Woniya Dawn Thibeault has competed on two seasons of History Channel’s Alone, becoming the first woman to win the reality TV competition when she returned for Alone: Frozen.
Her new memoir, Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey is in bookstores today and on Kindle, and tells the story of her participation in season 6. In this excerpt, she shares a story of a time when she found herself in danger.
Not all the way, I promise myself, as I head directly away from the small peninsula in the wilderness where I’ve been making my home for the past two and a half months.
I’ll just go to the eastern shore, only a few hundred yards away, not the far-off northern shore. A few more minutes won’t hurt. I can still make it back by dark.
With my legs pumping, I don’t feel cold anymore. I feel lit from within, hungry to fill my senses with all I can of this place in the time I have left. The drive to see and explore is a fever not unlike the one awoken in me at my first Rabbitstick Rendezvous, so long ago.
I’m almost to the shore when I see something weird happening with the surface of the ice ahead of me. What has been flat white as far as the eye can see is now bumpy and ridged. The strange bumps aren’t white like the rest of the ice, they’re marbled with brown swirls. What the heck?
I turn around to check the light and judge how much time I’ve got. My impulsiveness is starting to catch up with me. I can feel the fatigue in my legs and the effort it’s taken them to carry me here. This is too damn far from home for this hour of night, but I’m intrigued, and it’ll only take me a minute to explore this new mystery. A minute more isn’t going to make a difference in the light.
I creep cautiously toward the bumps, and I’m only a few steps from the closest one when I freeze.
It takes me a second to register what I’m sensing. I hear something. In all this vast, frozen wilderness there has been almost no sound for hours, except for the high-pitched calls of one chickadee on the island, and my own breath in my ears. This is totally different. Faint, low, and ever-changing. There’s something familiar about it—something I know but can’t quite place. And then I’m hot all over, my chest tight against the furs of my parka—my body registering what it is a second before my brain does.
It’s gurgling. I look down at the ice below my feet. There, not far beneath my toes, I see an amoeboid white shape fly past under the ice, and then another. Air bubbles. My heartbeat thuds in my ears. Suddenly it all makes sense.
The shape of the land in front of me—a narrow valley pointing right toward the lake.
The irregular shapes on the lake surface.
The roar of sound I heard so often out of the north before freeze-up.
Not wind through the trees as I’d imagined, but a wide and rushing river, loud enough to hear from all the way back at the peninsula. The strange shapes are foamy water and standing waves frozen in place, the brown swirls are the muddy water they carry. I’m not standing on the lake anymore; I’m standing on top of an enormous, fast-moving river, and the ice beneath me is only inches thick.
Adrenaline clouds my thinking like the descending darkness clouds my vision. Months of careful risk avoidance while living on my own in one of the wildest, most remote places on earth amidst wolverines and wolf packs, and never a second of serious danger or deep, visceral fear. Now, in one foolish moment, I’ve hiked myself smack on top of the biggest hazard imaginable.
I take a few deep breaths to choke down my panic. Ice over moving water is soft and weak, full of air and irregularities. One wrong step and I could go down in a heartbeat, sucked under the lake’s surface by the flowing current. It’s already too dark for the rescue helicopter to fly. Even if it could, if I go through the ice and manage to stay on the surface, the crew would never get to me before the hypothermia does.
Think Woniya, think.
My eyes dart to the shore, so close I can almost feel it, solid and reassuring beneath my feet. Every animal instinct tells me to go there—run like hell for the shore and solid ground, faster than the ice can give way. But that leads me closer to the river’s mouth, where the ice is likely more rotten than where I stand now.
As tempting as it is, I know heading for shore is a death wish. I force my feet to obey my will as I turn away from the perception of safety and back toward the open lake ice I just came from. I slowly plant one foot in my own closest track. Solid—thank god. I take another step, and another. The ice holds. I release my held breath.
With every step I feel a little more confident, a little less panicked. Finally, I’m back on clear white ice and snow, and flat feels like the most beautiful texture in all the world.
By the time I’m halfway home, I know I’ll be okay, but my whole body is still shaky. I’m clammy with sweat inside my clothes, even in these subzero temperatures.
Then I hear a loud beep from my hip bag. Oh god, right—my gps device!
YOU ARE OUT OF BOUNDS AND LATE FOR CHECK-IN. HEAD BACK IMMEDIATELY
In my excitement, I hadn’t even stopped to think how far out of my assigned area I’d wandered. This far north, the satellites are so low in the sky that the signal doesn’t send often, so I’m only getting the message now that I’m well on my way back. I scared the hell out of myself, but at least I didn’t know how much danger I was in until I was halfway through it.
Not true at production base camp, where there’s a staff person watching my gps signal day and night. Somewhere, many miles away, there’s probably a group of frantic people yelling at a flashing blip on a screen, wondering if they’ll be doing their first ever body retrieval tomorrow.
The story continues in Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey. This excerpt is copyright 2023 Woniya Thibeault and is used with the author’s permission.