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Norway and Tiburón Island: Survivorman Ten Days, Remarks on Resilience and a Reflection Ten Years After The MCAT

“It would seem that in this survival ordeal, I’ve experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.” –Les Stroud

Although Les Stroud had wrapped up Survivorman in 2008 owing to the significant physical toll associated with filming survival in extreme environments, in 2012, Stroud would embark on two survival expeditions that were larger than anything he had previously done. This series would become known as Survivorman Ten Days, and true to its title, has Stroud surviving in two new environments for ten days. In Norway, Stroud simulates how one might go about surviving if their car broke down. In the beginning, with intense wind and a wet snowfall, Stroud stays with the vehicle until his provisions are depleted. He siphons gas from the vehicle and lights a fire, then uses the car’s upholstery to fashion snowshoes before heading out into the backcountry. After a cold night in the bush, Stroud manages to find hunters’ cabins, and deer remains. Capitalising on the shelter and food, Stroud enjoys a few days here in the cabins before preparing to head downhill towards the coast. Although Stroud is put into a perilous situation as the sun begins setting, he manages to make it down before nightfall. He later explores the coast and finds a summer cottage, where he rests before preparing a massive signal fire for his recovery team. At Tiburón Island, Stroud plays the role of a sailor on a yacht who is stranded. After reaching shore, Stroud notes that water is his biggest priority and fashions a desalination device from items he found on the beach. With the still making water, Stroud then explores a nearby estuary, where he finds an extensive clam population. While Stroud enjoys a feast of clams and calamari, he determines that in order to survive, he must head inland and find water – he leaves behind the coast and travels inland. After a few days, Stroud ultimately locates a spring that provides him with fresh water, the most critical of necessities in a place as dry as a desert. Continuing on in the same vein as its predecessors, Survivorman Ten Days features Les Stroud creating an entire survival show with no camera crew or production team assisting him. This time, however, instead of the typical seven days, Survivorman Ten Days extends the survival ordeal by three more days, and while three days initially seems minor, this can add another dimension of complexity to survival, especially in the knowledge that one must plan for three more days’ worth of survival. In Survivorman Ten Days, Stroud rises to the occasion, drawing upon his extensive knowledge and experience to survive, as well as utilising every advantage in his environment to make a difficult situation manageable.

Survivorman Ten Days comes to represent a fantastic show of how having a reliable knowledge base means that, even when one is confronted with a problem they’ve never faced before, or if the problem is of a different scale than one is familiar with, applying the same principles will help one to put things in perspective, and break things down so that it is more manageable. At Tiburón Island, surviving ten days in the desert seems daunting: previously in the Kalahari, Stroud had suffered from heat stroke and very nearly had to call off his shoot for safety reasons. Here in Tiburón Island, the absence of fresh water meant survival was already going to be a difficult task. However, with the knowledge that he could obtain water in a creative fashion, Stroud chooses to construct a distilling apparatus and is able to draw potable water from the ocean, prolonging his survival and giving him a chance to take stock before making the decision on what his next steps are. Stroud had previously utilised novel methods of acquiring water in difficult situations, and acknowledges that these methods only provide one with the minimal amount of water. However, even this small amount of water helps survival, and in helping to ward off dehydration, Stroud ultimately is able to find a more substantial supply of fresh water. Similarly, in Norway, Stroud has his most difficult experience when he attempts to make his way down into the valley. Although Stroud had known there were paths leading down, the combination of slippery and damp conditions meant that, had Stroud happened onto a cliff, he would’ve lacked the means of returning back to the cabins before nightfall, and potentially putting him in harm’s way as the wet, cold conditions elevate the risk of hypothermia. Even with all of his experience in the bush, Stroud is in a perilous situation – this situation puts all of this knowhow and decision-making to the test. In the end, Stroud decides to keep going, and to his great relief, finds himself on the edge of the fjord right as night is about to fall. Despite being in a terrifying, gripping situation, Stroud remains calm and collected, doing whatever he can to stave off disaster. However, he’s also honest about it: in a voice-over, Stroud indicates that viewers can audibly hear his heartbeat, a consequence of a genuine, tangible worry about how dangerous a seemingly-simple trek down the mountain had become. When Stroud reaches the bottom of the cliff and sets up camp, viewers breathe a sigh of relief alongside him, and similarly, cannot help but smile when Stroud comes upon summer cabins. Through it all, Stroud continues to call upon everything he’s previously done to persist, endure and ultimately, make it safely down the mountain. With a bit of luck, Stroud succeeds here, and much as how his resilience and experience come together to help him find fresh drinking water in Tiburón Island, the same mindset and skillset is applied to help Stroud reach safety in the snow-covered fjords of Norway.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Survivorman Ten Days aired during July 2012, a time when I’d been fully focused on studying for the MCAT. By that point in the summer, my physics course had ended, and I walked away with an A-. My days were thus spent attending the preparation course, doing revision in my spare time and, to unwind, I divided my time between Team Fortress 2 and MicroVolts. To learn that Survivorman was continuing proved to be a huge psychological boost; I’d already been familiar with the series by then, and always found myself inspired by the teachings Stroud conveyed in his episode.

  • Survivorman Ten Days had come completely out of the blue, but I welcomed the news and watched episodes with enthusiasm. Unlike previous Survivorman episodes, which were set over a week, Survivorman Ten Days has Stroud surviving for three more days, but the additional three days meant that there were two episodes for each location, providing Stroud with extra time to really showcase everything. In Survivorman Director’s Commentary, Stroud had mentioned how one of the challenges in the editing phase was actually paring down footage to fit the episode’s 40-minute length.

  • This is actually similar to the problem I have in blogging: I end up with a large number of screenshots that would result in far more content than I could realistically write, and to ensure my posts are of a manageable size, I cut down the number of screenshots to a multiple of ten for easier writing. The idea of breaking posts up into parts has been suggested to me before, and this is why for some series, I do split things into parts. For discussions on movies, however, I prefer keeping everything together in a single post. In Norway, Stroud initially remains behind with his vehicle to mimic what the average traveller might do if their ride suffered from failure. With the wind gusting outside, Stroud says it’s only natural for people to want to stick with their vehicles and wait out rescue.

  • Moreover, a vehicle represents a ready-made survival shelter, and so long as one has fuel, they can take the chill out of the air readily. However, a vehicle can also become a death-trap in that, in keeping people attached to the vehicle, may create scenarios where people would rather stick with their car than walking out of a difficult situation. Because this is a Survivorman episode, Stroud mentions that it’d be possible for him to walk out of this situation, but then there’d be no episode. For this episode, Stroud’s brought some provisions with him, including a jar of peanut butter, a six pack of beer and a mandarin orange.

  • Rationing food in a survival situation can be tricky because one doesn’t have a definitive idea of how long they’ll be in survival for. For Stroud, the mandarin orange depletes after a few days, and Stroud decides to take on a more proactive approach to survival. Being trapped in a dark vehicle might mean that crews clearing the road will likely ignore it, but a roaring fire burning behind a vehicle would pique some curiosity. While Stroud doesn’t have any obvious fire-starting materials on hand, he’s never out of options.

  • Siphoning fuel from the tank, and then using the vehicle’s battery to ignite the mixture creates a very powerful flame that would certainly attract attention, but even if this doesn’t happen, it gives Stroud a significant source of warmth. Being active with the fire outside also reminds Stroud of how cramped the vehicle interior is, leading him to plan out how to head into the bush in search of more beneficial conditions. The situation Stroud finds himself in during Norway would, in retrospect, parallel my own experiences with the MCAT.

  • Stroud’s desire to stay with the car is not so different than my initial feelings about the MCAT being an unbeatable opponent. I had managed to do well in the physics course despite coming close to throwing in the towel, but after the MCAT preparation course began, the lessons gave the impression that the exam was completely unlike anything I’d faced before. However, the further I got into the course, and the more practise exams I did, the more I realised that I needed to adopt a new strategy towards handling the stress associated with the exam.

  • Stroud’s leaving the car is analogous to me embracing a new method of studying, one which entailed making use of strategically-placed breaks. Every day, after five in the afternoon, I would stop all revisions and play a few rounds of Team Fortress 2 or MicroVolts. The idea was that I would have dedicated time to study and prepare, but then I was always assured of downtime so I wouldn’t become overwhelmed on a given day. Previously, I approached exams with brute force, studying until I was confident with the materials.

  • After leaving the car, Stroud spends the night under a tree and recalls he has a portable survival stove, which he uses to boil some water. It is here that Stroud mentions how he always hits the bathroom before sleeping; any liquid in the bladder forces the body to expend energy heating it, so emptying out said bladder allows one to conserve energy and sleep better. This is a habit that I learnt from my parents as a child: the reasoning they had was that it would help me sleep through the night and not run the risk of nocturnal enuresis, but Survivorman shows that there’s more than one reason to hit the bathroom before sleeping.

  • While my dislike of the winter and snow is no secret, I will concede that there is a beauty in a snow-covered landscape under semi-overcast skies. This appreciation is doubled if I don’t have to travel anywhere, and during the past couple of years, I worked from home during the winter. Snowstorms stopped being an irritant, and there is a sort of coziness associated with waking up to a fresh snowfall. Knowing that my commute is a 15-second walk to my desk increases the charm. Back in Survivorman Ten Days, Stroud’s managed to find hunter’s cabins, complete with a wood stove and bed.

  • The situation improves even further after Stroud spots a deer carcass left over from hunters: while all of the meat one would normally eat is gone, Stroud finds that the hunters have left behind the heart, liver, lungs, and a bunch of fat, plus a bit of meat. Although such moments appear contrived, Stroud has encountered hunter’s remains on many occasions previously, and even in Survivorman, during the Alaska episode, Stroud has found a partially-eaten fish that an eagle dropped and later enjoys a fish dinner after cooking it. On the first night, Stroud prepares a broth for himself: as he states, eating too much at once would overwhelm his digestive system and cause all sorts of problems.

  • Having enjoyed deer broth and a little bit of meat the previous evening, Stroud begins preparing the remainder of the deer remains for consumption and gives viewers a close-up of the deer. Besides the entire deer liver, Stroud’s pleasantly surprised to find the entire heart is also present. The heart of an animal tastes especially rich and beefy because it is the hardest-working muscle. The day had begun with some sunshine, but soon, the clouds roll back in and create an overcast sky. Despite this, Stroud’s in fine spirits, since shelter and food are now taken care of.

  • Because Stroud had been trapped in a car for two days, he ends up cooking his meal outdoors. The cabins come stocked with matches, but to conserve on limited resources, Stroud uses duct-tape as a fire-starter here, and in a few moments, his fire’s hot enough for him to begin cooking the deer. Imagery of cooking the meat over an open fire is par the course for enjoying the great outdoors, but in a survival situation, every bit counts. Stroud previously mentioned in Alaska that boiling the meat would be the best way to get all of the nutrients out, and here in Norway, he applies this approach to the deer meet, boiling things up to create a highly nourishing, if unphotogenic, meal.

  • The psychological boost of being able to eat, and sleep in a warm bed, proves to be a pivotal moment. The renewed energy Stroud gains from food and sleep allows him to plan out the final leg of his journey, but it also results in intense and vivid dreams that can play on the psyche. Survivorman Ten Days uses some very unusual footage here to convey this: a time lapse of the Norwegian Winter is played while Stroud gives a voice-over, creating a very chilling and surreal feeling. I’ve never quite understood how such footage was obtained, and if Stroud were to ever do Norway for Director’s Commentary, I would likely ask how this was filmed.

  • With a chance to re-evaluate his situation, Stroud determines it’s time to head down the cliffs for the coast, reasoning that now’s the time to do so: if he stayed in the cabins, he’d eventually run out of deer. However, what was supposed to be a simple hike down the mountain becomes one of the most challenging things he’d ever done. The combination of slippery rocks, snowfall and the constant threat of running into a cliff, meant that Stroud was more nervous than usual, and at one point during this trek, one can hear his heartbeat from the camera, speaking to how worried he was.

  • To the viewers’ great relief, Stroud does make it down the mountain okay, and he swiftly sets up camp before lighting a fire. As miserable as being soaked during cold, wet weather is, Stroud has, at the very least, reached the bottom without being stuck: his worst fear was that he ended up at a cliff, and as exhausted as he was, he would’ve had no way of heading back up the mountain and reaching the shelter of the cabins before nightfall. Hypothermia was the biggest risk here, and here at the bottom of the cliff, it’s still a very real risk, but Stroud is afforded the reassurance that the cliffs are behind him.

  • The next morning, Stroud continues on with exploring the coast: he stops to take a drink and finds some rosehips. However, the next find is a truly game-changing one – a summer home on the coast. Stroud’s fortunes completely turn around, and after a frigid night on the mountainside, he’s now able to take shelter in a cozy cabin. Stroud mentions that breaking in for shelter is something that should only be done in a survival situation – although breaking and entering remains illegal, the law states such an action would not be counted as an offense in a situation where such an action was necessary to avoid personal death or injury, and provided that one leaves no sign that an offense was committed.

  • This B-roll shot of the sun rising over the fjord is one I’m especially fond of – the B-roll footage in Survivorman has always been fun to watch even though the focus in the series is on survival. Such moments are typically shot before Stroud actually begins survival, and per Stroud’s commentary, is actually the most ordinary part of a Survivorman shoot in that it’s the one part where there’s a camera crew. After looking around the summer cabin, Stroud finds a key that allows him to enter. He immediately sets about seeing what other food might be available to him, and manages to locate some seaweed, blue mussels and potatoes.

  • I did a bit of looking around and found that the summer cabin Stroud comes across towards the end of the Norway trip is called Tingastad, which is located near Sogndal Airport. Looking around at satellite imagery of the area, one can even find the hunter’s cabins located higher up on the mountain, which are located a mere 1.29 kilometres from the airport. Although this shows that Stroud could’ve walked out at any time, the whole point of Survivorman is to show what happens if one were in trouble, and being somewhat close to civilisation is important in case things do go south.

  • In the end, Stroud creates a large signal fire for the purpose of letting the rescue boat know of his location. An effective fire doesn’t need large flames, but rather, smoke, and to do this, one needs to burn oily substances like birch bark. The boat eventually notices him and picks up him, bringing the first of the Survivorman Ten Days episodes to a close. Although Norway represents one of the most difficult of Stroud’s expeditions yet, I was thoroughly impressed with how he continued to draw on existing knowledge and push towards bettering his situation even when things looked grim.

  • This was the sort of mindset that I would carry with me into the MCAT – I found that at the heart of all difficult, seemingly-insurmountable problems, is a collection of smaller problems which, when attended to properly, can be handled individually. The important lesson learnt here is to always be mindful of the basics, and understand how the basics can be applied towards dealing with much bigger challenges. In fact, it is fair to say that failure results if one allows a large problem to overwhelm them to the point where they forget the basics.

  • I’ve now transitioned over to the Tiburón Island episodes, which sees Stroud travel to a desert island in Mexico. Here, the weather is the polar opposite of what it’d been in Norway: snow-covered trees and foggy fjords are replaced with rocky beaches and blue skies as far as the eye can see. Stroud faces a completely different set of problems here, with water being the chiefest of his problems. In Norway, Stroud could ingest snow to replenish his water, so hydration was never a problem, but here at Tiburón Island, there’s no freshwater nearby. Stroud does down a mouthful of ocean water to restore electrolytes, but for this trip, he carries enough water to last a few days.

  • As such, the immediate concern is making his water supply last while he works out where to get more water. One of my favourite Survivorman moments happens here – after finding a large bucket on the beach, Stroud crafts a handmade desalination still. The idea is simple enough: boiling salt water will create steam that evaporates, and this steam, when condensing back into a liquid form, will yield fresh, drinkable water. Although simple in principle, desalination at scale is an incredibly expensive process because of how much energy it takes to boil water.

  • Stroud’s handmade still yields about two cups of water a day; while it’s not enough to stave off dehydration and requires that Stroud continuously tops off the fire to ensure he can boil the water, it does allow him to extend the lifespan of his existing water supply. Stroud names techniques of this as a MacGyverism, of creatively using whatever materials in his environment to fashion tools and equipment that can be helpful in survival. Once the desalination still is fashioned, Stroud turns his attention next to exploring the beach and nearby estuary.

  • Although Stroud was hoping to find a flounder at the estuary, he ends up digging up a fair number of clams. In a survival situation, Stroud notes that having a food source he can easily gather is a huge advantage (in his words, there’s nothing worse than expending energy to travel a mile, only to find enough food for a half-mile walk). The clamming technique Stroud describes here is something I’ve previously commented on in Houkago Teibou Nisshi, and I was impressed the latter echoes Stroud’s sentiments about leaving the smaller clams so their population isn’t decimated.

  • I am particularly fond of the Tiburón Island episodes because they’re set under sunny skies, and while survival out here is no less difficult than in Norway, having blue skies conveys a sense of calm: things don’t feel quite as urgent or deadly as they did in Norway, and these episodes would come to remind me of those days when the MCAT seemed like a manageable exam, when revision was going well and I felt more confident in being ready to handle the exam.

  • The pacing of Tiburón Island meant that Stroud spends his first few days checking out what the nearby area has to offer, and by chance, he encounters a dead squid floating on the beachside. He decides to bring it back with him, and after cutting the grippers off, proceeds to cook it over an open fire. In a voice-over, Stroud admits that he’d never prepared squid before, so here, he ended up cutting away a lot more than he needed to for safety’s sake, but if he’d come in with more background, he could’ve gotten more from the squid. This is a recurring theme in Survivorman – it’s better to err on the side of caution if uncertain, but over time, experience allows one to survive more effectively

  • It was immensely satisfying to see the desalination still do its magic for Stroud: beyond the effort of building the still, fetching the water and topping the firewood off, Stroud now has a reliable means of getting access to water. Watching Stroud get water always instills in me an inclination to get some water of my own. I’ve never understood why people dislike water and would eschew it, and while I prefer to take my water filtered and boiled, I have no qualms with water so long as it quenches my thirst when appropriate.

  • Stroud’s approach of mobile, proactive survival means taking advantage of good times to make things better. With the clams in the estuary as a known, reliable food source, he’s able to explore other options. He fashions a makeshift spear here, along with shinguards, to explore the area for fish and defend against stingrays that may be trapped. Although his fishing expedition is unsuccessful, Stroud finds some oysters that he deems worth eating. This move proves to be a poor choice, since the oysters subsequently knock Stroud out of the game.

  • While stomach problems at any time are difficult, stomach problems during a survival situation would be debilitating. Stroud mentions that during survival, one shouldn’t take any chances, and aim to minimise their problems one by one. This is sound advice, and while Stroud does his best to adhere, speaking to the complexity of survival, even a veteran like Les Stroud can occasionally make a mistake. Far from invalidating Stroud, moments like these serve to remind viewers that even experts aren’t infallible, and it makes Stroud more human.

  • After Stroud recovers, he begins to travel inland in search of water. Tiburón Island represents an interesting conundrum in that the areas with food are close to the shore, where there’s no water, and where there’s fresh water, there’s no access to food. In previous Survivorman episodes, Stroud’s mentioned that travelling great distances during a survival situation is immensely difficult, and we recall earlier that even in Norway, when he’d been about a mile or so from the airport, the lack of food and rest means that travelling even a kilometre can be challenging.

  • Before heading inland, Stroud writes a message in a bottle and hucks the bottle into the ocean. Ocean currents mean that eventually, the bottle will end up on a shore somewhere, although I’ve not heard of anyone who managed to find the specific bottle Stroud threw into the water. This bit of imagery is a stereotype that is at least as old as that of the cartoon depicting a desert island several metres across, with a single palm tree on it. This depiction originates from gag comics published to The New Yorker in the 1930s and became the mid-20th century’s equivalent of a meme, which annoyed readers and editors enough so that they implemented a ban on publication of desert islands. The ideas endured into the newspaper comics of the 1980s and 1990s – The Far Side is especially fond of these gags, although I find The Far Side vapid and uninspired.

  • In general, I’ve found newspaper comics have become increasingly irrelevant and out-of-touch with reality: Blondie, The Meaning of Lila and Between Friends, for instance, present office culture in an antiquated, unrelatable fashion. Back in Survivorman Ten Days, Stroud makes use of his gear to continue boiling water, and he’s also brought clams with him, providing a food source as he treks further inland. Once in the desert itself, Stroud’s back in terrain similar to his survival trips to Arizona, Utah, the Kalahari and even the Australian outback. Each desert in the world represents a different kind of survival challenge, but all deserts share in common the same problem Stroud must address: the need for water. Bringing the desalination still inland is a good idea, allowing Stroud to to continue making water.

  • The last of the Survivorman Ten Days episodes aired on July 21, 2012 – at this point in the summer a decade earlier, K-On! The Movie had just seen its home release, and I had finished writing my review of the film. In those days, my blog wasn’t well-known, and reviews were mainly more for myself rather than readers. By the time July ended and August arrived, and after I wrote the last of the full-length practise exams, I began rolling back on my revision efforts. Previously, I spent most of my days studying, but once two weeks were left to the exam, I only studied for about four hours each day.

  • As I entered the final few days to the exam, I stopped studying outright – besides gaming, this blog’s archives showed that I also spent time blogging. The idea behind this was that an extra day or two wouldn’t likely make any difference and may even increase stress. On the morning of the exam, I remember re-watching Gundam Unicorn‘s fifth episode to psyche myself up for the MCAT itself. After a light lunch, I headed out into the afternoon, and steeled myself for a difficult war of attrition. However, as difficult as the MCAT had appeared, in retrospect, I had prepared adequately. Besides the preparation course, and spending hours doing drills, my friends also had determined it would be helpful to study together.

  • On top of this, I managed my stress by budgeting out time to game and watch various shows – besides Survivorman, I also watched Man v. Food extensively. Seeing Adam Richman taking on food challenges allowed me to approach the MCAT with humour: I likened my own exam experience to Richman and particularly tough moments, even joking that I hoped to avoid the same situation that Richman experienced at Munchies 420 in Saratosa, Florida. There, the mystery challenge proved so diabolical, it gave him the hiccoughs within one bite. I would later learn that this was no laughing matter, as the staff at Munchies 420 had emptied an entire bottle of ghost chilli extract into his wings for kicks.

  • However, watching Richman prevail over his challenges proved inspirational, and it was pleasant to see him stoically accept defeat. Besides Man v. Food, I also ended up making my way through CLANNAD and CLANNAD ~After Story~Tari TariPapaKiki and Kokoro Connect during the summer. Dealing with the MCAT did leave me with a newfound way of managing stress, and I became more able to make light of my situations. This led me to continue to crack jokes about things like my undergraduate defense, conference presentations, seminars and graduate defense later down the line.

  • After several days of pushing through the desert, Stroud finally finds a pond with a large amount of rainwater. He fills an entire bottle with it and revels in this fact. With water now dealt with, Stroud is now confident he can continue to survive in the area, and the episode draws to a close. For me, I prepared to step out and face down my foe, one I’d spent several months preparing for, at this point in time a decade earlier, and while I did not know it at the time, I would indeed rise to the occasion. Survivorman played a significant role in making this possible, and even now, I attribute my mindset and path to the things I learnt while watching the show.

  • With this, I’ve now done a full recollection of the days leading up to the MCAT, and readers are now assured of the fact that I likely won’t mention these stories again, having written about them to the depth I’d wished to. Once the MCAT was done, I spent my weekend unwinding and watched The Dark Knight Rises – this was a fantastic movie that I do wish to do justice to, and to this end, I will be writing about the film on short order. The movie has aged very well; in fact, it’s aged as gracefully as K-On! The Movie, and even though I’ve rewatched The Dark Knight Rises with the same frequency that I have for K-On! The Movie, I find myself impressed each and every time.

While I have not experienced things to the same level that is seen in Survivorman, much less Survivorman Ten Days, the MCAT that I’d written a decade earlier is an analogous situation. On this day ten years ago, I wrote the exam itself, and although I would love to say the exam was a straightforward and smooth experience, my own exam day was anything but. After a light lunch, I arrived at the exam venue, and was surprised to find the building holding a sweltering 30°C (86°F). Moreover, one of the exam invigilators had stood at the door, saying that they were half an hour behind schedule. As it turns out, the building had suffered from an HVAC malfunction, causing both the power and air circulation to fail. I sat down and meditated until we were called into the exam room. The building’s technicians were still working on getting the fans back up, so it remained blisteringly hot as I sat down to the physical sciences section. Within a few minutes, I developed a cramp in my stomach. However, as the exam began, I had no choice but to weather on: I leafed through the questions, determined that the third problem set was something I could do, and set about writing the exam. When the time for the first section ended, I rushed out the door and immediately hit the facilities. The stomach pains subsided, and I wrote the remaining sections in relative comfort: the temperatures remained high, but at least the cramps were gone, allowing me to focus on the task at hand. All concern and doubt was dampened as I recalled the materials I reviewed, the strategies I was provided with, and days spent studying with friends at the medical campus’ small group rooms. The exam ended four hours later, and I stepped out into the evening, seeing the setting sun cast a warm, golden light on the landscape. After most exams, a part of me worries about the outcome, but with this MCAT, I felt as though I’d put in my best possible effort. I joined my family to a dinner at my favourite Chinese bistro in town, before sleeping the best sleep I’d had all summer. Like Les Stroud and Survivorman Ten Days, beating the MCAT became a matter of psychological resilience, and setting aside the “what-ifs” to deal with whatever was in front of me in that moment. Much as how Stroud focused on getting down the mountain despite the setting sun, I focused on solving each question without any thought to what happened post exam. While I saw numerous concepts on the exam that I certainly didn’t review during practise, they’d been similar enough in principal to materials I’d already seen, and I fell back on existing knowledge to reason through those questions. I didn’t learn of the end result for my MCAT until a month later, but the final score, a 35T (518), speaks volumes to the efficacy of these methods. The numerous parallels between my own experiences, and what Les Stroud presents on Survivorman, thus became a reminder to me that survival techniques had applicability in almost every walk of life: while I’m no outdoorsman like Stroud, everything that is presented in Survivorman is relevant to everyday life, too. It is therefore fair to say that watching Survivorman Ten Days was yet another part of the reason why I survived the MCAT ten summers earlier, and while I’ve never used my score for anything other than an interesting conversation topic since taking the exam, the ancillary learnings, such as prioritising problems, applying existing knowledge to take on new problems, dividing and conquering, and maintaining a mindset of resilience amidst adversity, have fundamentally changed the way I operated, positively impacting everything I do even to this day. Ten years ago to this day, it’s almost time for me to head out and write the MCAT – I had no idea what the outcome would be, but, armed with the will to survive, I set off for my exam, resolute to do my best, too.

Arctic Tundra: Survivorman, Baffin Island and Remarks On The Final Approach to the MCAT

“Cold…wind…lack of wild edibles…it’s a tougher one. The skies and temperatures…grey skies, very little blue, can play on the psyche.” –Les Stroud

In the third season of Survivorman, Les Stroud is dropped off at Pond Inlet in Baffin Island, located in one of the furthest reaches of Canada. Up here during the summer, the sun never sets, and Stroud is faced with the challenges of surviving in an inhospitable land battered by wind and waves. The blustery weather becomes especially wearing, and during the week, the overcast skies and lack of food begins taking an emotional toll on Stroud, on top of a physical toll. However, when Stroud decides to head inland and gather wild edibles and other plants, he realises he’s forgotten something at his campsite. Returning to retrieve it, he notices a school of Arctic Char swimming by, and in the moment, immediately gets a fishing line into the water. Moments later, his demeanor is completely changed – with four large Arctic Char in tow, Stroud is energetic, animated and ecstatic his situation has suddenly changed so dramatically. The resulting fish feast becomes Stroud’s favourite Survivorman moment, and in a Director’s Commentary video, Stroud comments on how this particular food moment even surpassed the feast he had on the Cook Islands. Stroud’s excitement is tangible, and viewers smile right alongside Stroud as he cleans the fish, enjoys fresh roe and fish, and cooks up the fish to enjoy later. In the space of moments, Stroud’s fortunes have completely turned around, showing how quickly circumstances can change, and moreover, how important it is to maintain a positive mindset during difficult times, and how one should not be complacent even when things begin turning around. At one point, Stroud comments on how he can use some of the entrails from the Arctic Char to potentially catch some seagulls and add to his food reserves. While Stroud is rewarded with a delicious meal, viewers are treated to loving closeups of Stroud preparing and cooking the Arctic Char. In the aftermath of this pivotal moment, Stroud continues to explore inland and retrieves a variety of plants that provide nutrition and kindling, taking advantage of a good situation to improve things even further; as a result, when a rainstorm sweeps into the area, Stroud ends up enjoying his Arctic Char as it rains, does stretching exercises to keep the blood flowing, and even makes a qulliq oil lamp with a stone, old sock and the remainder of his whale blubber. Only when the storm worsens, does Stroud call things in and prepare to head back to the settlement. By this point in Survivorman, Les Stroud has found his rhythm, allowing his experience and knowledge to feed into his decision-making process while at the same time, acknowledging to viewers that the variability of survival means that one often has to make the most of the hand they are given.

The Arctic Tundra episode represents Survivorman at its finest – while it is undeniable that Les Stroud is an incredibly skilled outdoorsman with years of survival knowledge under his belt, being placed in the wind-swept, desolate hills of the Pond Inlet area of Baffin Island puts his skillset to the test. Out here, there is no substantial vegetation to craft shelters from, and food is scarce, being difficult to gather and hunt outside of a small window of time in the year. Weather can change at the drop of a hat, and during the episode, Stroud remarks on several occasions that the wind prevents him from travelling to a more favourable spot, keeps him from exploring his surroundings, et cetera. Stroud’s able to capitalise on his skills to make a difficult situation manageable, moving to a better spot on his canoe and whipping up a surprisingly sturdy shelter using old steel drums found on the beach, but has no luck in luring in seagulls for food. As the weather becomes increasingly gray, Stroud comments on the conditions and how they can be incredibly demoralising even when one is armed with a vast collection of skill and experience. Here in the Arctic Tundra, Stroud’s situation speaks to how there are cases where a little luck is required. However, while one might interpret this as being how luck is necessary, the opposite is true: if one has the skill, then they have the means to capitalise when luck shows up. There is no substitute for skill, and this is what makes Stroud’s experience in Baffin Island so inspiring – even when things appear to bottom out, Stroud continues to count on and share his knowledge, with the end result that he is able to net a total of four Arctic Char. In any other show, such a moment would be scripted, but what makes Survivorman especially rewarding is the fact that everything that happens occurs naturally. In some episodes, Stroud is faced with exceedingly challenging scenarios: at Kalahari, Stroud grappled with trying to fend off heat stroke, and in other episodes, he’s unable to secure food. Having seen these previous episodes, it was rewarding to see luck on Stroud’s side and show what can happen in a survival situation when the stars line up, and one possesses the skill to capitalise on the opportunity. Seeing Les Stroud cooking and enjoying the Arctic Char, in his words, “fresh sushi”, was so visceral, it felt as though I’d been the one who had caught that fish, and therein lies the main joy of watching Survivorman. In all episodes, I’m especially fond of moments where Stroud finds food, and whether it’s something like the Witchetty grub or scorpions, to a roast bird and deer remains, Stroud has a talent for making anything look good. Stroud has previously mentioned that in a survival situation, one takes what they can get, and there’s no room for dramatisation: it’s all about getting the nutrients down. This has increased my appreciation for the food, but Survivorman actually had another, even more profound impact on how I conduct myself that influences how I do things even to this day.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • My story with Survivorman is an extensive one: I came upon the series while travelling. In 2010, I was in China on a tour of Beijing and Shanghai, and one evening, we’d stopped over in Hanzghou. A major thunderstorm had rolled into the region after dinner, and so, rather than explore the neighbourhood around the hotel, we decided to retire to our quarters and take it easy. I began channel surfing, and came upon a Chinese dub of Survivorman as he was preparing a turtle in the Georgian Swamps. My curiosity was piqued, and upon returning home, I began following the series as it aired on Discovery Canada.

  • While Survivorman remained little more than a curiosity at that point, and I mainly watched the show to see Les Stroud’s reactions to finding water, enjoying survival food or successfully lighting a fire with unorthodox means, by the time the MCAT rolled around two summers later, Survivorman had become a sort of panacea for the stress I was facing: watching Stroud survive off the land and making do with the hand he was dealt reminded me that my own challenges weren’t quite as demanding, but moreover, a similar mentality for survival would be essential in getting through a difficult time.

  • By that point in time, I’d already caught up with all of the Survivorman episodes and was familiar with Stroud’s approaches for reasoned, methodical survival. Seeing a similar set of skills being adapted for different situations was one of the biggest draws in Survivorman, and the first of these skills is determining what to do first. In the desert, Stroud’s immediate priority is determining how he might find more drinking water. Here on Baffin Island, the bitter cold and relentless wind meant shelter was essential. With old plywood, Stroud is able to construct a shelter that stops some of the wind, and as a break, he sits down to a bite of whale blubber, reminiscing about how he’d done something similar during an earlier episode.

  • Survivorman episodes instruct viewers in three ways. The first is when Stroud walks a viewer through what he’s doing and explains the rationale behind why he’s doing something, and the second comes from voice-overs Stroud later adds in the editing suite, which provide a bit of reflection on his actions. The third is unique to Survivorman: Director’s Commentary, a YouTube series that released back when the pandemic was starting. In Director’s Commentary, Stroud takes viewers on a behind-the-scenes and further presents to viewers his thought process. On some occasions, he may even indicate that what he was doing in a situation was not optimal.

  • Beyond the act of showing survival in a measured and methodical manner, the nature of Survivorman means that viewers are treated to stunning vistas and landscapes. Even somewhere as desolate as Baffin Island in the high Arctic, there is great beauty in the scenery. In episodes, Stroud notes that he captures some of the landscape footage himself, but larger shots and time lapses (the industry term is B-roll) are done by a team, oftentimes before Stroud himself gets out onto the land for survival. These elements then come together to make the episode.

  • Fresh water is always a priority: the body lasts an average of three days without water before dehydration kicks in, and dehydration brings with it a plethora of unpleasant symptoms, including headache and dizziness. In some episodes, water is a major challenge, but at Baffin Island, fresh glacial melt and pristine meadows mean that Stroud isn’t worried about Giardiasis or Cryptosporidium. Even when water-borne parasites may be a real hazard, Stroud notes that where possible, boiling the water will lessen the risk, and in a time of extreme difficulty, it might be okay to risk an infection and then seek treatment once one is back in civilisation.

  • In both the Arctic and Arctic Tundra episodes, Stroud is legally required to bring a rifle with him as a means of protection against polar bears. Luckily, in both episodes, polar bears have not approached Stroud in a way that has required use of this rifle. While a rifle might be a form of defense, it is worth noting that unlike humans, which collapse when shot as a self-preservation reflex, bears do not share this trait and may keep charging, so shooting a polar bear with a single .22 may not be effective unless one’s got extremely good shot placement.

  • To simulate real-world scenarios, Stroud’s episodes often have a narrative, simulating things like getting separated from a team while diving, getting lost while canoeing, being injured in the wilderness after a plane crash or a lapse of judgement resulting in one’s vehicle running out of fuel in a remote area. In the Arctic Tundra episode, Stroud simulates being a part of a research team stuck here, and outfits himself accordingly: among the pieces of equipment he’s brought include a fishing tackle and a CB radio. Here, he attempts some fishing: one of his Inuit guides had mentioned the area would be dense with Arctic Char, and Stroud figured that a fishing tackle would be an essential survival tool.

  • Stroud’s lament about the presence of trash on beaches along every coastline in the world was a sobering one, and is a reminder that whatever one carelessly discards will always end up somewhere. This is why I do my part to ensure all of my garbage is properly dealt with: when my city introduced a compost and recycling programme, I was thrilled: reusing things and repurposing waste means less effort is expended in remaking everything anew, and this mindfulness also extends to other parts of life. I’ve long been a proponent of sustainability, but I also recognise that stopgap measures are needed to reach our ideal level of environmental consciousness. This is why I do not espouse activism, and instead, commit myself to smaller scale things I can do: composting, turning the lights off and conserving water is much more environmentally friendly than organising large rallies.

  • Through Director’s Commentary, I was able to learn much more about the episodes beyond just the survival elements. Arctic Tundra was Stroud’s first Director’s Commentary, and he explains that early episodes were plagued with issues because he was shooting with different camera brands, which use different recording chips and yield different image colours. Later episodes has Stroud switching to one brand, and being mindful of each camera’s capabilities: some cameras have buttons that can instantly disable autofocus, and Stroud mentions how he would use tricks like taping up the button to avoid accidentally depressing it, which would leave an entire scene out of focus.

  • In Secrets of Survival, Stroud mentions that his favourite method of starting a fire is the fire bow, although things like a flint striker come in a close second. For a non-expert like myself, a flint striker would be especially appealing, representing a reliable means of getting a fire going (provided one already has access to tinder and a good supply of wood). However, I can spot why Stroud might not like the flint striker: it would require a good strike from something like a knife, and in a survival situation, having a sharp knife can make the difference between a difficult situation, and something that can be managed.

  • As such, when the moment allows, Stroud will utilise unorthodox methods to get a fire going. In Baffin Island, Stroud uses the battery from his CB radio and some steel wool he’s found nearby. It turns out that touching the steel wool to the battery’s terminals will create a short circuit that ignites the steel wool, and this creates fire. Stroud refers to these as MacGyverisms, the practise of being creative and using whatever is on hand to achieve something. With this in mind, if and when I’m asked, having been a fan of Survivorman for the past decade, my top five survival items would be a hatchet or hand-axe, multitool, lengths of rope, a steel container for carrying water, and a flint striker.

  • Behind the comfort of a screen, it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the locations Stroud visits in Survivorman, and it suddenly strikes me as to just how vast and barren the northernmost reaches of Canada are. For the Arctic Tundra episode, Survivorman makes use of very distinct incidental music that isn’t heard anywhere else in the series; the soundtrack to Survivorman is composed by Peter Cliche, Dan Colomby and Les Stroud himself, being an eclectic collection that captures the tenour of the locations that Stroud visits, combining modern outdoor sounds with local flaire. There are two albums with songs from all three seasons altogether.

  • Even while out in a survival situation for Survivorman, Stroud still takes the time to describe indigenous cultures and their means of survival. High in the Arctic Tundra, the indigenous peoples would create warm shelters out of whale bones and caribou hides: although people nowadays tend to congregate in population centers located in comparatively temperate environments (past a certain point, it’s too cold to reliably maintain infrastructure for sustaining larger populations), the fact that there are humans in virtually every corner of the globe, and that all of these populations have developed adaptations to not just survive, but thrive in their environments speaks to the level of ingenuity there is in people.

  • Until Survivorman and Sora no Woto, I’d never really been a fan of grey, overcast days. As Weathering With You‘s Hodaka says, people do feel most alive on sunny days, and feelings of joy appear to be amplified. Overcast days create a sense of gloominess that diminishes from one’s spirits. However, moodiness represents a chance to look inwards and reflect: Sora no Woto‘s fourth episode had been set under grey skies that later turn to rain to gives Kanata a chance to see Seize on a quieter day, and do some introspection on why her bugling skills seem to have stagnated.

  • During the summer a decade earlier, I recall how May and June had been predominantly overcast, but then by July and August, the days became sunny. As July began turning into August, I’d been more or less ready for the MCAT itself, having spent long days reviewing materials and doing practise exams. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would wake up early and go to campus to lift weights, while my MCAT preparation courses were on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Throughout most of the week, then, I spent mornings on campus either doing my course, or studying, before returning home for the afternoon for more revisions.

  • However, as July drew to a close, and I wrote the last of the full-length exams that was bundled with my course, I began to roll back the level of intensity; in the last two weeks leading up to the MCAT, I only studied in the mornings and took the afternoons easy. In the last few days before the exam itself, I stopped studying outright. This was so I wouldn’t suddenly come across a concept and then panic. The approach I took towards the MCAT was inspired by Survivorman, where Stroud does things in a methodical and deliberate manner. Here, his camera lens is covered with raindrops, and he remarks in Director’s Commentary that this was so viewers could really feel they were being rained on.

  • About halfway through the Arctic Tundra episode, Stroud packs up his gear and moves to a different site. Here, he fashions a new shelter out of some oil drums and uses his canoe as a roof. Being able to take advantage of stuff in the environment is of a great help: earlier episodes saw Stroud building his own shelters from tree boughs and whatnot, and while this was important, it’s also extremely time consuming to find all of the materials and assemble it into a shelter that can somewhat keep out the elements. Stroud himself would comment on how even a single piece of tarp can make all the difference in a survival situation, saving him an entire afternoon’s worth of work to waterproof a shelter.

  • After putting a sturdier shelter together to keep him out of the wind, Stroud proceeds to build a bird trap using the remaining bits of whale blubber he’s got. The idea behind these traps is that they work even when one isn’t, making them a nice way to potentially get food without expending too much energy besides setting the traps up. While at first glance, these details are far removed from things like studying for the MCAT (or tackling a particularly challenging development problem), but when abstracted out, Stroud’s approach corresponds to doing the low-effort-high-payoff stuff first. This approach is identical to how I would take on the MCAT itself (do the questions that I’m most comfortable doing first, especially if they’re worth more).

  • In Director’s Commentary, Stroud mentions that the Arctic Tundra episode is a personal favourite of his, but his editors also enjoyed editing this episode immensely because the grey clouds of the north created a sort of gloominess that other settings couldn’t. The weather seen in Baffin Island is reminiscent of the weather in Calgary from April through June: these are our rainiest seasons of the year, and while I wasn’t fond of such days previously, Survivorman contributed to my coming around: cloudy and rainy days are perfect for feeling a little sullen, of slowing down and appreciating the warmth of one’s home.

  • Stroud’s low point in this episode comes after another failed effort to fish: between the lack of food and grim weather, Stroud slowly walks away from the camera, and his senior editor, Barry Farrell, enjoyed using this moment to really convey to viewers how defeated Stroud must’ve felt here. He crouches down in front of the camera and remarks that even one day can mean the difference between life and death to accentuate the gravity of this situation. In what I found to be one of the cleverest bits of editing, Stroud does a voice-over on how timing is everything, cutting to him standing at the water’s edge with a fishing line in the water.

  • Armed with a fishing tackle, Stroud’s fortunes change entirely: he catches not one, but four large Arctic Char. It speaks to the brilliance of Survivorman that the elation Stroud feels here is so tangible that viewers cannot help but feel as happy as he does, and right out of the gates, Stroud states the importance of having a fishing tackle as a part of one’s survival kit. One thing that’s always bugged me about this scene was how Stroud says that he seems to have lost his fishing line after catching a particularly large fish, but since Stroud seemed quite unconcerned with things and makes no mention of actually losing the line itself in Director’s Commentary, I’ll assume that it was briefly lost on the beach.

  • In a curious coincidence, the Arctic Char that Stroud catches are caught in order of increasing size. Stroud immediately sets about preparing his prizes for consumption, removing the entrails and separating all of the different parts of the fish out. It is this specific scene in Survivorman that opened my mind to watching anime like Houkago Teibou Nisshi and Slow Loop, both of which feature fishing and preparation of freshly-caught fish prominently. However, they key difference here is that in anime, the characters have home field advantage and therefore can access the gear they need to be successful, whereas Stroud is playing the away game.

  • In spite of this, I was impressed with the finesse Stroud prepares the fish with. He cuts the fish at an angle so the slices fall away from one another, allowing them to air out. Stroud notes, both in the episode itself and in Director’s Commentary, that this is a traditional method of preserving fish. The end result is that the fish ends up looking like strips of watermelon, and Stroud immediately digs in, commenting on how this is the freshest sushi he’s ever eaten. The Director’s Commentary reveals that his crew were camped out a few kilometres away from him, and while Stroud is enjoying fresh fish, the crew was eating canned soup.

  • Different camera placements capture the sense that Stroud is really alone on his adventures; some of the survival shows that came out after Survivorman are actually shot with full crews, and on some occasions, the stars of the show even return back to civilisation as the day draws to a close. Conversely, by continuously reiterating that Stroud has nothing beyond himself, his camera and whatever the land has to offer, Survivorman is a true show of what survival entails. In later years, serious bushmen and outdoorspeople have risen up to the occasion and put on shows that rival Les Stroud’s in terms of quality and helpfulness, but for me, Survivorman remains iconic, a trailblazer.

  • Watching Stroud enjoy freshly-caught Arctic Char raw, and then the safe consumption of raw fish in Houkago Teibou Nishi and even Yuru Camp△ would ultimately convince me to give nigiri a go: I’ve long been apprehensive about raw fish dishes of any sort, and during my vacation in Japan, when a hotel served us sashimi, I clandestinely dunked my fish in the nabe, cooking it instantly and rendering it in a state I was much more comfortable eating. As it turns out, raw fish intended for consumption is frozen, which kills any parasites in the flesh, and when properly prepared, it is reasonably safe to eat.

  • Nowadays, I’m perfectly happy with eating things like raw fish in moderation: when raw, salmon and tuna are surprisingly tasty, although nothing quite beats a piece of fried cod or steamed Tilapia topped with soy sauce, ginger and spring onion. One other side effect of watching Survivorman was that I became open to eating offal: in a survival situation, Stroud utilises every part of an animal, including the liver and the heart. As a result of seeing this, I became open to eating things like turkey liver and blood tofu. Here, Stroud enjoys the fish roe, which is a delicacy and which I know best as a part of sushi and, in Cantonese cuisine, can be added to fried rice or siu mai.

  • Amidst the preparations, Stroud mentions that all of the fish blood smell might attract polar bears. It suddenly strikes me that the rifle he’d been carrying earlier is nowhere to be seen, and I imagine that it’s probably stashed away at the campsite. After finishing preparation of the fish, Stroud notes that with the intestines and other entrails, he might be able to add to his bird trap and see if he can’t get a few seagulls to increase his food stockpiles. In Director’s Commentary, Stroud appends that it’s always important to keep looking forward, and just because things are good now doesn’t mean one can’t take advantage of things to better things further. This is another one of those nuances that applies to real life.

  • I smiled upon hearing Stroud say that a good guide should be able to get a fire going even somewhere that’s seen nonstop rain for the past three days. A determined bushman will be able to find or make dry tinder anywhere and make things work; this is what speaks to being a good guide. I remain skeptical that a master guide could simply summon wine and chocolates as readily, but the comment adds a bit of humour to things and acts as a reminder that the situation has shifted enough for Stroud to be cracking jokes. Something similar happened in the Colorado Rockies; after a fishing trip, Stroud says he didn’t catch a single fish.

  • Instead, he’s caught two; being able to apply humour in a difficult situation helps to lighten the mood up and gives the mind a chance to regroup. After the wood’s prepared, a bit of steel wool and a battery is all that’s needed to light the fire. In other episodes, Stroud has used duct tape as a fire-starter, validating the MythBusters‘ episode where they had shown that duct tape is actually a viable fire starter (on top of being useful in many other functions). In other episodes, Stroud has used corn chips and chapstick to start and hold a flame (which is unsurprising, since corn chips are basically oil and hydrocarbons, and chapstick is basically wax). Having a fire at this location proves to be a massive morale booster, giving warmth in a place of nonstop wind and cold.

  • Stroud ends up cooking his Arctic Char over an open flame, and this moment had gotten me curious about what Arctic Char tastes like. Despite looking a little like salmon, Arctic Char is a bit more oily and has a more intense flavour compared to salmon – it is supposed to be more trout-like in terms of texture and taste. Despite being considered more sustainable than salmon, Arctic Char is not widely farmed, and as a menu item on restaurants, it tends to be pricier, being found at higher-end places.

  • The Baffin Island episodes marks one of the few times where Stroud’s so thoroughly enjoying the moment that he addresses his editor, making a joke about how later, once he’s back home and they’re working on editing all of the cuts into an episode, his editor, Barry Farrell, will doubtlessly begin feeling a little hungry at the sight of watching Stroud enjoying fresh-cooked Arctic Char. Director’s Commentary never clarifies whether or not Stroud and his team shared a laugh at this moment, but I would imagine that Farrell probably smiled at this moment.

  • Towards the end of the episode, a persistent rainfall rolls into the Pond Inlet area, preventing Stroud from doing too much beyond sitting in his shelter and enjoying his fish. The aesthetics of this moment reminds me of when I’d been in Rennes, France, after the Laval Virtual Conference had ended; I’d picked up a bug and was not feeling well, so I spent my day in Rennes at the hotel, trying to rest up. A fierce rainstorm was raging outside, and in moments where I had the strength to do so, I was reading through a novel I’d brought. I was lucky in that my stomach bug had subsided long enough for me to make the flight back home, although it was another few days before I healed up completely.

  • Memories of watching rain for large drops against the hotel window linger in my memory, and even now, whenever it gets rainy, my mind wanders back to the March of several years earlier, as well as Stroud’s Baffin Island experience. June this year was especially rainy, and as I worked from my home office, I occasionally turned to face the window and enjoy the sound of rain pattering against my window. We’re now entering the August long weekend, and like the two previous years, we’ve got a heat warning in place, with the temperatures hovering above 30ºC until Tuesday.

  • When the rain lessens up, Stroud heads out into the fields behind his camp to forage for wild edibles and other plants. With the energy from the Arctic Char, Stroud is able to wander around and explore for different things, including a sort of tuber that is quite nutritious. Throughout this episode, Stroud says that timing is vital, as being in a certain place at a certain time can mean the difference between having a Smörgåsbord of things to eat, and being stuck in a desolate landscape. This timing influences when Stroud chooses to go out onto the land for a survival excursion, and while Stroud is widely respected amidst the community, he does have his share of detractors.

  • Stroud always has a fair and reasoned answer for his detractors, explaining that there are certain constraints and limitations he works within. Director’s Commentary really brings these topics into the open, and in fact, when Stroud began doing Director’s Commentary for his Survivorman: Bigfoot series, he explains his mindset behind how he approaches the pseudoscientific field of cryptozoology – although my own scientific background makes me a skeptic by default, Stroud makes a very valid point about how it’s so important to keep an open mind even for this sort of stuff because some of the people who recount these stories are experts in their own right.

  • To dismiss them as delusional, or lying, is then unfair, and at the minimum, one should hear the story through and try to understand what happened. This mode of thinking opened my mind to the idea of Sasquatch, and since watching the Klemtu episode back in September 2020, I’ve also become more open-minded towards the History Channel’s Ancient AliensSecrets of Skinwalker Ranch and the like. While it’s not hard science like NOVA or Nature, there’s a fun about these shows that make their topics worth considering. If and when I’m asked, I would say that while I am skeptical of things like UFOs or Sasquatch, I do not deny that there is a possibility such things do exist, especially considering how large the universe is.

  • Director’s Commentary opened me up to things that I would’ve otherwise not experienced, and this is why Survivorman is something I respect so deeply – even today, Les Stroud always finds a way to impress with his content, and ever since subscribing to his YouTube channel, I’ve broadened my horizons considerably. The global health crisis changed the way I consume media: before the pandemic, I was subscribed to no YouTube channels and only ever watched music channels. Amidst the pandemic, I ended up following a variety of channels, including MeatEater, Binging With Babbish and Rick Steves’ Europe.

  • As the rain continues, Stroud decides to make a qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp that provides long-lasting light during the darkest months of the year. This bushcraft was a reminder of how once the basics are taken care of, the mind is free to focus on other pursuits. Inclement weather subsequently shuts down the episode, forcing Stroud to end things earlier. With the end of this episode, Survivorman concludes one of the most memorable survival experiences, and for me, my reminiscence on the MCAT very nearly is about to draw to a close: I have one more Survivorman related discussion for covering my own recollections of exam day itself.

  • I’ll save those recollections for that post proper, apologise to readers who were doubtlessly hoping for posts about anime, and note that folks will only have to suffer through one more MCAT-related post for the remainder of this blog’s existence. The reason behind why I embarked on a trip down memory lane was because there were learnings from that period of my life that still impact the way I do things now, and I find that it’s important to do a little introspection and reflection every so often. Understanding old experiences and being mindful of how we did things before allows one to keep doing what works, and avoid doing what doesn’t. In the meantime, I’ve got a surprise post for a movie and Among Trees scheduled for early August. Here, I will also note that I’m hosting Jon’s Creative Showcase, aka #TheJCS, for August. I’m not too sure if anyone was hosting it in July, but I do look forwards to seeing what submissions will be available this time around.

For me, the Arctic Tundra episode became a quick favourite for this reason – Stroud speaks to the importance of proactive survival, keeping an eye out for anything that can be helpful and always looking for ways to better one’s situation, all of which are traits that proved instrumental for the me of a decade earlier: at this point in the summer, less than two weeks had remained between myself and the MCAT. Despite having spent nearly two full months in the MCAT preparation course, and despite having done several full-length practise exams, I remained quite nervous about the actual exam itself – in my final week of the preparation course, I was swinging between wanting the exam to come as soon as possible so I could write it, and wishing I had another month of preparation time. As a part of my preparation course’s offerings, I had one full-length exam left to me at this time, and I decided to write it with two weeks left, just to gauge how I might do. I thus spent a sunny Saturday indoors doing this exam under simulated conditions. Six hours later, I finished the exam, and to my great surprise, I scored a 33 (551 in today’s terms). It suddenly dawned on me that the preparations had been fruitful after all: my practise scores had trended upwards, and I thus left for a family dinner that evening more relaxed than I’d been all summer. In the days leading up to the MCAT, I did practise sections and found that for physical and biological sciences, I was scoring 11-12 (128-129), while the verbal reasoning was giving me 9-11 (126-128). The shift in momentum was brought on by this one moment, and I immediately found myself relating to Les Stroud’s Arctic Tundra experience – entering Baffin Island, Stroud had already possessed a considerable set of survival skills, and with the right bit of luck, a difficult situation turned into a manageable one. For me, the realisation I was probably more ready than I felt provided a similarly significant psychological booster: I had all of the knowledge and skills needed to face down the exam, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. Having this confidence proved to be the final piece of the puzzle I needed, and as the final two weeks to the MCAT approached, I spent the remainder of my days doing revisions and drills in the morning, before taking the afternoons easy by blogging, or playing Team Fortress 2 and MicroVolts. The end results speak for themselves, and my experiences with the MCAT would later impact how I faced my undergraduate thesis defense, graduate project and the transition from university into industry: falling back on existing knowledge and doing my best even when facing down a problem of unknown scope has allowed me to consistently work out solutions to problems. While Les Stroud’s Survivorman may deal with bushcraft and survival, the mental aspects of survival, such as the will to live and maintaining a positive outlook in the face of adversity.

Reflections on A Decade After The First Reflection and Remarks on Mighty Ships, Cell and Molecular Biology and Road to the MCAT

“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” –Thomas Paine

After the day’s lesson on biochemistry concludes, I bid my classmate farewell and make my way over to the adjacent building for the bus ride back home. In the term leading into the MCAT, I only had one class on Mondays, and so, after biochemistry, I would head home so I could review the day’s lessons without worrying about any other classes. Upon arriving home, I would prepare a Swanson ready-made meal and watch television, before setting about going over the most recent topic. At the beginning of term, I spent my lunch breaks watching Angel Beats!. By the time term was reaching its end, I’d wrapped up Angel Beats! and coincidentally, Discovery Channel was available as a part of the cable provider’s free preview. As it so happened, Mighty Ships aired during my lunch breaks, and I remember sitting down to their North Star episode in early April. Halfway into the episode, one of the chief engineers describes the importance of morale during difficult situations, and the narrator transitions over to how good, homecooked food is a game-changer on the high seas: a solid meal gives people something to look forward to, and this in turn compels people to work harder. North Star’s journey from Tacoma to Anchorage is to deliver vital supplies, and this particular ship is a vital link between Alaska and the remainder of the United States. Throughout the episode, the ship’s crew are shown in dealing with remarkably challenging scenarios that are, to them, another day at the office. Despite raging winds, harsh Alaskan ice and an engine problem, the crews handle every problem with remarkable professionalism and focus. A week later, shortly before exams began, I watched an episode about the Cristobal Colon. This ship is resonspible for dredging, and in the episode, was involved in reclaiming land for a windfarm at the mouth of the Elbe  . This uniquely equipped vessel deals with a different set of problems than the North Star: during its operation, a valve ruptures, forcing the crew to repair it before the Cristobal Colon can continue on with its work. The nature of their work similarly demands facilities for unwinding, and like the North Star, the Cristobal Colon’s head chef is shown frying up chicken steaks. He explains that cooking well means keeping the crew healthy, happy and ready to take on whatever adversity appears. It’s now been a decade since those days, and while I cannot say I did particularly well in biochemistry (I ended up with a B grade in the course), nor do I remember what the difference between L and D sugars, memories of the resilience and professionalism in Mighty Ships linger, alongside with yet another important lesson I gained from my cell and molecular biology lecture.

Unlike biochemistry, which had been a generic course the Faculty of Science mandates as a requirement for students, Cell and molecular biology was offered by my home faculty (Health Sciences), and as such, was tailored for the multidisciplinary, inquiry-based learning approaches we were intended to pick up. Besides a group term project and individual term paper, the course also had a conventional exam. However, despite being significantly more work than biochemistry, cell and molecular biology was a considerably more engaging experience, providing context behind the biochemical reactions seen in biochemistry. Context and application is why biology has always been so fascinating for me, and why to this day, I continue to care greatly about what something can be used for. Theoretical knowledge on its own is a curiosity, but it becomes valuable when one can turn that knowledge towards helping others out. A major part of the cell and molecular biology course was designated as “reflection”: every week, we would submit a short paragraph summarising our learnings, and these made up ten percent of our final grade. The professor had suggested that prompting students to look back on why the material was helpful would help with retention, and so, while I similarly fail to recall the exact steps in the cyclic-AMP pathway, I still remember that cAMP is a second messenger involved in a large number of signalling pathways, regulating phosphorylation and in turn, affecting sugar and lipid metabolism. Reflections became a way to help reinforce learning, and it was this that ultimately led me to adopt a similar approach for this blog: keen-eyed readers will have noticed that a lot of my posts are titled “Review and Reflection”. This is the origin of that particular nomenclature – I do not do conventional reviews here, and instead, prefer to look introspectively on my own background, and how they impact my thoughts about a given work. This approach has worked for the past decade, and it allows me to approach anime in a different approach than those of my peers (and competitors); while readers are unlikely to be worried about why a large number of my posts are counted as reflections, I would hope that this clarifies the naming convention I’ve adopted for any curious reader.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Ten years earlier to this day, I had my first real day off after a term’s worth of courses, and I spent it unwinding at home, writing my first-ever reflections post. Although I didn’t know at the time, this term would turn out to be slightly better than my term from the year earlier. I ended up committing yet another gaffe, having misread the examination schedule for my Cold War course, and arrived after the exam ended. Under academic policy, I should have taken a zero on that component, but the professor had been kind enough to allow me another chance. I thus wrote the exam a few days later than scheduled and took a small penalty to my grade, but still ended up with a B+ in the course overall.

  • Conversely, the course I found the roughest was biochemistry, which was based purely on rote memorisation. I’ve never really done well in courses that demand I commit a bunch of properties and reactions to memory and then regurgitate them for an exam. Biochemistry was one of those courses, and the year before, organic chemistry had similarly been my bane. While the University of Calgary claims their organic chemistry program is especially effective in terms of student outcomes, I found that the department’s vaunted computer-assisted learning (CAL) component was completely ineffective, being merely a computerised version of more traditional methods.

  • The department had actually published papers suggesting that CAL resulted in improved student performance, but automation of organic chemistry assessment only makes it easier for grading things like quizzes. I would suggest that in order to effectively teach organic chemistry, the changes required to the mode of instruction aren’t particularly groundbreaking or demanding; it is sufficient to teach essential reactions and properties of different functional groups, and then provide students with data sheets on exams and quizzes. This way, student’s aren’t made to memorise reactions, but rather, apply basic principles to solve more complex problems.

  • Under such a setup, exams would need to be entirely short answer: a few, multi-staged problems involving a broad range of principles would be a satisfactory test of knowledge retention and information synthesis. It would be more effort for grading, but students would end up with much larger gains from the course. The approach I suggest is inspired by precisely how my health sciences courses were structured. Adjacent to my biochemistry course, my cell and molecular biology course also had an exam component, but in addition, assessment was made based on a term paper and group project. Unsurprisingly, I fared very poorly in biochemistry (a sixty-five on the final meant I wrapped up with a B grade) because it had depended entirely on brute force memorisation of reactions and processes.

  • Cell and molecular biology encouraged me to apply knowledge at a much broader level, I did very well on the final, but also excelled on the term paper and group project (A in the course overall, and a 90 on the final). That term proved to be an interesting one, being a return to form where I began performing as I had hoped in order to stay in satisfactory standing. A major part of this shift was the fact that I began managing my breaks better, and using breaks to regroup strategically. Watching Mighty Ships ended up being one of my methods, and here, while the show is interviewing the North Star’s chief engineer, two of his staff appear with fire suits, leading to a remark on how during tough situations, keeping one’s spirits high is how one gets through those rough spots. This become especially important as the chief engineer deals with a leaking engine during their run from Tacoma to Anchorage.

  • In some Mighty Ships episodes, the programme emphasises that what keeps the crew going after a rough day is a good, solid meal. For me, having three square meals to look forwards to helped me to stay focused: mealtimes become a break of sorts in the day, allowing me to structure out a period where I am going to take it easy and not worry about my goals. This approach has persisted to this day, and I continue to organise my time in this way.

  • North Star’s journey from Tacoma to Anchorage is a routine one: while the ship itself is suffering from a leak in the engines and ends up going down to three of four engines for its run, the captain and crew run things very smoothly to deliver their cargo on time. Mighty Ships does tend to dramatise problems that are common at sea, and even the more severe problems are those the crew have the mental capacity to address, no matter how unexpected. The series’ portrayal of issues showing up would be akin to announcing that running into a “Fatal error: Unexpectedly found nil while unwrapping an Optional value” in Swift could cost customers millions. While it is true that forced-unwrapping of variables that could be null will cause an app to crash and result in angry users, the solution is as simple as it is mundane: providing a default value or doing if let checks eliminates the issue for the most part.

  • Knowing that the people portrayed in Mighty Ships are professional, I always derived enjoyment from watching them work out their problems, and this sort of spirit stuck with me as I went into my finals after a term I’d been a little uncertain about. I still remember enjoying a lunch out with my parents when they’d had a day off, and in my mind, I thought to myself, while I might’ve accidentally missed an exam, I was lucky enough to get it rescheduled, and moreover, the remainder of the term had gone much better than it had the previous year.

  • Once I’d finished writing my history exam, I returned to my lab space to pick up my belongings and prepared to head off to unwind: one of the things that had made that particular term a little melancholy was the knowledge that even though I’d finished, I still had a physics course and the MCAT ahead of me. I utilised that time to write for my blog, enjoy time with friends and otherwise, unwind knowing that at least for the present, I wouldn’t need to deal with biochemistry anymore. The open time also led me to take a closer look at Team Fortress 2: at around this time, the Halo 2 servers were slated to shut down, and I’d been looking for a replacement.

  • Mighty Ships‘ North Star episode ends with the captain making a perfect season of being on time, and he’s excited to get back home. Another captain will helm North Star for the next several weeks, and here, I note that North Star was built in 2003. The episode aired in 2011, eight years later, and that means today, North Star will have been in service for almost two decades. Given it’s been ten years since I watched this episode for the first time, I wonder how many of the crew featured are still active.

  • Besides the North Star, the other Mighty Ships episode that stood out to me was the Cristobal Colon. Mighty Ships features ships of all types, from cargo ships like the Emma Maersk, to the USS Nimitz, and everything in between. The Cristobal Colon is named after explorer Christopher Columbus and is a hopper dredger. In the Mighty Ships episode it was featured in, the Cristobal Colon is working on a wind farm project near the Elbe River delta. Built in 2009, it would’ve been in service for three years by the time I watched the episode of Mighty Ships it was in.

  • Cristobal Colon faces a different set of challenges than the North Star, and it was after this episode I really got into Mighty Ships: at the time, I was a health science student and dealt primarily with things like the determinants of health and SDS PAGE, so watching shows like these acted as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how there are professionals in all fields. I’ve found that as people become more competent and specialised in their respective fields, they also begin to forget that when they need something done, they’re likely also dealing with someone who’s at least as competent and specialised.

  • This is one thing that I continue to remind myself to be mindful of: the people moving my furniture and setting my plumbing straight are just as vital as the people who engineer out the bridges I drive across, keep me up to speed on my finances and offer information whenever I have queries about health. This is why it’s so important to treat all people with politeness and courtesy: allowing them to do their jobs means I can get on with my own day more quickly, and with a smile on my face. Things like these aren’t taught in the classroom, but remain as important as the technical knowledge one acquires.

  • While one of the Cristobal Colon’s engineers look after the massive dredging unit, I remark here that, as unpleasant as I found organic chemistry and biochemistry, having the requisite knowledge did mean that studying for the MCAT’s biological sciences and organic chemistry section more straightforward: the MCAT of 2012’s biology and organic chemistry segments were basically watered down versions of the course work I’d taken, and back then, I still retained enough knowledge to pick things up fairly quickly again. However, at this point in time, my mind wasn’t on the MCAT just yet.

  • Because we’re now approaching the decade mark to when I’d written the MCAT, readers will have to bear with me over the next few months as I reminisce, perhaps needlessly, about an exam that ultimately ended up being what I consider to be a poor use of funds and time, but also provided an experience of melancholy and exam-taking that led me to perform significantly better, both in my final undergraduate year and throughout graduate school.. Back then, I had aspirations for medical school, but when my application results came back, to no one’s surprise, I was completely lacking in medical volunteer experience and activities that exemplified my commitment to ethics. Almost immediately after those results came back, my undergraduate supervisor scooped me up for graduate school.

  • I ended up bypassing the entire application process (I was offered admissions within an hour of submitting my application, which I was told would be a formality in my case). Mighty Ships had demonstrated that a vital part of finding one’s path is knowing when to take a step back and seek out alternate solutions when one method doesn’t work, as well as when to be unyielding. On board the Cristobal Colon, the narrator explains that good food isn’t something that can be compromised: the cook here is shown frying up chicken and comments that food keeps the crews happy. I smile at this moment: when I first watched this episode, I was hastily eating a ready-made meal so I could hit the books, and thought to myself, I’d love to have a chicken steak at some point.

  • I acknowledge that this post is quite unusual one, even for this blog: normally, I write about anime and games, but owing to the fact that this year marks several milestones, I would like to take some time and look back at some of the things going on in life when I’d just begun my blogging journey. Readers can reasonably expect a few more reflection-style posts about the MCAT and the summer of ten years previously interspersed with things in the coming months. My world is dramatically different now than it had been back then, and while I recall those simpler times with fondness, I wouldn’t trade the world to go back to those times. With this post in the books, my blog turns ten-and-a-half years old now, and although I have no idea how long I’ll keep this party running for, readers do have my world that 1) I’ll still be around for the foreseeable future and 2) if I do call it quits, there will be plenty of notice.

According to the blog’s archives, a decade earlier, I had just wrapped up my term, having finished all of my exams. It’d been a rainy, grey day, and while I was waiting for my exam results, I also took advantage of the time to write for this blog, as well as relax in the knowledge that a few weeks later, I’d be facing a physics course to make up for the course I’d withdrawn from a year earlier. At the time, this blog had just turned half a year old, and I wasn’t too sure on what I would do with it. As the summer progressed, I utilised it as a space for sharing very short thoughts on things. However, as the summer progressed, and I traded physics for the MCAT preparation course, even though my studies ended up consuming the whole of my summer, I did end up with a distinct set of memories of that time. Much as how I’ve forgotten the specifics of biochemistry, and even cell and molecular biology, I’ve long lost recollection of the exact materials I covered for the MCAT. However, what has endured after all this time were the soft skills. The MCAT taught me to be strategic on exams and take on problems by prioritising them based on a value-difficulty matrix (e.g. “always take on the high-value low-difficulty items first), cell and molecular biology had imparted on me the importance of looking back at what I got out of something, and Mighty Ships actually ended up leaving me with something that was much more valuable than anything I picked up in biochemistry: while I am unlikely to be able to explain β-Galactosidase activity now, I carry with me a profound respect for the sort of professionalism and resilience I’d seen in Mighty Ships, to solve problems to the best of my ability where possible, and to both identify and implement alternative solutions where necessary. In the decade since I wrote about my initial plans for this blog, things have become considerably different. This blog is now my preferred venue for sharing my thoughts, and I’ve since gone from being a medical student hopeful to being an iOS developer. However, I hold that my experiences from this time period, especially with respect to soft skills, have shaped the path I would end up taking, and it is no joke when I remark that Mighty Ships was probably a shade more helpful to my career than biochemistry was.