A Survival Show Worth Watching: "Life Below Zero"

Last night, while making my usual television journey from "tedium to apathy, with regular stops at ennui," I was galvanized to stumble on a show that was actually worth watching. Entitled "Life Below Zero," it's running Thursday nights on the National Geographic Channel, and follows the lives of seven people who have chosen to live far, far from civilization in the Alaskan bush, right through the winter.

A number of things about this show are appealing. First, it's diverse. One of the participants is a young man who is a subsistence hunter, lives alone in a tent with no creature comforts whatsoever, and has, each year, gotten by with fewer and fewer modern inventions. A few years back, realizing that he was dependent on matches, he gave them up and now makes his fires with a bow drill, and fast, too.

At the other end is a woman named Sue Aikens who runs a camp of considerable size and mechanical complexity. But she must do it alone, and must go armed everywhere, at all times, lest something grab her, like a migrating polar bear, say.

None of these people seem maladjusted, or unhappy, or bitter; they have simply chosen, for one reason or another, to spend a great part of their lives in solitude. All of them wear clothes at all times, which is another big plus.

What does come through very clearly is that they've chosen a lifestyle that offers no second chances. You must, if you are to survive, be active and productive from first light to last. You must, if you are to survive, be a master of a wide set of skills; if you're only passable at some of what's required, you'll eventually die for it. You must, if you are to survive, think nonstop about how to keep from hurting yourself, because something like a broken leg or an amputated finger can end your life as surely as a gunshot.

All this is made very clear but with a lack of the melodrama that is a staple of other "survival" shows. These are, as far as I can tell, serene people who have chosen a different path, have no illusions about what that path is like, and would not swap places with anyone.

May they all prosper.