Holy Cats!! I received a ton of questions and support surrounding the recent Discovery Channel show, I-Cave Man. Thanks to everyone for both the questions and the support. The show was one of the most intense experiences of my life and I’m glad folks enjoyed the show and have questions. I had so many questions it’d be hard to answer each one specifically, so instead I’ll just try to tell the story of this event looking at elements before, during and after the show.
Several folks had questions about my background in hunting and survival skills so I guess I’ll jump in there. I did scouts as a kid and learned some basic woodcraft and survival skills. This certainly was the seed for a lifelong interesting in hunting, tracking, edible plants and similar stuff. I have done a fair amount of hunting but almost 100% has been with a long bow. I was taught long bow by James Schultz, son of John Schultz, who learned his shooting from Howard Hill (who did all the trick shooting for the original Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie, which ironically, was shot in lower Bidwell Park in Chico, CA. small world!) The Schultz’s are AMAZING archers, in this video John shoots quarters, dimes and even an aspirin out of the air with an English style long bow.
Now, I was NEVER 1/100th the shot James and his father were, but I was a quick study and became a reasonably good shot. I managed to take a few deer and a pretty good sized boar back in the early 90’s when I was really into this stuff. Unfortunately, I had not tinkered with any type of hunting until the Discovery show, but I have done a fair amount of tracking, hunting, field dressing critters etc. I’ve done a lot of backpacking and have done backcountry trips longer than a week with just the gear I’ve packed with me. I’ve made primitive shelters during weird weather snaps and stuff like that. I’m absolutely NOT a survival expert but I’m not a complete city-slicker, green-horn either. Folks had a lot of questions about how much background I had with this stuff so hopefully that fills in the gaps.
I was contacted by the folks producing the show for Discovery back in May. I talked to them and they explained the premise of the show: give some modern folks basic training in stone-age technology, let them free, see what happens. I had serious trepidations about this idea as I know the skill-set necessary to exist as a free living hunter gatherer. Giving us some basic training and letting us lose sounded like a really tough time. This was also when the proposed locations were north Texas and Kentucky, but there are far tougher locations. Several of the folks in production worked for years on shows like Big Brother and Survivor so I was also a little worried about this turning into Real World 100,000BC. After thinking about things I told them I was interested and was invited out to LA for casting. That’s the first time I saw Billy and I actually snuck a picture of him and texted it to Nicki saying “what the hell do we do if THIS guy makes it? How will we feed him, let alone my skinny ass?!” Billy is 6’2” and about 255 lbs of muscle. It takes a lot of fuel to run a truck like that!
Casting was interesting, they asked good questions and I made a hard case for the opportunity to show the power of a paleo diet and lifestyle in reversing modern disease. The producers seemed surprised but interested that 2-3 weeks was long enough to see significant changes in blood lipids but I was pretty emphatic about that. They DID end up doing some medical tracking as part of the experiment which I’ll talk about later. I liked the potential of the show but was worried not only about the suffering in store for me, but also the spectre of extreme kitsch-factor. There was the potential that we’d be clothed in loincloths.
It’s always been a process to try to talk about the paleo diet without things going to the Fred Flintstone place and I was not excited about the “project loincloth” potential. I made my way back to Santa Fe and despite my trepidations started researching edible plants in the N. Texas/Kentucky areas, looked at small game foraging and as much survival related material as I could find. About a week or two later I was contacted by production and offered a spot on the show…and discovered it would be happening in Colorado. The mountains of Colorado. At about 8,500 ft elevation, where there was still three to six feet of snow on the ground and the lakes were frozen. I damn-near bowed out with that information. I knew that foraging and living in a temperate climate like N. Texas or Kentucky would be hard, but doable. Crayfish & catfish can be caught (reasonably) easily by hand. Lots of berries, starchy tubers and other things to be had with minimal energy expenditure plus we’d have a profusion of small to medium game like armadillos, skunk, fowl and lots of other critters. Temperate climate: hard but doable. Alpine Colorado…was an entirely different affair. Given the time of year it would be cold, few animals and a paucity of calorie dense plant materials.
We were going to fucking starve.
I talked to Nicki about the situation and just tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I’d likely go hungry throughout the experiment as the location was not going to have good forage. I whined and bitched to production about the change and was told “you’ll do great!!” I went back and forth and finally decided to do it as this was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity. Starvation or not, I agreed to do the show, pumped the producers for as much info as I could (did not get much).
Here is what was clear:
1-A group of folks would be given some training in stone-age technology and survival.
2-The group would have a mix of skill-sets, some (hopefully) helpful in this experiment.
3-Nighttime temps would be in the 20’s, daytime in the 40-50’s, weather could change in a matter of minutes and might include rain, sleet or snow. If the sun was out it’d be pounding, high UV sunlight due to the time of year and altitude.
Things that were not clear:
1-Clothing. Would we need to make our own? If we had some, what type would it be?
2-What type of tools would we have? Would we need to make it all? Would we have cordage (string, rope etc.) or would we need to make our own cordage from plant fibers?
3-What type of materials would we have for making stone tools?
And a lot of other unknowns! The schedule was laid out and the plan was to have the cast come to Colorado about 2 days before the show started for basic training. I had a little confounder with this in that I’d agreed to do a talk for Naval Special Warfare on one of those days so I’d have to work with another survival/primitive skills expert before my departure to LA, then bounce up to Colorado for one day of training with the group. I found out an Atlatl might be part of our kit (again, unclear if these would be provided or we’d have to make them) but I set to making an atlatl and darts to practice. The set-up was pretty rough but I practiced for 2-3 hrs per day in the weeks leading up to the event. I ran around everywhere barefoot, sat out in the sun for hours to get a tan (sunburn sucks in general, under the conditions of the experiment would be an absolute weenie shrinker). Along this line I also made a point to eat highly colorful vegetables (full rainbow spectrum here) and lots of pink seafood. These foods are loaded with carotenoids and phytonutrients that provide significant UV protection and prevent sunburn.
I read everything I could on the Colorado area, watched everything I could on survival in an alpine environment and wrapped my mind around getting really skinny, really soon. Discovery sent out primitive skills expert Nathan Martinez and the guy was phenomenal. We worked on basic stone tool production, trap manufacture…and fire making. I knew we could survive for the duration of the experiment without food. It would suck, but we could do it. Without fire, at that altitude and the low temperatures I knew it was going to be a very short experiment, so I practiced making fire kits and making fire with a hand drill, assisted hand drill and bow drill. I overdid this and I literally had no skin on either of my palms. It actually complicated making the fire during the experiment as my hand was absolute agony. I also managed to get a piece of flint stuck into my index finger while making stone points and that proved to be a bastard later in the experiment.
Nathan showed me how to make Paiute dead-fall traps & snares that were simple in design but devilishly complex to get set-up. I managed to drop a 60lb rock on my hand while setting up a dead fall and it smacked the hell out of it. I actually went into the experiment pretty beat up but I was nearly desperate in my desire to get my skill-set up to speed. I’m a chicken-shit at heart and I wanted to minimize my suffering to say nothing of actually being able to pull this thing off! I actually managed to get a day in a half with Nathan, then had about a week to practice. My hand was hamburger from trying to make fires so I just practiced making the kit but this really sucked as the skill to actually manage the drill is so critical to success. I made and set as many traps and snares as I could while walking around the Santa fe desert barefoot, shooting bushes with my atlatl. I’m lucky we are renting a place on 12 acres of land in the middle of nowhere or I would have been arrested for sure. I hugged Nicki, packed up my kit and knew I would not see her for about 3 weeks and for 2 weeks of that time I would have not a single communication with here. Nicki and I built the gym together, travel together and rarely spend more than a day apart, so this was a fairly stressful part of the whole gig. This is also when I posted that I’d be “off the grid” for a few weeks.
To Colorado and Beyond
So, I did my gig with NSW, flew to Steamboat Springs, CO and then was driven about an hour and a half into the Back of The Beyond. Like so far off the beaten path they’d never hear me scream or find my body! It was now time for me to meet my castmates. I was miked up, walked out to the group and introduced…with 3-4 cameras rolling, everyone’s reactions recorded. This would be the norm for the next 11 days. It’s pretty stressful at first, once hunger and cold set in you don’t notice the cameras so much.
Day 1 of the experiment we had a solid breakfast but then had to hike into the location which was several miles away from the lodge where the production staff was located. It was raining, sleeting and just barely above freezing. We spent the better part of 6 hours getting to our skin covered hut and were given our clothes and tools. I think this was fairly well covered in the show, but what you do not know is that we were FREEZING before we even got started, at least I was. My modern pants were soaked through, I was shivering and not feeling very peppy. If you recall from the show, Manu did not do well the first night and really got hammered from the cold. I’m, pretty sure she had Raynauds which causes severe vasoconstriction when folks go from warm to cold. This is a very painful condition and can make one debilitated and likely contributed to her day 1 problems. But that was a bit later. After we had our gear, discovered we had shelter, albeit only large enough for about half the crew, we had to collect firewood and get a fire going. Now, this area that we were in was stunningly beautiful and two weeks before filming it was under 3-4 feet of snow, the lakes and creeks were still frozen. EVERY damn scrap of wood was wet and I had to look, and look for materials that were even a potential for our kit. I spent a good 3 hrs looking for material for the kit trying to find the best stuff we could get for the base, drill and other elements of the kit. I spent time on this because if we did not get this right we were not going to get a fire, just blisters, frustration and exhaustion. Great way to start things off! So, I spent a lot of time making the base, hand drill and getting tinder that was as dry and high quality as possible. I finally settled in on a kit and got to drilling, I managed to get the beginnings of an ember, but it was Billy that drove that over the top…we would likely NOT have got the fire without Billy and that first night had a low temp of 27*F with snow, sleet and rain.
I’m not going to go through every excruciating detail, but much of the prep is important for the questions I’ve received. We managed to get fire on day 1 which was huge but we were far from safe. I’m going to share some details which may not paint some of my castmates in a great light…I love these folks now, but some of them ranged form being a pain in the ass to actually dangerous to not only themselves but the group. Something you discover in a survival situation is cultural relativism (everyone’s opinion is equal) is absolute bull-shit. So, all that considered, we had a fire, wood and shelter, but the weather was bad and Manu was out of her head with cold and would NOT get near the fire to warm up. I thought she was insane (she might be a little, but I love that woman) and just pretty much wrote her off as lost. Everyone was sitting around the fire, super high energy and it was getting late. I made the point that we had some success but we were just getting going. It would be smart to rack-out, save energy and get ready for what lay ahead. I made the point we were flying high on adrenaline, but things would likely get bad in the days that followed. I had three people aggressively shoot this down. Two of those folks subsequently left the show for the obvious reasons of fatigue and frustration, the other person just did not do that damn much the whole show. Keep in mind, this is all my opinion, but from my perspective a few folks shit the cave in how they chose to tackle this survival situation.
More on that later I guess.
The long and short of night 1 was that everyone was cold and uncomfortable, Billy and I had to spoon Manu to pull her back from the edge of hypothermia…the doctor was actually called as she had pretty severe shivers and convulsions at one point. Day one was hell, we got no sleep, but we managed to pull Manu through which was huge because she ended up being both a pain in the ass, but also hilarious and someone who never stopped working and producing.
I need to backtrack a little as there were some things which should have been done by the group that were not. Going into this I researched how we should divide up work and what we should prioritize. I talked to 20 people ranging from survival experts to SEALS and the uniform recommendation was the following:
1-Secure camp: including fire, shelter and water.
2-Survey the location and begin foraging, but focus on traps.
3-Construct weapons such as Atlatls
4-As part of foraging and trap installation, survey the terrain for hunting opportunities.
5-Build fish weirs, crayfish traps etc.
6-Attempt to secure a foraging economy, then, when we are not starving, start hunting, looking for a big payoff.
In my mind that would have meant 3-4 days of trapping and foraging, working our way ever further away form the camp. As we struck pay-dirt on the traps, it would actually improve our success with subsequent traps due to the ability to utilize better bait.
Well, it did not go that way.
Billy was by far our best primitive skills person. Gene and I could make deadfall traps and snares, but we were fairly slow. Robert…well, Robert did what every one of the survival experts said not to do. Run over hill and dale, trying to hunt with nothing more than a hand spear and throwing stick. Robert is a super cool guy, really funny (think of a young Denis Leery) but pretty full of piss& vinegar. I made a case for the plan outlined above, was shot-down, so Robert, Billy and or Morgan did virtually all of the initial hunting. I opted out, instead trying to focus on traps, but a huge amount of time was spent gathering firewood. As was alluded in the show, we had some…production inequity and some folks were not very motivated to go and gather firewood. So instead of a few folks hauling wood (we needed a lot to get through the nights) a few folks foraging and some folks trapping we had a kind of chaotic mess that was very energetically demanding, but produced little in the way of chow. While out stomping around Gene saw large shoals of minnows and had the idea to use one of our baskets to scoop them up. It was a great idea! Gene and Lora managed to catch maybe 4-5 pounds of minnows! They brought them back, we figured out some ways to cook them…and a few people opted out of eating them. That was fucking annoying. The minnows were not very tasty (you ate the whole thing, guts & all) but it was chow and it was easy to get. I did a lot of yammering about the need to take in any and all food, but…well, anyway, the big mistake I made here was in not eating all that was not consumed by other folks. I left it because in a reasonable situation that would have been bad of me to eat that grub when others had not yet eaten. What I did not realize was that folks were not even remotely aware of how bad things would get in a few days.
That’s all for this week, tune in next week for part 2. I will have very limited email/internet access for about 2 weeks, but I will do my best to get back to questions.