“There were multiple times I thought to myself, What the hell have I gotten into.”
Earlier this year I was on a reality web series that, spoiler alert – I ended up winning. This is my account of a once in a lifetime experience along with some of the emotions, back stories and insights that didn’t show up on camera.
If I’m going to give full disclosure here, I may as well begin by saying, I think deep down, I did want to be on a reality show at some point in my life. It’s kinda one of those strange and random things you just don’t believe will ever actually happen.
However, when Woods Canada put out a call earlier this year to find “Canada’s Greatest Explorer,” it seemed like an ideal opportunity to indulge the thirst of wanting to challenge (and very possibly humiliate) myself in public. The other minor pulls for entering were a grand prize of 25 thousand dollars and the prestigious title of ‘Canada’s Greatest Explorer.’
I’ll give you a quick rundown on what exactly this show I was applying for was about.
Woods is a brand in Canada that has been around since 1885, they make a large variety of outdoor and camping equipment. They have been an iconic brand for a number of historic Canadian expeditions. This year as part of a marketing strategy, they decided to take 12 Canadians, put them in various settings around the country and challenge them in the outdoors, using their gear in all the competitions. The challenges would take place in three provinces and contestants would be eliminated after each round.
When I applied to be on this show I was in Bangkok, Thailand. Making an effort to work on this blog that you are reading now and continue my full-time travel lifestyle. I thought it would be a bit hard to make a video describing how outdoorsy I am back in Canada in the hot, concrete jungle of Bangkok.
And it was.
I coaxed my buddy Johnny to help me and we were able to come up with an idea that sort of showcased some of my outdoor skills. You can watch my entry video below.
Something this video doesn’t show is how many times I had to try and say that first phrase. It was like I was trying to learn to talk again. I remember Johnny being super patient (most likely thinking though that I had a speech impediment I had never told him about), but it seriously took about 15 takes. I really dislike talking about myself, especially on camera. Seems odd that I would volunteer myself to be on a show where cameras would be in my face each day but, I think the ambition to get out of my comfort zone is an important one – so I forced myself to make this video.
Anyway, after I submitted the video I definitely felt good that I had made the effort, and at least gave it a shot. At this point, I did feel like there was a chance I could at least get to the interview stage. I mean we really pulled that video together, no?
Luckily, that is what happened. A few days later I set up an interview with the team that was executing the entire project. The interview started great, they were interested in my story and my travels and then, kinda out of nowhere, the interview seemed to die suddenly. After not even 15 minutes they wrapped it up and just said: “They’d give me an answer in a few days.”
This was the first of the many feelings of intense anticipation and mild anxiety that I would feel over the course of this show. Even though I felt this way, I needed to pull the trigger on flights back to Canada. At the last minute, I found out I was going to be one of the 25 people selected for the next round.
This round was where Canada (aka my friends) would vote to get me on the show. I hopped on my flight home and began the long, painful process of the voting stage.
There is no real classy way of saying it, the voting stage just straight up sucked. Everyone on the show agreed. For 10 long days, we would get up in the morning to discover you had either maintained a spot or someone had overtaken you. Even if you had gained spots, it never seemed to last and it was just a weird stress that you were always thinking about all day.
I also dreaded being that guy that peppered everyone’s social media feeds with “please vote for me” statuses. Regardless, in the end, it all paid off. (I’ll just insert a thank you here for all who voted) 🙂
I landed the 11th spot out of 12. Out of the 25 people that were in the voting stage, there were really only 13 that were close on the final day. A poor guy from Newfoundland was the only one who really was chopped as the clock ran out.
Once I had officially claimed a spot, things moved pretty quick. Arrangements were made for us to be flown to Toronto and we were given a packing list. That’s all we basically knew. We didn’t know the structure of the filming, the locations, the challenges or where we were staying. Actually, we literally knew nothing.
Myself and three other explorers (I’ll use explorers to describe the other contestants since this is what we were referred to on the show) were sent in a day early to do some public relations training. They had a few radio and print media outlets that wanted to get some background and content on the show and us explorers. They chose us based on where we were from and our background stories – is what we were told.
After an interesting flight that involved hitchhiking in a cargo plane from my tiny hometown of Fort Frances, onward to Winnipeg, I eventually arrived in Toronto with only the information that a car would be there to pick up myself and another explorer. When I landed a driver was waiting, and I met Ryan, who had just flown in from Calgary. We tried to get some info from each other as we made our way downtown to the head office We were both unsure of what the hell was really going on. We rolled into a boardroom and met a handful of people, including the other two explorers and the host Ricky Forbes.
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Waking up the next day, we made our way to the media relations office to do some phone interviews. I remember doing an interview with CBC radio and thinking “How bizarre that CBC wants to talk to me.”
Later in the afternoon, the four of us that arrived early went out to another office where we met all the other explorers.They all piled out of two black SUVs, just like you’d imagine a tv show to start. Only the camera crew wasn’t there yet.
We were then given some gear, briefed on the rules, told where the first location would be and instructed on how the challenges would be judged.
The very next day it all kicked off. We headed a couple hundred kilometers north of Toronto to Haliburton, Ontario. A small town in cottage country. We were each given a tent and told to set up camp next to a small lake. None of us more than a couple feet away from another explorer’s tent. It was cozy quarters for 12 dudes who didn’t know each other at all. For nearly two weeks, we pretty much lived at that campsite. The first couple days were just filming a ton of B-roll. B-roll is essentially just “filler” for TV. Things like us setting up our tents, cutting wood, sitting by the fire, etc.
The camera crew was small. It consisted of one cameraman, a soundman, a director and an assistant producer that would be travelling with us full time. I’ll just mention now how awesome the crew was. They were all down to earth people who knew nobody liked filming the same thing 15 times. This didn’t stop them from forcing us to do that of course.
Ch. 1 – The Race
After 3 days of cameras filming our every move around the campsite, Ricky, the host, finally announced the first challenge. A triathlon race that would consist of running, biking, and canoeing. Everyone was so pumped to finally be starting the challenges. I recall it not being tense around the campfire at all that night. Everyone was in good spirits, excited, and bantering. Some a little more worried than others about the endurance and stamina needed to finish the race, but excited nonetheless. Nobody was going to be sent home until after the 3rd challenge anyway.
This is probably a good time to tell you that all the explorers on this show were quality. Each one brought a very different personality but we all had common interests. We just loved Canada and loved being outside. We all had our different talents and expertise but as long as we were outside, in nature, we were having a good time.
The next morning we made our way to the race starting point. Camera’s were rolling, and then they dropped a twist.
We would be pairing up with another explorer at random. We would draw coloured bandannas out of a bag and would team up with the person who had the same colour, then we’d have a few minutes to decide who would run the 10km and who would bike the 17km before you both finished with a 9 km canoe.
I matched up with Kelly, a hunter from Northern Alberta. I would be lying if I said he was my first choice, but we quickly discussed who would do what. He smoked and said he couldn’t remember the last time he went for a run.
He also said the same thing about biking – so we decided to go with the one you never forget how to do. Plus, I enjoy running.
Six cyclists lined up at the start line while six runners stood to cheer them on. While the bikers were on the trail, the camera’s came around to get shots of us stretching and ask us our thoughts and strategy for the race. At this point I was still trying to be conscious of everything I said on camera, likely coming off a bit frigid and rehearsed. Kinda like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights.
Be yourself they kept saying, which is of course what I wanted to do, but it somehow was difficult at first.
As we waited in anticipation for who would come around the corner on the bike first we got a call that someone had gotten a flat tire.
They wouldn’t tell us who, but I of course thought it was Kelly.
Annnnnnd it was Kelly, which put us in dead last when he finally came past the finish line. I can’t really blame him for it, but after the first leg we were over 30 mins behind the first place team. I ended up running a good time and caught up with Kevin who wasn’t an avid runner.
We piled in the canoes at the same time and we were off. Kelly did end up being a beast in the canoe and we were able to overtake two teams to finish in fourth place. I was happy enough with that for the first challenge.
CH. 2 – Land Art
Challenge two was really something nobody had ever heard of. It was the Land Art Challenge. The concept was to each go out into the woods and use nature as our canvas to create anything we wanted in the 6 hour time limit.
I’m no artist but I pulled off something I thought was pretty damn cool. A map of the world using material from nature. Really, all the explorers did great on this. I think as strange of a challenge as it was, it was kinda relaxing and enjoyable.
This challenge had a judge so we needed to wait while he deliberated over the ranking of the pieces. We had to wait an entire night to find out the order of who had won. It wasn’t easy waiting. Again, the feeling of uncertainty and anxiousness crept in.
The next day we lined up for the announcement, like you do on reality tv, as they called out the rankings of each person’s art. Some people who placed in the back of the first challenge, and who also didn’t do great on this challenge, were on the chopping block. This included myself.
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Ch. 3 – Camping Hacks
The third and final challenge in Ontario, and the last one before 4 explorers would be eliminated was the Camping Hacks Challenge. Again, we were all a little thrown off. Nearly half the guys didn’t know what a camping hack was. In case you don’t – it’s something you can do while camping or in the wilderness that simplifies the outdoor experience.
We were equipped with $50 and told to buy any supplies we would need to make our hack.Everyone was pretty on edge about this elimination round. No one was really speaking to one another about thier hacks I think some of the guys had maybe become paranoid the other person would steal their idea or something. We were given a few hours to craft them and then one by one we presented them to the judge. Who, I just have to say, was one of the oddest people I have ever had to work with and made for a ton of awkward moments with everyone behind the camera.
After each person had displayed their crafty, outdoor hack, we waited to hear how we had placed. I needed a top spot to stay in the competition. We formatted into our tv line up, and waited to hear the verdict. They really drew out the delivery of the names, just as much as they do on actual TV. We all stood there very tense. Ricky called out the first name, then the second, then mine. A spot in the top 3 ensured I’d be moving on to the next round. My shirt sling hack had impressed! It was such a relief.
As the rest of the names were called each person soon realized if they were either staying on or heading home. It was a weird feeling, over the course of our time in Ontario we had all become pretty close. Four guys were headed home and it was a sobering moment, almost like we had forgotten that we didn’t just get to go on travelling and competing as a full crew.
With 8 remaining, we moved into the province of Quebec. Once again we didn’t know where, only that it was somewhere north of Quebec City. It was a long drive so we spent one short night in Montreal and then continued travelling north. We arrived in a small picturesque community near Lac St-Jean. It was late afternoon when we arrived. Grabbing our gear we set up our camp near to the lake. The scenery was stunning, gazing out at dozens of islands scattered around the waters.
Ch. 4 – 24 Hour Survival
We found out shortly after that this would be our next challenge. The survival challenge. This would turn out to be one of my favourites. The judge for this contest of survival would be Andre-Francois Bourbeau, an acclaimed survivalist.
The challenge was to stay on a remote island, alone, for 24 hours with very minimal resources. We’d be given a series of tasks to complete while on the island and then judged on how well we survived. At the end, two explorers would be sent packing.
We began with a day of mini survival challenges. Like who could split a log with only the elements around them, and who could bring a can of water to boil the fastest. After around 8 of these little tasks, we were ranked. The winner would be sent out first, having more time to complete the survival challenges. I placed 3rd meaning I would be dropped off in that same order.
The following day we set off at around noon. We actually had to line up and strip down to our underwear to show that none of us had anything the other person didn’t. We all wore the exact same clothes and our boots and hats were checked to see that no one was bringing anything they shouldn’t. It was quite serious.
The first four explorers would go by zodiac to their islands and then the bottom four. Aaron who had been in the army, had some training in survival and was the winner of the mini challenges so he claimed his island first. It turned out, maybe coincidently, that coming in first was a massive disadvantage. Not only was he placed on the least resourceful island, but he also received the option at the very last second whether he wished to drive right up to the island and stay dry, but forfeit his life jacket, or keep the life jacket for warmth but jump in the water and swim a few meters to land. He chose to get wet.
While we drove to the next island to drop off Cam, the 3 of us frantically discussed what would be the wiser decision. We all concluded that getting wet was not worth it. Wet boots are a serious downer.
As I landed on my island, Andre handed me a small paper lunch bag and wished me luck. The nerves set in right away and I began trekking around looking for a decent place to set up camp. It looked as though it would rain at any minute so I found an area and looked into my bag to see what source of fire starter I had.
In the bag was a whistle, two eggs, a canned good, a lighter without any butane, and matches without a strike pad. My fire technique was to slowly grind the flint off, creating a small pile of flint dust at the bottom of the lighter. I then took a match, placed it inside the lighter and struck the lighter as I would normally try to light it. Instantly the match lit and I was able to start a fire. I then proceed to act a bit like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. The adrenaline of the challenge and of survival kicked in the moment I stepped on the island.
Also in that bag was a list of what we would be judged on; cooking and eating the food provided, creating a shelter, creating an S.O.S signal, our attempt at fishing and finding other sources of food and natural edibles on our island, and lighting a fire.
As the evening rolled on I had built my shelter and cooked my food. You can see in the episode I make some tea. I actually had my eggs in the bottom of the tea. I figured there was no need to throw out perfectly good hot water. Hence my reaction to the tea actually tasting “really nice”.
The hours ticked by. None of us were allowed to have a watch on the island, making it a mental challenge to know how long we had been out there. The feeling of loneliness and desertion came on surprisingly fast. Even though it was only 24 hours, it was crazy how isolating the experience was.
We were picked up in the afternoon the next day and given a lunch. I inhaled mine. Partially because I was so hungry after eating only two eggs for 24 hours ( I could only choke down a few of those horrific baby corn) and partially because the food in Quebec is amazing. Even a packed lunch is lush in Quebec.
On the ride back to camp we discovered that only one of us hadn’t successfully started a fire. Dun dun dun…..We knew pretty quickly that they were out. It still meant one other person would be sent packing.
Back on the beach, we got into our TV line up and Ricky read out the result. Again I had made the cut.
Ch. 5 – The outdoor Cook-off
With half of the original explorers remaining, we made our way back to a suburb of Montreal. At a small acreage, we discovered the next challenge to be The Outdoor Cook-off. The twist would be to use wild edibles to create a gourmet camping dish. It was obvious very quickly who was excited to cook and who had likely never cooked anything other than instant noodles. Devin was pretty much reaching for the apron from his bag.
Another judged event, two explorers would be headed home if their dishes were on the bottom.
We were given a run down on each of the forged natural ingredients. There were probably around 20 of them we could use. Then we were shown some fresh trout, which was highly recommended to use in a dish, along with an entire cooler bag of spices, sauces, toppings and condiments. It was a bit overwhelming. We had next to zero prep and planning time to consider what to make. Once we had looked at everything the clock was set to one hour.
Ricky fired the starting gun, or just yelled, I can’t really remember because I was too busy going through the intense amount of ingredients we had to use. I went with a four-course meal, a fully grilled trout with a honey mustard and dill glaze, a natural edibles salad with a housemade dressing, a mix of roasted asparagus and fiddleheads and finally a creamy white wine pasta.
Looking back, it was friggin ambitious, but it was go big or go home! Or so I thought. At around the halfway point, I snapped out of my intense cooking frenzy and looked to the others dishes. First off I noticed that Cam had decided to make some good old fashioned spaghetti and red sauce. Ignoring the recommendation to use the fresh trout. Then I looked over at JP’s table, he had some stuff burning and looked as confused as a goat on astroturf.
In the end, this challenge was I’d say the least ‘gritty’. Some of the guys just weren’t down with cooking, which kinda made it the only challenge where everyone wasn’t on an even playing field. It also made this challenge the easiest to decide a clear loser. It’s hard to pull cooking skills out of thin air.
When the timer buzzed the judge moved around the tables, sizing up and tasting each dish. Cam and JP were inevitably chopped. (Pun intended).
This left four explorers. Aaron, Devin, Jay and myself to continue onto Alberta for the final three and all of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges.