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Woniya Thibeault survived extreme cold and isolation to become a winner

(Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Woniya Thibeault won a season of “Alone: Frozen,” the popular wilderness survival show that tests people to see how long they can last on their own with only their skills, and a few tools.

But she’s much more than just a gritty survivalist. Thibeault has devoted her life to learning skills our ancestors used to survive and thrive.

“Harvesting wild foods, harvesting plants for medicine and basketry materials and fibers, making bow and arrows from things I can harvest around me,” she says. “I feel like it’s the best way to be human.”

It’s changed how she sees modern life.

“We get upset when Starbucks has the wrong flavor creamer,” she adds. “As opposed to like, ‘Whoa, I get food today and I didn’t have to slave for it? And a warm place to sleep tonight and someone in my family doesn’t have to stay up to make sure that nothing’s coming to eat us?'”

Today, On Point: Woniya Thibeault on thriving in the wild.

Guest

Woniya Thibeault, ancestral skills and wilderness survival instructor. She won History Channel’s “Alone: Frozen,” when she spent 50 days in Labrador from October through December of 2021. Author of “Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey.”

Information about the classes can be found through her website, Buckskin Revolution.

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from “Never Alone.” All rights reserved.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: No one can survive this. It’s a life-threatening winter storm in Labrador, Canada, just on the edge of the Arctic Circle. I’m not in Labrador. I’m at home, very far away from this storm. And I’m bundled in my warm down comforter, wanting to complain about something. But feeling the justification for any complaint rapidly draining away.

The days-long storm, horizontal snow and blistering winds are on my laptop screen. I’m watching the History Channel’s hit show “Alone,” where a group of wilderness experts are dropped into the toughest, most remote places in the world, and tasked with one thing: survive for as long as you can, with only your skills, a few tools and your mental stamina.

And right now, I have no idea how any set of skills, tools or mental toughness could withstand the kind of storm that’s blasting the rocky region of coastal Labrador where that season’s contestants are hunkered down. You know how we always talk about the importance of grit? Well, there it is. Excepting Mother Nature’s power, right there on my screen.

And there’s one participant who’s particularly captivating, and whom I can’t stop thinking about: Woniya Thibeault. She’s 5 foot 4. 40-something years old. And through every mind-numbing, body-breaking challenge she’s faced in this season of “Alone,” which, by the way, was called appropriately “Alone: Frozen,” Woniya has been smiling and grateful. I think that’s why she won.

THIBEAULT: Day 50! And what a gorgeous morning. Oh, my goodness. Today, I have achieved my goal. Day 50, alone in Labrador, getting pounded by weather. Oh, my goodness. But wow, here we are. Hard to wrap my brain around it all. (CHEERS)

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Woniya Thibeault has been on two seasons of “Alone.” She’s survived the longest cumulative time solo in the wilderness of any contestant who’s appeared on the show thus far. And in her new book, “Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey,” Woniya sums up what carried her through this way. Quote,” Let me absorb all the joy and wonder that I can hold.” And Woniya Thibeault joins us now. Woniya, welcome to On Point.

WONIYA THIBEAULT: Thanks so much, Meghna. I’m so happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, your book is about your experience on season six of “Alone.” But I do want to talk with you for a minute about that storm that I described that was in “Alone: Frozen.” (LAUGHS) Can you tell me what it felt like? Like bodily?

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS) Oh, my goodness. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: To experience that?

THIBEAULT: Yeah, well, it was pretty intense. I will say out of 123 days out on “Alone,” between season six and “Frozen,” it was the one time that really felt like a real survival moment. Because, and I say moment, but that was a three-day storm. Because the weather truly felt life threatening. It was so intense.

But also, what they have there is called a cyclonic weather system with literally like cyclone winds. The snow is not just horizontal, sometimes vertical, but from the ground up because I was on steep ocean cliffs, right-facing the Atlantic Ocean. And so the weather would hit those cliffs and shoot upward. So literally snow shooting up under my parka. It was unbelievable.

And because those winds were so fierce, they were also driving my smoke back down my chimney. So the scariest thing about that storm was the fact that midway through it, I started experiencing obviously a lot of smoke inhalation from the smoke, but then this incredible, searing pain in my eyes. And it turned out, as I discovered later, that it was from having some seaweed burning in my fire. And the seaweed was saturated with salt, of course, which is sodium and chloride together. And when they burn, they separate. So it was actually chlorine gas.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow.

THIBEAULT: That was gassing me in the face, and it made me go blind in the middle of the most horrendous storm I’ve ever experienced in my life. And it also happened that that little yellow device that has our GPS and has the emergency tap out button, that was dead. And I was unable to charge it. So in the scariest moment that I had out there, blind and unable to do much for myself, I also was unable to call for rescue. Which was also kind of a moot point, because it would have taken them many days to even be able to get to me, because they couldn’t come in a storm like that. So, (LAUGHS) It was a dark moment.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, no one’s going to take a chopper out in that storm.

THIBEAULT: Yeah. And the next morning, the storm was so intense that it actually shook my walls apart a bit. And … I think this must have been before the blinding incident, because the storm is three days. But at some point in that storm, I woke up and there were icicles driven horizontally, like sticking exactly horizontally through my shelter walls, because of the temperatures and the force of those winds. So it was pretty intense.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So you’re feeling it in your body. Your hand-constructed shelter is doing the best it can, right, to stay standing. And you’ve got this blindness problem.

THIBEAULT: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: And I mean, we should emphasize for people who haven’t seen any season of “Alone,” that you truly are alone. Right? I mean, you can tap out and the show’s producers will come and get you. But other than that, there’s no one for, I don’t know, many, many, many, many, many miles.

THIBEAULT: … Correct. It’s all self-filmed. So there’s no camera people.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s all self-filmed. Exactly.

THIBEAULT: We’re doing all of the filming, which turns out is remarkably challenging when you barely have use of your eyes.

CHAKRABARTI: Like we should say that the blindness wore off, though, after a while.

THIBEAULT: It did. Yes. And it wasn’t a complete, I could still see kind of blurry shapes, but it was just insanely painful to have my eyes open. It was the combination of the poor vision and the pain that made it really hard even to open my eyes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so what I want to know is, you can have skills, your hands can be very skillful, right? Your shelter can stay standing. You can even eventually understand what might have temporarily taken your sight. But as the world is shaking around you, with the full force of Mother Nature’s power, how does your mind and spirit cope with that?

THIBEAULT: That’s a great question. The reality for me, both in that situation and a lot of my time on “Alone,” was that there’s really nothing you can do but surrender and trust. And the more you spin out, and the more you let fear get a hold of you, that actually lowers your chances of survival. Because it puts you in fight or flight, which means you are going to be making poor decisions. It’s going to be elevating your heart rate. It’s going to actually be burning through your few remaining calories a lot faster. So there’s really no point in it.

So I believed that the landscape and the weather did not want to do me harm. And I knew that there was nothing I could do and no rescue possible. So I just chose to let go and trust. And I burrowed into my sleeping bag, which luckily was a -40 degree down sleeping bag. And I just let myself fall asleep. And, you know, I tried to plug my ears so the howling winds wouldn’t shake me awake.

But it made me very glad that I had chosen to build my shelter into solid rock. I was banked against; two corners of my shelter were granite. So that incident made me very, very happy that I had made the choice that I had. Because I could see any other shelter being blown over, or blown off the cliffs into the ocean or some such thing.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I wonder where did that sense of trusting in nature and letting go in a moment like that come from in you? Because a lot of other people, even some on like every season of “Alone,” they instead hunker down, right? And they sort of take this me vs. nature approach. But yours is like the exact opposite.

THIBEAULT: Yeah. You know, I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that I studied natural sciences. So I’ve always been a biology nerd, from the time I could remember. I started loving spiders as one of my first memories, playing with the daddy longlegs in the corners of the shower. (LAUGHS). And loving plants and birds, and then going on to study those in my college years. So I think the fact that I strongly identify with nature, it’s not just a green blur to me. It’s individuals that I know and value.

That’s a big part of it. And, you know, that innate trust, that’s a great question. And I honestly, I can’t say exactly where it came from, but there’s something about deep immersion in nature that puts you in a really different mindset. It becomes really hard to live in your abstract brain, which is what we mostly do as modern humans, right? Most of our world isn’t taken up with things like food, shelter and basic survival. But when it is, you’re just present in the present moment. And it’s like a type of meditation. You know, logically, there is nothing that you can do to change things. So why would you continue to fight them in that situation?

CHAKRABARTI: But was there ever a time on “Alone: Frozen” or Season six of “Alone,” where even your faith in nature and your willingness to let go was truly tested?

THIBEAULT: Hm. I want to say no. But there were two incidences, and I write about this in the book, where I was in a place where I had a harder time maintaining the positive mindset that really characterized most of my time out there. And it was the two times on season six that I got hypothermic. And it was amazing to me how it affected not just my body. I mean, obviously I had less use of my hands and of my body in that situation, which was frightening, but it also really affected my mindset.

It was the only time on season six that I felt deeply lonely, that I felt particularly sad. There was something about losing my body’s capacity that did make my mind and my emotions start to spin out on me a bit. And it was really fascinating, and I was really grateful that I had that happen early on, before the cold was really deep and really dangerous. Because it meant I was very careful. I completely changed the way I did things. I wouldn’t let myself work on tasks where I was not moving in the dark. Or if it was really cold or, you know, things that I had to have my gloves off. I just became much more cautious to avoid going through any of that again.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, today we are speaking with Woniya Thibeault. She’s an ancestral skills instructor and she has appeared on the History Channel’s hit show “Alone” twice. And cumulatively holds the most number of days spent alone in the wilderness on that show. She’s got a new book out called “Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey.” We’ll have a lot more when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Woniya Thibeault is with us today. She’s appeared on two seasons of the History Channel’s hit show “Alone.” And she has a new book out. It’s called “Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey.” … Now, Woniya, it suddenly occurred to me that, you know, I’m one of those “Alone” obsessives who’ve seen every episode of every series and, like, watched all the YouTube videos that each participant puts out too, as well. But there are probably a lot of people, or maybe at least some who haven’t seen the show. So how would you describe what the premise is of it?

THIBEAULT: The premise is that ten people are selected and each of them gets to select ten gear items. So that includes everything that you need to survive, like a sleeping bag, a cook pot, some way to make fire. But the items are very limited. They’re not the items that would make it easiest to live out there. For example, not a lighter, but a ferro rod, which is a metal rod that you can strike a spark off of. But then you need to be able to get that spark to catch and create fire.

So enough things to make it possible, but extremely challenging to live in the wilderness. And then they are set down, either by boat or often by helicopter in the wilderness, all several miles from one another, such that there’s no way that they will ever be able to interact with one another. And in fact, there are what are called geo fences, invisible boundary lines that the GPS device has keyed into it, so that you have a limited area that you can travel. And it’s a competition with the idea that the last one to remain, however long in the future that might be, becomes the winner.

CHAKRABARTI: Hm. And as you said, you’re filming yourself.

THIBEAULT: Correct. It’s all self-filmed. So before they drop you in their spot, they’ve set down a case full of camera equipment and you need to keep the camera equipment dry and intact, as well as yourself intact. And document the entire journey yourself, which is a very significant challenge in those conditions.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. Because the producers even ask you to do things like, I mean, this is still ultimately going to be on television. So in your book, you describe how they ask you to, you know, do things like get the same shot three times from three different angles. Right? And I was thinking, “Um, well, when preserving calories is a really top priority, when you’re solo in the wilderness, having to walk the same path three times just to get three camera shots, that had to get a little frustrating.”

THIBEAULT: Absolutely. I think the average viewer doesn’t realize what a huge imposition the filming is in an already extreme survival challenge. And, you know, it’s interesting, and I kind of had an epiphany towards the end of my time on season six, because, you know, I was a straight-A student. I was a real good kid, teacher’s pet type. So I absolutely did everything I could to get the best possible footage.

And then it was towards the end when my body was seriously wasted, and I realized how many of the calories I had burned through out there went to filming, you know, over and over, as you say. And realizing there’s no one out there checking on us. And probably being so incredibly diligent about the camera work was a distinct disadvantage for me out there. Because I was fairly certain that a lot of the other people probably didn’t choose to follow all of the instructions to a ‘T’ in the way that I had.

CHAKRABARTI: I also want to just point out the obvious, that when producers for “Alone” are looking for future participants, they’re not just calling up like random people. Like, no one’s going to call me from the History Channel and be like, “Hey, Meghna, do you want to participate in ‘Alone’?” You know?

THIBEAULT: I mean, we could work on it. If you really have your heart set on it, we could figure something out.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ll talk about that later, Woniya.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Don’t tempt me. But so, I mean, the folks who participate are true experts. I mean, most of them have dedicated their lives to forming these sorts of wilderness skill sets or ancestral skills, as you call them. And also, even they’re just, in a sense, living that way, if not totally isolated. So don’t do this at home, right?

THIBEAULT: Certainly. Yes. Everyone who goes out has a strong skill set. But … really across the board there, I mean, there have been people on the show who were, you know, lots of construction workers, white collar folks, lots of different lifestyles. And I would say that the folks who are actually living the wilderness skills as their lifestyle are a much smaller percentage of the participants.

Some, it’s hobbies. Some it’s, you know, weekend warriors, everywhere in between. But certainly, all of them come to the show with a lot of skills and also are assessed and selected based on how they are able to demonstrate those skills to the producers.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Yeah. So there’s a minimum amount of skills you have to have.

THIBEAULT: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: And now that you mention it, you’re right. Actually, some of the I don’t even think weekend warriors is the right phrase for them.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: But like you said, there’s some white-collar workers who are spending a lot of time, though, also developing these skills. And they do fairly well, although I think I remember in one season there was a gentleman, it’s probably a good thing I don’t remember his name, who beforehand was talking about how like he was as tough as a bear, but then tapped out after like on the first day, because being alone was actually quite terrifying.

THIBEAULT: I would say that typically the people who go into it with the biggest ego and talking biggest are the people who last the shortest amount of time out there. If you put yourself up on a pedestal, you’re giving yourself a long way to fall. And then you already have taken such a hit, if you went in with a lot of ego, that it feels harder to recover. Whereas if you go in with humility and you didn’t build these big expectations, then you’re just going to, you know, get back up and brush yourself off if you take a big hit.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So I was actually going to wait a little bit later to ask you this question. But given what you just mentioned.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: I saw a pattern, over the, I guess, what, there’s been nine seasons of “Alone” plus “Alone: Frozen.” I actually haven’t seen “Alone” like the skills challenge one yet. But anyway.

THIBEAULT: It’s a very different premise.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. It doesn’t interest me as much as the core “Alone” show. But what I saw was that not all of the men, but a lot of the men, early on, are like, “I’m going out there, I’m going to tame Mother Nature, you know, I’m going to show her who’s boss and I’m going to control the land and I’m going to survive 200 days.” Like, whatever. They had, that sort of man vs. nature attitude.

And you’re exactly right. I mean, frequently, even though they might go quite a while, those were the same men who on the show, you see them breaking down, crying. Because they just can’t do it anymore, or the isolation is too much for them. Because I don’t think they ever fully considered that, you know, you’re going to be truly on your own. But there was sort of an emotional fragility that was hiding behind that super, like, I can control nature exterior. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

THIBEAULT: 100%. Yes, absolutely. Well, and if you go in there, seeing nature as your enemy, then how are you going to find companionship out there? Right? If you see yourself as that ‘other,’ then well, one, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Because it is impossible to win a wrestling match with Mother Nature. And we’re talking about extreme northern climates. Every “Alone” season has taken place in really intense, difficult situations.

So it’s pretty naive to think that you are going to be able to do anything to that landscape. But then you’re also setting yourself up for this antipathy, rather than that sense of belonging, and feeling joy and being fed by this beautiful place. So you’re setting yourself up in a couple different ways.

CHAKRABARTI: So you actually found companionship in the environment?

THIBEAULT: Absolutely, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, in season six, which is what the book is about, you were the runner up in that season. You went 73 days.

THIBEAULT: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: And that was the season where Jordan Jonas won. Is that right?

THIBEAULT: Yes. It was the first season that anyone had ever gotten big game.

CHAKRABARTI: He got the moose.

THIBEAULT: Mhm. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Right? But you, I mean, like you were runner up and the person who wins, wins because the runner up taps out.

THIBEAULT: Or gets extracted.

CHAKRABARTI: For medical reasons. Exactly. Well, and your body did take an extreme. It was an extreme toll on your body. I mean, you write that kind of halfway through the book, there was a slate of time where there was a particular week, for example, a week and a half. You say you had managed to gather only a few handfuls of berries, seven grubs and a few tablespoons of birch sap. That’s all you ate in a week and a half. So I think emotional isolation and the toll that takes, and then starvation, those are the two main things that push people off the show. I mean, how did you cope with the starvation?

THIBEAULT: You know, it’s really interesting. Because had you asked me before going on “Alone” how I would handle starvation, I would have said, “No, that is not one of my strong suits and not someone who’s going to do well with very, very limited calories.” So it really surprised and pleased me how resilient I actually found myself to be. And again, I think that that shows one of my strengths being 100% in love with that experience.

I wasn’t there for the competition. I wasn’t there for the money. I was there because it was the fulfillment of my life’s path. All of my most cherished dreams involved going into the wild to make a life there from the resources around me. So the opportunity to do that and then being in this place, that was magically beautiful. I mean, Northern lights and golden birch leaves fluttering in the wind against a backdrop of stark granite. It was just jaw droppingly beautiful. And I found that that sustained me in a way that I had only been sustained by calories. And other times in my life. I was able to tap into what I felt like was a different kind of metabolism.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, the strict scientist in me would say that was probably just your brain becoming delusional and lack of calories. But it took you to this transcendental place, though, is what you’re describing.

THIBEAULT: Exactly. I mean, in the same way that the placebo effect actually has a true physiological impact on our bodies, I think that believing that and seeking that type of being fed really did impact my body. And in fact, I know it did, because I had a time, as I describe in the book, where I had been given a weight warning. I was told I wasn’t doing well. And I just, I started to really focus on that and think, “I’m starving, I’m starving.” And I felt weak, and I felt less capable.

And then I turned my mindset around and I said, “You know what? People do fasts for health reasons, so I’m not starving. I’m doing a cleanse.” And thinking about it like that, I felt stronger, again. It 100% changed how I felt in my body. So the mind-body connection is one that science is starting to delve into. But I really think that there’s something in it that’s beyond just what’s going on in your brain.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. And also, I mean, as we said a little bit earlier, the producers pull people off shows if they’ve lost so much weight that their health is truly in danger. Right? You didn’t quite reach that point.

THIBEAULT: You know, what you don’t see from the show is that I actually chose to leave when there was a medical check coming. And I felt quite certain that I wasn’t going to be able to pass it.

CHAKRABARTI: Because I wanted to know, you were doing so well. Right? And you could see that transformative mindset. And I was like, “Why is she tapping out?” Tell me more.

THIBEAULT: Yeah, you know, so I chose to leave on my 43rd birthday and I had been going along knowing that getting pulled was imminent. Every medical check, they had sterner and sterner language about how they were very concerned about me. And if things didn’t change, my time was limited. And so I kept setting these markers for myself. If I can just make it to eight weeks, if I can just make it to ten weeks. Okay, If I can just make it to my birthday, what a birthday gift it would be to be out here. And it was towards the end of my time when I knew that I had barely squeaked past the last medical check, and another one was imminent.

And I just kept thinking, “Okay, just ’til my birthday, just ’til my birthday.” And then I had this crazy epiphany moment where I realized that wouldn’t be a gift, and it would also not be in line with who I actually am. The idea of staying until other people deemed that I was in so much danger that they couldn’t conscionably leave me out there anymore.

Who was I to let other people make that call for me? Rather than to demonstrate that I cared about myself, and my long-term health enough to make that choice for myself. And while I had thought that success would mean staying until the last possible minute, never giving up until I got pulled, I realized, “Whoa, no. Success is making the choice for myself and choosing my health over something as arbitrary as winning.”

Right? That’s really a human created concept and everything about my life, and the way I live it is about doing what’s right, not doing what our culture tells us to do. And not putting things like money, and possessions, and winning and status first. So here was the situation where millions of people were potentially going to be watching me.

And was I going to demonstrate something counter to my values in that moment? And then I realized with a medical team coming, I had literally hours to either make the choice for myself and maintain my sovereignty and have it be my own choice, vs. have me dragged out of there against my will, kicking and screaming. And so I made the call myself, because it felt really important to me to demonstrate what was right.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Woniya. It took your body two years to recover from that, though, and then you decide to do it all over again. (LAUGHS)

THIBEAULT: Right? That was a hard choice. When they called me about “Alone: Frozen,” I was like, “Oh man, I have only had my body back for a year now.” And “Ugh.” So it wasn’t about the experience that I was nervous. It was about the potential recovery from the experience, because that’s something that you don’t know the first time. You’re very naive the first time about what the long-term ramifications could be. And they’re different for everyone, and obviously they’re much stronger for those who stay out a really long time. But yeah, that really gave me pause, that’s for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: So and in “Alone: Frozen,” the experience starts later, right? Deeper into winter.

THIBEAULT: Later than they’ve ever launched anyone on “Alone.” Significantly later.

CHAKRABARTI: So prep time for building shelters and gathering food is really, really cut down.

THIBEAULT: And there’s less food out there. Because the plants are all dead. The mushrooms are all melted into piles of goo.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. And you are in coastal Labrador, so it’s cold and wet, right?

THIBEAULT: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: But then you won.

THIBEAULT: I did. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I have to say, we’re going to take a break in a couple of minutes, and we’ll talk more about that. But do you know what moved me when you won? It wasn’t just that you were the first woman to win a season of “Alone.” It’s that your first, one of your first responses when they said, you know, “You made it. You’re the last one.” You asked, “Is everybody else okay?” You must remember that. I was like, “What a remarkable woman.” You just, like, had this amazing experience. You were the victor. But your first thought was for your fellow participants and their health and well-being.

THIBEAULT: Yeah, well, I knew how brutal it was out there. I mean, it was touch and go. So, yeah, you know, I think that was one of the things that was most appealing to me about the “Frozen” season, was the fact that it was set up so that it wasn’t duke it out until the end, and you need everyone else to go home in order to win premise. It was that everybody who made it to day 50 would win together. And we all loved that.

And we all, we made plans for what meal we would eat together day 54. Once we figured we’d be better able to eat food again. You know, we really went into it from a supportive mindset, that frankly was really different than what I experienced on season six. The competition thing and the like, “I’m tougher than you,” really bothered me. So yeah, I really cared about those people, and I really wanted them to do well and I was worried about them because it had been very, very, very challenging.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Woniya Thibeault is with us today. She’s an ancestral skills instructor and she teaches those skills in classes through her website, Buckskin Revolution. We’ll talk more about that a bit later. And she’s the winner of the History Channel’s hit show “Alone.” She won this season called “Alone: Frozen.” More in a moment. This is On Point.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Woniya Thibeault is with us today. She’s the winner of one of the seasons of “Alone.” That’s the History Channel’s hit show about surviving in the wilderness. She won “Alone: Frozen” and was the runner up in “Alone,” season six. But her approach is about a lot more than just gritty survival. For survival in the wilderness, Woniya likes to talk about surviving or thriving with nature.

And we’re going to discuss that in a second. But she’s got a new book out called “Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey.” And Woniya, I just want to play a little clip from “Alone: Frozen.” Because as we had mentioned before on that season, you became the first woman to officially win the challenge. Although women had done very well, I would say, in previous seasons, as well. But here you are. It’s day 50 or just after day 50, when the production team came to your location in Labrador, Canada, and a producer asked you what it felt like to be the first woman to win.

THIBEAULT: (CRIES) It feels incredible. I’m so like, I feel so incredibly grateful to be able to represent women in this way and to show the world that we are every bit as capable. I emphasize the heart, and the connection, and the love and how much being in this place has been a relationship.

And I feel like that’s something really special that women often can bring, to be an influence for young women, to be a role model for young girls, and show them what they’re capable of, to be the role model that I wish I had had as a young woman. It’s just, it’s so powerful. It means so much to me.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Woniya, I know in the book and in sort of your life’s work, because you’re focused on ancestral skills, you make the argument that being the first woman to win “Alone” shouldn’t matter because, you know, our ancestors, all of them had to have these skills regardless if they were men, women or children. But of course, the show is taking place in the modern world. So talk to me more about what it meant to be the first woman to win.

THIBEAULT: Well, as you shared, I had really mixed feelings about it, because I felt like on the one hand, it was amazing to be the first woman to win. And it was really important for myself, for women, for humanity to see that. And on the other hand, it felt silly that we have to make a big deal about a woman winning, because it makes it sound as if they’re not as likely to win.

You know, and the reality is that while we haven’t had a woman win “Alone” until “Alone: Frozen,” there have also been far less cast. There were no women in the first season of “Alone.” And then two women and eight men in the second season. The most there’s ever been is three women with seven men.

So, we have had a disadvantage just in terms of number. It was never an even playing field in terms of the numbers game. And also most young women are less encouraged to be doing outdoor pursuits, particularly things like hunting and fishing than most young boys are.

So we have this cultural idea that women are less interested and less good at it, but it’s really because we have a lot less access and we have a lot less examples of strong women who have done it. So being a force, changing that and being able to be that example was amazing. But it didn’t do away my frustration that that’s the case.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, well, and also on a “Alone: Frozen” the last three folks were women, right?

THIBEAULT: Yes. So the last three out of six were all women. The men were all gone before day 20.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Sorry, I admire anyone.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: I don’t mean to laugh, but I admire anyone who is able to even last 20 days like that in the wilderness. But it was really, I couldn’t believe it, actually. I was like, “Wow, the last three women, it’s amazing.” Now I want to, gosh, I need 6 hours to talk with you, Woniya.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Unfortunately, we only have like 12 minutes left. Listen, you know that obviously, you know, it’s your life we’re talking about, that this has never been about just sort of you being a weekend warrior or, you know, trying to be a survivalist. Right? Because that’s a whole different culture.

THIBEAULT: Correct. I have never identified myself as a survivalist. I actually really take issue with that term. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. Because, I mean, you’ve dedicated decades of your life to a completely different mindset about nature and ancestral skills. And that means you’ve lived off grid for a long time. You’ve sustained yourself through, you know, teaching your classes and, I don’t know, foraging, etc.

I think in the book you write that that means that for much of your life, technically, you’ve lived at the poverty line. But you’ve always been compelled, as you write in the book, to seek out feeling and being wild. And I would love for you to tell the story about one of those moments in your life where you felt that you could actually achieve that. And it’s the moment where you come, you write about it in the book, where you come eye to eye with a bobcat.

THIBEAULT: Yeah. Yeah, that was amazing. So I was out on a three-night, four-day ‘surthrival’ trip where it was about, not just the idea, like, “Can we survive?” Because to my mind, surviving just means not dying. Which is why I prefer the term ‘surthriving.’ Right? Actually, doing well and enjoying oneself rather than just managing not to die.

And it was a really beautiful trip. Because it was one that I went into with really different intentions than similar trips that I had done before, in terms of really being there to connect with the land and to give back as much as taking. And recognizing that the natural world misses and needs us as humans living wilder, just as we miss and need it. And what really brought it all to a head, and as an illustration of that, was this hike that I did where it was dusk, and I went out without anything.

No headlamp, no food, no water, just my clothes, knowing that it was getting dark, knowing that I didn’t know where I was headed, but choosing just to trust. And we had had rain the day before. And so there was water in little pools in the rock. So I was able to pick pinecones and eat the pine nuts. I was able to find greens. I was able to drink water right off of the rocks.

And it was really beautiful. And the culmination of the hike was looking out over this vista and seeing this strange thing that felt like a different pattern. And it was a little off, and then realized that it was a bobcat. And eventually having that bobcat look up and notice me, and I had actually woken it up, because it had been napping.

And it looked at me. And as we were staring each other in the face, this bobcat fell back asleep. Which was amazing to me, because it meant that it trusted me. That it felt safe enough knowing I was looking at it to do the most vulnerable thing it could possibly do and fall asleep. And so I really felt like that was a moment that affirmed the wildness within me, and the fact that I was a part of this landscape and recognized by the wild creatures in that landscape as part of it. And it was really life changing.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more about what it means to feel wild, though.

THIBEAULT: So I think that it’s an interesting concept in today’s world. Because we now live in these worlds that are so artificially constructed that we no longer are aware of the difference between needs and wants. And what it actually takes to keep our animal bodies alive. And so we live in this very different way than any of our ancestors and most of the other animals on the planet, barring domestic animals.

And that we really lose something in that. there’s something so beautiful about just being in the present moment and actually being in tune with our bodies and knowing that it’s our responsibility to make the good choices and have the skills to keep our bodies intact and alive. And it’s hard for me to describe in words, but there’s something about that that just feels so much more real and important than anything else that I’ve experienced in modern life.

And to me, there’s just such a beauty about that. And so erasing that designation between ourselves and other animals, between ourselves and nature, because I really feel that that that separation, you know, we’re here and then nature is out there. That’s what allows us to do all of the terrible things we’ve done to this planet that are really affecting us, as well as the rest of all living things.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Woniya, you’re a person with such profound skills. Like actual practical skills, those ancestral skills you’ve mastered. You’re the kind of person that can walk through the woods and see layers of information, an understanding of the species all around us, you know, plant and animal that most of us are probably blind to. I imagine that you’re even able to like, process information through your senses, your sight, smell and touch that maybe most of us just don’t have. Or don’t yet have, or they’re dormant within us.

THIBEAULT: That’s exactly it. Dormant, rather than not there.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So I was wondering though for those of us in whom that wildness is still dormant, do you think it’s possible to feel that that kind of deeper connection or even the stirring of that wildness without your level of integration?

THIBEAULT: Absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the major thrusts of my life’s work is helping people. Meeting people where they’re at, and drawing a little bit more of that out of them. I recognize that most people aren’t going to go into the woods with limited tools in order to stay long-term.

But if you can just learn a few patterns in the plant world, so that when you’re walking from your apartment to your car, you don’t just see a wash of green. You notice, “Oh, the dandelions are starting to come up. Oh, that plant wasn’t flowering last week. Hey, that one has leaves like this. That might be in the Rose family.” That is such a powerful thing.

And it starts to draw some of those human senses and some of that ancestral knowing out of us. And we all have that within us. None of us would be here today if our ancestors hadn’t known how to live and thrive in the wild world. It’s what our nervous systems are geared towards. Everything in our body is geared towards. So we all have it. And my work is about reminding people and giving them tools to bring that out, with the idea that it’s important for us, that it actually makes us feel more whole and grounded and healthy.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm hmm. Through your whole story seems to shout that the beginning of that process, it doesn’t actually take much. It just takes that mental shift, right?

THIBEAULT: Mm hmm. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: To feel like you want to be, desire to be, greater, more connected to the natural world around us, in whatever shape it might be hanging on. Right?

THIBEAULT: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Even in the middle of the city.

THIBEAULT: Yeah. I have a course called ‘Connection is a survival skill’ that’s actually an online course. So people can do it anywhere. Because we often think about, “You got to know how to tie the knot and know how to build the shelter.” Those are the survival skills. But to me, it’s awakening those senses, it’s that sense of connection and gratitude and surrender and trust. Those are the real survival skills and those are things that we can do, whether or not we ever set foot in the woods.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, And again, it’s not just survival, right? You keep talking about thriving with nature. So I’ve been batting this around in my head, whole show long. Woniya, should I tell folks about the fact that I’m taking Tim’s classes? (LAUGHS)

THIBEAULT: Sure. Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I guess I just did. So, I mean, look, I grew up in Oregon and played in the woods, like, every day of my life, camped, etc. But, you know, that’s kind of more common. I was never exposed to wilderness or ancestral skills, so I want to just make that differentiation. But I’ve always loved being in nature. And recently, I started taking wilderness skills courses here in Massachusetts from a really awesome guy.

Whom, you know, Woniya, named Tim Swanson, and he runs a group called Owl Eyes Wilderness. And I’ve got two of his four feather patches. I’m still working on it, Woniya.

THIBEAULT: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: But the kinds of folks that these classes are now attracting is incredibly diverse from all walks of life. Has it always been like that, or do you think something has changed in the past couple of years?

THIBEAULT: I mean, I think that absolutely the pandemic really changed people’s attitudes, and that existential fear. That idea that the stores might run out of food, the power might go down, you know, we might no longer have access to global food systems. I think that that really woke people up to the degree to which we are dependent on fallible systems. And the only thing that you can really rely on is the environment right around you and your own skill set.

So I actually wasn’t teaching online before the pandemic, and I shifted to putting out online classes, because I saw so many people panicking about realizing a need for these skills. Just at the time when I was no longer able to get out and teach them in person. So yeah, I think that all of us are now aware of the fragility of some of the systems we’ve relied on. We are really seeing global climate change now.

… It’s no longer something that most people are denying is happening. And we know that that’s going to take another level of resilience to get through. So I think that there is a real growing awareness and interest in it, and I think that that’s really important and it makes a big difference to me to be a part of that, and be able to offer that in a lot of different ways, to a lot of different types of people.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, the resilience that I need right now is I need some big-time calluses on my palms to get those friction fires going. (LAUGHS)

THIBEAULT: It’s true. Yes. And some of those little muscles that we don’t use in daily life that friction fire requires. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, like on TV, when you watch people do, it’s like, poof, there’s a fire, right? I have not gotten one started yet, and it kills my hands, I’m working on it.

THIBEAULT: Yeah. They don’t show all of the months of blisters that people go through before their hands get tough enough for those.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I’m always carrying a ferro rod with me for the rest of my life. That’s all I can say about that.

THIBEAULT:  You and me both. Yes I’m all about the ferro rods. I had never used one before “Alone,” I was all about friction fire. But these days, I’ve got a ferro rod within arm’s reach most of the time.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ve just got a minute or actually less than a minute left, Woniya. I would love you to leave us with a thought about even in the depths of some of your hardest moments in “Alone,” you always seemed to find a moment of beauty, as well. And can you just quickly take us back to one of those moments where beauty was the overriding experience, even as you were suffering?

THIBEAULT: Absolutely. Yeah. The weather in Labrador, it was truly brutal, and it was a lot harder than I had expected going in. But something about being in such harsh conditions mean that every second of sunshine, right, every moment that the clouds part for a second and reveal a rainbow, that has such more impact than it would be in clear, beautiful weather with easy conditions. So there is a gift in every challenge. And the degree to which we focus on those moments of beauty, rather than on what we don’t have, that absolutely transforms our lives.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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