You know that question: “If you were stranded on a desert island what three things would you take?” Well, I have the definitive answer: matches, water and Les Stroud. Matches for fire, water for hydration and Les for everything else. A survival expert and host of “Survivorman,” Les will not only find food, build shelter and steer you away from poisonous berries but also film everything so you can watch it after you’ve been rescued.
Les took a break for four years, but now the Canadian outdoors-man returns to Discovery Channel with a new set of adventures in the fourth series of “Survivorman.” The format is similar to past series—Stroud is stranded at a remote location with no food, water or film crew—but this time he must survive 10 days instead of 7. The first location in the new series is the uninhabited desert island of Tiburon off the coast of Mexico. Stroud is left shipwrecked on a small sailboat and makes his way by kayak to the beach. (This week’s episode takes place in the Norwegian mountains).
The major appeal of “Survivorman” is the lack of a film crew. Stroud is literally alone. No producers are standing off to the side making suggestions to increase the drama and no directors yell cut when a take goes wrong. There is no immediate safety net so the already high stakes feel even more intense.
With Les operating all the camera equipment, he is both in charge of what we see and as sole narrator, what we hear (including his harmonica playing used as an impromptu soundtrack). He alternates between static camera shots, which face his location from different angles and close-up shots, where he holds the camera at arms length as he addresses it. He also pins a small camera to his clothes to capture action shots like climbing steep or slippery terrain.
Stroud is a filmmaker who understands pace and his on-camera monologues keep the action and his survival story moving. He can be funny and he is informative without giving a lecture. He doesn’t over dramatize but rather captures his experience in a way that feels interesting and authentic.
With Les as a one man film crew, most of the action focuses on the most important task of surviving—the search for drinkable water. In the Tiburon episode, he uses a rusty bucket, a thin pipe and a plastic water bottle to construct a distiller that converts seawater into drinking water. His advice to the viewer? Sometimes you have to “think like an engineer.” For those of us less engineer-minded, he offers more useful survival tips, namely that “reactionary survival is doomed to failure.”
In other words, Stroud is all about having a plan to safely and smartly keep moving to find the next opportunity. It pays off. On one of his many walks along the same stretch of beach, he finds a dead squid that is a satisfying meal supplement to the clams that he digs out of the estuary. When he realizes his distiller will not meet his water needs and he faces dehydration, he hikes to the island’s mountain region in search of another water source but not before carefully planning what shelter materials he can easily carry and how he will transport the fire he has kept burning. He solves the fire problem by using cigars he found on the stranded boat as portable flame carriers.
Stroud, in a not so subtle swipe at his fellow survivalist and host of “Man vs. Wild” Bear Grylls, says that the idea of the wilderness being against him or anyone is nonsense. “It’s benign. It just is,” he tells us. It’s a nice perspective but I’ll keep him as one of my three desert island choices just in case.
“Survivorman” is on Sunday on Discovery Channel at 8pm Eastern/Pacific.