Book Review: Will to Live by Les Stroud

Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival by Les Stroud. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, 230 pp., $17.99.

51Brdg4szNLWilderness survival and the unique and harrowing stories of real life survivors and tragedies gives author Les Stroud much to contemplate within the pages of Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival. What is the primary mitigating factor between life and death in a survival situation? Stroud seeks to discover the answer to this question by examining the survival stories of several well-known cases in which people lived or perished in this follow-up volume to his earlier work: Survive: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere-Alive. These stories find their setting in such diverse places as land and sea, forest and jungle. Equally, the personalities involved in the narratives are just as varied as the settings in which their survival experience takes place. The author admits that years of survival training can never substitute for the actual experiences of those who endured their ordeals. He states, “Therein lies one of the greatest problems I and other survival instructors have always faced. We rarely get the opportunity to really do the one thing we are best at: getting caught and subsequently tested in a true survival situation” (p. 1-2). Stroud offers his thesis when he articulates that discovering how people react when faced with a survival situation and how those reactions influenced the outcome of those circumstances guides the theme of the book (p. 4-5). The result is that the reader is left with a small library of case studies in survival psychology, ingenuity, perseverance, and tragedy. Stroud forensically examines each of the cases through the perspective of an expert survival instructor seeking to answer the bigger questions of cause and effect with analysis on lessons learned. The pages of Will to Live gives both novice and experienced outdoorsman a good foundation on the high cost of survival.

Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud productions. His work includes the award winning Survivorman television program. He is also an accomplished musician who has performed on stage with bands such as Journey and has gained the nickname, “The Hendrix of Harmonica”.[1] He is a member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Stroud is also active in environmental causes and is a board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Organization. He has recently launched Survivorman Television, an online network to continue to promote Survivorman®, his music, and environmental awareness. He publishes a website called, Survivorman-Les Stroud, http://www.lesstroud.ca/.

Will to Live is a study in survival psychology examined through the various real-world survival experiences of others. It seeks to uncover the difference between those who survived their ordeals and those who did not. The book seeks to answer from a psychological perspective on what makes the difference between surviving or perishing when lost or stranded. It reviews seven different stories of people who lived or perished when faced with life-threatening circumstances. They form seven chapters within the book. Stroud analyzes each chronicle through four elements of survival: knowledge, luck, kit, and will to live. The author intersperses his own experiences in five of the chapters in the book. The Epilogue of the book functions as the conclusion in which the author muses the implications of the individual cases and their analysis and concludes, “In going through the ordeals articulated in these pages, a new reality has become clear to me: luck plays a more important role than I originally thought” (p. 222). This gives the reader pause to contemplate the surviving of a life-threatening experience can be attributed to luck by an expert in the field.

After a short introduction, Stroud goes into the first survival story; that of Yossi Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg survived in the jungles of the Amazon for three weeks (p. 9). He details his story in the book Back from Tuichi (1993). Critical to this account is the lack of experience and training shown by the guide, Karl, on this Amazon adventure gone awry (p. 10). However, Stroud observes that Yossi’s survival mentality and unique ingenuity seemed to be key factors in his survival (p. 22). It is no surprise that the survival ordeal of Yossi Ghinsberg finds its place at the beginning of the book. His experience serves as the analytical template that the author uses for the other studies within the pages of the book. Some of the cases analyzed are: Nando Parrado’s survival on the Andes Mountains (p. 43-69); the Robertson Family’s survival at sea (p. 79-109); the tragic tale of Chris McCandless and the Alaskan wilderness (p. 117-133); the Stolpa family stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains (p. 141-159); the tragedy of the Karluk expedition in the Arctic (p. 169-195), and the Mawson expedition at the South Pole (p. 197-219). Stroud deftly moves the reader through each of the narratives to point out both the positive and negative aspects of each.

Beneficial to the reader, beyond the stories themselves, are the author’s side bar comments that gives added information pertinent for each survival scenario. The reader will find suggestions by the author on how to test the edibility of plants (p. 23), the contents for a sea survival kit (p. 85), what to put into a survival kit for a vehicle (p. 148), or the symptoms of rabbit starvation (p. 189). The book does not focus primarily on the techniques of survival such as building a shelter, starting a fire, etc. Rather, the author takes the reader on a survival journey to discover the psychology of survival and how that influences decision-making, ingenuity, and, ultimately, the outcome of the ordeal. For example, in the Karluk account, Stroud highlights the positive influence that staying busy had on the crew and how important that was on the human psyche in the Arctic region (p. 177-79). He then has side bar commentary on how the lack of sunlight and physical activity affects the mind (p. 178).  The importance of this type of information to the reader, especially the outdoor enthusiast, is critical to understanding survival psychology.

The one observed weakness in the text of Will to Live is the lack of discussion on how physiology effects emotions and rational thinking in a survival situation. For example, it does not discuss with any detail how the lack of food or water over an extended period may cause chemical changes in the body that influence mental function. It would be interesting to include some analysis by a medical doctor or psychiatrist with each of the stories regarding the effects of the starvation or dehydration process on emotions, thinking, and decision-making. However, the book is not an academic analysis on the psychology of survival. Rather, its purpose is to target a wide spectrum of people interested in the outdoors who may have only a cursory knowledge of survival psychology at best.  Therefore, the book achieves its intended purpose on that level.

Overall, Les Stroud brilliantly argues his theme on the topic of survival psychology. The Will to Live captures the essence of what it means to persevere in a survival situation. Some of the stories have a positive outcome and some do not. Yet, all these accounts give the reader a glimpse into the mental fortitude necessary to endure the harsh realities of being in a life-threating situation in the outdoors, whether on land or sea.  This book entrusts to the reader a small library of case studies on survival that will help the outdoor adventurer or enthusiast. Survival is more than learning a technique or acquiring a tool. The intangibles of survival are luck and will. This makes the act of survival even more sobering considering the author’s analysis and commentary. Will to Live will motivate the reader to investigate further the psychology of survival.  Equally, it will empower the reader to see contemporary survival-related news reports through a different perspective. One can gain knowledge through training and reading. One can gain tools and become proficient in their employment. However, one cannot quantify luck or will. Everyone has a breaking point physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Stroud causes the reader to examine themselves against the backdrop of those who found themselves suddenly in a survival situation and ask, “Do I have what it takes to survive?” Everyone who is interested in the outdoors or is actively involved in the outdoors will do well to read the pages of this book.

William H. Lavender, II

Lynchburg, Virginia

[1]Survivorman-Les Stroud. “Les Stroud, About”, Survivorman-Les Stroud, online. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://www.lesstroud.ca/about/.

 

Article Review: Keeping it Real with Les Stroud

“Keeping it Real with Les Stroud: Survivorman is Here to Crush the Most Common Survival Myths”, Survivor’s Edge by Michael D’Angona, Winter-Spring 2017, p.7-11.

 

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Les Stroud

The topic of survival provides much to discuss between Michael D’Angona and one of the most recognized personalities in the survival world, Les Stroud. The interview of survival expert Les Stroud gives the reader a glimpse into his mind and heart on a broad spectrum of topics that are of interest to survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts. Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud Productions, which produces the Survivorman television series primarily for the Canadian network, Outdoor Life Network, and has aired in the United States in cooperation with Discovery Communications since 2006. The interview covers some five pages in the current (Winter-Spring 2017) edition of Survivor’s Edge magazine.

 

D’Angona introduces the article with a general overview of the misconceptions that most people have regarding the realities of actual survival in an austere environment. He says, “Often people miss the fine points of survival when they are just reading up on it or watching a show about it.” This statement provides the theme for the discussion with Les Stroud. After the introduction, the author segues into the interview by asking Les, “What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people have about survival?” The interview then moves from the general topic of survival to specific aspects of survival (e.g. tools and equipment, survival psychology, and education and training), the article ends with a question regarding survival television with Stroud’s answers.  Les Stroud’s remarks recorded in the pages of this article are set in the context of naming and clarifying some misconceptions about the realities of survival.  Overall, the article gives those new to the survival interest some helpful tips and important advice. Those who have been fans of Les Stroud and Survivorman for many years will find some repeated thoughts that Les has articulated over the years, especially in regards to survival television.

One of the more insightful questions that Les Stroud answered was about analyzing the survival decisions of others, who are in the field. Les answered, “When they say, ‘I could do that’, I say, ‘Yes, you are absolutely right—you could do that; anyone can learn to survive.’ When they say, ‘He should’ve done this or that,’ I say, ‘Oh yeah, well, you weren’t there and until you’re in the same situation, you shouldn’t judge what someone else might do or not do to survive. Armchair survivalists are no different than armchair athletes.” This is an important perspective for those just starting out in survival and woodsmanship or they are seasoned veterans with accumulated years of field time developing their field craft. It is easy to make decisions when one’s body is hydrated, properly fed, rested, and under no psychological or emotional duress, especially as a passive observer of some else’s experience. Yet, when the realities of being stranded or lost set in, the abilities in decision-making and critical thinking become affected. It seems that changing one’s paradigm from being lost or stranded to being safe and secure at home has more of an influence on survival decisions than methodical, logically thought out progressively intentional decisions (i.e. “I got get out of here!” vs. “Ok, here I am, now how do I get out of here”). Thus, until you are in a stranded or lost situation, there is no legitimate way of knowing what kind of decisions that you would make. Therefore, Les cautions the reader to be careful about second guessing others.

The most important tip that Les offers in this interview is found in his answer to the question that relates to depending on someone else’s abilities and knowledge in a survival situation. He relates that when he is with a couple, he asks them what they are carrying and usually the husband speaks up and delineates what he is carrying for survival in his pack. Les, then, states the following, “I pull the wife aside and I ask her what she has, which usually ends up with her telling her husband, ‘See, I told you I should have my own pack!’ But this doesn’t mean that teamwork and relying on others isn’t also part of survival. It is.” This harkens to a military concept of each person carrying the same items in their rucksacks. Soldiers, Marines, and Special Operations personnel, who carry rucksacks into the field use a basic packing list of items that each member of the group is to carry in their packs. Obviously, clothing sizes vary, but some items can be collected from a fallen service member’s rucksack in the heat of a combat situation (e.g. first aid kits, signal or lighting items, fire making items, land navigation items, ammunition, knives, multi-tools, food, canteens, personal hygiene items, cordage, etc.). This is what Les is implying here in his response. The wife should have the same survival items in her backpack that are in her husband’s pack. Moreover, she should be just as knowledgeable and proficient with them as her husband. Additionally, they should be communicating to each other as to what survival items are in their packs. Then, if the husband should become incapacitated in some way, the wife can continue and not become debilitated in her survival efforts. The concept that Les is articulating applies not only to a husband/wife team but to anyone who is with an outdoors partner or group.

One of the more interesting responses that Les gives in this interview are on the topic of survival reality television. D’Angona asks Les two questions regarding survival reality television. All of which are in the context of dispelling misconceptions about real-world survival. The first question that Les fields from D’Angona is about the mixed messages that the general television audience receives from reality survival television. Les answers by making a correlation between watching the Olympics on television and attempting to intentionally do a particular event without training. The rhetorical response that Les outlines has the obvious answer that you would not do it. The same is true of watching survival television and trying to intentionally do survival outdoors without training. You would not do it. The second question that Les answers regarding reality survival television is also about how easy reality television makes surviving look verses continually working at your field craft. He goes on to give some specific names of television programs that can be misleading about survival; Man v. Wild (Bear Grylls), Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, and Alone.

The last show named by Les, Alone, has generated some backlash against Les by some of the former contestants of the show Alone. Unfortunately, is seems that some of the critics of Les, by these former contestants of Alone, did not keep the context of the interview in mind before they took Stroud’s critique personally and began circulating their disappointments via social media. The truth of the matter is that Les (as well as Cody Lundin) is correct in his assessment of reality survival television verses the realities of actual survival. It is my assessment that Les Stroud’s comments were not a dig at the field craft acumen, survival ability, or survival endurance experiences of individuals in the field while filming a survival television program. Rather, his comments are coming from a broader perspective in articulating the dichotomy between television reality and the real-world realities of being lost at sea, stranded in a snow storm, or lost in the wilderness with so safety structure to fall back on.  Therefore, Les’ comments are a sobering reminder that there is no substitute for what Dave Canterbury calls, “dirt time”.  Les Stroud reminds us in his “Patagonia” episode of Survivorman season 7, “You can’t watch a survival program on T.V. and head out and imitate it. It’s not safe. It’s taken me years to know what I know, to have learned what I’ve learned and I practiced hundreds and hundreds of times with other people before I ever attempted anything alone.”

The interview article by Michael D’Angona with survival expert, television personality, and musician Les Stroud was an excellent read. It offers great insights and advice to survival novices and survival veterans alike. Photos by Laura Bombier give a refreshing touch to this article. Her photographs reinforce the fact that Les Stroud is a credible, experienced survival expert that everyone can learn from in regards to survival in the outdoors. D’Angona did a wonderful job interviewing Les Stroud. This article should be read by everyone interested in Les Stroud, Survivorman, survival, or the outdoors.

William H. Lavender, II

Lynchburg, VA.