On a survival tour with President Barack Obama


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2016)

In the majestic wilderness of Alaska you may find you come across a more unusual scene: where previously bears caught salmon in the river and elks grazed contentedly, a hiker appears, a hiker otherwise known as Barack Obama, the President of the United States, walking through the breath-taking landscape of the most northerly federal-state in the USA. At his side, the survival expert Bear Grylls, who’s testing Obama’s adaptability to nature and is showing him how to live in the wilderness. 

The treck was filmed for Gryll’s survival TV-Show ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls’. Obama’s appearance in the series is part of the Presidents’ environmental campaign, which he is using to create awareness of the consequences of climate change. Human intervention interferes with the climate in a variety of ways and much faster than previously thought, Obama confirmed at a delegation meeting in Anchorage, Alaska during his three-day journey on the edge of the Arctic. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now”.

The hike with Bear Grylls through Alaska doesn’t only give the president the opportunity to observe the effect of climate change in nature; he is also able to set his spirit of adventure free. While they’re walking along the banks of a river Barack Obama learns his first lesson in survival: what you can eat in the wild. “I’ve seen some of the things Bear eats. I hope it’s he’s got something that doesn’t still have its legs and eyes on it. I want it not to be too recognizable,” comments Barack Obama with a view to his first hand-caught meal. “Ok… Don’t freak out too much”, Grylls warns his guest as he takes a salmon wrapped in moss out of his rucksack that he’d found on their way along the river and packed up for later. “This is half eaten by a bear”, explains Bear, and continues to tell the story of how bears become foodies when large schools of salmon swim up river and provide them with an abundance of prey. Then the animals only eat the fish roe and the fatty parts rich in calories, such as the skin, entrails and the head. The remaining meat is left over for Bear Grylls’ and the President’s lunch. Cooked on a flat stone, Obama is amazed by how tasty Alaskan salmon is. Apart from that, Bear shows him how to make tea from catkins, find his way in nature, and they talk about normal everyday and personal things - about their families for example, what it’s like to be a dad, the next presidential elections, shared worries and fears, how to reconcile work and private life, and of course the effect human beings are having on nature. This is where Bear Grylls knows exactly what he’s talking about, because he regularly travels to remote regions of the world for the show and sees how previously untouched nature changes as soon as there is human intervention. 

There is almost no lonely place on the earth that the former SAS soldier hasn’t visited. Edward Michael Grylls, otherwise known as Bear Grylls, comes from Northern Ireland. After spending time in a special British military unit, he became an adventurer, documentary maker, scout and author. In 1998 at the age of 23, Grylls became the youngest Brit to climb Mount Everest. In 2007 he was the first person to successfully fly over Mount Everest with a paramotor. 

Grylls presented some documentaries for the Discovery Channel Europe, the series ‘Man vs. Wild’, that ran in Germany under the title of ‘Abandoned in the Wilderness’, for example. In this series Grylls shows you how to survive in the wilderness and find your way back to civilisation. Since July 2014, NBC in the USA has been broadcasting ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls’ (in Germany on DMAX entitled ‘Bear Grylls: Stars at their Limit’), in which he takes famous personalities into the wilderness for two days. Among them, have been Hollywood stars such as Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, Kate Hudson, Ben Stiller or Kate Winslet, and now Barack Obama as well, who is using his appearance on the series as part of his environmental campaign. “He called the experience one of the best days of his presidency”, Grylls says, delighted. 

During his three-day Alaskan visit, Bear Grylls doesn’t only teach the president survival techniques, he also gives him some basic information about life in the Arctic Circle and its inhabitants. “I’ve had the opportunity to see some wild and beautiful things in Alaska — and I’ve enjoyed sharing them with the rest of the country. But a very serious reality lies within those breath-taking sights: And that’s the fact that this state’s climate is changing before our eyes”, says Obama and describes his flight over Kivalina Island, an Arctic island with just one town that is slowly sinking into the sea because of rising sea levels and advancing erosion. Previously many coastlines were protected from erosion by ice, but the ice has now disappeared.

While Grylls and Obama try to avoid bears at all costs during their trip, their path leads them to a glacier. Glaciers penetrate the landscape with enormous force, but as impressive as they may be, their end is foreseeable; they are melting all over the world, not just in Alaska. Thus Barack Obama is able to climb a rock that was covered by a glacier 10 years ago. Rising temperatures have a fatal effect on the geology of mountain regions because the permanently frozen ground of
the Arctic is becoming instable. Landslips and mountain landslides are the result. Grylls and Obama know how important it is to safeguard the beauty of Alaska for generations to come. 

But there are quite specific economical interests opposing the preservation of the environment. Alaska is one of the most economically successful federal states in the USA. The oil reserves are the source of this wealth and constitute around 85 percent of the state’s revenues. The large forest areas mean the wood and paper industry is an important source of income and valuable metals are extracted in the mountains. There are coal reserves in Alaska and a crude-oil line that was discovered in 1968. This procures an important position for Alaska and the Trans-Alaska-Pipeline in the global crude-oil market. These are all commercial interests that don't always go hand in hand with environmental protection.

Predominantly, salmon and cod are
exported from Alaska’s fisheries, and this is the part of the industry hit hardest by the effects of climate change. They welcome Barack Obama’s endeavours in his continual fight against climate change and know that this is one of the greatest challenges that we face in this century. ‘I loved Alaska and met so many inspiring people. We have to keep up the fight on climate change for their sake - and ours’, twitters Barack Obama on the last day of his Alaskan journey. ‘I hope we did something together which puts a smile on his face that lasts for a while’, says Bear Grylls about their shared adventure.

Picture credits © Delbert Shoopman/NBC/NBCU/Getty


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