For one Pacific Northwest pair, life's mission is to get back to the basics.
Nicole Apelian and her partner Alan Kay want to help people reconnect to "what it is to be a human on Earth" and to rediscover their primal self by teaching various survival skills and emergency preparedness training.
The two, now living in North Portland's Portsmouth neighborhood and spending time in a second home on the Oregon coast, are known for their participation on the History Channel show "Alone." They appeared on separate seasons of the show but connected this past November after filming for a commercial in New York. They're also consulting on a new movie about a family, ironically, that survived and lived in Forest Park.
"There's so much we've forgotten to do," says Kay, of people nowadays too connected to the internet, social media and their devices.
"In my opinion, we are evolutionarily still designed to be hunter/gatherers. Evolution hasn't caught up to how we are now," Apelian says.
Apelian, 47, is a mother of three — Quinn, 9, and Colton, 13, and Beau, who died four years ago on May 19. She grew up in Massachusetts and moved to the West Coast to study marine biology at the University of Oregon. She then moved to Africa for a number of years to study lions and worked closely with the Sans Bushman, an indigenous tribe there, from which she learned many of the outdoor skills that she teaches others today. She received a master's in biology and a doctorate in anthropology, returning to the Pacific Northwest in 1999. That same year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, when she was "on a very bad trajectory."
Using her herbalist expertise, she changed her lifestyle.
"I use diet, herbal remedies, supplements, lifestyle, nature connection and mind-body connection, and do quite well with it now," she says.
Now she and Kay are passionate about teaching. Kay, 42, formerly worked for the state of Georgia Department of Corrections for eight years.
Apelian is the CEO and founder of Eco Tours International, a tracking and wildlife safari company that offers people place-based education. She's also an educator for the Audubon Society of Portland.
This summer, Apelian will teach at a camp called Echoes in Time from July 23-29 in the Willamette Valley. It has classes including bow making, herbal deodorant, cheese making, bookbinding and more. She and Kay also organize smaller workshops on demand for classes as small as six people.
The two complement one another in their survival skill knowledge, they say; while Apelian often focuses on herbs and medicine making, Kay specializes in self-defense and weapon making. But they're both expertly skilled in the basics of survival, such as water, shelter and fire — things they had to utilize on "Alone."
The show drops participants in a particular remote location, where their human will is tested to the extreme; all they have is the contents in a single backpack. There's not even a camera crew. The contestant who stays the longest wins. Kay won season one, lasting 56 days on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, while Apelian left the same island in fourth place after 57 days during season 2.
Season 3, taking place in Patagonia, concluded in February, and according to Apelian, season 4 will start airing in June.
The two are done with the show — for now — but have embarked on other endeavors, aside from teaching workshops, including consulting work on a new film called "My Abandonment."
The film is based on the 2009 novel of the same title, written by Portland author and Reed College professor Peter Rock. The story is about a homeless family of two, a 13-year-old girl and her father living in Forest Park, Northwest Portland's massive urban forest, for years undiscovered. The story is a true one, as reported in The Oregonian after the family was discovered by runners in 2004.
Directed by Debra Granik, the film adaptation stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, and if it's at all the caliber of Granik's previous film, "Winter's Bone," it will undoubtedly be a good one. "Winter's Bone" was nominated for four Oscars and birthed Jennifer Lawrence's now-robust acting career.
Apelian first was introduced to the project when Granik and the executive producer contacted her through a friend of hers who teaches skills back east. She received the script last summer to look for any issues of authenticity.
Then in April, Apelian and Kay started working on set to make sure survival-related scenes translate authentically on screen — in this case, a homeless father and daughter surviving in the woods at the edge of a city.
"My expertise is on how that would actually happen; what would you be building? What are some of the edible plants that are around?" Apelian says.
"I was really impressed with how well (actors) first picked up the skills, but also how quickly they incorporated them and processed them as actors," says Apelian, who's been particularly impressed by Foster's acting process.
Actors visited their property on the coast, near Nehalem and Manzanita, and then Apelian and Kay took them to Forest Park for survival training.
Though they've taken some time in Forest Park, most filming is occurring in different spots in Clackamas County.
Continuing to help
Following some of the work on "My Abandonment," Kay has taken an interest in Portland's homeless population and how people survive on the streets.
He started recording interviews with homeless people with his cellphone.
"It's just to go out and meet them on a real personal level," Kay says. "I want to understand their lives out there. I look at it from an urban survival standpoint. There are things I'm sure I'll learn from them."
He said he talked to one man on the street, and was able to let him know about plants nearby that he could use for food or for soap and rope.
He wants to amass the interviews and maybe eventually forge it into a documentary that would "raise awareness of the homeless situation, especially in the Portland area."
"Whether it's indigenous tribes in Africa — we just got back from visiting them — or if it's somebody living behind a dumpster, I'm interested in them too. I want to understand what I can do to make it better," Kay says.
Apelian believes that humanity is too disconnected and needs to find its way back to community living.
"Because these things have been taken out from under us, I think that's a really big part of why we see a lot of physiological and psychological illness in people," says Apelian. "(People) no longer have a sense of purpose."
But hope is not lost. Through the work she and Kay do together, they believe they can help shift people back into a positive way. Apelian is inspired by the fact that she worked to heal her multiple sclerosis through more natural ways, and likes to spend time outside because "that's when I feel healthy."
"Part of what I teach is how to reconnect yourself to nature and how to connect to community. I see a light go off in people when they're doing something as simple as making a basket from natural materials," Apelian says. "Suddenly, they get connected to their primal self. People are happier."