Spoiler Alert! Participants of the History Channel’s Season 9 ‘Alone’ and its spinoff, ‘Alone: Frozen’ reality shows were never at risk of a polar bear attack despite the marketing hype claiming they were, because coastal Labrador is only ‘polar bear territory’ when pack ice is present offshore, which it wasn’t when the shows were filmed. Shocking, I know!
I happened upon the trailer for the ‘Alone’ series while watching TV one night and the “set in the hunting territory of the mighty polar bear” claim caught my attention. So, I watched a few episodes and did some followup. Before the series even ended, there were ads for the spinoff series, ‘Alone: Frozen’, which had even more polar bear hype. Here’s what I discovered–call it a Frivolous Friday post if you like, but I felt it had to be said.
Both series were set in Labrador, Canada, on the edge of the Arctic. The entire province is called ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’: Newfoundland (the island) and Labrador (the mainland) in red below:
Season 9 of ‘Alone’ was set inland, on a river that empties into the ocean in the Lake Melville region of central Labrador, as shown below near the small community of Rigolet. The exact location has not been publicized but the ‘Alone Frozen’ participants were located on the coast nearby. The two production crews shared the same base camp.
Davis Strait polar bears
In winter through spring in recent years, coastal communities in Newfoundland and southern Labrador have been visited by curious polar bears from the Davis Strait subpopulation. In 2008, polar bear numbers seemed to have reached some sort of threshold and more bears than in previous years were travelling south on the pack ice to feed on the hundreds of thousands of newborn harp seals available off the south coast of Labrador and north of Newfoundland (called ‘the Front’).
Keep in mind that ‘winter’ in the Arctic is considered to be January-March, while ‘spring’ is April-June. December brings frigid temperatures and the shortest days of the year but it’s still considered to be ‘autumn’ as far as Arctic animals and sea ice are concerned.
Virtually all Davis Strait polar bears spend the summer on Baffin Island (in the map below, Baffin Island is the one with the ‘Foxe Basin’ label on its western half). This is where they end up when spring pack ice retreats north (more on this below). Now that the population has grown, some bears appear to remain onshore over the summer on the northern tip of Labrador, but further south, the only bears on land in the summer are a few stragglers left behind by the ice–and they are soon shot in self-defense.
As a consequence, polar bears only come to southern Labrador when the pack ice from Baffin Bay barrels south. The pack ice is generated in the northern reaches of Baffin Bay in autumn and throughout the winter and is pushed south by winds and currents. Polar bears ride the ice south. Shore-fast ice that develops in place isn’t relevant in this context: only pack ice counts.
Time is everything
‘Alone’ began by dumping its ten survivalists in southern Labrador in mid-September 2021 (possibly 2020), which became clear when it was revealed in the program that their 44th day was Hallowe’en (31 October, episode 8). The last man standing made it to day 78 for which he won $500,000. That means all the ‘Alone’ participants were out of there by 3 December. Even if one of them had lasted a full 100 days, which in some past seasons would net a million dollar prize (which no one has ever done, apparently), they still would have been out by Christmas.
As for the spinoff series, the ‘Alone: Frozen’ participants were dropped on the south coast of Labrador not too far from the ‘Alone’ location well before snow arrived that year. That was likely late October/early November based on the weather faced by the ‘Alone’ crew (the date has not been stated explicitly, although it was said to have been ‘November’ in the introductory episode; the ‘Alone’ group experienced their first snowfall on 9 November (day 53) and the first big storm with deep snow came a few days later). According to the shows premise:
...survivalists will set out to last fifty days in a location with the densest population of Polar Bears in the United States and face extreme conditions worse than any previous season of Alone.
[I’ll ignore the “in the United States” gaff: the writer probably meant to say, ‘denser than either of the two populations in the United States’–the densest polar bear population in the Arctic is in the Gulf of Boothia]
If we assume a 1 November start date, which I think is a conservative estimate, 50 days takes us to 20 December, give or take a few days. Which means everyone from ‘Alone: Frozen’ was home for Christmas, a little more than two weeks after the ‘Alone’ spectacle ended. That seems like a convenient end point for everyone involved, including the production crew.
So, what were ice conditions like during that time? More specifically, what was the pack ice from the north doing? Were polar bears being transported south to the Labrador coast while the survivalist was there?
Sea ice conditions in 2021
The general area both shows were filmed is in the lower right corner of the sea ice chart (near that point sticking out), for the week of 13 December. Shorefast ice was only just starting to form along the Labrador coast (note that if the show was shot in 2020, ice conditions were even less advanced for the dates shown below).
By the 27th of December 2021 (below), about a week after ‘Alone: Frozen’ would have concluded, there was still no pack ice off Labrador and hence, no possible threat from a polar bear attack while the survivalists were there–unless a very determined bear walked the entire shoreline and meagre shorefast ice all the way from Hudson Strait, which might be technically possible but highly unlikely. Why walk when they could ride the ice? There are only two small communities along the northern Labrador coast that might attract a bear (Nain and Hopedale) but again: why walk rather than ride the ice? Pack ice didn’t reach the southern Labrador coast until after mid-January 2022, although there was extensive shorefast ice developed by that time.
So it appears–surprise, surprise!–that the whole ‘look out for polar bears’ was make-believe hype to increase revenues and viewers: polar bear misinformation for TV ratings. The survivalists talked up the potential threat from polar bears as if they’d been told to expect them and never bothered to do any research of their own. Even though the trailer shows a polar bear walking along a shoreline, I’m sure those were taken elsewhere.
For the ‘Alone: Frozen’ spinoff (only the trailer, an introductory episode, and episode 1 have aired), the idea that polar bear attacks were a real possible was pushed much harder than for the original ‘Alone’ series. However, in reality, it appears the ‘Frozen’ participants were no more at risk of a polar bear attack on the coast of Labrador than the original ‘Alone’ group were as they tried to survive a bit farther inland.
Ironically, the ‘Alone’ series participants, who were put in place much earlier in the year, were more at risk of attack by black bears in the first 45 days or so (black bears go into hibernation once winter weather sets in). However, it seems no one wanted to admit that some black bears can be just as predatory as polar bears, so that potential risk was minimized for viewers. Odd, that.
Could it have happened?
Was there ever a season in recent years when the pack ice extended to southern Labrador to Rigolet before Christmas and thus put polar bears in reach of survivalists on or near the coast? Could it have happened?
I checked my own archive of ice charts (going back to 2013) as well as the Canadian Ice Service archive back to 2004. Only 2018 and 2015 were close contenders. In both years, there was ice offshore in December, but it was landfast ice. The pack ice that brings polar bears to Labrador was still well north of their location at Christmas. All other years had less pack ice at that date, even 2020.
Note that in 2018, the pack ice moved south very rapidly after Christmas and by the end of the year ice blanketed the coast. On New Years Eve 2018, a polar bear was spotted near a community on the southern Labrador coast and had to be chased off. So if any of the ‘Alone’ survivalists had stuck around until after Christmas that year, they might possibly have had some trouble. Since there are no newborn seals to eat at that time of year, bears are apt to wander off the pack ice onto land to look around. In recent years, however, while there have been sightings in January and February near coastal communities in Newfoundland and southern Labrador, as far as I know, none occurred before the last few days of December.
Bottom line: Getting all of the survivalists of ‘Alone’ and ‘Alone: Frozen’ out before Christmas and placing survival locations in southern Labrador (rather than northern Labrador) were therefore good strategies for the producers of these two History Channel reality shows to avoid contact with polar bears. These are realty shows, of course, and everyone expects some manipulation of the truth. However, making it appear there was a palpable threat from polar bears to any of these survivalists is a real insult to Inuit and others living in the Arctic who face real and potentially deadly threats from polar bears almost daily.
August 12, 2022