On The Comeback Trail From Despair

Photo courtesy of Gwen Grimes

The following appears in the August issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


After what she’d been through, how low she’d gotten and how empty she felt, there was no way Gwen Grimes was going anywhere.

Never mind that she was suffering through triple-digit Mexican heat coming from her snow-covered Alaska homestead, being ravaged by bugs and bitten by a tarantula. In other words, a miserable place to spend 21 days with no clothes and just a few tools to help you get through. 

Grimes, just a few years removed from having her law enforcement career ruined in a car accident caused by a reckless driver, agreed to participate on the Discovery Channel series Naked and Afraid when the show contacted her with an invitation. It was one of two phone calls that have given Grimes a second chance. 

“That was one of the questions production had asked before they even sent me out into the field. ‘What would be one thing that would make you tap (out)?’” Grimes, 48, says. “I said nothing’s going to make me tap. I don’t care what you throw at me.”

Fate threw Grimes an unwanted changeup four years ago. In an instant, that car that smashed into the rear of her patrol car while she was on duty with the Wasilla Police Department. Injuries suffered in the wreck effectively ended her career as an active-duty police officer. 

“Everything’s gone. Completely gone,” was how she describes the aftermath.  

So maybe this was an opportunity to get something back.

Grimes (right) with fellow Alaskan and Naked and Afraid alum LeeAnn Duncan.

AS A KID GROWING up in western Oregon, Grimes’ family didn’t totally live off the grid, but it was certainly off the beaten path. Halfway between Eugene and Florence on the Oregon coast, Grimes grew up in the ultimate rural household. She was so far away from civilization, she referred to the little “Podunk town” of Elmira as the closest to the family home. And even that community was a 45-minute drive.

“We were pretty poor. We hunted, trapped, fished,” Grimes says. “In the morning, before I’d hop on the bus to go to school, during hunting season my dad would wake me up at friggin’ four in the morning and we’d go out and hunt until it was time for me to go to school.”

Grimes, the oldest of five siblings, experienced even more of a “country” upbringing when her dad moved the family to Point Hope, Alaska, a North Slope community of mostly Native Alaskans on the Chukchi Sea. 

“We were the only white family out there. (But) we actually integrated really well into the community out there,” Grimes says. 

(Point Hope would become a rather sentimental place to Grimes and her family. “I was reassigned to Point Hope when I was a North Slope Borough police officer, so it was like coming home. Being welcomed back into the community. That was pretty cool. And my brother also is a police officer up there. And he’s stationed at Point Hope right now. So it’s cool because of the deep family ties to some of the communities that are up on the slope.”)

Alaska would become home for Grimes, who would have a family and ultimately nine years as an officer on the North Slope. But the widespread coverage area she was working – her schedule was two weeks on and two weeks off – and the chance to be closer to her kids prompted a move to Wasilla, where she joined that Mat-Su Valley community’s police department. 

Things were going well in Wasilla also three years into her stint there. 

 “I was the department’s hostage negotiator, so I was gearing my career up. I was doing patrol work, I was a field-training officer for rookies coming in,” she says. “I was doing all this cool stuff. It was awesome and I was having fun. Then, bam.”

Officers around the globe are sometimes injured, or worse, in the line of duty, a risk of the job. But Grimes was seriously hurt not in a shootout, a fight or even while engaged in a high-speed chase. She was simply stopped at a traffic light on Main Street in Wasilla. 

“Out of the blue the inside of my patrol car just exploded. Glass in slow motion was just flying around my face. I felt this really sharp pain in my upper chest. I thought I’d been shot because it felt like this instant explosion and then this searing pain,” she says. 

“I didn’t realize at the time that I’d been hit from behind by a ¾-ton pickup trip that had been traveling 55 mph and not paying attention to anything. Didn’t see the red light, and without even putting on his brakes he hit me at full impact while I was in a dead stop.”

 The point of impact most affected Grimes’ left shoulder, which was pulled by her seat belt and caused severe nerve damage. She would lose 40 percent of usage in her left arm. And the news gets worse when you consider that Grimes is a natural left-hander. 

“So with that lack of sensation and that nerve damage, I can’t fire a handgun anymore so I can’t keep doing police work, because that’s kind of a critical aspect of being a cop,” she says with a sheepish laugh. “I was not ready for that to happen.”

It got worse. While she was eligible for disability, it just didn’t pay as much as she made working for the force. It became too expensive to raise her kids in Wasilla. So she settled on the homestead in Eagle, hard on the Yukon River just west of the Canadian border. She was able to build a house on the property, but it wasn’t the easiest of transitions. 

Grimes felt alone. She’d spent most of her savings in a desperate attempt to save the Wasilla home (she’d lose it to foreclosure). 

“I lost my house, my job. I lost everything, so it was like you were at the bottom of the bucket and everything looked grim,” she says. “All of your friends kind of shied away from you, because cop-wise, you were kind of the leper now. You got hurt and, holy crap, they could get hurt too. So it was in the forefront of their minds that this happened to this person and could happen to them too.”

One thought was constantly in the back of her mind: “I’m not ready to be done being a cop.”

So what next? 

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

IF THERE’S ONE MOMENT in Grimes’ Naked and Afraid appearance – her episode, brilliantly titled Baked Alaskan, premiered in March – it was that damn tarantula. After Discovery Channel producers found out about her story and offered her a chance to participate, Grimes took it. 

She and partner Jon Hart, a Pennsylvania endurance athlete, were dropped off in a southern Mexico coastal forest, where the heat index – even in spring – can rise to as much as 130 degrees.

“I went from Eagle, where I think it was 20 degrees outside and snowing,” Grimes says.

Climbing a steep ridge to get to a drinking water source was as difficult a task as she would face upon the partners shedding their clothes and studying a map.

Over what would become a successful 21-day stay, Grimes and her cohort caught elusive crabs from the beach – “We figured out that you couldn’t catch them by yourself. One would find them and the other would come up and stab it with a stick,” Grimes admits – gathered fruit and berries and finally got a fire started to help fend off flesh-eating sand fleas and ants. They made the duo miserable over an entire fireless night.  

“I was covered from head to toe. I felt like a meth addict. I had scabs all over my body. It probably took six months to heal from all those,” she says. “That was the hardest part. Just constant aching pains.”

But it was another insect friend that would define Grimes’ three nude weeks south of the border. One night of sleep was interrupted by a tarantula’s bite. 

“Son of a bitch. That hurt. Something just bit me,” Grimes, channeling her inner Forrest Gump, called out in the middle of the night. 

Gwen and her partner Jon Hart successfully got through 21 days in sizzling Mexico. (Photo by Discovery Channel)

Grimes, who was also temporarily sidelined when she severely stubbed her toe earlier in the challenge, enacted her spider revenge when her stomach was rumbling for protein – any protein. Granted, when they found a big, hairy arthropod hanging on a tree branch, there was no way to know if it was the same spider that hanged its fang into the Alaskan. But why not conclude it was so you can play out the ultimate eye-for-an-eye result?

And then, hungry and not picky about foraging for a food source, they ate the tarantula.

“It was so nasty. Just like burnt ass,” Grimes says of the taste. “The thought never crossed my mind to eat a tarantula until one bit me.” 

They were so close to completing their challenge as day 21 beckoned. It started with another brutal climb and descent from a ridge while carrying limited water sources. And when they got to the beach, they faced a swim over raging waves crashing into the shore and then a swim through the choppy waters to reach their extraction point boat.

As crazy as it sounds the lesser concern for Grimes was probably that bull sharks inhabited the bottom of the sea. Remember that her barely working left shoulder makes it impossible to make a typical swimming motion. 

“The first time we’d gone out we tried to get into it and it wasn’t happening. One (wave) whitewashed me onto the bottom of the ocean, and I knew there were bull sharks down there. I am not that familiar with ocean swimming,” Grimes says. “We had to wait down there for about five hours for the tide to go out enough that the waves weren’t so bad that you couldn’t physically go into them.”

“By the time we finally got those breakers past the reef, my arm was just shot. I couldn’t move it anymore and the nerves were too inflamed. I was doing the one-armed dog paddle.”

But she made it. And nothing felt sweeter than exchanging hugs and high-fives with Hart, devouring the watermelon and cantaloupe the producers brought for them, a much-needed meal of chicken enchiladas, and the extra day she spent drinking beers and bonding with the local villagers. 

“I was proud of myself for accomplishing it on and not letting that stuff crush me or beat me. It was something I needed to do and I did it,” she says. “I love challenges and it was an epic challenge. It tested everything – physical, mental, spiritual. It was an incredible inexperience.”

A couple years after Grimes felt like her life had no purpose, 21 days on a television show she’d never heard of would change everything. And then the phone rang again.

NAKED AND AFRAID CHANGED Grimes’ life. After her episode aired, she was contacted by a representative from The Wounded Blue, which helps brother and sister law enforcement officers injured or traumatized on the job. 

“He said, ‘You’re an injured officer. We’re an organization that’s for you. That’s what we do. We help wounded officers. It’s like a lifeline,’” Grimes says. “They were interested in having me as one of their peer support counselors. I’m like, ‘Holy crap! That would be fantastic! I’d love to do that.’”

The plan is for Grimes to train for her position this fall, then become The Wounded Blue’s Alaska representative for officers who endure similar trauma that she suffered. 

“I’ll be able to talk to them through all the things that happen when you get injured in the line of duty. I didn’t even know there was any help available when I got hurt. I felt cut off, abandoned, alone,” she says. “But there is an organization around there to help and now they want to be a part of it. At least I have direction now. I’ve got something to where I can keep helping other people.”

The helping hands part has spilled over to her home life as well. Grimes and her boyfriend Nate, a wounded veteran, are establishing their own nonprofit group, Wyldwoodz Wilderness Retreat. Grimes will soon be an empty nester, and she and Nate plan to build a cabin on their homestead, which will house disabled veterans and police officers.

Gwen and her boyfriend Nate have started a nonprofit to assist veterans suffering from PTSD.

Eagle seems like an ideal place for healing injuries and PTSD symptoms. 

“There’s nobody up here, it’s quiet, you’re not running into people and there’s no drama. There’s no internet unless you go to the library. Nothing. It’s remote,” she says. “I wanted the peace. I needed the peace. I needed to be able to mentally deal with all the crap that I’ve done in the last decade.”

The hope is any broken men or women who visit her retreat can spend a day fishing, hiking or biking, or that she counsels through the pending gig with The Wounded Blue, can have someone who understands that sh*t happens in combat or on duty.  

Grimes had an informal chat with a friend and colleague who recently visited her homestead. The man was involved in a shooting and opened up to someone who can relate to when something goes bad. 

“He said, ‘This is the place where I can come and find peace and just let everything go,’” Grimes recalls. “This is the place where people can come, heal mentally and kind of get away from that rat race down there.” ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on The Wounded Blue, go to thewoundedblue.org. Wyldwoodz Wilderness Retreat’s website is wyldwoodz.com. Check out discovery.com/tv-shows/naked-and-afraid/ for more on the Discovery Channel series.