By Joel Phelps
When Search and Rescue teams from around the South meet this spring at DeGray Lake, they’ll be learning some survival skills from extreme survivalists brave enough to endure the wilderness for three weeks with nothing but one survival tool and a companion of the opposite sex equally as brave to take on such a challenge. And, to top it off, their adventures and mishaps are filmed while they’re totally nude.
Five “Naked & Afraid” castmates will don more than their birthday suits when they instruct Search and Rescue personnel on some basic survival skills this March, said Mikki Hastings, event coordinator of the ninth annual Arkansas Search and Rescue Conference. Four of the five previous castmates have been named: Matthew Garland, of Benton; Jessica Lee, of Indiana; Joe Ortlip of Philadelphia; and Sarah Bartell, of Portland, Oregon. Hastings couldn’t name the fifth special guest, as the episode featuring that person has yet to air.
Hosted annually by the Hollywood Fire Department, the Arkansas SAR Conference attracts between 75-120 search and rescue personnel from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The teams converge at Brushy Creek Campground, where for a weekend they have both a classroom setting and wooded area to practice operations.
The “Naked & Afraid” cast members will be teaching a variety of skills search and rescue teams need should they become separated and lost themselves while searching for a missing person. Participants will learn primitive shelter construction, fire craft, water purification techniques and also how to build primitive snares and fish hooks to capture food. “All of these things are components of search and rescue because, if for some reason they’re searching for someone overnight and get separated, they’ll be able to take care of themselves,” Hastings said.
Now in its 13th season, “Naked & Afraid” has tested the endurance of more than 200 castmates who accepted the challenge of entering the wilderness stark-naked with a complete stranger. For 21 days, the featured pair must build their own shelter using only the resources they can find, hunt and gather food and water, and survive without the aid of outside help (the camera crew is only allowed to intervene during a medical emergency). To complete the challenge, the pair must reach an extraction point where either a helicopter or boat awaits their departure from the wilderness.
Hastings said it wasn’t difficult to coax the now-famed survivalists share their knowledge of the outdoors for the greater good. The first one she reached out to was Garland, when she learned he was from Arkansas. “I messaged him and he was absolutely thrilled to come do it,” Hastings said. “As we were talking he told me there were other [castmates] who have skillsets that fit what we’ll be working on.”
Garland was included on an episode that challenges fans of the show. In the two weeks he spent in Arizona’s craggy Chiricuahua Mountains, he fed himself and his partner by cooking a snake he had pinned and axed. He also treated an open wound on his partner’s arm with tannins from a pot of acorns he gathered and boiled.
Jessica Lee spent 18 days alone in a Columbian rainforest after her partner tapped out two days into the challenge. Lee was forced to leave one day shy of her extraction date because of hypothermia.
After his headstrong partner ditched halfway through the challenge of Grizzly Mountains of Montana, Joe Ortlip spent the remainder of his solitude battling hunger and freezing night temperatures. He snacked on grasshoppers, fed on frogs and went face-to-face with a young bull moose before hiking several miles to the extraction point.
“These guys have a different take than what we normally would in a classroom setting,” Hastings explained, “because they’ve been out for 21 days, they’ve actually built fires when it was raining and found their own food. We kind of felt it would be a different perspective for our searchers.”
At the conference, the search and rescue teams undergo training through various testing stations designed to ascertain they would be able to care for themselves as well as the missing person who’s been lost in the wilderness. “We put them through worst-case scenarios,” Hastings explained, “if it’s inclement weather or if they get lost and have to stay in the woods longer. It would be a rare occasion where they would have to stop and build themselves a shelter, but it could happen.”
In addition to the “Naked & Afraid” cast, agencies presenting include the National Association for Search and Rescue, U.S. Border Patrol, National Weather Service, Hot Spring County Office of Emergency Management, LifeNet, Franklin County SAR, Landers K9 Service, K9 Oklahoma, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Benton County SAR and Garland County SAR.