Reality Check: Rescue by a shoestring on 'Ultimate Survival Alaska' opener

Emily Fehrenbacher
NatGeo TV

Sean Burch fell into a glacial crevasse and got sucked into a sweeper in a packraft. His teammates Dallas Seavey and Eddie Ahyakak saved him and his gear using a shoe and piece of string. Jimmy Gaydos flipped his packraft in fast water and almost drowned. All of this and we are only one episode into season two of "Ultimate Survival Alaska."

The first challenge took place near Juneau, where the four teams of three people (categorized as "endurance," "woodsmen," "military" and "mountaineers") raced down the Gilkey Glacier to either the Antler or Gilkey River, where they packrafted to their extraction point in Berners Bay. They had to complete the challenge in 60 hours or risk elimination.

Teams were provided with two dog sleds for the glacier portion, a contest that seemed to be tailored for Iditarod champ Seavey. Two other teams stood out here: the military team decided not to take the dogs and snowshoed with what appeared to be 90-pound packs on their backs and the mountaineers found a pair of skis that Marty Raney strapped on behind the sled.

After dropping off their dogs, they spent a cold night on the glacier only to wake up and have to make their way over the quickly melting lower portion of the glacier. This is where Burch fell into a crevasse, but he was roped in to his teammates, who were able to pull him out.

Once off the glacier, the teams made their way to the river mouths. The tensest moment of the episode was when Jimmy Gaydos, a woodsman from Fox, fell out of his packraft and was repeatedly sucked under in the Gilkey River's rapids. Gaydos and the rest of the woodsmen team didn't seem to have the packraft skills of other teams -- none of them had on spray skirts, and Tina Sheer was sitting on top of, rather than in, her raft.

The episode didn't show Gaydos rescuing himself; viewers only heard his screams for help, then saw his teammates paddling to the riverbank and sprinting upriver to search for him. They found him visibly shaken and still coughing up water. I can't help but wonder if the production team intervened to save Gaydos from the water. Otherwise, why not show him making his way to shore? Regardless, it was a great television moment when the team was reunited.

Shortly after this, Ahyakak and Seavey rescued Burch again when his raft was sucked under a sweeper log. Burch was holding onto the log for dear life, and his teammates threw him a shoe they tied to a rope. Burch was able to grab the makeshift towrope and they pulled him to the riverbank.

The military team won this week's challenge. Like any good Alaskan, I scoffed at the idea that a team of non-Alaskans could beat resident prince Dallas Seavey and gregarious mountain man Marty Raney. However, after the win, I did some research into the military team and it is full of famous people.

Rudy Reyes is a Recon Marine and martial-artist who starred in HBO's "Generation Kill" and the History channel's "Apocalypse Man." Reyes has arms like Rambo and apparently some kind of wilderness stylist, because he nails the rugged, outdoorsy look. Grady Powell is a Green Beret and was on ABC's "Stars Earn Stripes." I know nothing about guns, but in this week's episode Powell kills a tiny squirrel with what appears to be a massive tactical assault rifle. There isn't much on the Google about the third teammate, Jared Ogden, but I did find a YouTube video of him giving a speech about his time as a Navy SEAL.

After the technical nature of this week's challenge, I had even more questions: Did producers at National Geographic do any kind of training in advance of the show? Was there a packrafting class at the Alaska Pacific University pool one day? Could they bring other types of food if they were willing to carry it? Aside from Seavey, had the survivalists manned a dog sled before?

Even with my unanswered questions, this show is fantastic. It combines the excitement of a challenge show, the classy production value of National Geographic and a cast of characters that leave you wanting more. The only thing that it is still missing is a little more setup for the audience. NatGeo should keep the deep-voiced narrator, but having a person in front of the cameras to meet the teams as they reach the extraction point and debrief their adventure through conversation would be a nice touch. Think about Jeff Probst of "Survivor" or TJ Lavin of "The Challenge." That way, we don't have to believe that the military team just stumbled on a bear box with food in it after they won. In the meantime, I'll be content anytime Reyes wears a short-sleeved shirt.

• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she writes about reality TV.


By Emily Fehrenbacher
Daily News correspondent