The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Alaska’s LeAnn Duncan is OK with getting her hands dirty. She spent a decade in the Army – three in active duty and seven with the Army Reserves – while her son is currently active with his second tour in the Marines and her daughter briefly had a stint in the Army National Guard.
“We come from a very long line of soldiers,” Duncan says.
But today she’s an accountant in the Anchorage area and while she still wonders how her life would be if she’d continued in her military career, a zest for adventure was calling, even if it meant shedding her Alaska roots, not to mention her clothes.
Later this month, Duncan will appear in the Discovery Channel’s intriguing adventure series Naked and Afraid (her episode airs this Sunday night on the network). If you’re unaware about its hook, Naked and Afraid sends a man and a woman who’ve never met each other to a remote and potentially dangerous location somewhere on the globe. The catch? The newly matched team must strip down completely and each member is only allowed to bring one piece of survival gear to help along the way. Call it a survival-and-skin show if you like, but the contestants often struggle to handle the emotional and physical challenges while working together to try and last 21 days without clothes and just about anything else but each other.
We recently caught up with Duncan to find out about her love of the Alaskan outdoors, harvesting her first caribou just last year and a sneak preview of her Naked and Afraid experience in crocodile-filled and hurricane-ravaged Indio Maíz, Nicaragua.
Chris Cocoles So what’s your background in Alaska and your connection to the outdoors?
LeAnn Duncan I was born and raised here and my family would always take me up to Nancy Lake and we would go camping and hiking, all that stuff. I was in the Army for 10 years, so I did leave for a while, and I came back to Alaska. It’s really a hard place to get out of your system. This is my home; this is where I’m supposed to be. And my grandfather was a homesteader back in the 1940s and 1950s. So it kind of runs in my blood.
CC How much were the outdoors a big part of our life?
LD I’m a tomboy, so I spent a lot of my time outside until it got dark and then our parents would make us come in. I would be running through the woods and the neighborhood. That was pretty much what we did.
CC Where did you grow up?
LD We lived in Anchorage and pretty much would spend the summers at Nancy Lake; I think that’s maybe an hour and 30 minutes from here. My dad would put us in the back of the truck and haul us out there with as many people who could fit in the cab.
CC Did you do lots of fishing and hunting?
LD Lots of fishing, mostly. I actually got started late in life with hunting, and that was an interesting turn of events for me. We were definitely fishing all the time around the Kenai when there was combat fishing, so lots of elbow to elbow. We were pretty much just fishers, but my dad would bring home caribou and hang it up in the garage and we would help him with that. But I never got to go hunting with him until I turned 44 just this last year. And I got my first caribou last year.
CC That’s fantastic!
LD I’ve shot plenty of grouse and (other) birds with both my shotgun and my bow. But that was my first really big animal.
CC What was it like to hunt caribou with your dad after all these years?
LD I was actually really happy I got invited to go hunting with my dad. It was one of those things that you think you would do as a kid, but it just never happened. I was very excited he and his wife invited us for a two-week hunting trip out in the middle of nowhere.
CC Where did you hunt?
LD It was actually up the Maclaren River, up by Paxson. I think it was like a five-hour car trip, and at the Maclaren Lodge we ran 60 miles up the river in an airboat. My dad has a nice camp set up to be out there for two weeks. I was only able to go for about four days between tax time. I was really lucky that I was able to work some magic just to get out of here.
CC What was the hunting experience like?
LD We had done the spot and stalk for like three days and we couldn’t get close enough or they were too far away. It was just one of those times and I was getting to where I was saying, “I’m not going to get a caribou and it’s OK. I’m fine.” And then on the last day before we were going to leave, my dad was just thinking shoot because we could get a cow or a bull. And I was trying to get it with my bow because I’m a certified bowhunter. And we were just way too far out. But then we saw this herd of caribou that was about at 400 yards, which was way too far for me to shoot. My dad is, I don’t want to say a lazy hunter, (but) he loves to hunt along the river. That way we can get him, put him on the boat and take him back. [Laughs.]
So my friend and I went through the willows. It was really hard; we went to within 300 yards and we still couldn’t get close enough and couldn’t shoot him with a bow. I had my rifle too and we got called out to. “The herd is (moving); one’s going left, the other one’s going right.” So I just said, “Fine; I’m just going to pick out a spot and get into a clearing and wait for the first hearty one to go through.” And then my friend was like, “Hey, are you going to shoot that?” So I was getting frustrated because they’re thinking I’m not going to shoot it. And I did. And it wasn’t the biggest one but it was still a bull. I was really excited, No. 1, because it went down on the first try and we didn’t go off and follow a blood trail or anything. It was a clean, quick kill. And for that being my first try it was everything. And I was a little emotional thinking I was going to cry because I killed an animal. But there was an understanding that this was my food and I know exactly where my food comes from. That was pretty important.
CC Was the idea of eating harvested fish and game, which so many Alaskans are proud of, always something that was important to you and your family?
LD My mom always made the best caribou stew, so that’s why I love caribou. And we ate lots and lots of fish, which was a main staple of our diet. Of course, we ate other things like grilled cheese and things like that, but having to be able to know exactly where your food came from was pretty important. And I’ve carried that through because I dipnet every year and I know exactly where my fish comes from because I caught it.
CC So Naked and Afraid is a fascinating show to me because you’re challenged in so many different ways: physically and mentally and emotionally.
LD The first challenge in itself was taking me from our Alaskan environment to a very extreme environment and one that I’m not accustomed to. So there was a physical aspect to that whole thing, especially being a redheaded, fair-skinned child and going down to a very harsh environment; lots of sun and lots of sunburn. It was very hot, with lots of bugs. We have bugs here too, so that was really not an issue. But they did have a lot bugs – way more than here. So just that first part of getting adjusted to the sun (was difficult). I think I was just there for maybe two hours outside and my face had gotten a little bit of sunburn on it. [Laughs]. And that was before we even left anywhere. So it was just how was I going to deal with that? That was the primary concern when I was out there.
Emotionally, I think I was definitely up to the challenge, just because I have these good survival skills already. And to be able to take them on the show and be able to use them, that was very cool. I don’t think it was much of a challenge, but I could have done some things a little bit different.
CC How did your kids and your family and friends react when you decided to pursue something like this?
LD Well, my mom was excited; my daughter, I think she was excited. My parents didn’t have any question whether I was going to be successful or not on the show. They know that anything I set my mind to, I’m going to accomplish. And that’s been my whole life. I moved out when I was 16, so I pretty went full ahead after that.
CC Were you more apprehensive about doing this with your clothes off than the actual setting?
LD The clothes are a secondary issue. Once you take them off, you’re just naked and that was not out of the ordinary or weird. The apprehension would be the environment because the hurricane pretty much eradicated everything. [That region of Nicaragua was ravaged by Hurricane Otto in 2016.] It definitely changed the landscape and made it a little more difficult to find food and water and just the basic necessities that you would need for survival. Coming in by airplane and overlooking everything and seeing exactly what happened over there – that to me was amazing because you know what a jungle environment is supposed to look like, but that definitely wasn’t it. [Laughs.]
CC What was more difficult for you to cope with? The climate? Finding food? Getting along with your partner (a commercial roofer and father of six from Texas named Lee)?
LD I think our biggest challenge was just to make sure that we had water, honestly. We chose a location that was a little bit further away, so it did make it very challenging to make sure that we had a good water source. And because the environment is like it is down there, where there isn’t a good supply of water, the trees fall into the river you can’t drink out of it at all because of the tannins. So definitely finding water and keeping water with the rainstorms that go through there, it made it challenging to stay hydrated and not get in that cycle of dehydration.
CC As your episode airs this month, did anything scare or overwhelm you?
LD [Laughs.] Without giving away too much, what overwhelmed me was the landscape. You could walk by something one day and it looked one way, and then the next day you would walk by there and it looked completely different. So being able to identify your trail or your surroundings when you know that you’re going to this location to look for sugarcane, for instance. But the next day, that’s completely not there, so your judgment is changing as you don’t have nourishment or that kind of thing. And the next day you go back and it’s magically there again! [Laughs.]
CC While you’ve traveled some in the Army, have you traveled out of Alaska to a place like this, or was Nicaragua a destination you really haven’t been to?
LD Oh my gosh, no [Laughs]. My first adventure out of the country; it was the first stamp in my passport. So that in itself was one of those bucket list items for me.
CC Would you call it a satisfying, fun experience or was it an “I don’t ever want to do this again” experience?
LD Oh no. I would say it was an adventure of a lifetime and one that everyone should consider doing. And I would absolutely go back.
CC Now that you’ve been to Nicaragua, are there other boxes that you want to check off as part of a bucket list?
LD I want to apply for my pilot’s license and I want to maybe go and see some more countries. My kid has been everywhere with the Marines and I’m still left with one single trip to my passport.
CC Getting back to Alaska, are there still hunts that you want to try after that fabulous caribou harvest?
LD Last year, before this opportunity came up with the show, I was scheduled for a black bear hunt for a spring bear. This year it’s on my list again for an archery shoot. And maybe a moose, but I’ll have to do it with a rifle and not a bow because my draw weight is not adequate to shoot a moose with my bow.
CC After experiencing a tropical climate in Nicaragua compared to the reality of an Alaska cold winter, do you ever see yourself not living in the Last Frontier?
LD No. Alaska is my home and this is pretty much where I’m going to die. People ask me, “Where do you want to go?” And I say that I want to go to a cabin in the woods in Alaska. There are so many things to see and do here. My biggest adventures are at home and I love that about Alaska. ASJ
Editor’s note: Look for LeeAn Duncan’s episode of Naked and Afraid on Sunday at 9 p.m. Pacific. New episodes air on Sunday nights throughout April and May (check your local listings for times in your region). Go to discovery.com/tv-shows/naked-