What it’s like to survive alone in the wilderness for 78 days

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Megan Hanacek, 42, was a finalist in season three of the History Channel series Alone, in which competitors must brave the elements, build shelters and find food completely on their own. She survived 78 days in the wilderness of Patagonia. Hanacek is a biologist and forest steward specialist who lives with her husband and two children, 6 and 9, in Port McNeill, B.C.

I’m an introvert, so just by my nature, I spend a lot of time by myself. I’ve worked in forestry and biology for about 25 years, but until the competition, the longest continuous period I had without being in contact with other people was probably about three days. I went 78 days out there.

I’d say around day 31 was a turning point for me. It was the one-month milestone, and my son’s birthday was around that time. My children are my No. 1 priority, but I missed his birthday.

Because we filmed everything on our own, the production crew would come every week or once every three weeks to replace our batteries, but just for a minute. They would also do a blood-pressure check to make sure I wasn’t on the decline. They asked how I was doing physically. And I said, “Yeah, I’m doing well.”

They asked, “Mentally, how are you doing?”

And I just tapped my chest, right at my throat. The weight of the emotion was always there. That amount of weight, it felt almost constricting. Interestingly, I later watched the show and Zachary Fowler, the guy who won, did the exact same physical motion, tapping the upper part of his chest.

I didn’t bring a picture of my children, because I knew if I started ruminating on wanting to be home with them, it would affect me psychologically and change the focus of my brain.

I knew that sensing that void, being away from my family, would be really hard, so I had to suppress my mind from even going there. On the show, some people built pretty fancy shelters, but I knew that I did not want to be spending any of my days inside, ruminating and thinking. So of the 78 days, there were only two times when I spent more than an hour inside my shelter during the daytime. The rest of the time, I was out exploring, getting my brain engaged in different things.

During the time I spent in my shelter, the weather was quite terrible, with 100-kilometre-per-hour winds and rain. Every second seemed like death by 100 seconds. I could see how, if you were locked in solitary confinement, idle and isolated from your usual network of family and friends, every second feels like the weight of the world. It’s all about managing your brain and emotions. The way I worked around that was by collecting a lot of materials and keeping myself busy by making baskets when I was stuck in the shelter.

I ended up talking to my camera a lot. It became almost like Wilson, the volleyball from the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. I would play back the footage some times, and it felt almost like an interaction with the real world. It was weird, because I knew it was just a tool. I’m not a person who talks to myself, but when talking to the camera, it felt almost like company. A couple of times, I ran out of batteries because I’d done so much filming. Then, all of a sudden, I’d lost my connection to something.

I made it to the final show, the longest-lasting Canadian and the longest-lasting mother. I was doing really well in terms of limiting my weight loss, and I was catching fish. Unfortunately, I broke two of my teeth, so I ended up calling it quits.

My husband picked me up from the airport. We hadn’t had any contact the whole time. I had lost about 20 pounds, which is a lot for me. I weighed what I weighed in Grade 10. I walked into the house, and my son just came up and hugged me and he was sobbing. He couldn’t even talk. It broke my heart.

Brigham Young University has done studies about how being lonely, especially when you’re elderly, equates to smoking 15 or 16 cigarettes a day in terms of how it affects your risk of mortality. It affects you both psychologically and physiologically. When I got out, I had tons of blood work done, and my cholesterol levels were really high, likely due to a combination of my diet and the stress. My eosinophil count, which is a white blood-cell count, was extremely high, which is a sign of trauma to the body.

It would have been interesting to monitor our brains, too. The experience reverted me back to a primal state that I think is part of our true biology. It was really intense to come back, to immerse myself in all the noise of modern life again.

I took from that experience some pretty heavy lessons. I have immense gratitude for where we live in the developed world, immense gratitude for my health.

One thing I’ve created in my life now is more space to for self-reflection throughout the day, which I think is crucial for growing as a person – and very difficult to come by in our hyper-connected world. We have a wooded greenway by our house, and I often go in there with my dog to spend even 15 minutes away from technology and in nature. That’s where I feel most comfortable. I find it almost meditative. When I’m in nature, I’ve always felt in tune with something bigger than myself.

There’s an immense power to being alone. But while solitude is important, the support of communities is crucial to human health. Even hunter-gatherers formed communities. It’s not healthy to live in long-term isolation.

– As told to Wency Leung