The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Let’s play a quick game of word association, Naked and Afraid-style.
Rainforest, jungle, bugs, sunburn, alligators, lions, and heatstroke quickly come to mind when dissecting Discovery Channel’s survival challenge with the sexy premise of men and women meeting up in usually tropical ecosystems, stripping down to complete nudity, then being left to fend for themselves for 21 or sometimes 40 days.
They’ll carry a handful of tools and have access to limited resources with which to sustain themselves, get along with each other and overcome the thought of exposing their private parts to a total stranger and expect to be physically and mentally engaged throughout what sounds like more of an ordeal than adventure.
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Now think about what would happen with the same plotline but being dropped from a helicopter into 3,800-foot-elevation boreal tundra at the base of the Alaska Range. Your first task: Walk naked and barefoot down through the still snow-covered – even in summer – hillsides, then subject potentially frostbitten and cut feet to sharp alders.
As well as god only knows what else is in or behind those trees.
It’s certainly a whole new set of challenges for this series, which has intrigued viewers for what enters a new season this month. Usually it’s oppressively hot weather – though in many environments temperature swings do test survivalists’ cold-weather skills – that defines many of the locales. Alaska’s own LeeAnn Duncan bared all in a previous episode in hurricane-damaged Nicaragua (Alaska Sporting Journal, April 2018) and endured graphic sunburn and struggled to find water in a desolate, crocodile-infested wasteland.
But finding water wasn’t going to be a problem for Steven Lee Hall Jr. and Laura Zerra, both seasoned outdoor warriors who had succeeded in past Naked and Afraid adventures. In fact, as they traversed through the snow down towards the forested valley below, the duo found delicious and refreshing snowmelt to drink even before reaching the frigid river that would become one of many enemies they encountered along the way (their episode is set to air on March 3).
“There’s a reason why people don’t live there. It’s not for humans to live. It is untamed and truly nature,” Hall says of the Alaskan environment he and Zerra faced together. “And that’s what makes it so special. There are so many different factors that all kind of come together that make it one of the most beautiful places on the planet – and one of the most dangerous and unpredictable as well.”
MOST OF US MUST be thinking: “No way I could do that,” believing that it’s daunting enough to take on the Alaska wilderness fully clothed and with multiple survival gadgets at your disposal. But then again, most of us aren’t Steven Lee Hall Jr. and Laura Zerra.
They’re both considered Naked and Afraid “All Stars” who have successfully competed multiple past challenges. Hall made it through 21 days in an Alabama swamp and a deserted beach in the Bahamas and 40 days in South Africa on a super-sized edition of the show, Naked and Afraid XL. Zerra has conquered the wild in the buff in both Panama and the Peruvian Amazon and had her 40-day Naked and Afraid XL test in the savanna of Colombia.
And these kinds of holy sh*t events are part of their soul. Zerra grew up in Massachusetts, but from an early age sought out nearby coyotes in the woods – as a kid she loved animals so much she briefly lived a vegan lifestyle (see sidebar). Zerra had a hunger for survival training. She would soon embark on a nomadic journey that’s taken her around the globe, landing everywhere from Montana to Mexico and Australia.
Hall, an accomplished artist (see sidebar) is a tumbleweed-tough native west Texan – in Naked and Afraid scuttlebutt he’s known as the King of the Forest – who learned to love the outdoors tagging along with his grandfather and uncle on hunting and fishing expeditions in the Rocky Mountains.
They might have been miserable, cold and hungry at times as the days went on in Alaska, but this was who they are and what gets their competitive juices churning.
“Totally different. (Among) Africa, the Bahamas and Alabama,” Hall says comparing his other Naked and Afraid destinations to Alaska, “it’s a totally different environment and a totally different set of dangers between the environments and the animals. And especially the weather; that’s probably one of the biggest dangers we had up there. That was the hardest animal that we had to compete with up there.”
“But it was incredible. It’s literally the Last Frontier, so to be able to go up there and take it on was a blessing. And it was a huge challenge.”
That started right from the get-go as they were helicoptered into the Alaska Range for a bird’s-eye view of what they were about to confront. Hall, sounding like an excited child on the last day of school before summer vacation, was a passenger in a chopper for the first time.
“You’re surrounded by monumental mountains, these never-ending rivers and these so-dense forests that you can’t see 2 feet in front of you,” he says. “So to be up above it and see the grandness of the entire thing and to know that helicopter is going to land and you’ll be right there in the middle of it, it’s exciting and intimidating all at the same time. It was an experience for sure.”
Unlike most Naked and Afraid meets and greets, where the man and woman have never met, Hall and Zerra already knew each other and were both relieved that they were each other’s partner in this project.
Of course, this being Alaska and all, they had to struggle through at least knee-deep snow on either side of them to exchange salutations. One of the critical variables of the challenges is how the teams work together.
Conflict does not enhance your chances to get through the number of days required to finish (because of the extreme weather conditions, Zerra and Hall were required to last 14 days in Alaska). So in this instance, the partners’ chemistry with each other would at least give them a puncher’s chance.
“I’m kind of a loner by trade. I’ve done a lot of my survival challenges by myself. But in Naked and Afraid, you have a goal for both of you to make it,” Zerra says. “And if you’re out there with someone who’s not into it and who’s tentative, it just really affects your core skills.”
Admittedly, Zerra says she “grew up in the cold and what I learned is that I don’t like it.” So being naked in near-freezing temperatures meant sharing body warmth while huddled for the night could make the difference between carrying on or “tagging out” to end the challenge. And while such intimacy and potential uncomfortable awkwardness is a hallmark of Naked and Afraid, when they would sack out for the night in the frigid Alaskan air, they could count on each other without it getting weird (and Naked and Afraid has likely produced plenty of such weird interactions during its run).
“Every day, trying to keep up is actually physically draining. So to be out there with someone who wanted to make the best out of a crazy situation, who was willing to do what it takes, who was positive about it, and who was, to be honest, not a creepy cuddler (made it easier),” Zerra says. “I was terrified about the cuddling. I am not a cuddler, and to be with someone who was respectful and wasn’t crazy – just that alone was important (for me) to be with a gentleman.”
IN TRUE NAKED AND AFRAID fashion, Hall and Zerra didn’t start out with many luxuries. With temperatures mostly topping off in the 40s and wind chill readings falling well below freezing, they were given valuable beaver and moose hides to sleep with at night, and also a firestarter.
Hall brought a pot and much-needed fishing line, while Zerra carried her own hand-forged knife and a map to help them devise a game plan to forage and find some semblance of shelter. The map depicted some of the fauna they’d share the landscape with: Trout and grayling in a nearby river and large critters living adjacent to the water source in the form of grizzly bears and wolves, plus moose, which the show’s narrator reminds us that harm more humans in Alaska than any other animal. Sounds like a divine time right?
“There were a lot of times when walking through the snowdrift and we’re cutting up our feet, you had to laugh. Because it’s so absurd and so crazy, I thought a lot about my life and said, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why on earth are we doing this?’” Zerra, 33, says.
“But I absolutely love it. I love that challenge when we’re pushing through something and you don’t know how you’re going to get through it. You just know that you’re going to do whatever it takes to make it.”
The 35-year-old Hall concurred that even in this most surreal situation, there’s no place this adrenaline junkie would rather be and pushing the limit to the brink of insanity.
“The thing is, whenever you do these challenges, you never know what to expect,” he says. “Tomorrow can bring anything, and when you’re in Alaska tomorrow can bring snow; it can bring grizzly bears; it can bring wind, rain; it can bring all sorts of crazy different elements and dangers. It’s its own world up there.”
“And that’s what makes it so special. There are so many different factors that all kind of come together that make it one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and one of the most dangerous and unpredictable as well.”
That said, there were times when Hall – at least for a brief moment – regretted that he brought that fishing line with him. While the protein would be much needed for them to put back some of the calories the cold was taking out of their bodies, it meant wading out in the 35-degree water in short spurts to cast a makeshift tree-branch fishing rod and check his fishing line for bites.
It is cringeworthy television to envision how cold he must have been in a river just a few degrees above freezing. When the fish weren’t biting, it felt like a cruel tease from the resident trout and grayling.
“I’d go down there every day and I’d wade out about crotch-deep, which is by itself terribly cold. And the only thing that you can do is make a few casts, and then I’d have to get out of the water and start a fire and heat up. Every time I’d get out of the water my legs would be, like, purple,” Hall says. “So it’s one of those things where I’m trying to accomplish this goal – the main thing that you need to do and that’s get nutrients and sustenance and protein. But you also have to put in the back of your head that OK, I’ve been in the water long enough; I need to get out or I can put myself in real hypothermic danger.”
Desperate for food and hungry, they finally break through and Hall carefully pulls in a modest but perfect eating-sized grayling in one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit moments.
“You look at it that your body is trying to maintain a core temperature, so you’re burning so many more calories just to begin with that aspect of the challenge,” Hall says. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. And the thing is you can’t stop; you can’t stop working no matter how hard it is; no matter how cold it is; no matter how tired you are or how bad your feet hurt. There is no quit, and if you quit you die.”
SO DID THEY MAKE it for all 14 days? You’ll have to tune in yourself on March 3, but you can bet that through the hungry days, the flirting with developing frostbite and hypothermia and the getting-terrified-to-death experience when what sounded like a bear wandered dangerously close to camp, Alaska had a lasting impression on both Hall and Zerra.
Hall had been to the Last Frontier once before, as he and a classmate spent a week in the Kenai just after graduating high school.
“Ever since when I went when I was 18 – almost 20 years ago – I’ve been dying to go back. To be able to have this opportunity with Discovery was great,” Hall says. “But I want a cabin someday. I want a place to go. I want to go back where Laura and me explored. To be able to look and see what we conquered and accomplished up there.
Zerra remarkably had previously booked three flights to Alaska but had to cancel each trip. And she’s already booked another trip for this summer, when she’ll look for caribou and moose antlers and get another taste of Alaskan adventure.
And for everyone who’s participated in Naked and Afraid – whether they were successful until the end or tagged out along the way – it’s the lure of pushing yourself to the limit. Common sense suggests you have no business being this uncomfortable, famished and beaten down, all while having to face this misery in your birthday suit.
“I’ve been a nomad for about 15 years now. And whenever I do something that makes me feel uncomfortable and have a new challenge, my limits and my comfort zone get pushed out a little bit more,” Zerra says. “I always want to push my boundaries and my comfort zone. And as they get bigger, it’s more and more difficult to find more grandiose adventures – things that are going to push me a little further. I can live to be 150 and I would never do a fraction of the things that I want to do. But at the same time I can die tomorrow, because I know I’ll have no regrets.” ASJ
The King of the Jungle might also someday earn the similarly noble title of Count of the Canvas.
Naked and Afraid veteran Steven Lee Hall Jr. is an accomplished survivalist, hunter and adventurer, but his big passion might be art. The 35-year-old Texan now based in Orlando, Florida, sells prints of his work through his website, nevetskilljoy.com.
Who is Nevets Killjoy, you might ask? That’s Hall’s alter ego.
“When I was a kid growing up in Amarillo, Texas, probably like from 5 to 9 years old, me and my buddies would go and hunt coyotes, run around and do all kinds of crazy stuff. And whenever we’d do stuff that’s super cool, we’d call it ‘killjoy cool,’” Hall says of how came up with his professional nom de plume (or however you say paintbrush in French).
And of course Nevets is Steven spelled backwards, so there you go.
When he worked as a bartender in Orlando, many friends in the business asked if they could display some of his work, and as he pondered how to sign his name and had a bit of an epiphany.
“I wanted to get people’s real opinion of it, because I knew if I put my name on it, my friends would just say it looks awesome, but I really wanted a real opinion on it,” he says. “So when I would sign it NL, or Nevets Killjoy, and say, ‘What do you think of that?’ I could get an honest opinion. So it was more like a pen name so I could get a real opinion of what people really thought of my artwork. It’s crazy how something evolves that way.”
Hall’s always been interested in art, and for about 10 years he painted more for enjoyment than for profit. But that changed when a friend had a special request to create a portrait for his wedding.
“I took it to the reception and everybody was like, ‘This is great. Can we get one of those?’ So I thought, maybe there’s something to this.’ So once I found out that maybe I can pay my bills doing something else that I love, I dove right into it,” Hall says. “So that’s my life: I run around naked on TV and I paint cool pictures. So I’m not complaining.”
The galleries on his website depict an eclectic mix of portraits and themes. And of course, he’s inspired from many of his adventures in the outdoors, including his Naked and Afraid challenge in Alaska.
“I’ve been loving to do this wildlife realism sketch work,” Hall says. “It’s amazing how life gives you this inspiration to do these things.”CC
Sidebar: MEAT AND GREET
There’s a moment in Laura Zerra’s Naked and Afraid appearance when she and her partner in Alaska, Steven Lee Hall Jr., are looking over a porcupine they successfully hunted. It was an animal that provided the cold, hungry survivalists some desperately needed protein, something Zerra takes very seriously.
“I’ve hunted a lot of things in my life, but it’s a little bit different when you’re hunting (an animal) that’s covered in quills and you’re naked,” she deadpans.
But there’s more to Zerra than just eating meat she harvested. As a kid, she was so enthralled with the animal kingdom as she bonded with nature that eating meat was not an option.
“In my childhood I always tried to get close to animals out in the woods. I learned about factory farming and was horrified,” Zerra says. “(But) I realized that by eating strawberries and tofu in Massachusetts in wintertime, I was probably causing more of an impact on animals for habitat loss and for what it took for the tofu truck to get to me. So I started eating roadkill because it was the most responsible decision I could make. And then I realized how good I felt when I ate meat.”
In one of her earlier challenges on Naked and Afraid in Peru, Zerra clashed with her partner about his lack of reverence and respect for an eel they were about to kill for a food source. She wanted no part of that attitude.
“I started hunting because I wanted to have a relationship with the animal I was going to kill. I wanted to understand the sacrifice that was going on to keep me alive,” she says. “It’s part of what makes me feel like a human and not just someone going through the motions.”
Zerra keeps busy throughout the year with her thirst for travel and seeking adventure. One bucket list item she absolutely wants to cross off is experiencing the nomadic horse culture in Mongolia (she has a background working with horses as a farrier).
Last year, she made another memorable TV appearance when she won a car on The Price is Right and advanced to the Showcase Showdown. Of course, this outdoorswoman had a shot to win a perfect showdown prize: an SUV Jeep with a trailer. Alas, she came up short in her bid, but no big deal.
“(Host) Drew Carey laughed at me after the show, asking, ‘Man, you’re a survivalist? That would have really been perfect for you to win!’ Thanks, Drew,” Zerra joked. “But (by winning the Jeep) I would have been far too comfortable to be comfortable, so it’s probably for the best.”
Zerra has no shortage of opportunities to pursue her zest for the extreme. And with as much physical and mental punishment she puts herself through in survivalist situations, this one-time vegan has earned some opportunities to treat herself to a carnivore’s feast once back in civilization.
“I’ll find the biggest, most rare, juicy cheeseburger that I can find and I want to eat five of them,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll close my eyes when I go to bed at night and just imagine what it feels like to have that bloody juice running down my face.” CC