In the wilds (sorta) with Bear Grylls
Bear GRYLLS threw a lizard at me.
We were climbing in Franklin Canyon Park in the Santa Monica Mountains on a cool, hazy afternoon recently when Grylls, host of Discovery Channel’s popular survival series “Man vs. Wild,” spotted a small dark reptile, no longer than a pencil, scurrying up the trail.
Our group quieted. Grylls stopped, squared his lean body, pounced. Too late. The reptile darted away. “That’s one lucky lizard,” Grylls said with a smile.
A few moments later, our guide plunged headfirst into a thicket of scrub and, to my astonishment, emerged holding his prey by the tail.
“See, if I were doing this on the show,” he said in his British accent, “I’d do like this and” -- he mimed biting off the lizard’s head.
“Oh, please don’t!” someone in our party pleaded.
Grylls chuckled and gave the wriggling lizard an appraising stare. He gazed down the path toward me. “Here, catch,” he said, suddenly lofting the critter in my direction with an underhand pass. I stepped aside and watched it disappear in a pile of brush.
If you’re unacquainted with Grylls, any culturally aware grade-school student can likely tell you all you need to know. That he travels to the most dangerous wildernesses in the world. That he brims with survival tips and camping lore. And yes, that he literally sinks his teeth into all sorts of disgusting things, from a blood-engorged grub to a still-flopping-about salmon to a rotting carcass not quite finished by maggots and hyenas. The poor man has demonstrated how to hydrate oneself by squeezing water out of elephant dung.
In the wake of the 2006 death of Australian wildlife guide Steve Irwin (“The Crocodile Hunter”), Grylls has become Discovery Channel’s premier ambassador of outdoor danger. The son of a politician, he trained in the British military, where he seriously injured his back in a parachuting accident. Nevertheless, he climbed Mt. Everest at age 23 and parlayed his minor celebrity into a book. His TV career started humbly enough with a deodorant commercial. Grylls now spends the few weeks each year when he’s not working with his wife and two young children on a houseboat on the Thames.
Yet whether Grylls’ exploits can be trusted as dependably “real” has made him the subject of controversy. A fuss erupted last year when Britain’s Sunday Times reported that he and his producers exaggerated dangers he encountered during filming, stayed in hotels during supposedly overnight camping trips and contrived certain scenes for dramatic effect, including adding fake smoke to a volcano sequence. (Who among TV producers would do such things?) The network has since added a disclaimer; viewers are told that Grylls and his crew receive support in “potentially life-threatening” predicaments.
Although Discovery executives consider “Man vs. Wild” -- which starts its third season this summer -- more of a how-to than a reality show, the series is caught up in the debate over whether reality TV is a contradiction in terms. Partisans of “Survivorman,” another lost-in-the-wilderness show on Discovery, have compared Grylls unfavorably with that program’s host, Les Stroud, who travels into the bush alone, no crew in tow.
I hoped to get a sense of what Grylls is really like in his more customary habitat during our trip to Franklin Canyon, a dense, 605-acre preserve tucked amid the stately mansions of Beverly Hills. Naturally, I also wondered what backwoods delicacies I might sample during an encounter with a man known for devouring creepy-crawlies most people wouldn’t dare touch, let alone eat.
The first rule
Iarrived a few minutes early. In the back seat sat my daughter Gabby, an inquisitive third-grader and devoted “Man vs. Wild” fan. (It might be less humiliating to have a close family member rather than Grylls run for help if something dreadful happened on the trail.)
A black limousine glided past on the main paved road through the park and out tumbled Grylls, a tall, wiry, boyish-looking man of 34 dressed in a plaid earth-tone shirt and loose trousers from his own line of branded clothing (to be released this year). A photographer and a Discovery publicity executive rounded out our party.
After pleasantries, I suggested that we pretend as if we were stranded in the wilderness and had to battle for survival so that Grylls could show us some basic tips. This was a plan that required a healthy imagination, since we stood at a few miles north of the fancy boutiques of Rodeo Drive.
Grylls immediately shot down the proposal. If we pursued the survival scenario, he explained, we’d have to go in search of a stream and follow it downhill -- among the first steps for any unfortunate truly lost in the wilderness. Climbing was what he wanted to do. The chauffeur popped the trunk of and Grylls reached inside. “Rule 1: Take plenty of water,” he announced, launching plastic bottles at us.
Once on the trail he seemed to relax. He asked if we could figure out which way we were headed based on the angle of the sun. I craned my neck toward the sky and hazarded a guess, whereupon Grylls gently corrected me.
I asked about a David Letterman taping this spring, where he’d seemed uncomfortable as the host pressed him on last year’s dust-up. After a pause, he explained that he doesn’t like doing talk shows. “I’m not good with large groups,” he said. (In November, Grylls told the Los Angeles Times that he regretted not being more forthcoming earlier about how the show is made. “Looking back now, I should have made it absolutely clear and said, ‘Listen, tell people, show it all.’ ”)
We kept ascending, and at one spot where the hillside leveled off we came upon a piece of black excrement about the size of a shotgun cartridge. Grylls knelt down and asked Gabby, “What do you think left this? I’d say a coyote.” He pointed and added, “The tapered end means it’s a carnivore.” We moved on.
For myself, I was greatly relieved that the moment did not lead to a demonstration of the amazing hydrating properties of coyote dung.
Leading us higher toward the scrubby summit, Grylls cautioned us against getting “track-happy,” or following a trail just because it’s there, rather than sticking to a course based on a plotted direction. But he noted that trails can still be quite useful to the wilderness survivor.
He turned again to Gabby. “A trail leads to what?”
My daughter, who is shy by nature and also seemed to be recovering slowly from the effects of star-struck-ness, shrugged. “Animals, I guess?”
“Water,” Grylls corrected.
Much as it does on “Man vs. Wild,” this or that sight tended to remind Grylls of incidents from his travels. Seeing the common lizards that skittered across the dusty paths, for example, led to a story of how he recently killed a large monitor lizard in the Sumatran jungle.
“It was a ravished place, teeming with snakes,” he recalled with enthusiasm. “Every few feet you’d come upon some nasty stuff!”
Days before our excursion, in another exploit that will win him no friends among members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he’d wrestled a 7-foot alligator in Louisiana. The pas de deux ended with Grylls’ knife sticking out of a soft spot in the back of the gator’s head. Then, he said, he smeared the animal’s fat on his face to ward off mosquitoes (“an old Indian trick”) and ate the tail.
“It was lovely!” he said.
He spoke with relish about one of his favorite books, “Skeletons on the Zahara,” by Dean King, a retelling of a desert trek in North Africa by 19th century sailors who survived by drinking their own urine.
Yet whatever Grylls does in the name of showmanship -- and it’s abundantly clear he’ll do just about anything -- the wild mountain man image doesn’t entirely fit. For all the exotic raw animal flesh he pops into his maw for the cameras, he said, at home he’s actually semi-vegetarian. And it became apparent that he regards nature in a way that’s more Sierra Club than Outward Bound.
We neared the summit. Perched on a ridge to the west was a long row of gigantic estate homes, any one of which could have made an inviting cover photo for Architectural Digest.
Someone happened to mention Southern California’s wildfires. Grylls pointed out that the phenomenon is as nature intended, although the effects are probably worsened by reckless land use and misguided fire-control efforts. “It’s all to protect . . . those things,” he said, jabbing a thumb at the distant mansions.
“We live in an amazing world, and we’re charged with living boldly,” he had said earlier. “It’s a shame to lose these skills that allow us to live in nature. So much of our brain is absorbed with moneymaking and computers. The most fulfilled people I know are absorbed with nature. We have, deep within us, a love of the outdoors. There’s more to the world than your boss and trying to impress your girlfriend with a big car.”
It WAS time to head back. Grylls gave Gabby a quick primer on navigation with a mnemonic, “Bear Drinks Tea For Breakfast.” This was a reminder to steer one’s way using bearings, distance and time, plus the terrain’s features and backdrop.
The descent was much harder than the way up -- steeper and more rutted than I’d noticed earlier. My sneakers kept sliding as if on ice. Ahead of me, Grylls and my daughter seemed to be almost sauntering down the hillside. A voice behind me prompted: “Try bending your legs more. It’s easier to walk that way.” It was the Discovery PR executive.
We arrived back at the trail head with surprising speed. Grylls paused by a felled tree trunk and started stripping off bark. “It’s a good place to look for larvae,” he explained.
Oh, here it comes, I thought. The part where we all ingest something gross. Or maybe the table will be set only for me, as punishment for my sorry lack of hiking skills.
I put my fingertips on the trunk, impersonating someone trying to help. But after a few moments, Grylls gave up. “It’s all about patience,” he said cheerfully. “My worst quality!”
Our party rested in the shade of a dry creek bed. Grylls finished off his water bottle and asked for a few sips from mine. I’d barely touched it. He listened avidly as the photographer described his travels in Baja California, on the Sea of Cortez. Grylls has spent little time in the region but is nevertheless interested in buying a house there.
A short time later, after Grylls had climbed back into his limousine and motored away, I thought again of something he’d told us on the trail, when discussing his unlikely renown. “I’m lucky to be able to do the only thing I know how to do,” he said, with a mix of cheerfulness and matter-of-factness. “I’m probably unemployable after this!”