Bear Grylls Survival Showdown
Over the past twenty years, TV catering to outdoor types who are in the habit of sitting down with a cup of tea and a slice of Kendal mint cake to watch the goggle-box for a couple of hours has gone from strength to strength. In fact, some survival shows have become so successful that they have crossed over into the mainstream, boosting the popularity of outdoor adventure pursuits and turning their presenters into major celebrities in the process.
But which of the outdoor movement's famous names, if any, can we refer to with absolute confidence as the 'ultimate' survivor? Let's strap on our helmet torches and see if we can't shed some light on the matter by looking at three of the survival and adventure world's biggest stars – Ray Mears, Les Stroud, and, of course, Bear Grylls.
In 1997, Surrey-born bushcraft expert Ray Mears became the first of the three to really make an impact on the viewing public with his series Ray Mears' World of Survival, having made his TV debut in 1994 in BBC TV's Tracks (shortened from the original Wild Tracks and later revived as Country Tracks). A far gentler show than what was to come, even by Ray's standards, Tracks focussed on countryside leisure activity issues such as how to gather autumn fruits or the safest way to light a campfire.
It was the culmination of years of hard work for Ray, who started out in the outdoors industry a decade previously with the formation of his company Woodlore, which specialised in wilderness bushcraft courses. Still in existence today, having branched out into the outdoor clothing and accessories market, Woodlore established Ray as a respected outdoor survival expert, who, in the years since, has acted as a consultant for both the army and the police force. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading his bushcraft courses enabled Ray to develop a calm, steady teaching method which would later form the basis of his presenting style.
The popularity of Tracks far outstripped expectations, so producers started looking for ways to expand on the format and capitalise on Ray's increasing profile. Ray Mears' World of Survival was born, followed in 1999 by the more ambitious Ray Mears' Extreme Survival. Both shows continued to draw on Ray's outdoor expertise, but moved away from covering the sort of subjects which might appeal to a casual viewer looking to enhance their Sunday afternoon country walk, towards advanced survival techniques which TV audiences could imagine being used by soldiers or professional adventurers.
Ray pretty much ruled the survival show roost for a few years, starring in many successful shows including Ray Mears' Bushcraft and Ray Mears' Northern Wilderness. Across the Atlantic, however, another outdoor adventurer was taking the first steps towards his own career in front of the cameras.
Enter one Mr Les Stroud – ace blues harmonica player, songwriter, performer, film-maker and survival maverick. While Ray was making his first understated steps into the world of TV stardom with Tracks, Les was embarking on perhaps the most unlikely honeymoon imaginable.
A former producer for Canadian music video channel MuchMusic, and one-time garbage collector for the City of Toronto, Les found a new direction in life when he caught the adventure bug during a canoeing trip around the lakes of Temagami in north-eastern Ontario, Canada. Totally smitten with the sport, and the outdoors in general, he took a job leading canoe excursions for Black Feather Wilderness Adventures. During this period, he met his future wife – photographer and fellow survival enthusiast Susan Jamisont
The couple were married in 1994, when they took the highly unconventional decision to spend the next year living off the land in the vast wilderness of Wabakimi Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, interacting with civilisation only rarely, perhaps if one of them suffered a medical emergency. During their year in seclusion in this unforgiving yet idyllic landscape, the pair used their media skills to record every aspect of their lives, producing footage which would form the basis of the documentary Snowshoes and Solitude. Les and Susan would go on to teach outdoor survival courses with their company Wilderness Voice, and formed another company, Wilderness Spirit Productions, as a vehicle for subsequent survival-themed TV projects.
Buoyed by this success, and having watched Survivor on American TV network CBS and felt he could do better, Les approached the Canadian branch of the Discovery Channel to pitch some show ideas. His proposal was successful, and the new working partnership soon produced the documentaries One Week in the Wilderness and Winter in the Wilderness. The shows were a resounding success, finding favour with audiences and critics alike, and led to the creation of Les' long-running series for the Discovery Channel, Survivorman.
Former SAS reservist, adventurer and TV survival expert Bear Grylls broke into the entertainment industry during the first few years of this century. Bear enjoyed a colourful and somewhat privileged childhood on the Isle of Wight. His father, a prominent MP, Royal Yacht Squadron member and former Royal Marine, introduced him to a host of outdoor activities such as climbing, sailing and skydiving. As an older teenager, Bear raised money selling water filters door to door to fund extended excursions in Europe and beyond. His wanderlust took him as far afield as Japan, where he undertook training to become a Karate grandmaster, and India, where he trekked around the Himalayas, having originally set out with the intention of enlisting in the Indian Army. These are just the surface of his experiences.
At the time, Bear had no idea where all this would eventually lead. As it turned out, he was destined for a career in survival TV so successful that he would work with some of the most famous people on the planet. Instead, he had his sights set on a military career, and duly tried out for the Territorial Army regiment of the SAS at the earliest available opportunity. Although Bear went on to serve with the Special Forces for a number of years, his career was to be cut short when a parachute accident in Zambia almost left him permanently paralysed.
Determined not only to walk again, but also to achieve his childhood ambition to conquer Mount Everest, Bear made a full recovery, and later succeeded in scaling the iconic mountain at the age of just 23. His inspirational story caught the attention of the TV industry, and before long he was starring in the hit UK series Born Survivor on Channel 4 (also broadcast internationally via the Discovery Channel network as Man vs. Wild and Ultimate Survival). Later hit shows for Bear include Bear's Wild Weekend, The Island and Running Wild with Bear Grylls.
The 'Ultimate' Survivor?
Undoubtedly the credentials of all three of our intrepid explorers are as cast iron as a good quality camping stove. However, can we truly refer to any of them as the 'ultimate' survivor? At first glance Bear Grylls might seem like the obvious candidate – he has the SAS background, looks the part, and gets all the best celebrity endorsements. But is he – as his critics would suggest – all about the dazzling lights of showbiz over and above the grizzled determination of a true survival great? Or to put it another way, when the cameras aren't rolling and the chips are down, would he have the sheer grit to pull through, no matter how treacherous the challenge at hand?
Maybe Ray Mears – the originator of the three – has the edge. He once escaped from a high-speed helicopter crash completely unscathed, and went on to give medical assistance to a fellow passenger. And he's the one professionals turn to when looking for bushcraft advice. Famously, though, in a rare but revealing break from their usually quietly restrained rivalry, Ray described Bear Grylls as a 'boy scout' (a jibe Bear deflected with admirable grace by accepting it as a compliment). As understandable as this type of public sniping may be, it's certainly not the behaviour of the 'ultimate' survivor.
Which leaves us with Les. He's more interested in rocking out with his band than getting involved in petty squabbles about who is or isn't the keeper of the true spirit of adventure. But he'd be the last person in the world to claim to be the 'ultimate' survivor. He's just doing it his own way, while showing everybody else how they can experience the world's last true wildernesses for themselves. And while that doesn't make him the 'ultimate' survivor, if indeed such a person exists at all, at least it leaves the field wide open for the rest of us.