ODN interviews Pine City man who was runner-up on History Channel’s “Alone” survival show
Larry Roberts, 45, an electrician from the Pine City area, appeared on the second season of History Channel’s survival show, “Alone,” which wrapped up last month. He lasted 64 days with limited survival items on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, outlasted by only one other contestant. Roberts, who missed out on the show’s $500,000 prize, has lived in Minnesota for 15 years. Outdoor News caught up with Roberts in a phone interview. Below is the full, extended interview; The version that appeared in the paper was edited for space reasons.
ODN: Where and how did you obtain your survival skills? Have you previously gone on a lot of expeditions?
LR: I have taken some courses from a well-known survival school. I’ve also, since I was a kid, read survival books. The one I have always been interested in is the U.S. Army Survival Manual. I have always been interested in Native Americans. I studied them a little bit in college. … I tried to research that as much as possible. … I live on 46 acres, so I can watch a video and just pack up whatever I need and walk to my back yard in my woods and try it out.
ODN: What preparations did you take for this show?
LR: I watched the first season. And I researched a little bit about Vancouver Island. But other than that, I didn’t do a ton of research. The reason I wanted to do the show is because I thought it would be an awesome test of what I had been learning.
ODN: Did you take a journal during the show? You had to do a lot of videotaping.
LR: We videotaped everything. We were our own cameramen. A journal was not allowed. I wish I would have had a journal.
ODN: How much of a pain in the butt was videotaping?
LR: The videotaping made everything about twice as hard because if you ever watched a TV show or anything, when you see the guy walking away from a camera, and he’s 100 yards or 200 yards away, or if he’s up on top of the hill, you have to go up and set the camera up. Then you have to go down and do whatever it is you are doing, and then you have to climb up the hill and do whatever it is you are doing on top of the hill and then go back and get your camera. With Vancouver Island, they measure the rainfall in feet rather than inches. They gave us a camera that couldn’t get wet. It had a little rainsuit that you had to put over it every time it rained. It made everything at least twice as hard.
ODN: Did the producers give you an endless supply of batteries for that thing?
LR: They would resupply our batteries every so often. And we had a good size Pelican case, and it would house two GoPros, one smaller handheld camera, and then our main camera. And they gave us enough video cards for a long time and enough batteries for a long time. Every once in a while they would come out and go into our shelter, take the media out and replenish the batteries. And then away they’d go.
ODN: How often did you have contact with producers from the show?
LR: It varied, but they did check on us on a regular basis. We had a GPS tracker that we were required to carry. They would check in with us at least nightly, make sure that we were OK. They would send a very simply text that just said, “Nightly check-in.” And we had a button with three presets and we would just hit, “OK,” and just send it.
ODN: Near the end, were they around more often?
LR: No, it varied. We never knew when they were going to come out and what they were going to do. They didn’t come out more often at the end or at the beginning. Well, maybe a little bit more often at the beginning to make sure that we were OK and that we were filming, because it was our job to film and not everybody is familiar with filming, so they wanted to make sure that we were because a person would have an unfair advantage by not filming. They wanted to make sure we were providing media to them, providing footage, because they are in the business of making a TV show. They checked on us a little bit more regularly for a week or so but after that they pretty much left us alone.
ODN: What did you know going into this? Did they tell you ahead of time that Vancouver Island would again be the setting?
LR: I knew I was going to Vancouver Island, but that is about all they said. Most of it I gained from watching the first season. I knew there was going to be a lot of bears. I knew there was going to be a few cougars and wolves. And I knew the game was pretty scarce. Because if you watched the first season, nobody trapped a rabbit. One guy this season brought a bow and arrow and I believe one guy last season brought a bow and arrow. I did not. But if you watch first season, nobody harvested a rabbit, raccoon, or anything like that, so I knew that land game was going to be very scarce. I knew that all of my food sources were going to come from the ocean.
I researched the shell fish that we were allowed to eat. Some were under red tide advisory, so we couldn’t eat those. I tried to research a little bit about trot lines, and that was about it.
ODN: When did you come out roughly?
LR: I came out around Thanksgiving, roughly. We started the show earlier, and we had a little bit better weather. Our winter was not as harsh as (the first season winter), but we did start a little bit earlier.
ODN: Has your daily routine changed since returning?
LR: The daily routine has pretty much stayed the same. My attitude has changed. I am an empty nester. Now that the job of raising kids is over, sometimes it is hard to transition into a new job, if that makes sense. I am still dealing with that a little bit, but I think my experience on the island has definitely helped guide me to a direction in life, extracurricular activities. After family life, after work, stuff like that.
ODN: Did you just take a leave of absence from your job?
LR: I took a leave of absence. My employer was very understanding.
ODN: Are you glad you did it?
LR: Absolutely. It was a phenomenal experience, something that most people will never be able to experience. It’s one thing to be able to practice your skills, but I likened it to an athlete that only gets to practice. … How do you know if your skills are really worth the time and effort that you put into them? Being able to be out in the woods, using your skills, not just practicing but utilizing them, relying on the skills, was an amazing experience. There’s a lot of survival instructors. I would say 95 percent of them never have to experience the things that we experienced, especially the folks that lasted a long time.
ODN: What was your favorite part of the experience?
LR: My favorite part was testing my skills, but also de-stressing from life. Our every day life, there is so much stress and outside influence. I was able to just go out there. I didn’t have a TV. I didn’t have the phone or the internet. It was just me in nature, and it was so stress-less. Sure there was stress involving food, but that is one stress out of modern day life. … I was able to completely decompress. I got some of the best sleep I ever got in my life.
ODN: Do you know how many mice you caught, fish you caught? I know you ate probably countless numbers of sea snails.
LR: I can’t think about how many sea snails I ate. I probably ate close to a thousand sea snails and probably close to that of the limpets. The sea snails, a lot of people call them periwinkles. I probably caught at least 10 mice. As far as fish, that was my major problem was my particular area did not produce a lot of fish. But I probably caught 15 to 20 fish maybe.
ODN: I was wondering why you didn’t fish more with the periwinkles. There wasn’t a lot of fish in your spot?
LR: No, it’s a TV show, so they don’t show everything. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t show as many skills and projects that we all did. One of the item I took was fishing line and 25 hooks. I always wanted to keep hooks in reserve in case I lost some, but I had at least 20 hooks out at any given time. You only saw a little bit of me setting out trot lines. But I think towards the end you only saw me have four hooks out. There was another cove next the one I was in. I either had to bust brush to get to it or at low tide I could crawl under a big log. I had lines set up in two different coves. Plus I had a hand line, a short stick that I would wrap line around it and use it like a casting thing. I found some Styrofoam that I used as a float. At that time when I had 20 hooks out, I used the smallest periwinkles I could find for the hooks because they don’t have a lot of meat on them. I didn’t use the big, nice, juicy ones, because those were the ones that I wanted to eat. With the size hooks I had, since they were bigger for ocean fishing, it would take two periwinkles per hook. You’re talking every night I went out, and quite often the ocean would make the bait come off the hook. I was baiting 40 periwinkles per hook.
ODN: So you fished more than was depicted?
LR: Absolutely I was. I was starving to death. I left it all on the field. I wasn’t just sitting there slacking in my shelter, trying to outlast the other person. I was trying to outlast the other person. I was doing everything I possibly could. There was only one scene of me finding chanterelle mushrooms. I survived for 10 days on chanterelle mushrooms alone. When the fish weren’t biting, I went to the land because I do know some edible plants. I knew one mushroom, and I was very lucky that my hillside had just a ton of them. I would take my two-quart pot and fill it with mushrooms.
ODN: Chanterelles are delicious.
LR: Well, after a while, they get a little old.
ODN: What was more difficult, starting that trip alone, or readjusting to life back home?
LR: I think readjusting back home. Not necessarily home because I was super happy to see my family. My family is my family. I have been married since I was 18. It wasn’t hard getting back talking to my wife or my kids. But going back to work, and driving the drive. I work in the Cities, so depending on where I work, it’s at least a 70-mile drive one way.
ODN: Ultimately, it seemed like starvation-induced delirium is what did you in. You were also in a lot of mental anguish. What made you tap out?
LR: It was the food cravings, I couldn’t handle it. On day 55, with these food cravings, I dreamed more out there on the island than I ever did in my life. I dreamed every day, and every night. I never had a nightmare. Towards the end, say day 45, they started to always be food related. I would be hanging out with a friend of mine or my wife, and we would go to a restaurant. I would wake up and my sleeping bag would be wet from drooling in my sleep. When I was up and active, I wouldn’t have the food thought. But when I was in my shelter, my thoughts always reverted to food. I remember fantasizing about the food I was going to take on the plane when I went back home. On day 55, I remember thinking about food so much that I thought I was going insane. Finally, the morning came and I literally had to, I thought I was another person outside of me. I was shaking myself. You know in the movies when someone smacks someone upside the head when they are having a breakdown. That’s basically what I had to do to myself. I had to concentrate on the rain hitting my tarp. That was a very soothing sound for me. I had to say, just calm down. Concentrate on the rain hitting the tarp.
That was a very, very, dark, scary place for me. Once that happened, I realized my time on the island was limited because I didn’t want to go back to that dark place.
ODN: What kept you going in the end? I remember you talking about the prize money and how that could change your life. How much of a role did that play in the end?
LR: It did play a big part, but also my own wanting to give it my all. At first, most of us went out there to have a personal journey. We all had our own personal reasons. I don’t know anyone that went out there specifically for the money. We went out there to test ourselves. After day 30, most people trained. Most survival situations last approximately three days, and usually you are found. I lasted 30 days, and was still going strong. I way surpassed anything that my training had prepared me for. After that, I was like, I have been out here for a while. First season lasted only 56 days. … A couple more weeks, or a week, and I will be right there with them. That’s when I started thinking about the money a little bit. But what made me keep going and what made me dig deep was what I always preached to my kids with schoolwork, or sports. Always do your best, and especially with sports, you have to play your hardest. Because if you lose, you played your hardest, that’s all you can do. But if you lose, and held something back, in the back of your mind, you will think you always could have went a little bit further. I could have maybe tried a little bit harder. At the very end, when I was very emotional, and just balling like a baby, I thought, maybe there’s just a little bit more. Sure, I’m crying, sure I’m upset, but that’s OK. It’s OK to cry and get upset. But to drive on, that’s what separates the men from the boys. Once, I was like, I can dig a little bit deeper. And then, when it was time for me to tap, I was like, man, I gave it my all. There is nothing else I can do. I fished. I know how to fish. I am a good fisherman. … I know how to bait a hook. I know where the fish are going to be. In the end, there was no more mushrooms, the mice weren’t getting in the traps, and believe me, there’s not a lot of calories in a mouse. I truly believe I did everything I could do.
ODN: What is your favorite type of fishing here in Minnesota?
LR: I like a lot of different types of fishing, but I would have to say smallmouth bass or catfishing. I am not a very good walleye fishermen, and I live right on the St. Croix River, so I have a lot of smallmouth bass. And I am pretty good at catching catfish.
ODN: Was the end a blur?
LR: The last little bit is pretty clear. Up to the first 30 days was a blur. I had a stick that I made a notch on every single day I was out there. On day 30, it was like, I feel like I just got out here. But after day 40, every day just dragged by. Day 30 was a pretty big goal. You definitely know what you are doing if you can stay 30 days out there. If you can stay 30 days out there living off the woods, that’s a milestone. Most people go out for a couple of weeks and take food with them. I can camp for the rest of my life if I had food. But if you are out there surviving off the land, in that land, not Minnesota where there is deer bumping into your camp every night or I just had a rabbit running across my yard, it’s not like that. It’s a barren landscape and there’s not a lot of plants, and there is not a lot of mammals.
ODN: What would you have done differently?
LR: I probably wouldn’t have packed a gillnet. When you say that, that means that I had the exact same location that I had. With that exact same location, I wouldn’t have packed a gillnet. I would have packed something else.
ODN: What else would you have brought?
LR: With this particular experience, for this show, my area didn’t have any food, so I would have brought more food. We were allowed emergency rations. That’s the only thing that would have let me last longer, was more food.
ODN: How much food did you bring? How long did it last.
LR: I brought one item. It was like 5 pounds of beans. I had it up to day 55, and once I had my mental breakdown, I started eating more. It didn’t last too much longer after that. That was the only reason I tapped. I wasn’t going to tap out if I still had food left. … This is what I would do. I would take my beans and soak them for five, six hours overnight. And then I would add periwinkles and add limpets to them. I would drink the broth from that. That would be my meal for that day. I would fill it back up with water and put it under my stump, and that was like my refrigerator, and then I would let it soak again. I had a little clamshell that I used as a rationing device. I would put one little clamshell of beans in there, and I tried to do that every third day. I didn’t touch any of my reserves until approximately day 30. And then after that, my area wasn’t producing much food, so I decided to go ahead and tap into my rations every third day, unless I caught a fish. My fish, too, I would catch a fish, and I would fillet it. It would be the most glorious meal ever, roasting a fish over the fire. I would eat the meat and I would save the carcass. I had a creek by me, and I would take the carcass, the head, the bones, the tail, everything, and I would put it under some rocks in the creek. The creek was very cold. It was my refrigerator. So the next day, I would take that carcass and I would put it in my pot and I would boil it for like six to eight hours, and that way the bones become soft. And then you can eat the head, the bones, the fins, the entire fish. Out of a fish, there was two little, tiny bones, they were cheek bones, that I didn’t boil them long enough. Those were the only two things out of an entire fish that I didn’t eat. Two bones.
ODN: What was your first meal coming out of there? And where does that rank?
LR: Cheeseburger with a root beer float. (Laughs). Like the best ever. I was really craving. I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I was craving sweets like you wouldn’t believe. I was talking to other people in similar situations and they all crave sugar. That root beer float was just amazing.
ODN: Did you watch the season, and, if so, was that difficult to watch?
LR: It was difficult to watch at the beginning and at the end. We all kind of had a story line, especially the folks that lasted a long time. It looked like I was an angry white male who cussed all of the time, who was out there for 64 days and probably had three or four fits, anger fits. In my world, that’s not too many, you know what I mean. And I do have a temper, but they chose to show those, and they chose to show me cussing, and stuff like that. So I was watching it, and I was like, Holy crap, they showed that? Because I do Youtube, and once in a while if my bowdrill doesn’t work, some of these projects are pretty dang frustrating. You work on it for eight hours and you can’t get it to work. If I have a meltdown, I’ll edit that stuff out. I figured they’d edit that stuff out, too. Well, they didn’t. They kind of showcased it. Initially, that was a little bit hard to watch, but then again, it was kind of funny. My family, we all laughed. We thought it was hilarious that I was so angry at an inanimate tree or whatever.
ODN: You had a lot of meltdowns on the show.
LR: I did, but then again, I don’t do that kind of stuff around people, and I truly felt like I was alone. I definitely had my camera there, and it was running all of the time. After a while, you forget that the camera is running. You’re there by yourself. Sure, you have a camera, but it didn’t really relate to me that millions of people were going to be watching. They were very strict.
They said do not delete any scenes, film everything. For whatever reason, I seem to be a rule follower and I never deleted any scenes. I could have done a pretty different portrayal of myself. … The beginning part was a little bit difficult because I was starting to get hate mail about how angry I was. … And then the last two episodes were quite difficult to watch. I’ve watched them twice now. Me praying over my bucket. Me feeling so helpless because I knew my time on the island was going to end, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had done everything I could possibly do and it was out of my hands now. The hunger was just too intense. I love (the winner) Dave. We were a very tight-knit group of folks. We are very supportive of each other. Seeing Dave’s daughter and his emotions, it was hard for me to watch, because I knew that that could have been me in a different circumstance. I am very happy for him. On the other hand, it did make me a little bit sad that I wasn’t able to experience it.
ODN: Dave struggled fishing early, but stuck with it, and it really paid off. It seems like it would have been really hard for you to win it because he was so full of fish at the end until he hurt himself, and then you wondered if you had a chance.
LR: There was no way I could have won. He was catching food like crazy.
ODN: Has it weighed on you, being the last man out?
LR: There was no way I was going to win it. I lasted longer than anybody else, except for Dave. I do feel like I have some skills. I’ve researched this stuff. On the other hand, some of the cast do this stuff for a living, and I did pretty good.
ODN: You mentioned that you wish the producers would have shown more of the projects. What else do you wish they had shown?
LR: There’s a lot of things I wish they would have shown. But, on the other hand, I have a Youtube channel, and the folks that tune in there are looking strictly for skills. The majority of the American public is not looking for straight up skills. They are looking for drama. They are looking for human experience. And that’s what the History Channel showed. They showed a little bit of skills, a little bit of projects, but they showed the human experience of it. The show isn’t called, ‘Who has the best survival skills?’ It’s called, ‘Alone.’ With that title, it means how well can you deal with yourself when you’re alone. That means there’s going to be emotion, drama, stuff like that.
ODN: Do you think it was fair to you?
LR: Yeah, I think it was pretty fair. I mean, I cried like a little baby. That’s on film. I don’t deny that in the least. My anger episodes, sure, I get angry all of the time. Tree gets in my way, I’m going to drop kick it. That’s the way it is, sure. If my son comes up to me, and I’m mad at my son, I’m not going to yell at my son or do something stupid like that. I talk to him. I reason with him because he’s a person. So, yes, me being alone out there in nature, they did portray me fairly accurately. Now, having said that, they definitely capitalized on my anger bouts because, like I said, I had about three or four, and that was about it in 64 days.
ODN: What are contestants told about running in to each other? It seems like you are not far from each other.
LR: Well, we are required to carry that GPS. If anybody is getting close, you would have gotten a text that said you are reaching your area, go back. And then if you were to run into the general public, we were required to back a way. They gave us all a lecture on how to deal with that. But the local area all knew we were in the area. They told everybody to stay away from us. They left us alone. You could see in the first couple of episodes of me trying to climb the mountain. I mean, that stuff is thick. It’s not like backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail, where you have a nice trail. You are busting brush. There are no trails out there, unless it’s a bear trail. It’s very rough, rugged, spongy terrain. So in order to leave your area, you would have to expend a lot of calories. With survival, the name of the game is conserving calories. So why would I walk away from the ocean? I did make a move. My first area, I don’t how they figured I was supposed to make a camp in that area. I have no idea what they were thinking when they put me there.
ODN: Do you wish you had moved sooner?
LR: There was no way I could have known that there was anything else out there. It was a gamble that I moved. I was catching fish at that location. I almost wish I would have stayed there. One day, I caught four fish and I only had four lines out. I really, really thought about living in my second area, and travelling to my second area and catching fish, but by the time I moved, you can see how much weight I lost. See, fish don’t have a lot of calories. You’d have to eat like six fish a day just to maintain your calorie intake. You can see after I moved, my face is already gone. To make that journey, and my tide happened at night. It seemed like everybody else’s tide happened during the day. My low tide happened at night. It was just pouring down rain. I wasn’t going to walk 400 or 500 yards to my first area, try and catch a fish and then walk in mountain lion-infested areas back to the other location. I would almost have to have two shelters.
ODN: Were you ever afraid of any of those animals?
LR: I had a mountain lion outside my shelter twice. I didn’t realize it at first because I have heard a mountain lion scream, but I’ve never heard one meow. And I heard like literally a house cat meow outside my shelter. Like, what the hell was that? Somebody let a stray cat loose? I never thought it would be a mountain lion until I came back and listened to the calls of a mountain lion. Sure enough, if it’s just chilling, and not upset, it makes a meow just like a house cat. Those were the only predators I was concerned about, was mountain lions because they’re crazy. I would always be very careful and pay attention to my surroundings. As far as a bear, I figured I could bluff a bear.
ODN: How much weight did you lose?
LR: About 32 pounds. I weigh 167 on a normal basis. I was probably in eighth grade when I last weighed what I weighed when I came out.