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MOUNTAIN MAN PANS SURVIVOR TV SHOW
By Mark H. Hunter
Special to The Denver Post
July 27, 2000 - If you were stranded on an island in the South China Sea,
would you eat rats, sea snakes and tree Ibark, like the cast of the
television show "Survivor''?
Colorado mountain guide Ernest Wilkinson would, and he'd probably be the
last one standing for the $1 million bonus at the end of the 30-day
"Rats are actually pretty clean animals," said Wilkinson, a lifelong
survivalist who has spent more than 40 years in the San Juan Mountains,
first as a U.S. government trapper and now as a fishing and backpack guide.
Each year, he teaches hundreds of San Luis Valley schoolchildren the ways of
Recently, he hosted would-be survivors of a different stripe at his 19th
annual Primitive Skills Camp, behind his taxidermy shop west of Monte Vista.
The CBS show "really doesn't have any true survival," Wilkinson said, as he
showed several folks from Texas how to chip a round rock into a razor-sharp
arrowhead. "It's a gimmick." "If they were really surviving, they wouldn't
just be sitting around. They'd be preparing for the weather, gathering
food," Wilkinson said.
"The girls wear a different swim suit every day. If that was "real,' they
wouldn't be exposing themselves to the sun like that."
Wilkinson knows how television production works. In the 1960s, he guided
photographers and provided animals for so-called nature shows, including the
"The Badger and the Mountain Lion" episode of Mutual of Omaha's "Wild
The badger and the lion were his pets.
During a recent "Survivor" episode, the cast was busy voting to expel
someone from the island. At almost the same time, Wilkinson was showing
campers how to snare a rabbit, build a shelter, stitch animal-skin clothing
and make fire without matches.
If Wilkinson could plan a show, he'd film it in the Rocky Mountains in
"I think he could do a better show than they do," said camper Robert Reeves,
a retired telephone company official.
"I learned how to build a fire without matches yesterday - that's real
survival knowledge," Reeves said.
"Ninety-five percent of surviving is all right here," Wilkinson said,
tapping his temple. "It's all up here, if you know."
Dozens of plants can be used for food, medicine and shelter, and an
occasional rabbit, bird or squirrel can provide necessary protein, he
explained to the group as he showed them flip charts of trees, grass and
"Everything you need to survive is provided," he said, waving his arms
toward the San Juan Mountains.
Wilkinson tells all his students:
"Don't panic if you get lost. It takes seven times more energy than staying
Also, be sure to carry a fire starter, such as matches or a flint and steel,
a body shelter such as a raincoat or even a garbage bag, sinew and/or string
and something to hold water.
"Always tell someone where you are going and when you'll be back so they can
look for you," he added.
"He's a walking encyclopedia of survival knowledge," said Roy Neal, a
summertime "mountain man" from Kerrville, Texas.
"He's already forgotten more than I'll ever know."
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