Nine Freezing Adventurers Challenge Alaska

Picture this: You have an opportunity for a free trip. You’ll be dropped somewhere in the wilds of Alaska. There you and your fellow adventurers will have to live entirely off the land as you hike back to civilization. You’ll have only a bit of wilderness training, some basic supplies — and no food. Plus, there will be no winner at the end, nor will you have any real notion of when that end will actually occur.

You might think twice about joining that line, but not Chicago lawyer Carolyn Yamazaki. Wearing a summer dress and heels, she was on her way to get a latte when she saw a line of people auditioning for the series and got into it. One of some 106,000 applicants, she made the final cut and joined eight other hearty souls who were dropped into a wilderness of grasslands and tundra somewhere close to the Denali forest. The result is the man vs. nature series Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment, airing Tuesdays beginning April 14 on Discovery Channel.

Here are Yamazaki’s comments on her experience, followed by those of Craig Piligian, who produced the series and was also one of the original producers of Survivor.

One of the most heartbreaking moments in the first episode was your expression when you saw what was going to be your shelter that first night. What was going through your mind then?

Carolyn Yamazaki: That I was in over my head. It was pouring down rain and I was freezing. I was soaked to the bone. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there, but it had no roof. It was just a slab of wood and four posts and I wanted to cry. I did cry.

What made you sign up for the experience?

I love an adventure and I will try anything once. I work every day in an office. I go to work and know what to expect every day. And this was something to test myself. I knew it would be a great adventure.

Would you do it again?

That’s the question of the year. You know [after a long pause, she laughs], I’d have to say probably not. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great experience but it was so difficult, more than I can possibly explain and more than anyone could ever imagine. And it gets harder and harder as you go along.

At the beginning, you were given a huge pile of supplies from which to pick and choose what to carry with you. Do you regret carrying so much?

We had to take everything. We didn’t know what kind of shelter there would be, or if we had to dig a hole in the ground to live in. Even looking back now, I don’t regret taking everything we did.

What was the high point for you?

Every day was a battle and every day we were just surviving through freezing cold weather and we were starving. So just making it through to the end of the day. That, in itself, was good enough for me. Each night was a goal to get to. And nighttime was the only time we could really rest our minds and be with ourselves and with our thoughts.

I can tell you that it was such a journey, just spiritually, mentally, physically. I have never been in want of something as much as when I was out in Alaska. Every day you want just a little bit of food or some warmth. It’s so strange to not have a store you could go inside to buy something or a heated shelter. We didn’t have that luxury. We were warned how difficult it was going to be but I don’t think anyone was mentally prepared.

The audience may think this was just camping, but no, it was not camping, unless camping involves soaking yourself up to the middle of your chest in freezing cold water while trying to find shelter. It wasn’t just a camping trip.

What are the most common questions you’ve been asked about the experience?

At the beginning nobody knew I had gone except for my parents and sister and one of my bosses. Then the press release came out, and I got a flood of questions about why and how and what. Like, “What did you eat?” and “I can’t believe that you’re still here.” But mainly it was why — “Why did you put yourself through it?” And, of course, “When will it air?”

Craig Piligian, one of the original producers of Survivor, dropped out of the popular series after Survivor: Africa. But he has hardly forgotten his Survivor roots, as Out of the Wild proves. Here are his comments on both series.

How did you find your adventurers and what were you looking for in the applicants?

Craig Piligian: We had about 106,000 people apply via the Internet. Through a number of interviews, we nailed it down to nine. It was a curious process because there was no money, no million dollars at the end. This truly was a personal journey for the nine people. When we were casting it, we were trying to look for people who really had a spirit of adventure but were trapped behind a desk, and this is the moment in their lives that they could experience something they could never forget and that they would try and make it through. … At the end of the day, it was a fulfillment for their heart, for their soul. And that’s really what happened.

I think that a lot of viewers will say, I wonder if I could do this, I wonder if this is something I could get through, for no better reason than to think I can do this. I can take a piece of my time and go on a personal journey to see how long I could last. I think the experience is good for anybody, for whatever length of time they stay out there.

How did these people differ from the contestants on Survivor?

Survivor was a game, and Richard Hatch played it the best. Were they surviving? Did they have a miserable time? Yes, but they always knew what the end game was and they had a focus and a drive. These guys [in Alaska] didn’t know where they were. They had no clue when the end was. And there was no pot of gold at the end. These nine contestants were amazing [in] how they transformed from city folk into real survivalists. All of them did an amazing job and truly had the American spirit at heart.

Did you cover their expenses?

Travel yes; lost wages, no. They gave up about six weeks of income but they all came away with some gratification as to why they did it. I don’t think anyone regretted it. Certain people lasted longer than others but … they all fulfilled the need.

You dropped them at a very bad time of the year. Why did you pick early winter?

We told them upfront that this would be the hardest thing they ever did. That it would be no fun. That it was a test of survival. They truly were hungry and they would have to fight and hunt and fish for food. It was done at that time of the year because if it had been done earlier, there would have been plentiful food around. We sent them to survival school for a week and that was all the training they had.

How many cameramen were out there?

We had five that rotated, and they stayed out of scenes by not shooting each other. That was the easy part. We didn’t want them to have any connection with the people, so the rule was don’t talk to the contestants. I laid that down at the beginning of Survivor. And everyone has adopted that rule in all [similar] reality series.

What behind-the-scenes problems came up that we won’t see in the series?

Transportation issues. In that area of Alaska, you can get socked in and you can’t travel via helicopter to get to people, so it’s a very dangerous part of the world as far as access is concerned. There were days up there when getting to these people would have been quite difficult and risky because the weather conditions can change in minutes.

Given that, was there ever a moment when you or your crew thought this series was not a good idea?


What have you learned doing reality TV of this sort?

[Laughs] That’s a long dinner and two bottles of wine. People will do anything. They’ll truly live through a lot. I’ve just learned so much about people and what their motives are and what their personal journeys are. I believe that if you put any group of people in one situation long enough, they’re going to make for great television.