Megan Hanacek amazed viewers week after week on History’s Alone with her tenacity and humor as she battled the wilds of Patagonia in a bid to claim the ultimate prize.
A warrior athlete and a mother, she works as a professional forester and biologist in British Columbia, Canada.
Her childhood in a small town at the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest and her inspirational father — who is also a biologist — stoked her desire to work outdoors.
Having dealt with cougars and bears in the past, Patagonia’s wild boar and puma were a concern but not a deterrent. But then there was broken teeth and an over-inquisitive fox to deal with.
We spoke to Megan about her incredible journey on Alone…
Monsters and Critics: Tell us a little bit about your general experience on Alone. Did view your surroundings and the challenge in a positive way? Did you feel safe — despite your experience with the inquisitive fox and other things — and think that despite any odds the setting would always provide food for you?
Megan Hanacek: Back in Canada I work as a professional biologist and forester; I feel like I have the best job in the world and feel very at ease in nature. Yes, I did have a pesky fox but I am used to regular cougar, black bear and grizzly encounters back home.
I didn’t have all my rabies shots so was a little concerned when he had an obsession with digging and biting near my head at night but the risk was still low. The fox was just doing his thing, looking for food like I was doing most days.
I think one of the biggest underlying problems in our world is the disconnect between humans and our home, the Earth.
If you don’t understand something, you will not value the importance of it; and if you don’t value something, you won’t fight to protect it.
I really have a passion for connecting people, especially the younger generations with nature. We are in interesting times with a world population that has increased seven fold in 150 years, mass consumption of goods, a changing climate and populations really disconnected from nature.
More than 85 per cent of the world’s population live in man-made urban centers and this is increasing.
M&C: Talk about how creating your “homestead” of a shelter was important. Did you try to create a comfortable shelter and what did you do first when you built your Patagonia home? What were some of the features you were proud of?
MH: The images shown of my shelter on the show were not the final product…I follow the BLISS shelter making [which stands for] blend, low, irregular shape, small and secluded.
I had a double insulated A-Frame with a small fireplace, a door and a very stable Alerce tree with latticed bark for the back wall. I also had a 15ft by 25ft fortified fence.
At home in Canada, I’m not a homebody at all, I would consider myself more of an explorer — always traveling for work and exploring.
One of my main goals in Patagonia was to explore every inch of my territory from mountain top to the lake edge, and I can tell you I did!
I was limited for shelter locations [as I] wanted to be close to the lake edge for water and food access but also didn’t want to be caught under the dead limbs of the Southern Beech trees for the couple of extreme windstorms we got.
I also had two huge ant hills at the front location of my territory and no bamboo. I wanted to have a stable and weather-withstanding shelter, but not something that I would want to stay in and get too comfortable.
I was always up before dawn break each day and only back to my shelter when it was dusk for almost all the 78 days total. And I was always “working” outside my home during this time on traps, projects or exploring.
M&C: You are an athlete and marathon runner, how did the reduced calories affect your weight and muscle strength overall? How did you exercise while there other than just fishing, building and walking?
MH: I knew [for] this trip that I wanted to come out the other side having felt that I truly challenged myself mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
I’m 5ft 3in and usually about 117-lb. I did manage to put on 8-lb in the three weeks leading up to departure. Going 78 days with one 5-lb ration of food with 18 per cent body fat was a challenge.
To put this into perspective, it’s like being presented one fast food meal once per week for the 12 weeks. I was leading at the start of week 12 when I left.
I worked my butt off looking for calories everywhere from the top of my mountain to the lake shore. I have been a certified fitness trainer for over 10 years so I understand “calories in versus calories expended” but I had no idea on the toll it would take on my body.
I did well foraging and fishing but still lost body fat, then lean muscle from my muscles and my organs such as heart [shown by blood work and ECG after the show].
Once I returned home, my blood work was very skewed pointing to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. I had symptoms of edema and hair loss for 1-2 months after the show. This experience is not for the faint of heart…literally!
M&C: Your tenacity was admirable during that pesky fox run. How long did that last and how did you finally shake him?
MH: That foxing fox! For almost 50 days I had a fox trying to dig into my shelter, it even stuck its snout through my latticed door in the middle of the night at one point!
I am pretty skilled at trigger traps…I had about 200 traps set around my territory, between my fishing traps which I worked six times a day to my hare and bird traps, but I only had my fox trap up for a short time as I also had an endangered margay cat caught on my game trail camera. I definitely did not want to be the biologist that kills an endangered cat on national TV!
I was slightly concerned about the rabies risk [as] I didn’t have the full rabies schedule of shots when it did try to dig and bite at my head in the night.
But overall I knew he was just doing what foxes do and what I was doing, tracking down calories. Eventually, I think the fox knew his 50 days of waking me up — sometimes six times a night — were over and he moved on to another part of the lake.
M&C: You missed your family terribly yet you seemed to use humor and a good state of mind to overcome these feelings and not get swamped by them. Do you think the women are better at this than the men?
MH: That was by far the hardest thing to me, missing my children and husband.
Men or women, with the right support system, can do amazing feats. I work in an industry where greater than 85 per cent of the workers are male and I actually wonder if we would have more woman stay in forestry (50 per cent of the university grads are in fact woman) if the right support systems were in place.
I honestly never look at female-versus-male at a boardroom table or in a forestry meeting in the woods, rather I think “How is this person empowered to bring the most to the situation?”.
It really is a testament to my husband that he held down the fort of full-time work, children, and household while I was gone. That gave me the confidence to push through on so many days and find the humor in situations.
And that is why I think Alone is the ultimate reality TV show and experience — not only to show the personal growth of individuals but to show that both men and women, when faced with the ultimate challenge [of] survival without the pressures or expectations of society, can bring so much to the table, regardless of their sex.
M&C: Which was the construction you built and conceptualized that you were most proud of designing and executing?
MH: I built several things that weren’t shown such as a bow and fire-hardened spear with my knife secured to not slide down the shaft.
But I would say my dip net that had a draw cord down the pole to close the top of the net and allow me to pull the fish and hooks directly off the reeds was the design I was most proud of for several reasons.
I took something completely useless — [a] gillnet on a lake [as] I didn’t have a river like others — and [I] turned it into something very useful.
The biggest hindrance I had was successfully landing fish and maintaining limited hooks from the wall of reeds that were growing on a 20ft drop off.
The net allowed me to pull on the fish and tangled line/hook from the opposite side, thus allowing me to successfully land fish and prevent losing my hooks on the reeds.
M&C: Let’s talk about your tooth, what happened? How was that resolved?
MH: Well…[laughs] it was actually two teeth! And that is a great lesson in how little things can influence very big outcomes in life.
I relied heavily on foraging to supplement my one ration and foraged all the berries, greens, fungus and rosehips from my territory.
As any wild forager knows, rosehips have about 10 very HARD seeds at the pit. I would pull most of these out but occasionally a few of these seeds would end up in my fish soup or in my food mix.
At some point near the end of my journey, I managed to break off the inside back molar on my left side ( and I also chipped the cusp off the molar on the right side).
It was fixed by a dentist when I was out — he didn’t know I was just on Alone but looked in my mouth and said: “Have you been chewing on rocks?” Wilderness living can be rough on teeth!
M&C: What was the biggest gift this two-month-plus sabbatical alone in the wilds of Patagonia gave to you?
MH: This experience really was an amazing gift! I knew realistically that the chance of winning the $500,000 was still only 10 per cent if not lower when you compare percentages of body fat, which I say in all respect as having extra weight in a survival situation is a huge asset! I have a new appreciation for a bit of extra body fat.
So I knew that if my odds were fairly low of winning that I wanted the ultimate challenge as a biologist and forester and for personal growth — I really wanted to push my limits to see how long I could go with limited tools with my knowledge, skills and inner resolve.
I ate well over 35 plant species from herbaceous to berries and mushrooms. I also pushed my trapping skills [as] I had close to 200 trigger traps — fish, bird, hare, fox — that I worked up to six times a day.
I do want to take this time to thank Leftfield Productions, History Channel, my husband, my children, my family, my workplace and my fans for supporting me on this journey.
M&C: For anyone attempting an “Alone” experience, what is a recommended diversion as something that kept you firmly grounded and happy during the time by yourself?
MH: Diversions are great for short-term distractions but if you are going in for the whole mental, physical, spiritual and emotional growth from a fully immersed Alone experience, there are a few things you need to know before heading out.
After spending 20 years working well over 2,000-plus days in some pretty wild corners of the world, there are some fundamental tenets to follow before heading out.
1) Research as much about the area as you can. Finding any familiarity in your Alone area will connect you to the land, decrease stress and allow you to stay for the longest possible time.
2) Know your tools and what they can do for you.
3) Expect that you will be faced with an interrupted food supply, adverse weather, lull times, missing thousands of modern-day conveniences, wear and tear on your body and loneliness.
Plan well in advance for these hiccups in your journey and collect raw materials in advance — such as wood and basket materials — for the times you need to focus on external projects.
4) Come into the experience with an openness to the experience. It’s as close to being a modern-day explorer as you’ll ever get.
Embrace it and ride the wave, you are in for a wild trip that is difficult but brings huge personal growth! Oh yeah and “WATCH OUT FOR THE ROSEHIP SEEDS!”
M&C: What creature comfort did you miss most while in Patagonia?
MH: Family is everything to me. I would say every missed second with my children and my husband.
I was gone for over 3 per cent of my son’s life for this adventure. From hugs to sharing meals, to birthdays to missed teeth — my children’s and of course, mine…ha! — I missed out on sharing these moments.
That and salt. The impacts of not having essential vitamins and minerals after more than 2.5 months start to take a toll on the processes in the human body which continued after I returned to civilization.
It’s amazing how the little things can mean so much.
M&C: What are you doing now for work?
MH: After four flights back-to-back to Canada, I jumped right back into my professional role as the Forest Stewardship Specialist for the Association of British Columbia Forest Professionals…providing guidance and education for the 5,300 forest professionals in BC.
This experience has added TREMENDOUSLY to not only my private life but also my professional life.
My family has also been doing wildlife tours for 35-plus years so you can catch me on these trips spreading knowledge of nature the rest of the time (www.whaletime.com).
I’ve also done past courses on traditional and medicinal plant use, foraging and bush crafting.