My breath clouded around my face in the cold air as I paused outside the Missoula airport. I paused to put my mask on and readjusted my backpack before leading Barley into the airport.
Barley was happy and confident, unaware of what we were in for. Pre-pandemic, we traveled all the time for work. But this trip was different. Rather than fliers and donation forms and training aids, my backpack contained survival gear: a firesteel, a folding saw, a knife, a pot.
As we settled onto the plane to Maine, I pulled out a snippet of paracord and nervously practiced my knots.
Barley and I had been selected as a team to compete in National Geographic’s Called to the Wild TV show. Each episode, three dog-human teams compete to survive in northern Maine’s wilderness. Barley and I were scheduled to film the last episode (later titled Gimme Shelter).
I am no survival expert.
True, I have worked as a sea kayaking guide and a rock climbing instructor. I spend nearly all of my time exploring the mountains and jungles of the world. But I’ve never been a survivalist – I would rather hike far and fast with my ultralight tent than spend my time insulating a shelter or setting snares.
This show was different, though. Rather than featuring the human survival experts, this show centered on the dog-human relationship. That’s why Barley and I were there: we worked as a conservation detection dog team and had a unique bond and skill set to showcase.
Like thousands of dog-human pairs before us, Barley and I would rely on each other for food, warmth, and companionship while surviving in the woods.
My main goal was simple, if not easy: train Barley to use his super-sniffer to find me food. That would set us apart from the other contestants while giving me valuable calories. The trouble: I lived in Montana, meaning I couldn’t get my hands on training samples for appropriate species of edible plants from Maine. We would have to do all of our scentwork training on the ground once we arrived in Maine.
Luckily, Barley would be fed every day – we doubled his normal food rations for the challenge. He would also be checked over by veterinarians regularly to ensure that he wasn’t losing weight or injured in any way.
Preparing for Called to the Wild
When we arrived in Maine, we spent the first few days meeting with staff veterinarians, local survival experts, and professional animal trainers to prepare for the show.
It was cold and wet. The parking lot looked like a muddy, frozen merengue pie and frost coated the underbrush.
This late in the season, foraging would be thin picking. I hoped for cranberries, cattail roots, maple samaras (the winged nuts they drop in the fall), and acorns. I’d spent all summer practicing primitive fishing, building shelters, and feeling condifent with firesteels and knives and saws. Shows like Alone helped me prepare mentally when I couldn’t be in the woods.
From day one pre-shooting, Barley and I got to work. I decided to train him to find wood sorrel, a small clover-like plant with a delicious green apple flavor. The wood sorrel was hard to see, growing only a few inches tall. This made Barley’s nose incredibly valuable.
Within a few days of training, Barley was searching areas for the tiny plant and alerting to it; lying down with his nose on my meal. Each time, I threw a party and we played a game of fetch with his favorite toy.
All too quickly, it was time to “ship out.” We parted ways with the producers and trainers and veterinarians and survival expert. They loaded Barley and I into an SUV with all of our gear and we bumped down windy dirt roads towards the Canadian border.
Barley dove for a pile of sticks as soon as we exited the SUV. I shouldered my pack and stared at the dense woods, steeling myself.
My biggest worry was looking incompetent. I knew I could injure myself. I would certainly be cold and hungry. But I didn’t want to be memorialized on National Geographic looking inept.
Starting the Challenge: Days 1 and 2 of Called to the Wild
Accompanied by my cameraperson and a “Safety” (a wilderness EMT who would never be too far away), Barley and I started to pick our way through the woods in search of our new “home.”
As always, Barley was brimming with enthusiasm. He tried to collect endless sticks and pull roots from the ground. Meanwhile I scanned the ground for wild edibles (and tripping hazards) and kept an eye out for a flat, dry, sheltered area near water.
Eventually we reached a river, perfectly suited for our home base. But the area on our side of the river was swampy and overgrown; useless for camp.
Ditching my pack, I walked up an down the shore for nearly a full day exploring my options. The river was high – well over my knees. I wanted to find a sandbar or something that would make my crossing safer.
I could barely believe it – I had no option but to cross the river to the flat, dry, sheltered side. All the exploration and worry cost me a full day, but I had to do it.
I threw together a rudimentary shelter. Barley collected firewood and I nibbled on some fiddlehead ferns and maple samaras, thinking.
The next morning, I re-packed my bag. As the sun started to warm the ground, I stripped down to my underwear and waded into the river, extremely conscious of the camera trained on me.
I pointed at the long, straight, branchless log that I’d used as a center pole for my shelter and asked Barley to grab it. He did, happily wading into the water to swim across. He’s always been something of a beaver, loving to haul logs around in the ewater.
Just a few steps in, frigid water poured into my muck boots. A few more steps and the current tugged at my legs, which were turning purple and prickly with cold.
Using a branch for balance, I picked my way across the river. The last thing I needed was a slip that drenched my precious gear.
Shivering, I poured water from my boot on the other side. But within moments, it was clear I’d made the right choice. I found a little hollow, dry and away from the wind, to call home.
Barley and I set to work collecting logs for the shelter, which warmed me up quickly. We had a great system: I sawed the trees down, then he hauled them to the shelter. He then happily ripped twigs and branches from the log, clearing it so that it wouldn’t shred my tarp. Finally, I sat down with my knife to really smooth the logs down.
By the time night fell on day two, Barley and I had a cozy start to a shelter – but no food.
Entering the Grind: Days 3-6
I woke on day 3 with a list of goals: start fishing, find wood sorrel, fortify the shelter. We spent the next few days doing just that.
I set my net up in a little side stream, since the river was running far too high for the net.
Each day, I spent some time collecting firewood and collecting pine boughs for shelter insulation. Barley was incredibly valuable in hauling all this heavy wood around. I could already feel myself getting weaker.
We had fun – yes, fun – having Barley drag bunches of spruce boughs through the woods. He napped by the fire while I wove them into insulation around my tarp. Bit by bit, my tarp became a shelter.
I made a bed for Barley on raised logs, then lined it with fir boughs and moss. I did the same for myself, then made a little chair for myself beside my firepit. I boiled cedar tea several times a day on a tripod above my precious fire.
I could hardly believe my luck when I found a fly lure, complete with 18″ of fishing line and a hook, tangled in some bushes near the river. It took ages to untangle it with frozen fingers, but this would help me catch a bigger fish than I had hope of collecting with my net.
I got to work setting the line out in the river, fighting freezing fingers as I tied the fishing line to gutted bits of paracord and floated it into the water at the end of a 15-foot tree that became a stationary fishing pole.
Every day, several times a day, I checked the line. Every time, it was empty. I could see a landlocked salmon in the same spot every day, just hanging out. It was spawning season, and she clearnly wasn’t interested in eating.
Getting a bit desperate for food, I started braingstorming other ideas. Barley was finding me plenty of wood sorrel, but it just wasn’t much food. I picked at some fiddlehead ferns and alderberries, but they were ghastly to eat and still not very calorie-dense. I craved fat, protein.
After warming my hands by the fire, I knelt at the base of a balsam fir and started to dig at the ground. Bit by bit, I unearthed ropelike roots. Once I had over 10 feet of root segments, I headed back to the fire to defrost my toes.
Then, I staked 7 long, thin branches into the ground. I started to weave the roots around the branches, making a long, tapered basket. My plan: to make a few crayfish traps.
They didn’t show my crayfish traps on the show, but I’m really proud of it! The weave of roots was pretty tight and I was really happy with the final result. I baited the traps with bugs that Barley dug out of a rotten log, then carefully tucked the traps in likely-looking rocky areas of the river. Sadly, we were late enough in the season that the crayfish were already hibernating. Buried deep in the riverbed, they were safe and warm and not inside my trap.
By the end of day 6, I was exhausted. I had multiple fishing lines in the water (I’d made more hooks with a bobby pin and Barley had dug up some worms), my net was not producing, and my crayfish traps remained empty. We’d gotten snow and hard frosts several times, and even my wood sorrel was starting to die from the cold.
The daily grind of helping Barley gather wood, sawing firewood, having Barley search for mu meager calories, and checking the traps, nets, and lines, and feeding the fire kept me busy day after day.
Cold and Hungry; Hungry and Cold: Days 7-10
I woke in the middle of the night between days 6 and 7 (or was it 5 and 6?) with night sweats. I felt hot, despite subfreezing temperatures. I was nauseous, worried I might throw up. I crawled half out of my sleeping bag, burying my face into the cool moss of my bed.
The next day, I was incredibly weak. My vision swam and I had to pause to rest during even short walks. Sawing firewood felt like mile 25 of a marathon. I seriously considered quitting.
I spent much of my time hunched over my fire, crying from the smoke. My “territory” was composed of primarily balsam fir, which burnt fast and created a painful smoke. I dreamed of a clean-burning hardwood for my fire.
Barley and I continued to explore our territory, scouting hopefully for cranberries or cattails or maple nuts. No luck. As I gathered birchbark to use as tinder, I managed to get the birch tree to leak some sap. Though it’s not as sugary as maple, birch sap is quite tasty. I relished in the sweet flavor, relaxing a bit as I finally ate somethat that was neither wood sorrel nor a bitter fiddlehead.
The next day was a bit better – I’m not sure why. I fully expected it to be worse, and planned to quit if it was. But I was better.
We spent Halloween in the woods, so I made Barley a crown of fir boughs and we went “trick or tree-ing.” Giggling hysterically, I pointed at low-hanging branches. Growling like a gremlin, Barley ripped each branch off the tree. We had a blast!
The days went on. At some point the frost killed the last of my wood sorrel, and I really ran out of food. I became convinced I’d never catch a fish or crayfish, despite multiple lines and traps.
Feeling pessimistic, I checked the line after lunch one day. But this time I saw a silvery flash at the end of my line. The long pole was bent down the river. I yelped, absolutely ecstatic.
I felt like Smeagol as I reeled the fish in and dispatched it. I was absolutely giddy with excitement, drooling and nearly in tears.
I boiled the fish in my pot, carefully picking through the bones and enjoying every last drop. I relished in the cheek fat and the crunchy fins, pulling aside the guts to use as bait. Barley got a nibble, of course. The fish was sweet and flaky – the best I’ve ever had.
Hunger is the best spice.