I recently competed on a web reality show called Woods Canada's Greatest Explorer. In this competition I was pitted against 11 other lovers of Canada's great outdoors in a series of challenges designed to test our knowledge and skills of Canada's natural world.
Smile you're on camera!
Over the course of just under 5 weeks I traveled with a crew of people from Ontario to Quebec and finally ending in Alberta.
When I watch each episode I can't help but think of all the behind the scenes stories the audience misses. All the laughter, anger, anxiety and the endless b-roll filming.
As the sound man, Sean, joked to me one day after several hours of filming, "Great, awesome. You couldn't have done it any better! Let's do it again."
Below are some of my behind the scenes stories of what I experienced while competing to become Woods Canada's Greatest Explorer.
If you haven't yet, watch each episode it'll help put things into context.
Challenge 1 - The Woods Wilderness Relay
All 12 of us contestants had only met a few days earlier in Toronto and still were total strangers to each other. We had a few days in Haliburton Ontario to size each other up, but no one really knew who had what skills beyond the bolstering that would occur around the campfire each night.
Before we even started the competition I knew I was going to have a tough fight. About a week before I was due to leave I had injured the IT band in my left knee. (I have since discovered that this was a ticking time bomb and it just happened to explode at the worst time)
Getting ready to compete
The morning of the competition we were assigned our teams by pulling coloured bandannas out of a dry sac. I was lucky to be matched with Ryan who is an ultra-marathon runner accustomed to being out of breath. Ironically, he too was plagued by the exact same injury as me. We both downplayed our pains to the rest of the group, we didn't want anyone thinking we would be soft targets.
We decided that Ryan would do the mountain bike and I would do the run. He is a much better biker than me and we figured he could give me the lead I needed to hold off Devin (the other ultra-marathon runner).
When I saw Ryan take off when they sounded the bullhorn I knew that it would be an hour or more before I saw him again. For those endless minutes I focused on trying to get the pain in my knee to quiet itself before I gave it the test about to come.
We overheard on the radio that a racer was coming up to the finish line and all of us runners quietly waited in anticipation for our teammate to round the bend. Ryan flew around the corner and I let out a sigh of relief. He had given me the lead I needed to keep us in good position.
Within 500 meters of running my knee started to bark at me, begging me to stop but I wasn't going to let it win. As I ran through the forest alone I kept saying to myself, "You're not going to stop. You're not going to stop."
We raced at the peak heat of the day and inside the forest there was no wind to help cool us off. Coupled with a lack of water it made the 10km loop all the more difficult as it that took us through steep and wet terrain.
At about the 7km mark I heard a cheer behind me. Devin, the superhuman runner, had caught up to me. As I gasped for breath, he gracefully bounded past me. I had slid into second place. Before Devin passed me he asked, "All you alright?" as a fireman in Calgary he's the type of guy to always be concerned about others before himself. I told him I was fine but at this point my knee was on fire.
However, having him pass me sent a surge of adrenaline through my body that helped numb the pain. As the youngest of five, there is instilled in me a terribly competitive mentality. This is what I needed to finish the run.
Running a little hot
As I came around the corner an hour after I left and saw the finish line I could see Ryan waiting for me with the canoe already in the water.
I ran right past him and dove straight into the lake. I was dehydrated and overheating and needed to get my core body temperature down. He tossed me a water bottle and we started our 9km canoe.
I am a pretty physical guy and have ran many races and am accustomed to having my heart beat hard in my chest but I have never in my life ran 10km and immediately sat in a canoe. There was no time for a cool down. This of course did not help my knee.
When we reached the portage section of the canoe route and I stepped onto dry land my knee really told me who was boss. A pain I have never felt before burned its way from my left knee all the way up to my hip. It was like someone had stabbed me with a hot knife. I almost fell over as I struggled to help carry the canoe.
When we entered the next lake we could see Devin and JP, who were in first place, collecting their flag and now making the return journey. We knew that third place was a good distance behind us. I asked Ryan if we should make a push for first but we both decided that second place would be good enough.
That night as we all sat around eating supper retelling the adventures of the day I sat quietly in my chair biting hard into my lip. I made the mistake of sitting which caused my tendons to shorten and seize. I felt like the Tin-Man from the Wizard of Oz, rusted and frozen. I couldn't get my leg straight. While the boys laughed around me, I put all my energy into getting my leg straight. I almost passed out from the pain.
This was the first challenge, I had seven more to go to if I were to win.
Challenge 2 - The Wildwoods Art
We had all just finished eating supper when we were told that we would find out what the next challenge would be. This was the sixth night out in Haliburton forest and our group had all gotten to know each other quite well at this point. It's almost like we had been friends for decades. When you spend every waking moment with each other you start to run out of the boring things to talk about and start to have real conversations.
Getting more details before starting
We were ushered into an old building lined with the stuffed carcasses of numerous local animals. The room looked like a child's nightmare version of a summer camp with all the dead eyes staring from the walls. In the middle of room were a row of chairs and smiling man with long grey hair waiting for us.
"My name is Reinhard Reitzenstein, I am an university art professor and for challenge 2 you will be connecting to nature with art."
There were more than a few confused looks and sideways glances between all of us. This is not what were expecting.
Mr. Reitzenstien proceeded to give us a presentation on what land art is. He showcased work of artists across the world and a piece of his own. He somehow convinced Quebec Hydro to allow him to hang a massive tree from an electrical pole to showcase the destruction that their lines create throughout the province.
The next day we were lead to our "canvas" area to start our projects. We would have 6 hours to complete whatever we felt like.
I remember walking out into the forest without a clue of what I was going to do and I hoped that something would come to me. After about 15 minutes of searching I came to a clearing with a massive fallen hemlock lying at its side. It was here that I decided I was going to make a massive cube shape because I had no better idea. About 20 minutes later I kicked it over in frustration. I had no connection to the piece and hated it from the start. As I looked around my surroundings the fallen tree that I originally dismissed sparked an idea.
What if I carved a perfect cube into the side of this tree laying down in the forest? The idea excited me and I quickly started my work.
What I didn't realize is that I bit off way more than I could chew as the wood I was dealing with wasn't as rotted as I thought it was. I only had two small hatchets to use as chisels.
For 4 hours I hacked, chiseled and molded the fallen tree. My arms and hands had gone numb from the constant banging of steel on steel. Mother nature made it more difficult for me when she decided to open up the skies and dump buckets of rain. I was resolved to finish even when they asked us to stop so the film crew could protect their gear.
As we took an hour break to wait for the rains to diminish I remain fixated on my project. I was at a critical juncture. I was starting to make my in-cuts that would form the cube shape.
When I returned to my work site I knew I had little time to make the final cuts to finish in time. As I began furiously chiseling I made one wrong move and "pop" and the cube broke in two.
I stood their in quiet fury for about three seconds before I let my primal side make an appearance. Aaron, one of the contestants, started calling these Jay Fit's, as I can be known to be a passionate man. My hands and arms were exhausted but they still had some fight left in them to bury one of my hatchets into my now ruined piece.
With less than an hour I had to scramble to turn nothing into something. I didn't succeed and got a very fair 11th place.
What a piece of crap!
Challenge 3 - "Can you Hack It?"
After my disastrous attempt at art I was now on the chopping block. The way the competition was structured that those in the bottom 4 spots would go home after the third challenge. With my 2nd and 11th place finish I was tied for 8th. 9th place would go home.
"Tomorrow's challenge is camping hacks," Ricky Forbes, the host of the show, told us while we stood in a "TV close" circle for the camera. We then did our usual 12 takes and angles to ensure the crew had the footage needed. What they didn't capture was my tremendous feeling of dread.
"Camping hacks?" I quietly said to myself in an attempt to calm my nerves. The shakiness I heard wasn't too reassuring.
That next day we had time to plan out what we were going to showcase. All the other 11 contestants busied themselves getting the supplies they needed to win the challenge. The way I saw everyone confidently deciding what they were going to build made me quite nervous about my lack of idea. I later learned that everyone was feeling very much the same way. We all have pretty good poker faces it turns out.
As I frantically searched my the mental catalogue of everything I have ever learned or done in the bush, every idea seemed weak and frankly not that exciting. I knew I needed to do something that was impressive but also practical. Too often people make what they think are "hacks" when in reality they created more work for themselves. Sometimes the old fashioned way is the best way.
While standing in a Home Hardware in Haliburton looking for supplies, an idea flashed into my brain. As the only one from Saskatchewan at the competition I felt like it was my duty to bring a bit of my homeland to the rest of Canada. That's where my hack idea came from, I wanted to show people how you overcome challenges on the prairies. You don't look up, you look down. I had learned this technique a few years ago from some random YouTube video and have since used it a couple of times. It is called a Dakota firehole.
Does this count as a hack?
Turns out digging two holes in the dirt is a pretty good hack. When I heard my name called out for second place I knew I had secured myself to move on to the next round and Quebec. You can see on camera the wave of relief that washed over me.
Challenge 4 - Lost in the Laurentians
This challenge has been my story of the summer. You know the one story you have that you end up telling every person you see? The one that your significant other has to listen to you retell a hundred times and still has to pretend that they are interested?
Anyways, this challenge was to spend 24 hours on a small island in northern Quebec where we had to complete a series of tasks such as build a shelter, make an attempt at foraging and fishing, start a fire and make a SOS signal.
We were given the clothes on our back - a Bic lighter with no fluid - matches with no striker -two what I thought were hard boiled eggs - a can of baby corn and a headlamp.
Trying to look cool while drinking from an aluminum can
I was dropped on my island around 1:00pm where the first thing I did was take an inventory of what I had. In doing so I was a little careless with my eggs, thinking they were hard-boiled, and broke one of the eggs on my matches. This happened within 30 minutes of getting on the island.
I decided to focus my daylight hours on building my shelter and would spend all night trying to start a fire if I had to. I had my headlamp that would keep things illuminated.
As night began to creep ever closer I decided I would start trying to make a fire. There are a few techniques that you can use to try and start a fire using matches with no striker which you will see in the video. However, because my matches got wet, they were useless.
I named my island Blackfeather Island from a crow feather I found.
We were taught another technique with an empty Bic lighter where you slowly build up flint until you get enough to spark a fire. I was determined to stay up all night if I had to in order to get my fire going.
With less than 15 minutes of daylight left I decide to grab my headlamp as it was becoming difficult to see. I figured I would have about 4 to 6 hours of battery before it died. Plenty of time to get my fire going. I pressed the button to turn it on and..... nothing. It was dead. I don't know what happened as I tested it before I got on the island but I no longer had a light source.
Panic started to set in.
It was getting dark, I had no matches, no light and a fire technique that would maybe work. I was boned.
After a few minutes of another Jay Fit, I reminded myself that I needed to calm down. A calm brain is a thinking brain.
I looked over what I had for supplies and an idea sparked into my head.
The headlamp used a lithium-ion battery (much like the one in your cellphone) to work. I remembered learning years ago that if you expose lithium to oxygen it creates a highly flammable gas. I just didn't remember how explosive it was.
So I took a rock, covered my face with my shirt as makeshift respirator, and bashed a hole in the battery. Thankfully I didn't lose any fingers.
Once I saw the gas I needed boiling out of the battery, I used my Bic lighter to spark it. I got a 12 inch flame that made the sound of small jet engine.
I spent the rest of the night quite cozy.
Explaining my unorthodox fire starting method. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!
Challenge 5 - The Great Outdoor Cookoff
I like cooking. Am I the best cook? Not even close. But when it comes to meals in my house I make most of them. It can be a good way to relax after a day in the office, so when I found out the fifth challenge was a cook-off I was confident I could make something that wouldn't taste like garbage.
Checking how much time I have left.
As you can see in the episode, I kept things pretty simple and drew upon my Saskatchewan heritage. No meal is complete without a big side of potatoes. Whenever someone offers me only a salad for the side I am in the fridge 20 minutes later looking to fill up. I think Saskatchewan stomachs need at least one potato a day to feel full.
I was quite frantic while making my meal as I have never made anything that would be judged before. Sure my girlfriend says she likes me meals but it's either that or starve. To make matters worse I was using a stove I have never used before. I was constantly fretting with the heat; worried I would make it too hot or cold and ruin the dish.
When I got the feedback, "I would keep eating." I took it as a compliment. That, coupled with the few glasses of box wine I enjoyed, I was feeling pretty loose anyways.
Not too shabby I'd say!
Challenge 6 - Rocky Mountain Orienteering
I have only been able to watch this episode once. It brings back too many bad memories for me of a day that just didn't go my way. I have some experience orienteering with Saskatoon Search and Rescue, whom I am a member, but I wouldn't say this skill is my strong suite.
My head also just wasn't in the game. There is nothing more I would love than to try this day again with a clearer mind. However, you have to compete regardless of what happens and I failed to bring my A game.
The day before the challenge we were receiving some training from our expert when I got a phone call from my girlfriend and she was in a panic.
Trying to refocus after getting the call from home.
One of our two dogs, Callebaut, had a lump on his eye that we noticed was getting bigger before I left. While I was gone, my girlfriend took him to the vet to find out what the issue was. It turned out to be cancerous and it had to come out. She didn't want to distract me while I was away. She made the right decision to not tell me until I got home so I could remain focused. The vet assured her that the surgery would be routine anyways and it wouldn't be a big deal.
Unfortunately things turned for the worse on the operating table. The tumor was much larger than they expected and he was losing a lot of blood. She called me in tears saying that he might not make it and we need to make a decision to keep going and get all of it and have him possibly die that day or sew him back up and hope for the best.
For 5 weeks I had been from home I was able to ignore all my responsibilities. Reality came rushing back in an instant.
We decide to sew him up and hope for the best. When I hung up the phone, for the first time since hitting the road, I became homesick.
Happy to report he made it! Just needs a pirate patch now.
My knee was also no where close to healed. I had been getting by for the previous couple of weeks because our challenges weren't high impact and I wasn't forced to run or hike elevation, the two activities that make it hurt uncontrollably. Before heading out on the competition day my heart was beating in my chest. I knew that it was going to be an issue. When I get nervous, I need to have things in my hands to distract me. Before I raced I was picking up sticks and breaking them in a vain attempt to calm myself.
Breaking sticks while Victor the director tries to keep me calm
For the first 500 meters or so of the race it was relatively flat and I was feeling good. There was some rain and snow starting to come in making things a bit slippery, but overall conditions were okay. I started to get bolder and more careless and that's when I remember stepping over a fallen log and slipping. A hot pain shot through my knee and all the way up to my hip. I was in trouble.
Determined to continue on I pushed forward, picking a line on the map that I thought would take me to a ridge line that I could follow to the first checkpoint. I was wrong and ended up further east than I wanted to be.
Waiting to start the race.
I hobbled up and down the mountain for another 3 hours trying to fix my mistake and ignore the ever increasing pain in my knee. I eventually got to a peak from where I could see the checkpoint. Unfortunately, I had a 500 foot scree slope to descend and ascend in front of me. (Scree is a loose jumble of rocks you find on the side of a mountain.)
I had just passed a marked trail 200 meters back and knew it took me to the trail head where the crew was situated. It was in that moment that I got a rush of clarity.
"You're not going to do it Jay." I said to the mountain.
I took out my radio and called back to base camp.
"This is Racer Jay. I have re-injured myself and I can't continue on." I remember that moment so vividly. I have never been one to quit anything. It was a sobering moment.
I spent the next two hours struggling to get off the mountain. I met up with the safety crew on the trail and they helped guide me back down. The pain in my leg quadruples while descending and I was forced to basically walk down with just my right leg. There were a couple times I fell over from the pain during steep sections. I don't think I said more than two words.
That was it. It was over for me.
The last time I was in front of the camera.
For just under five weeks I got to go on an adventure that not that many get to experience. I got to learn how a reality show is filmed, which has changed my whole perspective of TV, and I met some truly incredible people. When asked how my time competing to become Woods Canada's Greatest Explorer was I often have mixed emotions about it. Maybe that's because of the way I came home. Often when I am alone and I think back to that day on the mountain and it fills me a tremendous feeling of failure. One that will live with me until I get back to Nordegg and conquer that mountain.
Despite the way I came home, I did get to meet some of the best people in Canada. While this was a competition it sure didn't feel that way to us. After spending weeks together from morning to night we developed a close bond. Every time we sent people home, it was a somber moment. No one was happy about it, we wanted to continue to share the adventure with each other until the very end.
In the end I didn't earn the title Canada's Greatest Explorer but we all know David Thompson has that title anyways.