‘Alone’ season 8 winner on facing down a charging grizzly, eating deer heart, and surviving himself
Clay Hayes, a wildlife biologist turned professional bowyer, is the winner of Alone season 8 after surviving 74 days in the grizzly-bear-populated woods of Chilko Lake, British Columbia. He overcame freezing temperatures and starvation, faced down a charging grizzly, tracked a mountain lion, and was the only contestant to kill a deer. He ate its heart first, smoked and dried its meat into jerky, made a chair out of its skin, and fashioned a hat out of its head. But of all the obstacles Clay faced, his toughest opponent was ultimately himself.
For the uninitiated, Alone is one of TV’s most grueling reality shows. Each season, wilderness experts compete to survive in different extreme locations, and this year the ever-present bears around Chilko Lake made for one of the show’s most daring and dangerous challenges. Equipped with just 10 items, a camera kit, bear spray, and an emergency GPS for tapping out, each participant must camp in total isolation. Each week, contestants undergo medical tests and a quick interview to ensure they’re healthy enough to continue, and whoever lasts the longest wins $500,000. Clay needed 74 days to outlast his final opponent, but he reckons he could’ve survived weeks longer if needed.
While his winnings will go a long way toward supporting his wife and two sons, competing on Alone was more than just a shot at a half-million dollars for Clay. Below, the outdoorsman reflects on what he learned, what he hopes to teach his son and people watching at home through his performance, and how he conquered the biggest obstacle of all: his own mind.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it liked learning that you won during your final medical check?
CLAY HAYES: You don’t ever want to get to where you’re hoping for a certain outcome, because when something happens out there that doesn’t go with those hopes, it can be crushing. So as the days stretched on, I really guarded myself against hoping. So when they came out that last time, I had built up such a wall against expecting [to learn I’d won] that when it finally did come, it didn’t even make sense to me. What made me realize “Holy s—, I’m the winner, it’s over,” was when [consultant] Dave Holder said, “You’ve outlasted everyone, you’re the one.” I was like, “holy s—,” and then I realized it was truly over.
Can you talk a bit about overcoming the depression you dealt with later in the competition?
It started around day 50 or something, when I had already rationed out all my meat and was eating very little. I was eating more than anybody else, but only a couple hundred calories a day. So there was this slow starvation thing going on. The days were getting very short; you have these long, cold, dark nights. And being on such a reduced-calorie diet, I felt like I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do because I felt like I would burn up too much energy. That was difficult for me because I’m a very active person.
So you have the isolation, the slow starvation, and then you have this total inactivity, and those three things combined led me to get pretty down. But eventually what brought me out of it was I was sitting in my shelter one morning after a s—-y night; it was terrible weather, I had probably stayed 14 hours in my sleeping bag, and I was probably acting like a whiny little bitch. But the next morning I got up and I was like, “You know what, my two boys, Coye and Fen, are going to watch this and they’re going to see me acting this way,” so I said no more. Because one of the big reasons I went out there was to set a good example for them, and I wasn’t doing that. I was letting those conditions dictate my mood. And that was the turning point. When I made that decision to not let those things get me down, it was like a complete 180. All of my suffering was gone, because I had been creating my own suffering.
What did you kill while you were out there, and what was your diet like?
When I first got there, I killed a grouse pretty early on, I think it was within the first couple days. And I was eating some fireweed greens, and then there were some wild carrots. Probably like day five or six, I started catching fish. And I think the whole time I was there I caught maybe six or seven fish. The fishing was very, very tough. I killed a few more grouse, and then I finally got the deer, which was massive.
Clay catches his fourth hare of the season.
What did it feel like killing that deer?
It was like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. It’s a stressful thing because I was eating maybe two or three ounces of fish every day. Before I went out there I gained 20 pounds, and by the third week when I killed that deer, I had already lost all the weight I gained. So I was dipping into my normal body weight after that. Things like that are weighing on your mind. So to have all that stress just completely lifted off of you, I don’t know how to explain it. The way I tried to explain it was, think of yourself in a situation where you lost your job, you’re two months late on rent, the landlord’s beating on your door, you can’t find a job, you’re about to get thrown on the street, and you spend your last couple bucks on a scratch-off ticket and you win. It’s that kind of relief, like, “Oh my God.”
Why do you always start by eating the heart when you kill an animal?
I don’t know, people have been eating hearts and organs forever. It’s just something that’s significant to me. Hunting is pretty essential to my families’ lives; the wild game that we bring home, that’s what we eat. So it’s very important. It’s just something that I’ve done forever. The heart’s just a muscle, but it tastes different. It’s not like a sirloin steak. It has more of an irony flavor to it.
What do you think was your biggest mistake?
I was pretty complacent with the bears. And luckily everything turned out well. But I did some things that could’ve turned out differently.
You actually went looking for a bear and managed to track it down. What made you want to find a bear when everyone else was trying their best to stay away from them?
Well, I spent my life in the woods and around big animals. I understand what they’re capable of and that they can be very dangerous But also, I was curious. I wanted to see where he went, I wanted to get some good footage of him. I knew that I had bear spray on my side. I didn’t expect him to come charging in at me, but luckily he stopped before he got to me. And I don’t know, I wanted to see what he was up to. And he was coming towards my shelter, so I wanted to try to head him off a bit before he got there.
That footage of the bear charging you is incredible. Was that your scariest moment?
Even when the bear charged me, I wasn’t scared. That kind of surprised me. Like when you’re in a major car crash or something and you get the shakes, that adrenaline dump. But that never happened to me with the bear. I just thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. I think the reason [I wasn’t scared] is because of my experience reading animal body language. When I saw that bear, to me he looked like an English setter going after a pheasant. His head was up, his ears were forward, his neck was stretched out. You can’t see it on the footage, but I was watching him the whole time. I could see him coming from about 100 yards, and he looked more curious than aggressive. If his head had been down and his ears were laid back, that would’ve been a different story. That bear is telling you something different.
What would surprise people the most about competing on the show?
Most people have never gone more than eight hours without eating. So when you talk about going days, weeks sometimes, without anything substantial to eat, that’s not an easy thing for people to comprehend. When they first dropped us off, they fed us that morning, so we had breakfast on launch day. They dropped us off and I remember walking around and thinking, man, I could stay here for a year. But I still had that food in my belly, so thoughts like that come easy. By day 10 or 11, after eating not much more than a single grouse and a couple handfuls of fireweed greens and some mushrooms, it’s like f—, man, this is not easy.
What was your first meal back in the real world?
When they bring you back, you have to go through a recovery period, so you work with a dietitian and all that stuff there and they put your meals together. But when I left that recovery and actually went home, I was at a hotel in Vancouver, and I got a double-decker cheeseburger, a cold IPA, and a cheesecake.
How are you planning to spend the money?
Paying off our house and setting up a college fund for the kids, those are the two main things. I also went ahead and bought a little boat. My wife and I took it down to Florida and went from Flamingo all the way across Florida Bay to the Keys and hung out on some islands and had a little camping vacation.
Would you go on Alone again?
When I first got out of there, I said I’d never do it again. But the suck kind of fades after a while, and you start thinking, “Well, maybe.” So if they offered something, I think it’d depend on the location. If it was a cool location, I don’t think I could turn it down.
What do you want viewers to take away from your experience?
One of the biggest benefits of doing something like this is you get undistracted time to look inward and think about yourself. Like, when’s the last time you had undistracted time to be introspective? Time when you didn’t have to deal with other people, didn’t have any social media, any kind of online distractions or anything like that? When’s the last time you even spent a couple hours like that? And what that gives you is time to look inward and to question why you do things the way you do them, why you live your life the way that you do, what the truly important things to you are. I’d encourage everybody, even if it’s just a couple hours, but certainly, if you could do it for a few days, just turn everything off and sit in a quiet place and just think. I think that you might realize things about yourself that you hadn’t previously.
Videos courtesy of the History Channel.
Alone (TV Series)