Things changed when we went to Alberta.
The dynamics of having only four people remaining made the competition feel a lot more intense, like things were now serious. This was also the first time I began to think, maybe I can win this.
Going into this whole thing, I never really had a strategy. It’s not like you have a lot of time to think of one when you don’t know what the challenge is until 24 hours or less ahead of time. Regardless my thought process hadn’t really been so much to win, but more just not lose.
If I’m honest, I’m not really an overly competitive person. I can’t tell if it’s a good or bad trait. Sure, winning feels good but I’m usually just more concerned with my PB’s – Personal Bests. I don’t know what it is, but beating someone at something just doesn’t give me a lot of gratification. I guess my feeling is that it’s just more fun to challenge myself. (As lame as that may sound.)
Anyways, initially, I was slightly worried that all the explorers on the show were going to be insanely competitive. Perhaps to the point that people wouldn’t even talk to one another. Thankfully I couldn’t have been further off and like I had mentioned before, everyone was just there to be part of something cool.
With the remaining final four guys, I felt pretty honoured to have made it. Aaron, the veteran who’d give the shirt off his back for anyone in need. Devin, the trail running, firefighter who I had become good friends with over last few weeks and Jay an upcoming outdoor blogger who made sure to never let us forget he was from Saskatchewan.
The competition was stiff.
Ch. 6 – Orienteering
By this point, all of us were accustom to not knowing where we were going or what we were doing.
We found ourselves near Abraham Lake area in central Alberta. Making our educated guesses on the next challenges, we figured there had to be a mountaineering, or climbing or orienteering challenge coming up.
We were right. It was a bit of everything. The goal was to navigate around mountains and hit two checkpoints with only a map and compass. On the second checkpoint we would rappel down a 60m cliff face and the finish line wouldn’t be far from there.
I didn’t feel confident in this race for two reasons.
A) Orienteering was something I had never really done. My topographic map skills were about as good as my sewing skills and my compass skills weren’t far behind either of those. Next to the other guys who all did this kind of thing regularly I felt I was definitely the weak link.
And B) I really really dislike heights.
Still, I took in what knowledge I could from our short training session and briefing on the orienteering race and hoped I could bluff the rest. I do have a decent inner sense of direction and if you pay attention in the Rockies, it can be easy enough to use the mountains as bearings.
On the day of the race, we drew names as to who would set off first. The leader would hand us maps and we’d have 15 minutes to start ahead of the next person. The outcome was Aaron first, then Devin, then me, and lastly Jay.
When I set off I glanced at the map for a few minutes. Determining a route to bring me up the mountain with the least resistance and also allow me to check my bearings with a visualization. I made the plan to follow a creek on the map for the majority of the way. Eventually, the creek forked and when I got to this point, I knew I was around halfway.
This paid off. I wound up finding a trail that would pretty much lead me to the top of the first checkpoint.
Just as I began to wonder how I was doing for time, I saw Devin to my right about 100 meters away. He was Go-Proing himself (as we had been asked to do periodically) and when I shouted out to him, he let out a massive F-bomb.
We chatted for 30 seconds as we walked and then he said he was going to run up ahead. Being an ultra marathon runner, making time while going uphill was easy for him.
I kept on pushing my way to the top. I was exhausted but knew this was going to be a tight race and kept motivating myself. When I made it to the first checkpoint the weather had completely changed. It was snowing, the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees and the wind was fierce.
The extra camera man that was stationed at the top was having an incredibly hard time trying to film us as we came over the ridge. He was so unprepared for the weather. He was wearing jeans and didn’t have a toque or gloves. I felt for him but it was also pretty funny to witness his dismay. I asked him later and he said he usually just films food shows, so I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into.
It turned out that I had made it to the first checkpoint in the quickest time. Which is not what I was expecting.
So with that encouragement I checked my map and then began to run back down to the next checkpoint. I was supposed to make an east turn somewhere on the trail but I misjudged the map and went too far down. I realized pretty late and had to backtrack uphill a fair distance. I was just beginning to feel discouraged that I may have lost the race for myself when a call on the radio went out.
It was Jay saying he had injured himself before making it to the first checkpoint and it was unlikely he would make it through the whole race. I felt bad for him but at the same time was relieved that my error wasn’t going to cost me.
I navigated my way down a very steep hill, so steep that it was kinda supposed to be off bounds, to the checkpoint where the 60m rappel was waiting. Since I knew I wasn’t going to lose I could have ran down an alternate, more time-consuming way, but decided to face my fears and hang off the mountain. In the video you can see that I wasn’t entirely thrilled about my choice. But, I’m alive.
We reconvened at the campsite where we lined up again for the cameras to find out where we had placed. Aaron ended up beating Devin by 47 seconds or something ridiculous and then I was nearly a half hour behind them.
Jay was sent home and then there were three.
Ch.7 – Photography
We were all out of guesses but were expecting the unexpected as to what could be the next challenge. So it didn’t come as a massive shock that the second last challenge would be photography.
I had never used a DSLR camera before but through my travels had learned to take a somewhat decent photograph (at least I thought so). Devin actually had a DSLR with him and Aaron had never taken a photo with anything but his iPhone. I still don’t fully understand what DSLR means or how they work but point is – it’s a good camera.
Once again we went through a tutorial on the equipment for the challenge and what the judge would be expecting from this competition. For this challenge, we had wildlife photographer John Marriott who gave us the basic of how to use a DSLR Camera.
The challenge would be an overnight trip 6km into the backcountry. The criteria were to tell a story with our photos, take an epic selfie, take one ‘hero’ shot and use different camera effects / techniques. At the end, we’d pick our 10 best and present them to be judged.
So with that, we all headed out, each with our own personal cameraman to film us 3 explorers taking photos.
This may not sound like a difficult task but this was potentially one of the hardest challenges. We hiked in 6km taking photos of anything and everything along the way, then set up camp and proceeded to take photos for the entire night.
A few hours before dark I ran into Devin. We mentioned how we both wanted to hike up to a mountain plateau to get some sunset shots, we decided to go together because bears were defiantly in the area.
We hiked about an hour up to reach the plateau, discovering that it was completely the wrong face to catch a sunset. Smooth. We ending up hanging out there anyways, just taking photos and remising about the last month. The good, the bad and just the experience as a whole. And for the first time, as I looked out over the impressive Rockie landscape, I was able to really reflect on how exceptional and pleasantly weird my last few weeks had been.
When I finally got back to camp at around midnight I continued to take photos of the fire, the stars, and my illuminated tent.
I slept for a few hours and woke up at 4am to snap the sunrise. Since we weren’t familiar with the area we needed to cover as much ground as possible to get different views, scenery, and landscapes. We each must have walked 15 or more kilometers just around our campsites. I think we nearly killed our cameramen from exhaustion by the end.
As much as we enjoyed this challenge, we were all pretty delighted when it was over. I had taken over 1800 photos and the other guys just a hundred or so less.
Even then, I was worried I may not have 10 good shots.
Exhausted, we made our way back to edit our photos. We each were allowed a few minutes with John so he could sorta point us in the right direction and give us some editing tips.
It was just as stressful picking a top 10 as it was finding all the shots to take.
I narrowed it to 20, then 15, then 12. It was so hard to choose which final two to let go of.
We each submitted our ten and waited for the verdict.
This line up was really hard. It was hard for us but I could even feel that it was hard for the crew. Everyone felt at this point that the journey was really coming to an end. Once this explorer was gone the end was just around the corner.
I should mention here that before the photo challenge started, even before we knew it would be a photo challenge, Devin, Aaron and myself made a pact that we would split up the money. The winner would give 3rd place $1000 and 2nd place $3000. We all agreed that making it this far and coming up empty handed wouldn’t be cool.
It was a nice feeling that the three of us respected each other enough as competitors and as friends to make that agreement. I felt completely confident that these guys would follow through on that deal.
We stood there solemnly with the cameras on us as Ricky called out, “In first place we have Josh”.
I was shocked. I was quickly thrilled and then almost instantly bummed about the thought of the experience coming to end and one of these guys being sent home.
“And in 2nd place we have Aaron.”
Something that I was very glad I never had to experience on the show was the ‘final thought’ interview that each explorer was asked to do when it was time for them to leave. A lot of the guys became pretty emotional during this interview and I can’t blame them. We had been on the road for over a month, traveling and competing with everything we had. We were away from our family, our homes, and our normal daily lives. It took a lot out of each of us and I don’t think anyone realized just how much until it was time to head home.
Ch.8 – River Race
Aaron and I and the crew left the Rockies and moved to the badlands of Alberta. Here would be the final time we would ever have to wait to find out what challenge would be waiting for us the next day.
For the finale we headed to the Red Deer River. We were instructed for the very last time on what our challenge would be. Our mission was to build a raft out of logs and race 15km down the river. The person who crossed the finish line first would be named Canada’s Greatest Explorer and be $25K richer. (Well $21K after our deal)
Aaron and I got straight to building our rafts, we really didn’t know if it was better to have more logs for buoyancy or less to be streamlined. We ended up building our rafts pretty much the same. I think one of us had an extra log and an extra brace or something. They were basically the same raft.
We tested to make sure they floated and were given one paddle and one long stick that reminded me of Huck Finn floating down the Mississippi. The only rules were that we needed to make it down with our backpack. Which we both tied tightly to the raft.
We lined up on an imaginary start line and on Ricky’s signal, Aaron and I took off.
On what could have been the world’s slowest race. It was like watching ice melt.
We were paddling like maniacs and seemed to only go as fast as the river would carry us.
I took an early lead after Aaron got hung up on some rocks. I stayed ahead of him for a few kilometers before his impressive paddling shot him past me. In slow motion video speed.
Even though the race doesn’t sound visually exciting, we were giving it everything we had. We paddled for hours, neither of us letting up once. At about two hours in I decided I need to take 20 seconds to drink some water or I might die. It was really that intense that I didn’t want to break for water. We both dug as hard as we could using every ounce of energy we had. With only around 2 km left, I passed Aaron again and maintained a 150 meter or so lead.
I could see the finish line, and looked back at Aaron. I basically knew I had won before I crossed the line and I started reflecting on what a crazy journey and experience these weeks had been.
I couldn’t believe I had won.
In that moment as I was crossing the flags, it felt like the whole thing was a dream. There was so much involved in getting to that place, it was hard to believe that…that was it. That I had done it.
When Aaron arrived he could hardly stand, we really had used every bit of energy to finish that race. In total we’d been paddling for three and a half straight hours.
The crew handed me a t-shirt and hat, and then a novelty-sized cheque made out for 25 thousand dollars. We opened some champagne, took some photos, and then, just like that, it was done.
We all were going separate ways so we each said our good-byes and headed out.
A final surreal day to a surreal month and a half.
So needless to say really, the experience is something I will never forget and always cherish.
I’m really grateful I got to participate in such crazy challenges that I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing otherwise. That I travelled to amazing places all over my country. That I had a film crew follow my every move while doing it, and that I met so many great people along the way.
I’ve been attempting to reflect on what an experience like this has taught me. And when I think about it from start to finish, I think that perhaps the hardest part was just initially telling myself that if I applied and was accepted, I could very well fail.
When I mentioned at the beginning of this story that I had feelings of anxiety and uncertainty on the show, it’s true. But often I feel anxious about just failing in general. About failing in business, in relationships, in life goals, and so on.
Fortunately, this time I had succeeded. And how or why, I can’t really explain.
But what this has reminded and reiterated to me is that when you have an opportunity to do something that you’re on the fence about, and you’re worried about failure and being out of your comfort zone, you still have to go for it.
Because you may surprise yourself at just how far you can take it.