Mitch Mitchell, 34, of Bellingham arrived on Vancouver Island last fall with a backpack, a video camera to record himself, a ponytail of red curls, and not much else. He had one task: survive in the wilderness as long as possible. If he outlasted the nine other people scattered across the Canadian island, he would get $500,000.
Lasting in the wilderness was nothing new for the “survivalist” (a term used for people who bare-bones camp in extreme conditions), but the soggy, Pacific Northwest landscape was a challenge. So were the wolves.
History’s extreme-living reality show “Alone” invited 10 adventurers to compete in a risky waiting game: Stick it out through the incessant rain, the run-ins with cougars, and the inescapable loneliness, and you have your chance at a small fortune. Mitchell was already a wilderness-living instructor and the face of NativeSurvival, a YouTube series on thriving in dangerous conditions, when History reached out.
“Of course I was skeptical, I don’t even own a TV,” Mitchell said of the offer. “Once I found out it was completely legit, I was all in. I was like, ‘Wow. You’re really going to give me a backpack of gear and drop me off miles from anybody at all with just a little emergency button? Put me there.’ ”
Mitchell’s not the typical reality show exhibitionist. He keeps to himself, discloses little, and worries about little more than survival and the safety of his family. Mitchell enjoys being off-the-grid when he can be, and when he’s not teaching his students how to carve fire-enabling feather sticks and survive tempestuous camping trips, he’s out in the wild practicing archery and fishing the way he did with his father and grandfather growing up. Sometimes his wife and daughter will join him in the woods of the Northeast. “My daughter’s a nut for fishing,” he says.
Mitchell spoke to the Globe Monday by phone from his Norfolk County home, the day after returning from another trip into the unruly wilderness. Because of the nature of the show, Mitchell couldn’t clue us in on how long he lasted on Vancouver Island, but he did give a taste of his day-to-day experience, from deadly neighbors to what’s for dinner.
Q. Now that you’ve done your time on Vancouver Island, how do you think you did, overall? Did you do better or worse than you expected?
A. Well, you don’t really have expectations. I went in there and I did what I do. It was a completely alien environment, though: I didn’t know any of the plants, all the animals were different, so my expectations were different from what they would have been. The best thing for me to do while I was there was to go in and see what happens.
Q. I hear you had an experience in a hurricane [early in your career].
A. I went on a camping trip in the mountains of Western Mass. We got caught in a hurricane, and it was very challenging to get a fire going, to camp and cook while it was pouring rain. It forced me to become a very good problem solver. That camping trip forced me to think of the woods in a more challenging and passionate way. I just didn’t stop after that.
Q. So you teach survival skills, but you’re also a butcher’s assistant, is that right?
A. Not anymore. I picked up that job as a butcher’s apprentice so I could learn how to break down meat even better, how they are able to take a whole animal and turn it into steaks and certain cuts, so I can do the same thing with the animals in the woods. Instead of all the jerky, check me out — I’m making roasts.
Q. Did you end up using any of those skills while you were out there?
A. I’m not sure how much I can give away, but one thing [the butcher] taught me was how to use a knife in a way I never had before. And those skills I certainly used.
Q. Is this the oddest place you’ve been exploring? Or have you had weirder experiences in the wilderness?
A. This is absolutely the craziest place I’ve ever been. The predators over there were just insane — we’re talking apex predators, 70-pound cats that can jump out of trees to land on their prey. These are agile animals that thrive in that environment because the ground is all moss. So now we have an agile cat, the ultimate hunter, running around on moss, completely silent, and they hunt in the night. So it’s completely dark, completely silent. You better watch yourself.
Q. Were the predators the main challenge for you?
A. The predators were definitely a concern of mine, but at the same time, I eat bears. If a bear’s in my camp, I’m gonna shoot him with my bow. Now I have 200 pounds of meat to work on. So predators were a concern, but it wasn’t like I was so terrified I couldn’t think about it. It’s very important to be able to prioritize what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and to keep your wits about you. Just function in the woods as a living entity. This is my space, I have a certain mental fence for what is my territory, I see everything that enters it at all times, I always have my lethal force (bow and arrows), and I’ll kill something if I have to. You listen to the wolves at night. You listen to the other animals, the cougars, that are talking to you.
Q. What do you love most about being outdoors? What keeps you there?
A. Getting back to how humans originally lived. All this technology, all this global culture that we’re living under is not the way humans have lived for our whole existence. It’s nice to get away from the little conveniences of modern electric lighting, and to press a button on a stove and have fire, because nobody has had that convenience until very recently. It’s nice to be able to walk on a path, instead of driving a car or riding a bike. It’s what we all should be doing, what we have always done.
Q. It seems like the big selling point of this show is that the contestants are isolated. What did you miss most about human interaction? Did you feel like being alone was a benefit or a hindrance to your experience? Would you have lasted longer with people out there with you?
A. Definitely. Not knowing what’s going on with everyone else around me causes stress. I don’t know if my wife is safe. I don’t know if my daughter is safe. The idea of not knowing, when you’re surrounded by knowing every day. I know that tree is firewood. I know how to gut this fish and it’s going to be delicious if I cook it this way. I know how to deal with that predator. I’m constantly surrounded by “I know how to deal with.” I have no idea what’s going on with my family. That’s stressful.
Watch Mitchell’s casting tape: