Off-the-grid Adirondacker puts survival skills to the test on History Channel show
By Jak Krouse
Like many Adirondack residents, Melanie Sawyer appreciates the solitude of the wilderness. It’s fun to hike the mountains and paddle the glacial lakes of the wild. That is, until a spate of rain, an unexpected fall, or a particularly nasty cold front makes shelter more appealing.
For Sawyer, 55, there was no refuge and no one to turn to when she was dropped in the Canadian Arctic as part of the 10th season of History Channel’s popular show “Alone.”
This season follows 10 contestants, each isolated within the northern Saskatchewan wilderness, to see who can survive the longest. Equipped with 10 survival items and enough camera gear to document their experience, they compete to be the last one in the wilderness for a $500,000 prize.
As of the most recent episode, Sawyer builds a shelter and prepares for the Canadian winter. Whether she will walk away with the money is still unknown. Thanks to the magic of TV programming, Sawyer is now safe and sound back at her off-the-grid house in the Adirondack Park near Port Henry. She spoke about how her greatest challenge while on the show was the mental aspect.
“You can go in thinking you are Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Sawyer said. “You’re at first very comfortable, you’re enjoying yourself, it’s really great. And then it becomes a very interesting game of talking to yourself.”
Sawyer is among many adventurers wanting to test their survival skills: 43,000 applicants applied for this season of “Alone.” But she possessed a unique set of skills and backstory to make the cut.
Born in the Cotswolds, England, Sawyer spent time in the country as a child. She became a model flying back and forth across Europe for photo shoots. Eventually she settled in the Adirondacks, converting to a woodswoman with a British accent.
“Wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothes and doing that lifestyle, as much as it helped me financially, it wasn’t what made me happy,” she said. “Transitioning to living off grid in this house, which my fiance built, having chickens, dogs, the horse, it’s just been bliss.”
It was in the woods of Essex County that she developed her skills as a wild food forager and a student of the Adirondacks across the 1700s and 1800s. Sawyer founded the Thunderhawk Living History School, which runs programs at schools and museums on what life was like in Northern New York at the beginning of the 18th century.
The knowledge has served her over the course of the show. In reading accounts of soldiers who survived the Battle of Valley Forge through the winter, she learned to use things like reindeer moss and rock tripe while in the Canadian wilderness.
“My strategy was every calorie, every ounce of energy, that I use had to be a valid reason,” she said. “So it was tough work but I really enjoyed utilizing my skills as a living historian.”
Sawyer is in the process of creating a website called Wild Foods and Wilderness, which documents all of the wild foods in New York.
“When I walk out now into the wild, I have a living encyclopedia inside my brain. I’m walking past plants. I’m walking past animals. I’m seeing the buck rubs. I’m seeing the tracks. I’m seeing plants and roots that I know that I can survive on. Once you know what nature has out there to feed you, you know that you’ll never starve,” she said. “I feel like it’s a purpose of mine to teach people that nature provides.”
She is waiting to share future plans until the television show is finished.
“I do not regret it in the slightest,” she said of her experience in the wild. “Push yourself out of your comfort zone and do something which you’ve wanted to do, but you’ve been stopping yourself from doing, because you won’t regret it.”
Season 10 of “Alone” airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on the History Channel, and episodes are posted online the next day.
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