Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bear Grylls vs. Les Stroud

[UPDATE, January 1, 2009: Just a note to all the readers who have found this entry through Google searches of Bear Grylls and/or Les Stroud: there's nothing in this post that will sway you if you're already convinced that one survivalist is better than another. Besides, I didn't originally write this post in the spirit of "my daddy can beat up your daddy," which is the type of childishness that apparently infects hundreds of silly discussion forums devoted to the whole "Grylls versus Stroud" topic. I have my opinions about which show is better, but this says nothing about the shows' respective hosts. Comparing the two, as people, would be like comparing apples and oranges.

So relax, have fun, enjoy the read, and if you've something to add, feel free to leave a civil comment. And if you're interested in my trans-American walk (which is what this blog documents), please dig into my archives, work your way forward, and comment along the way.]

Staying in hotels means watching a lot of cable TV. While I've seen several episodes of Bear Grylls's pumped-up Discovery Channel series "Man Versus Wild," it wasn't until I was in that Motel 6 in The Dalles that I finally caught two episodes of Les Stroud's "Survivorman," a show that also deals with how to survive when stranded in the wilderness.

The two shows have a lot in common: in both cases, the men deliberately strand themselves in remote, inhospitable locations and must figure out how to move to a likely rescue point. Along the way, they improvise shelters, live off the land, and give us viewers advice on the hows and whys of what they're doing to survive.

There are, however, crucial differences between the two shows; this became obvious after I saw those episodes of "Survivorman." One major difference is the respective structures of the shows: Grylls relentlessly soldiers on until he reaches a plausible extraction zone; Stroud, by contrast, must show he can survive seven days wherever he finds himself (one episode, about a deserted tropical island, showed him feasting well on fish, coconut meat, coconut milk, and a strange root juice) while either moving to an extraction zone (Alaskan wild episode) or staying put and awaiting rescue (tropical island episode). Grylls often stops when he finds either people or fresh traces of civilization.

There's no doubt that Grylls puts on the more entertaining show. He's got a little Steve Irwin in him, and seems less hesitant about playing with dangerous wildlife (in one episode, he gets badly stung by bees simply because he wants some honey). Grylls also seems more willing to risk potentially bone-snapping leaps in his efforts to descend (or ascend) mountain peaks, while Stroud proceeds with far greater caution and deliberateness. Grylls is ex-military; this training is a huge component of his show, and partly explains his gleefully gung-ho approach.

But what's won me over to Stroud's show is that he works alone-- unlike Grylls, whose camera team is at the ready, doing everything Grylls does while also holding video equipment (hats off to that crew!). Stroud, poor bloke, has the unenviable task of not only demonstrating survival techniques, but also setting up, and occasionally ruining, the cameras with which he films them. According to Wikipedia, Stroud is usually carrying around 50 pounds of video gear with him on his adventures. Grylls has the luxury of stripping half-naked to cross an Icelandic river in 60mph winter wind if he so wishes.

Stroud also appeals to me because he fails a lot. Starting a fire with a camera lens, for instance, takes a lot of time and effort, something that Stroud very candidly portrays. He also loses his footing with enough frequency to reassure a tyro like me that falling is just a normal part of the wilderness experience. Grylls's show is more smoothly edited; failures are rarely shown.

There are other contrasts. When Grylls digs into a rotten tree and extracts a pulsating grub the size and thickness of two of my fingers, you know that that grub's history. In one "Survivorman" episode, however, Stroud paused and admitted that he wasn't quite sure about the species of mushroom he was about to bite into. It's possible he was playing up the fear factor for our sake, but at that moment he looked quite sincere to me. Eating an unfamiliar shroom is a big risk. I was riveted when he took that first bite.

In all, "Survivorman" feels far less contrived than "Man Versus Wild." While both hosts are obviously putting themselves in great danger, it's Stroud who, ultimately, has less of a safety net. He, like Grylls, is equipped to signal for help if things become truly dire, but as he pointed out in an episode about the Alaskan wilderness, when you're under a forest canopy, a rescue chopper can fly right by your position and still miss you completely. If Grylls goes down, he's got an on-site crew to help him out.

So: while I enjoy both shows and may even have learned a thing or two from them, I find I can relate more easily to Les Stroud's approach to wilderness survival than to Bear Grylls's.



Anonymous said...

I've never seen "Survivorman" and I don't think they show it here, but it sounds like it would be a riveting show to watch.

Interesting that you should mention mushrooms... while Grylls will eat just about anything and everything, the only thing I've ever seen him not eat was a mushroom. Eating a mushroom that you're not sure about is actually a pretty bad idea, considering how poisonous some of them are. They may not kill you directly (although some of them will), but if you're in a survival situation, you might end up dead anyway.

So don't go eating any strange shrooms!

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you know, but you might just have Edward Michael Grylls as a hotel mate if you stay at Motel 6. He was busted sleeping in a Motel 6 when he was supposed to be roughing in a Florida swamp. His show took a huge hit and was off the air for quite a few months until Discovery decided what to do about his "faking it in the wild." They are hoping that the viewing public has a short attention span.

Here's some things that his production company actually admitted to: "In one episode filmed in California's Sierra Nevada mountains he was shown biting off the head of a snake for breakfast and boasting that he was living on 'just a water bottle, a cup and a flint for making fire'.

Viewers were not told that he was actually spending some nights in the Pines Resort hotel at Bass Lake, where the rooms have Internet access and is advertised as 'a cosy getaway for families' complete with blueberry pancakes for breakfast.

In another episode when Grylls declared he was a 'real life Robinson Crusoe' stuck on a desert island, he was actually on an outlying part of the Hawaiian archipelago and retired to a motel at nightfall.

Mark Weinert, a survival consultant brought in for the programme, said one show also wrongly gave the impression that the adventurer built a Polynesian- style raft using only materials around him, including bamboo and palm leaves for a sail.

Mr Weinert had in fact led a team that built the raft, which was then dismantled so that Grylls could be shown constructing it on camera.

In another episode, Grylls was filmed attempting to lasso 'wild' mustang in the Sierra Nevada, when the horses were actually tame and had been brought in by trailer from a nearby trekking station."

Les, is the Man, while the self-named Bear really let a lot of people down.

John, soon to be gone, from Daejeon

Becky said...

This was an interesting post. I've seen Survivorman AND Man Vs. Wild, and I tend to agree with your assessment. Mr./Ms. Anonymous confirms your choice, as well. :o)

Anyway, interesting (and applicable to your current lifestyle) post. Thanks.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, all, for the comments. FYI, "Anonymous" isn't anonymous: John from Daejeon is a familiar e-face; he signed his name at the bottom of his comment.

Soon to be gone, John? Where're you off to?


Anonymous said...

I don't watch Man vs. Wild anymore due to the fake factor. Stroud is much better;




Anonymous said...

I'm finishing up my second year here, and have decided to return to the U.S. and start up a business or two (the accident claiming the life of my favorite young student cut my stay here short by at least a year).

My main business venture is to make a mundane product better/hip and promote it to mostly young people with cell phones (I actually learned something from my South Korean students); however, this may eventually take me to Germany where the conglomerate is located once I secure funding in the U.S. and deal with some law issues to protect both myself and the idea.

If that fails, being a farmboy, I might start a vegetable gardening business as gas and food prices skyrocket. I'll till the soil for people in the suburbs to grow their own food instead of grass and flowers that they really can't eat.

Even though I'm still here in South Korea, some friends and family are asking me to help them in this matter as I always had a large 1-4 acre garden most of my life. Now, I just have to work up small little plots for these city folk--a piece of cake.

Well, I'm glad to hear/see that you'll have a support vehicle/team. Your injuries were starting to worry me. If you didn't have to cross such differing (tight and rugged) terrain, you might have towed your pack behind you in some sort of wagon to save your body from that extra wear and tear.

I have to run. The kiddies will tear down the hagwon if I'm not there with my whip and chair. Only seven more work days to go. Then, they'll really freak out trying to understand the accent of their new Irish native foreign teacher.

Good luck on your continuing journey from sea to shining sea.

John from Daejeon

George said...

I enjoyed the reasonable tone of your post. I've seen quite a lot of each (all of Survivorman and several seasons' worth of Man VS. Wild) and I agree with your conclusions.
Les Stroud likes to emphasize practicality, which usually translates to safety, since any cons of injuries in the wilderness are greatly amplified. He is usually cautious, but he doesn't always follow his own advice. However, instead of dynamic actions like Bear Grylls, this usually takes the form of not practicing all of the techniques that he plans on using, though that could play into the role of trying to show us how one can survive (we may find ourselves in his situation without practice). He's actually good at starting fires with the techniques that he has practiced. Les Stroud gives good advice that one may not think of, such as preserving the edge of your blade for emergencies; chooses to use safe methods of breaking things (one's weight, wedging them between trees, etc.) and improvised blades. I don't know if Les consciously conditioned his body to respond better to food deprivation, but I know that happens to people who ease themselves into it over and over again. Enough of this results in a body that looks less like an action hero's and more like the plain look he has. Les mainly eating things that our modern western society would find gross factors heavily into practicality, since active hunting without modern technology on one's own has abysmal success rates, except for the most skilled. Fun facts: In at least one episode, Les Stroud's filming equipment weighed around 70 lbs. He tried to simulate a scenario in which a survivor's arm was broken and managed to keep it up for a couple days. He has brought injuries/illnesses into his survival expeditions saying that people can't always choose their survival situations.
Bear Grylls follows almost none of Les Stroud's advice (even when Les Stroud's advice is statistically sound). Bear's constant climbing may be excusable for himself because that's kind of his specialty (he had years of experience even before joining the military), but it's not good to teach others. In my opinion, his riskiest behavior is jumping off of cliffs into bodies of water (which he does in multiple episodes) because he can't be sure of the depth and conditions. I don't like how frequently and wantonly Bear Grylls kills animals to eat when he doesn't need to. In one episode, he even killed two animals within hours of each other (I think the first was a tarantula; the second was a snake). I also don't like how the scenes of him eating things that Les would happily eat are sensationalized to try to gross us out. One funny thing that comes from it is that a lot of his adjectives that are supposed to sound unappealing are often used to describe chocolates and pastries. If he's interested in showing us survival, he should not turn up his nose to grubs as much as he does, though I feel that some of the revulsion and most of the acts of eating bugs, etc. are demanded by his producers/directors.

Will W.

jqpublic said...

Just got off of a Survivor Man marathon. The Mexican Desert Island ep where he eats the raw oysters then, go figure, gets sick had me wondering where his head was at. He cooked the freaking clams, why not the oysters? He is still my goto guy for all things survival though.

jd said...

If the average person copied Bear Grylls style of survival, they would die. Most likely from a fatal fall.
john d