Nation stepped in with some basic information. Quatsino Sound, Vancouver Island, averages 130 inches (3.3 meters) of rain annually.
“When I first spoke to the show’s producers, their biggest concern was the availability of fresh water,” said Kwakwaka’wakw Elder Robert Duncan. “I just laughed and said, ‘I don’t think that’ll be a problem.’ ”
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Vancouver Island also has one of the world’s highest concentrations of cougars and black bears, and producers apparently feared their contestants would get mauled by wildlife.
“The biggest fear I encountered is people thought contestants might get eaten by wild animals,” said Joan Miller of the Vancouver Island North Film Commission. “It was Bob and his knowledge that swayed it.”
Duncan was the general manager for the Quatsino First Nation when producers from Leftfield Pictures began scouting locations. He showed them around while Miller began discussions with the Province of British Columbia about permits.
Bureaucrats were unsure about letting contestants hunt, fish and log, especially within provincial parks or crown forest land.
“Part of the problem was that we didn’t know how long people would last,” said Miller. “It could be two days, it could be a year!”
“The Province put up challenges so we decided to put them on our reserve lands, and then gave them permits to hunt and fish,” said Duncan. “The community was excited to host them.”
Ten contestants were dropped off in remote locations along with 10 basic survival items, a first-aid kit, cameras and a satellite phone to ‘tap out’ and lose their chance at the $500,000 prize.
“In the first season, we had someone tap out in the middle of the night,” said Duncan. “In Season 2 someone tapped out on the first day when they saw bear scat. This season we had someone quit in the first two hours when they realized they just weren’t mentally prepared to be totally and completely alone.”
Duncan said the premise of the reality show, which airs Thursday evenings on the History Channel, is very similar to the secret Hamatsa initiation ceremonies of west coast First Nations.
“There’s not a lot of food around at that time of year,” he said. “It’s about connecting with the natural environment that surrounds you, and all the things we often take for granted. Ultimately it’s about being alone.”
“Many people say that because the First Nations lived there for centuries that somehow what we were doing was easy,” said Season 2 winner David McIntyre. “The fact that the First Nations used a time of living off the land in isolation as a rite of passage for young men underscores the truth. Nobody understands the challenge of solo survival on the island as well as the First Nations.”
Miller said one of the logistical challenges was finding psychologists on northern Vancouver Island to periodically assess participants; over the four seasons, six contestants were removed over concerns about their mental health.
One highlight for contestants and crew was the send-off dinner and ceremony hosted by the Quatsino Nation.
“I felt like a welcome guest, and it was important to me that we had the blessing of the First Nations to live off the land,” said McIntyre.
McIntyre, from Kentwood, Michigan, spent 66 days alone, ten days longer than Alan Kay, the Season 1 winner from Blairsville, Georgia. McIntyre has since returned to the area, which is now a big part of his life.
He said many First Nations people have told him they respect his ability to stay in the woods alone. “That means more to me than any online comments ever could,” he said. Below is a trailer, and under that, an extended preview with a “viewer discretion” alert.