Exclusive interview: Zachary Fowler talks surviving in the wild on History’s Alone

Zachary Fowler in his promotional photo for Alone
Maine native Zachary Fowler before he lost over 20lb in Patagonia on Alone

History’s Alone has been a spiritual and educational watch from the get-go.

Spiritual in that it shows how you can overcome amazing odds and commune with nature and learn to exist with all the elements we never think about in modern life.

And educational in having such skilled contestants showing us all how to use the bounty around us to fashion creature comforts, eat and survive.

The best example of this mastery comes from Maine native Zachary Fowler from History’s season three of Alone.

His CV included actually living out in the brisk Maine woods, surviving with his family in a Yurt, and learning how to trap, build and invent on the fly with style.

On History’s Alone, his talents are both practical and whimsical, and his sense of humor carries him through the dark times.

Speaking of dark times, Fowler was hamstrung by having the darkest spot to be placed in the season. He realized this early on and had to make a big decision to get to the light to fight the cold and depressive shadows of where he was initially located.

Fowler’s vlogging was some of the most educational too, showing how to do many of the things he created and fashioned.

Yankee self-sufficiency and overall bonhomie made him one of our favorite Alone contestants of all time.

Monsters and Critics had a chance to speak to Fowler about his time on History’s addictive series…

Monsters and Critics:  Fowler, as a fellow New Englander, I was pulling for you from the beginning. I have loved the enthusiasm you exhibited. And I’ve worried as each episode progresses, as you seemed more introspective and a little bit sad as you missed your family. Tell me how the isolation weighted on you.

Zachary Fowler: It was hard that first week to be isolated after living in such tight quarters at home…the four of us in a 12ft yurt. Then I became friends with my camera as if it were my own personal Wilson.

Around day 70, it got tough in the evenings.  I’d get the 4pm slows, as I think of them — the work day is over and that’s when you are headed home to be with your family, and if you don’t live in the woods, maybe even put your feet up.

For me all I ever wanted in life was to be home with my beautiful wife and kids; home, my sanctuary. Knowing that, I did my best to keep my mind busy no matter how much it hurt. I was there to make a better life for them.

So instead of “not thinking” of them, I thought of all the things I would do with them and for them, and it helped me get through the hard moments.

What you see on the show is my weekly “overload” where the burden of that solitude and missing my family is just too much, and I would unload that burden on the only one I had around to listen to me: my camera and future audience.

M&C: Initially you were dropped off in a hollow of shade and darkness. It is interesting to note you really had to find a place where some sun was, as others in this contest had better “spots” where they were dropped off. Talk about that and the importance of feeling the sun on your skin for survival.

ZF: Initially, because of the overcast weather I did not realize the shade on my slope was almost permanent until around day 12.

But that day where everything cleared enough and I looked over to the other side of the lake and saw the sun and realized the angle and where I was positioned, it broke my heart.  We live in a modern world of light and only turn that light off to go to bed.

It probably wouldn’t have been so hard had I figured it out sooner, but at that point I had only consumed about nine fish in those 12 days.

Those first 12 days were fairly miserable. My body and stomach had to detox and reset to a primitive diet. The “no sun” thing was threatening to be the straw that broke this camel’s back. Or as I said on the show, “the unobtainable pizza sitting on the far side of a chasm”.

So I did the only thing I could and I pushed on. Two days later I began to feel better after my body had reset; I felt stronger.

While reflecting on that I looked up and saw a beam of golden sunshine beckoning me uphill through the trees. It wasn’t much, but if I moved quickly I’d make it before the light disappeared.

I found the sun for about 30 seconds that day. It would have to be enough. I found it five more times after that day, never more than a single ray that shined down and I’d run over and stand in it until it went away.

For the most part, though, it was not as dark up those eight stories and 150 steps I carved up the hill then down on the shore, and that was enough.

M&C: The protein problem was the beginning of the end as fish becomes scarce. Can you talk about what starvation actually starts to feel like in a progression?

ZF: Around day 62 I had caught about 54 fish and one bird. Which meant for the most part up to that point I almost had a fish a day and on the days I didn’t have a fish, my fish head soup was fairly rich so I didn’t have to go to bed hungry.

After that point, there were some stretches of four to five days when I didn’t have a fish. Around the 12th time I boiled the fish head soup and got nothing out of it but the water I put in, I was feeling pretty hungry. My camp site was so dark there wasn’t much to eat for vegetation.

The hunger was always there, and eventually, you get used to it. The hard part was the weakness and the dizziness.

My day-to-day life there consumed a lot of calories: retrieving firewood so I could stay warm, digging worms and re-baiting my hooks so I could catch a fish, hiking up and down those 150 steps twice a day so I could continue to rebait my hooks.

My body was consuming itself to provide the energy I needed. I would sleep for 12 hours and then be up and busy for 12 hours.

But then I would catch a fish again and then another one and use that food energy to redouble my efforts and get even more projects done.

It felt like Patagonia always gave me another fish before going to bed.

M&C: Your ability to build beautiful structures and really clever traps was something the fans of the show have loved. Can you talk about that spade which you used like an ax? That was a useful tool. Also what other tools would you always have on you in the wild?

ZF: I really nailed it with my choice of 10 items. I was the only one that didn’t pick a food ration, but knowing myself I didn’t feel like I could live without one of my tools.

My shovel turned out to be one of my most important tools. Its ability to work the bamboo (cutting it and stripping the leaves off to make poles) and dig steps into the hillside so I could get to where I needed to make a shelter, as well as digging out a nice fireplace inside my shelter made it invaluable.

I could never have done that with just an ax.

M&C: Talk about what you built. For instance that special double wall you wove and filled with ferns and moss for insulation.

ZF: I thought of the shelter I wanted to build before going into the wilderness, and upon arrival and finding that bamboo, I knew I would be able to make my ideal shelter.

I wove an inner and outer wall with an 8-inch gap in between which I filled with the debris that I shaved off the bamboo as well as a bunch of smaller bamboos that I cut that were very furry.

Zachary Fowler building his makeshift abode on Alone
Fowler’s clever double wall construction made him a “bombproof” abode

The walls were solid, bombproof walls and their insulation value was tremendous. I made a double door by using my rain gear as an inner door and a large piece of wood I scavenged and burnt and shaped to fit as an outer door.

I was so comfortable in there that even on the coldest days I could sit in my long johns.

The thermal mass value of that giant tree I used as the back wall of my shelter meant it was still warm enough in the morning that I wasn’t rushing to put on layers.

M&C: What thing you made were you most proud of designing and executing in construction?

ZF: I’ve built some of the most unique things I have ever seen on a TV show or anywhere else.

I felt like my brain was on fire with ideas out there: the Duckhunter 3000 was a self-propelled 3ft-long fish trap, my dock and all the different fish traps that I created that were catching me all those fish, my water bottle, my rake, and the wizard staff. I had a lot of fun making all that stuff.

The wizard staff is a journal of my time there. I used six runes carved into it for each day:

1) # for the day, 2) Little fish symbol for the fish that I caught that day, 3) A symbol that represented that day’s achievement, 4) A symbol of fire or the Firestarter showing that I kept the fire going or had to restart it, 5) A symbol for my physical state, and 6) A symbol for my emotional state.

My entire story is carved there, from the breaking down of the car when I had to leave my family on the side of the road, to the fish-head that adorns the top to represent the fish-head soup that kept me alive. But my favorite invention was the Duckhunter 3000.

It was 3ft long, self-propelled paddle-wheel-driven duck trap and then I modified it to catch fish as well.

Initially, I’d hoped to get a duck by placing baited hooks on the deck, but the ducks were so scarce.

After a few days, I re-rigged the Duckhunter as a fishing vessel so I could take my line out further than I had been able to get it previously.

It had a little spring pole on the deck that worked a lot like an ice fishing rig.

When the fish hit the hook, the spring pole would release and set the hook in the fish’s mouth.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough time on the show for them to edit all of that in detail.

For instance, there’s a Mark Two that I built of the Duckhunter, instead of using a paddlewheel it has a propeller but it didn’t make the cut.

So I think when the season is over, my YouTube channel “Fowler’s Makery and Mischief” is going to be pretty busy making up for where the show left off and doing some of these things over in detail so everyone can see.

M&C: Viewers have noted that the women of this Patagonia trip seemed to be most comfortable in their skin and less mentally stressed than the men. What is your opinion about the effects of isolation on you and the men, if you had watched the series as a viewer?

ZF: It makes sense that it would be easier for the women when it comes to the isolation because behind every great man is usually a greater woman, I know that to be true for me.

The women that went out there this year in my group are strong. And they manage to survive with such beauty and grace.

I couldn’t be more impressed and had I seen their performance before I went out I definitely would have been a little bit intimidated.

M&C: Were you ever able to trap a boar and what animals were you able to catch and eat other than a tiny bird?

ZF: I caught about 58 fish, one bird, and a handful of grubs. I went out on days when there was snow on the ground and saw no sign of boar. I only heard them in the distance at night twice.

I had seen signs of fresh passage that gave me hope, so I set as many traps as I could.

I had three different snares, a giant pendulum spike trap, a pit with spikes in it,  another pit that was 4ft deep with a trap door and a baited trigger attachment, and several spring sticks with spikes on them on the trails.

For the most part, though, the animals moved out of the high mountains to the lower valleys to survive the winter and there really wasn’t much around to catch.

M&C: Are you glad you took part? What was the biggest gift this two-month-plus sabbatical alone in the wilderness of Patagonia gave to you?

ZF: I am glad I did this, it has given me so much patience and strength, not to mention a whole new body.

Before I left I had a hard time digesting fat and dairy, they bothered my stomach, but after that detox in the first 12 days, everything changed.

I was getting a bit on the portly side and didn’t even realize it, and now I’m lean and running almost every day.

M&C: What do you want to tell your fans and those who have been following your journey to know?

ZF: To those that have been following my journey thus far, hang on because we’re just getting started.

My Youtube channel “Fowler’s Makery and Mischief” is growing fairly quickly.  I’ll be doing videos on how I made all the stuff you see out there in Patagonia.

I’ve been getting really good with my slingshot considering all the free time I had to practice out there. I’ve been posting some pretty neat videos on some unique shots I’ve managed to make with my slingshot recently.

One of my goals now is to beat the Guinness World Record of how many cans you can shoot down in a minute on Jimmy Fallon’s show.

The current record is 25 cans in a minute, on a good day I’m halfway there. Additionally, it’s always been a dream of mine to turn all my sketchbooks and crazy ideas into an actual book someday.

Don’t miss our exclusive chats with Megan HanacekCarleigh Fairchild, and Callie North.

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