Alaska reality shows shift from deadly jobs to simple survival

Kyle Hopkins
Stewart Volland

Willi Prittie, who does not own a TV, plans to watch the premiere of his new National Geographic reality show at a fellow cast member's house Sunday in Wasilla.

The series is called "Ultimate Survival Alaska" and -- spoiler alert! -- Prittie survives.

A 57-year-old Talkeetna climbing guide with a "Duck Dynasty" beard and a busy day job planning Mount McKinley expeditions, he isn't sure what to expect when the first episode, titled "Arctic Hell," airs at 9 p.m. on GCI channel 54 (in Anchorage).

"I still have my reservations about the whole TV end of it," said Prittie, who suspects producers can make you say and do whatever they want through the magic of editing.

His misgivings about the nature of reality television aside, filming was a blast, he said. The cast of eight skookum outdoorsmen spent two months last fall hiking, canoeing and foraging their way across the state. The show also stars 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey, Seavey's brother Tyrell, and a mix of Alaska hunters and climbers.

The show is one of at least three new Alaska-based reality shows premiering this month on cable. Discovery Channel's "Great Bear Stakeout" debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday, followed by the first episode of "Life Below Zero" at 9 p.m. on May 19 on National Geographic.

"Ultimate Survival Alaska" follows the recent shift in these gravel-voiced Last Frontier series from TV shows about dangerous jobs ("Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers") to survival-themed shows such as "Yukon Men" that feature people living and traveling in remote, roadless Alaska.

"Life Below Zero," for example, follows the hardscrabble lives of families living in Noorvik and elsewhere above the Arctic Circle, according to National Geographic.

"Alaska breeds a resilient, self reliant sort of individual who, outside of Alaska, everyone fantasizes about being," said Alan Eyres, senior vice president of programming and development for the cable network.

In "Ultimate Survival Alaska," cast members travel 3,000 miles in a 10-stage expedition that begins in the Brooks Range and traces 200 miles of the Yukon River before heading to the Juneau ice cap. No GPS units, cell phones, watches or tents allowed.

"For the adventure, to get paid (a little) to go the places we did was impossible to turn down," said Brent Sass, a Eureka musher and Yukon Quest veteran who finished 22nd in this year's Iditarod.

In some ways, filming the show was tougher than either of Alaska's 1,000-mile sled dog races, Sass said. "It was two and a half months long and that's a long time to live underneath a tarp and get along with people you didn't know before getting dropped off in the wilderness with them."

The trip is not a race, and there was no prize for arriving first at the final checkpoint, though cast members were told they must complete each leg within 72 hours or risk being sent home. The tone of the show was inspired by the 1977 National Geographic special, "Yukon Passage," about four men on a rambling trek along the Yukon River, Eyres said.

"There was something about that kind of simple spirit of adventure that we fell in love with," he said.

The Survival cast members all live in Alaska, which made it easier to get hunting and fishing permits, according to the cable network. But Outside audiences who watch the show could be forgiven for thinking the only survival experts in Alaska are white guys with beards.

Asked why there were no women or Alaska Natives in the cast, Eyres said it wasn't an intentional omission.

"If we do this again, that's something that we want to correct," he said.

Season two is in the works, he said, but not guaranteed.



Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at

Three new Alaska-based shows debut in May


'The Great Bear Stakeout'

Discovery Channel

8 p.m. Sunday on GCI channel 56 (in Anchorage)

The pitch: "Discovery Channel invites viewers to connect with the lives, community and survival of Alaskan grizzly bears like never before."


'Ultimate Survival Alaska'

National Geographic Channel

9 p.m., Sunday on GCI channel 54 (in Anchorage)

The pitch: "Going head to head, eight men of a rare breed are about to take the ultimate test of survival in Arctic conditions that only National Geographic could inspire."


'Life Below Zero'

National Geographic Channel

9 p.m., May 19, on GCI channel 54

The pitch: "Explore the incredible lives of six Alaskans living off the land and off the grid in the country's most vicious climate."


Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on