Show airs on Thursdays on the Discovery Channel
By Todd Mason
Louisiana Sportsman Editor
Sam Ebeyer, 27, spent the leisure hours of his youth in the sloppy muck of Destrehan-area swamps, searching for anything that swam, hopped, wriggled or crawled.
He had no idea at the time he was training himself for the adventure of his adult life.
Ebeyer was among a group of nine average Americans who spent this autumn in the unique terrain of South America for the Discovery Channel series Out of the Wild: Venezuela, which premiered last Thursday.
“We used to catch snakes by the tail and smash their heads against the trees. We would catch turtles and frogs. We’d climb into culverts and camp out in them. We were a pack of 40 kids who would leave their bikes on someone’s front lawn and spend all day in the swamps,” Ebeyer said.
But he’d return home at the end of the day to a hot meal and a warm bed.
That wasn’t the case in October, when Ebeyer and the rest of the crew were helicoptered onto a sparse Venezuelan plateau at 10,000 feet above sea level. They ate what they could find, and the pickings were slim.
Ebeyer’s adventure began when he was watching Dual Survival on Discovery, and saw a casting call in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. As instructed, he sent in a paragraph about himself along with a picture.
The next day, a producer responded that they were interested in the Louisiana native.
That was in late August. By October, Ebeyer had cleared several cut-down interviews, and was on a plane bound for Los Angeles, leaving behind a wife pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“I never thought I’d get selected,” he said. “It was surreal. It all happened so fast.”
Ebeyer boarded the plane having no idea what his ultimate destination was, and only after arriving in California did he find out he’d spend the next few weeks in Venezuela.
The production company flew the participants to Caracas, and then transported them via SUVs to a base camp, where they were taught about the local flora and fauna.
“We learned which plants were edible and which weren’t, which plants provided water, which plants have resin for making fires, how to make boats out of bark, how to make a deadfall, how to make traps for birds,” Ebeyer said.
The training was invaluable, and the participants used it over and over again while actually in the bush, Ebeyer said.
Perhaps the most useful skill, taught to the group by a local Pemon Indian, was a unique style of fishing.
“They use a type of cane pole that’s a really soft, sensitive cane,” Ebeyer said. “It’s almost like a switch your grandma would whip you with.”
Tied to the end of the canes would be light line with tiny hooks baited with earthworms.
“We would machete the (bluff banks), and they’d be full of earthworms,” Ebeyer said.
The fish caught were small sardines and cichlids, but they provided valuable protein and calories for the contestants, who burned 8,000 to 10,000 calories every day.
“It’s funny how you zone in to that cane pole and what’s happening on the other end of it,” Ebeyer said. “It’s the only thing you think about. You’re not fishing for fun; you’re fishing to eat.”
In the Out of the Wild series, participants aren’t competing for big money or valuable prizes. They’re challenging themselves to see if they have the mental and physical fortitude to make it. At the end, they get nothing more than a pat on the back and a lifelong feeling of accomplishment.
As part of the challenge, participants are given a topo map and a compass, and they are directed to make their way to different camps as the days go by.
The terrain in Venezuela was diverse and always unforgiving. At the high altitude where the participants were dropped off, it was virtually barren.
“It looked like iron slag,” Ebeyer said.
As they descended, however, the flora got thick, and they had to hack their way through with machetes.
Along the way, the crew ate whatever they could find, including live termites, wasp larvae and live grasshoppers.
“The grasshoppers would still be kicking in your mouth, and the termites would be biting your tongue,” Ebeyer said.
They also pulled plants from the ground and ate them whole, not even sparing the mud that caked to their roots.
But bugs and plants aren’t adequate nutrition for intense hikers. During the course of the challenge, Ebeyer’s weight fell from 182 to 150 pounds.
He returned home with a new respect for himself and for the pioneers who settled this continent.
“We have a glamorized view of survival,” he said. “All survival really means is not dying.
“This wasn’t a controlled ‘roughing it’ situation like you might have while camping with an ice chest full of hot dogs and hamburgers. We were doing whatever we could to survive.”
For all its challenges, though, he’d do it again in an instant.
“It was the fulfillment of every childhood fantasy,” he said.