Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Psalm of Survival

 It was a Sunday, and I found myself sitting in a wooden pew, inside a church with bright red hymnals perfectly spaced apart on the shelf in front of me. I looked up and saw beautiful wooden beams, multicoloured stained glass, and black and white hymn numbers on the wall, waiting their turns to be sung. But there would be no worship here today, nor any talk of spirituality. Or so I thought, until Les Stroud began to share his life lessons. Now, when I say worship, don't get the wrong idea. The only kind of worship going on here was hero-worship, as fans young and old, male and female had all come to church to hear the King of Survival speak.


For those of you who are not familiar with Les, he is the creator/producer/filmmaker and host of many survival-themed television shows; and (as Rick Taylor describes), he is essentially a "19th Century Rockstar Explorer."  Not only is Les a wilderness survival expert, but he is also a filmmaker, a musician and a storyteller. On one of his OLN shows, Survivorman, Les survives harsh, remote environments and films every minute of it himself. Of Survivorman, he said, "it represents the quintessential losing of everything, breaking down to zero and trying to survive."


On his journey through life, Les Stroud made his way from Mimico, Ontario to following his dream as a musician, and ended up working at Much Music. How did he make the jump from music television to surviving for weeks at a time in remote jungles, forests, deserts and moutain ranges, visiting indigenous tribes and riding on the backs of sharks?


It all started for Les as a young boy: "I love adventure; all things wild and free", said Les. "Tarzan was my idol; Jacques Cousteau was my compass." His journey into survival didn't happen overnight, but he did have a pivotal moment while working in the music business when he realized, "I was banging on a door that wasn't the door I should be banging on." So, he packed up and immersed himself in outdoor adventure and wilderness survival.


These days Les is merging his many passions by creating a stage production that involves music, film and theatre based on his experiences in the wilderness. When describing his experiences filming Beyond Survival, a show in which he travels with and learns from indigenous cultures from all over the world, Les's survival lessons began to shift in my mind from advice on how to survive in the wilderness to advice on how to survive life itself. "Survival comes down to one thing: 3:00 in the morning, when the demons are at their best", said Les, referring to the dark, cold nights he has had to endure. The same can be said about life, I suppose.


Humble and real, Les "didn't try to become 'survival guru guy'." For him, "it continues to be about connecting to the people" through his filmmaking. Being in the wilderness can be poetic, especially in hindsight, but he also thinks you need to be prepared. When asked about the late Christopher McCandless (whose story became a book and later a film) he recognized the beauty and poetry of going into the wild, but he also lamented on Chris' lack of experience and preparedness. "Alaska doesn't care if you're charming", Les said, making the point that it takes more than wit alone to survive the rugged wilderness. Again, much like life itself. 


Beyond Survival involved a huge spiritual awakening for Les. He participated in 20 to 30 ceremonies with healers, priests and shamans from indigenous tribes. "That whole year for me was like one big giant vision quest", he said. As he made his journey through filming each stage of the project, each divine healer he encountered intuitively knew what stage he was in at that time. The healers at the beginning of his journey told him "I'm protecting you and preparing you for your journey", those he encountered in the middle reminded him "you're in the process", and in the end he was even accepted as a Shaman himself. "By the end of it, it felt like a veil had been lifted for me, and it took a lot", said Les. "So many of them kept calling me a bridge". Les believes he is indeed a bridge, between these cultures, the wilderness and his audience. "Where I sit in this process is right on the knife edge", he said. "[during filming] I try to be the bridge between both worlds: filming the journey and experiencing the journey".


 As Les wrapped up his talk, two of his messages rang out clearly to me as I readied myself to walk back down the aisle, out of the church and back into the sunshine. "Breathe into it", he said. "In all of life, I say, if somebody else can do it, I can do it." Amen to that.