In the latest reality TV twist on the survival genre, Weather Channel rounds up trio of out-of-shape lazybones and sends them to the Smoky Mountains for a week, and the only thing standing between them and hypothermia and starvation is Creek Stewart. "Mother Nature doesn't give a crap whether you live or die, but I do," the survival expert tells his woefully unprepared charges in the first episode, which premieres on Aug. 10. And so the journey of discovery begins. Stewart shared his insights about the new show with MNN.
MNN: Whose idea was the show, and how did you become involved?
Creek Stewart: A talented young television producer by the name of Evan Goldstein came up with the idea for the show. He's been a fan of survival-themed television shows and, like many guys these days, longs to connect with nature and test the "mountain man" side of him that living in a city suppresses. He, like me, believes that the wilderness can change people and that we've grown too comfortable based on modern convenience. He called me one day and explained the concept of taking guys who have let themselves go a bit and need a kick in the pants into the wilderness, and I loved the idea right from the start. The premise: If these guys can survive a week in the wilderness with me, then they can do anything they put their mind to when they get back home. I really appreciated the fact that it's about carving out a positive and empowering experience for guys who've never been able to test themselves in this way before.
Sounds like the perfect fit.
There are three things I love the most about what I do as a survival instructor:
1. Mother Nature is amazing, and I love the outdoors
2. I have a passion for teaching.
3. Learning survival skills can be life changing. This show concept combines every reason I started teaching survival skills in the first place 16 years ago. The weather is and has always been man’s #1 survival adversary, and this show couldn’t have found a better home than at The Weather Channel.
How were the guys found and selected? What were the criteria?
We looked for guys who had lost their way a bit and needed a kick in the pants to make a change in the way their lives were going. They cast a wide net among social networking sites, casting sites, and Craigslist, looking for people who had a sense of optimism and believed an experience like this could really change their lives.
Were there medical checks to see if they're fit enough to go? Was there a medic standing by? Any mishaps or illnesses?
Yes, there was a qualified medic on-site at all times. Taking 24 inexperienced guys (eight episodes times three guys per episode) who are already out of shape into the rugged and unpredictable mountains of Tennessee for six days straight, especially during one of the most brutal winters on record, presents a unique set of challenges, to say the least. Add the fact that we had to provide ourselves with shelter, water, fire and food with nothing but a knife, metal canteen and our wits, and the circumstances could become potentially downright dangerous.
Exposure to the weather was one of the top concerns. The uncharacteristically cold temperatures, wind, snow and rain created the perfect recipe for hypothermia week after week. Regulating core body temperature was a constant struggle. The effects of dehydration and lack of food were common, but manageable. Physical exhaustion from extreme hiking, shelter building, hunting and foraging took a toll on everyone, including myself. Lack of sleep made using knives, traversing rocky terrain, and working with fire much more dangerous than under normal conditions. Cuts, burns and falls were common, but expected.
One unexpected challenge was allergies. On two occasions, allergies prevented one of the guys from eating much-needed food. These included fish and mushrooms. Other unexpected challenges included preexisting conditions such as bad knees, backs and ankles. The terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains is rocky, steep, slippery and filled with sinkholes, fallen debris and hidden obstacles. Hiking to proper shelter areas, potable water and fertile hunting grounds were very difficult for guys who are used to nicely paved sidewalks and elevators. Saying that this experience was a shock to the body is an understatement. Ultimately, there were only two trips to the hospital. One guy did not return to the wilderness. Even that was not failure — it was exactly the wake-up call he needed.
What do you see as your role with these guys in the show?
I've been teaching survival courses for 16 years and have led many people into the wilderness. It is an honor and also an incredible amount of responsibility. My job is unique. I’m part-teacher, part-coach, and part-cheerleader. I must not only teach these guys the real survival skills they need to stay alive, but also be able to encourage and motivate them to overcome mental hurdles and not give up when the odds seem stacked against them. They came to the woods for a reason: to make some kind of positive personal change, and my job is to remind them that if that reason is strong enough to make them come, then it's strong enough to get them through it.
What do they get out of it?
One thing they all get is a huge dose of perspective. It's easy to take the conveniences and people back home for granted. Back at home, life comes pretty easy for most. In the wilderness, you have to work extremely hard for simple successes. Just a drink of water can involve a quarter-mile hike and a fire for boiling. It's not uncommon to come up empty-handed after hunting and foraging for an entire day. There are no thermostats in the woods and just keeping warm is a constant struggle. Using the bathroom is another story all together. I won't even get into toilet paper! One thing is for sure, these guys appreciate the things and people back home a whole lot more when they leave their survival week in the wilderness with me. These guys enter the woods wide-eyed and a little freaked out. They leave accomplished and confident, and this experience is just a jumping board for them to overcome difficult circumstances back at home.
What do you get out of it?
Although not all of the guys on this show are "fat," there is one thing about all of them that is HUGE: their ability to inspire. When I watch these guys face extreme adversity and come out of the other side better men, I am inspired. Watching and helping these guys overcome personal obstacles and push through difficult circumstances because they want to be a better person will stay with me forever. For a survival instructor, it doesn’t get any better than that.
One of the most difficult challenges to teach is adjusting to what I call a survival diet. When it comes to food, these guys are used to eating what they want, when they want and as much as they want. It doesn’t work that way in the woods. Tasty food isn’t wrapped in pretty packaging an arm’s length away. In fact, it’s often not pretty, not tasty and not convenient at all. Grub worms aren’t pretty or tasty but they are packed with protein, fats and calories. These guys have to put their needs before their wants and that can be a difficult pill to swallow. Many of these guys are very disconnected to where their food comes from, especially meat. If you want to eat meat in the wilderness, something has to die. Meat in the wilderness isn’t wrapped in clean white packaging on a shelf. In survival, you have to do the dirty work yourself — the killing, gutting, cleaning, preparing and cooking. Many of these guys faced this decision for the first time in their lives and will never be the same because of it.
What was the most important thing for them to learn?
Survival — and pretty much all obstacles in life — is 90 percent mental. I don’t just teach survival skills, I teach a survival mindset. I love the parallels and similarities between what it takes to be successful in a survival scenario and what it takes to be successful in life. The mental skills are the same, and that’s ultimately what I want them to learn. Mental skills like perseverance, confidence, never give up, adaptation, innovation, hard work, no excuses and teamwork can not only save your life in a survival scenario, but can change your life back at home.
Why is going into the wild with nature so transformative?
Mother Nature cuts through the BS and gets straight to the point. There is no time for excuses. She reminds us of our most basic human survival needs, and those who have been stripped of everything but the sheer will to survive will never be the same. It’s hard to put into words. When you face Mother Nature and come out on top, something changes inside of you. These guys will never look at nature or themselves the same way. They have gained a sense of perspective and confidence that can only come from a survival experience, and this will always be one moment in their life when they faced and conquered incredible circumstances.
Do you think it’s a permanent life change?
I do. The feeling of being stripped of life’s conveniences and having to rely on your wits and skills to provide yourself with basic human survival needs isn’t an experience that fades very quickly. These skills connect us with nature, our ancestors and a better side of ourselves. It’s hard to not let that play a role in everyday decisions back at home.
Have you followed up with the guys to see how they’re doing now?
Yes, and some pretty amazing and inspiring stories emerged. Many of the cast members said their experience on the show was life-changing. Several guys said they’re now more active and have lost weight. Opie Cooper, for example, now hikes and kayaks. He has gone from a size 42 to 36 waist and is continuing to lose weight, as is Johnny Clark, who has lost close to 100 pounds. Johnny Frisbie has lost almost 40 pounds and is committed to more weight loss.
Some said that it has changed the way they view food in general as well. John Parker, who has lost 35 pounds, has given up eating meat. He camps out more now and has been more active since the show. James Hill Jr. has quit smoking and hasn’t eaten fast food in months. He only eats organic now. In fact, it’s inspired him to pursue a culinary career with the goal of making people aware of what goes into the food they are eating. Nick Lansing found the courage to leave his job to get trained in and pursue a career in acting, something he’d always wanted to do but was always too afraid to go for 100 percent. He also met “the most wonderful woman in the world,” which previously, he wouldn’t have acted on, but now he has opened himself up to take that chance.
All of these stories really inspire me because these guys have all been so brave and made big changes in their lives. I love knowing that this show can help people find the strength to make those changes, and that I can play some part in that.
What is the takeaway for the audience? What do you want them to be inspired to do?
There are three things I hope they take away: The Weather Channel’s slogan is “It’s Amazing Out There.” It truly is amazing out there, and I hope the audience will be inspired to get off the couch and into the weather to see it for themselves. I hope that the viewers will learn some real-life survival skills. I believe the skills I teach on the show matter. I believe they can and will save someone’s life one day. They are real survival skills for real people in real survival scenarios. We’ve all been at a place like these “Fat Guys” where we’ve felt stuck in a rut, needing a kick in the pants. I hope the viewers will be inspired to take on personal challenges by watching these guys put themselves in an extreme situation to bring about extreme change.
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