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'Ultimate Survival Alaska': Real, unreal entertainment

Craig Medred

For serious fantasy entertainment, take a look at "Ultimate Survival Alaska," the sort of spellbinding spectacle you might get if the late Soapy Smith produced "The Amazing Race." Not since Frederick Cook made the bogus claim to have reached the summit of Mount McKinley in 1906 has anyone pulled off an Alaska expedition scam with quite the panache of "Ultimate Survival Alaska."

"Ultimate Survival" is the most unreal of reality shows. National Geographic Channel has taken fictional reality, or real fiction, or whatever you call this 21st-century blend of true and phony, to places the founders of the National Geographic Society could never imagine.

The late, great Bradford Washburn -- who hooked up with National Geo to finance his bold, daring and true adventures in Alaska -- must be spinning in his grave.

Remember when former, half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican candidate for vice president in 2008, made that claim she was the victim of "some blogger probably sittin' there in their parents' basement wearin' their pajamas, bloggin' some kind of gossip or lie"?

Well if there was any truth to that, there's little doubt the blogger, or bloggers, grew up, moved out of the basement, and migrated to Hollywood to write the scripts for "Ultimate Survival."

All of which is what makes the "Ultimate" show -- "one of the toughest competitions in the world," as it boldly bills itself -- the "Ultimate" in unreality TV.

Forget the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Forget the Tour de France. Forget the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Forget the Race Across America. Do any of them have the word "Ultimate" in the title? No.

Those are just sports. The "Ultimate" is survival gone extreme, as in extremely goofy. A careful observer can't help but watch it and chuckle at the wilderness nonsense.

Sure, you could succumb to the made-up drama and pretend the show is actually real, as some folks apparently do, but it's so much more fun to watch carefully for tasty tidbits of Alaska wilderness racing "bladderdash," as old Yukon riverboat captain turned Congressman-for-all-Alaska Young might call it.

A personal favorite is when Marty Raney, who appears to be vying to become Alaska's new Soapy Smith, goes swimming in the "Skwentna River" in season two, episode five -- "River of Fury." The river is actually the Talachulitna, a sometimes fairly warm clearwater stream that rarely gets mad, not the Skwentna, a cold glacial stream. But that's not the nonsense part.

The nonsense part is watching Raney's magically disappearing personal floatation device. A PFD is clearly visible under his coat when he is sitting in the river. He gets out of the river dripping wet. His teammates inspect his knees, supposedly banged up from hitting rocks after falling out of his packraft.

Raney acts cold and shivering for the camera like he is standing around in wet clothes. The team discusses whether to stop to dry out or beat feet. Raney turns and faces the camera square on and guess what? The PFD has clearly disappeared from beneath his jacket, and both it and the shirt he is wearing beneath the jacket look dry.

"In this case, on this river, we kept rolling cold and wet," he says next in a post-trip interview spliced into the narrative. Except obviously, in this case, on this river, someone took a pause for a wardrobe change.

Those who know nothing about Alaska wilderness travel will no doubt miss all the subtle little giveaways like this that make "Ultimate" unreal, but if you know Alaska wilderness travel well, the show is a hoot.

When the "Endurance Team," led (sort of) by none other than one-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey, gets to "Hell's Gate" on the Tal-cum-Skwentna, Seavey leads the way through the Class III to III+ rapid there.

First though, there is magic. He starts into the rapid wearing his ubiquitous dirty baseball cap, but somewhere between when he yells "let's go," and comes around a bend into the first real whitewater, the hat is gone and replaced by a helmet, which is, of course, a good idea.

Seavey, incidentally, might actually be a better actor than dog musher, which is saying something. And to his credit, he paddles through the rapid in style, or someone does. It's hard to tell in the video if the paddler is actually Seavey, and so much in "Ultimate" is doctored or made up that you can't really be sure of anything.

But whoever is doing the paddling gets through in style.

Plenty of the others, of course, go in the water, and there are the supposed injuries that seem part of the plot of every "Ultimate." That plus the standard warning about how Alaska could kill you.

"On this episode, deadly rapids" threaten, the narrator warns at the start. But, of course, no one dies. And aside from Raney's shiver-fest, episode five isn't nearly as much fun as episode two -- "Over the Falls."

"Over the Falls" opens with our adventurers being flown east from Juneau to Turner Lake, 82 feet above Taku Inlet. Now get out your map.

The map that pops on-screen in "Over the Falls" portrays "Turner Creek" running west for miles from an unnamed lake in the Coast Range Mountains to the shores of Stephens Passage somewhere near Slocum Inlet. In reality, as your map will show, Turner Creek runs for less than a mile west-northwest from the lake to tideflats on Taku Inlet, 15 miles or more northeast of Slocum.

There is a trail along the creek to a U.S. Forest Service cabin on the lake. The Forest Service says the trail is 0.8 miles long.

Why is the map shown on "Ultimate" so messed up? It has to be. Take it from the narrator of "Over the Falls":

"Once across the lake, the teams will battle 45 miles of thick forest, towering waterfalls and the rough open waters of Stephens Passage to hit the extraction landing zone on Admiralty Island."

Without a miles-long Turner Creek, there are no "45 miles of thick forest" and no "towering waterfalls" to be discovered. As it is, the teams need to do some work to find those "towering waterfalls."

"As the Military Team struggles through thick forest, the Endurance Team finds an easier route and now takes command of the lead," the narrator intones as the video portrays an alpine valley through which the group carries a canoe.

Treeline in Southeast Alaska is near 3,000 feet. Packing a canoe 2,918 feet up a mountain seems a strange way to find an "easier route" to win a race, but what the hell, it makes for an adventure.

Adventure is another way of saying something is going to go wrong, and the boys of the Endurance Team discover what when they start hearing the sound of water.

"Getting past this pair of 70-foot waterfalls won't be easy," the narrator says. Not one waterfall, mind you, but two.

The Endurance Team is soon lowering its canoe down a hillside next to a waterfall. At the bottom, team member Sean Burch, a motivational speaker from Virginia, happily announces, "We bypassed the two waterfalls and we're feeling pretty good."

Oh, but wait! There's yet a third waterfall.

The team will either need to reverse its route, the narrator says, "or risk a 70-foot descent down the face of the thundering waterfall."

Seventy plus 70 plus 70 equals 210. So the Endurance Team is now a minimum of 128 feet above Turner Lake where the "race" started, but obviously they're higher than that because the tideflats of Taku Inlet are nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, back behind, the Military Team, which started across Turner Lake in a brown, square-stern, freight canoe only to run into a logjam at the outlet of Turner Creek, has portaged around it and is "blazing past the gushing waterfalls," as the narrator says.

These "gushing waterfalls" appear to be exactly the same waterfalls the Endurance Team just passed. How did the Military Team get from the forest down at elevation 82 feet at the end of Turner Lake less than a mile from easy paddling on Taku Inlet up into the mountains with the Endurance Team?

Better yet, why did the Military Team decide to start climbing when easy travel was so close? Who knows? Who cares? There are bigger problems.

"Son of a bitch," one of the military team says. "There's another waterfall, dude," his buddy adds.

The Military Team has discovered that third 70-foot waterfowl the Endurance Team previously encountered. Manly man Seavey rappelled down the thundering flow. How the rest of his team got down and how they got the canoe down is unknown.

Something is fishy here. And no, it's not the dead fish Raney just "caught" back at Turner Lake, where the Mountaineers have decided they would rather eat than compete and are cooking up fish and camping on a tarp-size rock in the middle of the water.

The Military Team, however, is about to answer the riddle of how to get a canoe down that last waterfall: Toss it off the cliff.

Two of them grab hold of their silver, double-ended, aluminum canoe... Hey wait, a minute. This is a different canoe. Where did it come from? What happened to the tan, square-stern freight canoe?

The new canoe is a damn big canoe, too. The Military Team thinks the waterfall is 60 feet high, 10 feet lower than the Endurance Team's guess, but still big. And the waterfall is one and a half to one and three-quarters times taller than the canoe is long, so the canoe is at least 30 feet long.

No problem. The Military Team members are mighty strong. They pick up the 30-foot canoe (where does one get a 30-foot canoe, anyway?) and toss it off the cliff. The video indicates the canoe makes it safely, but strangely enough, when the race resumes on Stephens Passage, the Military Team is back in the brown, square-sterned canoe with the blacked-out AK numbers they were in on Turner Lake.

Damn, it can be difficult to keep the details straight when capturing reality on film.

It is on the ocean that the Military Team is caught by the Mountaineers Team, which has a survived a lightning storm while on its rock. "Thunderstorms in Southeast Alaska often strike with just a few minutes warning," the narrator says solemnly. This particular "often" happens once every 1.9 years in the Juneau area, according to the National Weather Service.

Having lived through the rare Southeast thunderstorm, if there was a thunderstorm, and survived, which is obvious, the Mountaineers have somehow sped through the waterfalls (or found a magic route) and are closing on the Military Team, which has stopped so one member can scale an oceanside cliff to, in the words of the narrator, "scout Stephens Passage."

This is a task hard to do from water level. From there, one might mistake the huge land mass to the west as something other than the nearly 1.1-million-acre Admiralty Island. It could be Russia, which, as you know, a former governor noted can be seen from Alaska.

Then again, if the Military Team member didn't scale a cliff, he would have no way to do a high dive into the ocean to save time getting down from the cliff. The high dive is obviously necessary because the Military Team has now learned from the unexpected arrival of the Mountaineers that they know some trick that lets them sleep in and then travel at extreme rates of speed to catch up to everyone else. Maybe they have a motor in their canoe.

Or maybe the Military Team has been slowed by the digestive problems of the member who ate a beans-and-rice energy bar. It has to be a beans-and-rice energy bar he is caught on camera eating because the narrator has already informed everyone how the teams have to survive for 60 hours on only "two pounds of beans and rice" per person and whatever else they can take from the land.

This two pounds would amount to about three-quarters of a pound per day. Chris McCandless, he of Magic Bus fame, went 112 days on 10 pounds of rice, which would be less than a tenth of pound per day. But he did supplement that with a moose, most of which was wasted, and some squirrels and birds. And he died.

The Mountaineers are lucky they did not do a McCandless. Really lucky, because "Ultimate" shows them grabbing some clams as if to eat. Thankfully, it does not show them eating the calms. Paralytic shellfish poisoning is a possibility at any time of the year in Southeast Alaska and a high probability in summer, which is when the show filmed.

Eating clams in Southeast in summer is stupid, but stupid is as "Ultimate" does.

As when the Mountaineers get in a canoe race with the Endurance Team, and the guy in the middle of the Mountaineers canoe goes from paddling with two hands on a broken ski to paddling one-handed with an ax to paddling with two hands on the broken ski again in the space of 20 seconds.

You probably did not know this, but there is a rule in canoe racing that says the fastest way to paddle if you lack a real paddle is to alternate between the two-handed ski technique and the one-hand ax technique. All of which is what makes "Ultimate" so much fun.

Where else could you see craziness like this set against the splendor of Alaska? If you're a real Alaska hardman, you might be able to sit through three or four episodes. I could only handle two.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.