Barrow's Ed Ahyakak is no stranger to performing grueling feats in all kinds of conditions. He is an Iñupiat man from Barrow, after all, and is accustomed to gutsy work and recreation on the land and sea ice.
So when he began the 80 days of filming for National Geographic Channel's "Ultimate Survival Alaska" he certainly felt like he had one up on his competitors. That's not to say he wasn't tested to his limit mentally and physically for nearly 16 hours a day for the entirety of the shoot.
"I'm used to being outdoors and have experience being in a lot of sticky situations here," Ahyakak said. "Being from Barrow gave me an edge especially in the ice episodes.
"Having that Arctic experience along with our Iñupiaq values like persistence, teamwork, and respect for land really helped overcome many challenges."
Ahyakak was part of Team Endurance, one of four, three-person teams pitted against each other in a series of gut-wrenching, mettle-testing tasks that spanned the state. In the first of 11 legs, teams raced across a glacier, plummeted down a 2,000-foot gully and piloted rafts through 15 miles of raging whitewater.
Ahyakak, who serves on the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation board of directors, is also a refinery operator for Petro Star Inc. in North Pole. He was one of seven Alaskans chosen for the second season of the popular series, which begins Dec. 15.
Ahyakak was approached to partake in the show last winter and after months of interviews, he was informed in May that he had been selected for training. Besides running, Ahyakak has climbed several peaks in the Lower 48 and Ecuador, and was already training for another mountaineering adventure when he got the call.
"I think the biggest challenge for me (there are so many) was mentally enduring 80 days without any modern conveniences," said the father of three. "I've been at my ... camp before for a month but we had stoves and beds and a cabin to sleep in. Also, being away from my family and wondering how they were doing" was difficult.
Tucked away in his belongings was a photo of his family that he used as a "good luck token." It helped him get through the toughest days, he said.
And while it can be hard to decipher what is actually real and what is ramped-up ratings fodder when it comes to reality TV these days, Ahyakak said he was in actual danger many times during the filming. "Alaska's wild is a dangerous place and I know that all it takes is a split second and that could be it," he said.
Falling off a mountain, slipping into a crevasse, drowning and bear danger, were ever clear and present hazards. The team was charged by a brown bear once, he added.
Teamed with Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey
The ultimate survivalists had to fashion shelters and trap and hunt for their dinner along the way. Ahyakak, a marathon runner, teamed up with 2012 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey and Sean Burch, an "extreme athlete" from Virginia for the show.
With the exception of a few tense moments within Team Endurance, Ahyakak said they mostly rolled like "a band of brothers."
"Being with three teammates for such a long duration was a challenge at first, but we really formed a great bond pretty quickly because our lives were in each other's hands."
Since filming has ended, Ahyakak said he appreciates the simple things in life like hot showers and a comfy bed. Before his return home to Alaska's Interior, Ahyakak's wife even offered to set up a tarp for him in the backyard to make the transition back to normal life a little easier, he joked.
Overall, the experience was humbling and rewarding and the show set itself apart from the plethora of Alaska reality sagas with its impressively punishing tasks and epic adventures. A true test of the human spirit, Ahyakak said. It was a great way to experience all the beauty and ruggedness that Alaska has to offer.
"This competition is all about pride, survival and character," said Brian Catalina, the show's executive producer in a statement. "I think that spirit is a unique thread in the American cultural fabric and speaks to our fundamental values."
Later this week, Ahyakak will head to Talkeetna to film some interviews for 'Good Morning America,' 'Nightline,' and 'World News Tonight.'
Season 2 of Ultimate Survival Alaska kicks off Sunday, Dec. 15 on National Geographic Channel with the first episode "Arctic Battleground" at 9 p.m.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.