Outdoors

‘I can’t believe I killed a wolverine with an ax’: North Idaho native wins reality wilderness survival show, $500,000

When Janahlee Jonas stepped off the helicopter in Canada's northern backcountry, she didn't know what to expect.

She hadn't seen her husband, Jordan Jonas, in 77 days. She wondered if Jordan, who is naturally lean, would be emaciated. Or sick. Or injured. Or all three. After all, he'd been living in the subarctic wilderness for nearly three months, eating only what he could hunt or scavenge.

But when the helicopters' engines cut out, her worries dissipated in the frigid Canadian air.

"The first thing I heard was his laugh, and I was like 'Oh, he's fine. He's totally fine,' " she said in an interview Wednesday. "He didn't suffer at all out here."

While others struggled in the harsh Canadian subarctic, Jordan Jonas, a native of Athol, Idaho, thrived.

For that, he won $500,000.

Jonas, 36, spent 77 days living near Canada's Great Slave Lake for the sixth season of the History Channel's reality television show "Alone." Unlike other reality shows, camera crews didn't follow his every movement. Instead, Jonas was given three cameras and tasked with filming himself.

His goal? Outlast nine other contestants.

Each contestant was allowed to bring 10 items. Jonas brought paracord, a saw, an ax, a sleeping bag, a frying pan, a ferro rod, fishing line and hooks, bow and arrows, trapping wire and a multitool. With those tools, he built a shelter and thrived in the punishing conditions.

When he shot a moose, he became the first person in the show's history to kill a large animal. He also made a fishing net out of the paracord and caught a 25-pound pike on his final day.

Contestants don't know when others have dropped out, making it both a physical and psychological challenge. Contestants' health is checked regularly, though. If they lose too much weight, they can be pulled by the show's doctors. Or they can choose to tap out at any time.

And so, on the 77th day, in late November 2018, when the crew came to check on Jonas, he had no idea he was the last person standing. Instead, he thought it was just another health check.

"I wasn't ready for it to end," he said. "At 77 days, I had zero hope of winning yet. I was completely surprised."

Instead, he'd mentally prepared to be out there at least 90 days. When his wife stepped off the helicopter, he estimated he still had 200 pounds of moose meat, 60 pounds of fish, an entire wolverine (which he killed with an ax), hares and a squirrel.

Just days prior, other contestants were choking down boiled hare feet and reindeer moss.

"I actually had a lot of fun," Jonas said.

The sixth season aired this past summer, with the season finale shown in late August. That's when Jonas was announced as the winner.

His success is a testament to an adventurous life. Jonas grew up on a farm near Athol. After graduating from Sandpoint High School, he attended North Idaho College and worked at Lighthouse Foods in Sandpoint. Then he spent the "better part of a year" riding freight trains around the country with his brother.

"It felt like a good coming-of-age type thing to do," he said. "You get exposed to a mode of life that is not scheduled, and it feels a lot more free."

After hopping trains, he headed to Russia to help build orphanages. There he met, and eventually lived with, nomadic Evenki reindeer herders. They taught him how to live with, and off, the land.

"To be honest with you, when I went to Russia I didn't know people still lived like that," he said.

The rhythm of nomadic hunter-gatherers reminded Jonas of his time on the trains. Free and unstructured. A day determined only by the most immediate of needs.

"When you're in the forest, you wake up in the morning and there are things that need to be done. You might need to fish or get food," he said. "But you do it on your own time, according to your own wisdom."

Jonas traveled to Russia and Siberia a half-dozen times over the next few years. Eventually, he met Janahlee. The two married and had two children, Ilana, 3, and Altai, 2. A third child is on the way.

Now, the family lives in Lynchburg, Va.

Several years ago, Jonas applied to be on "Alone" after seeing a few episodes. He sent them a link to his YouTube account, with videos from his Siberian stays. He didn't hear back and forgot about it.

And then they called in the spring of 2018.

"I definitively knew it is what I'm good at," he said. "It would be crazy to say no."

He didn't prepare much, although he said he practiced shooting with his recurve bow and tried to gain weight.

"In the history of the show, most people that have won have been pretty chubby," said the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Jonas. "And part of me was thinking I might be too thin for this sport."

In August, he found out he'd be heading to northern Canada, a climate perfect for his Siberian experience. A month later, he watched a helicopter fly off. He was alone.

"It's really surreal," he said. "The helicopter flies away and you have your 10 items and you don't know anything about your area."

He didn't waste time. Within an hour of being dropped off, he'd shot a rabbit. The pursuit of food dominated his mind – and his time.

"It was all about food," he said. "I threw up a shelter in less than a day. Then 100% of my energy was get food. Get food."

He set snares for rabbits, fished and hunted moose. A steady supply of rabbit meat and fish kept him moving, but he knew he'd need more if he was going to go the duration.

He'd built a series of fences to funnel any passing moose into a particular area, and he had hung a number of cans to warn him when they were there. On day 20, it all came together. A bull moose wandered in, possibly responding to Jonas' call from the night before. Jonas shot, then tracked the animal, eventually finding it dead near the lake shore. He skinned and gutted it with his Leatherman.

"It was like this whole burden off your back," he said. "You're gonna starve, you're gonna starve. Finally, I'd gotten that off my back for a while."

But his success brought new challenges, including the question of how to store the meat. At first, he stored it in trees and on a shelf he'd made in his shelter. But he forgot about the resident wolverines. One morning he woke up and found a store of moose fat gone.

So he set out more tin cans, and a few days later he heard – then saw – a wolverine return. The animal was behind a bush, but Jonas decided to risk a shot anyway.

The arrow ricocheted through the bush and pierced the animal through its back leg, pinning it to the ground. Jonas charged the snarling creature and killed it with his ax.

"That was super intense," he said. "I can't believe I killed a wolverine with an ax."

No other major obstacles appeared for Jonas. In fact, he enjoyed nearly his whole experience. The worst part, he said, was worrying about things that might happen. Like missing Christmas with his family. Or running out of food.

"I had stressors," he said. "But they were all things that were far off in the future. Had I been completely focused on the present, I don't think I would have had any issues at all."

Day-to-day, he enjoyed being alone, in the woods hunting and fishing for a living. Worrying about simple things. Food. Dry clothes. Warmth.

In fact, in many ways the whole experience was more difficult for his wife. She had support from her extended family through the 77 days, but it was hard for her and the two children.

"Both kids were pretty much on me the whole time," she said. "I think what ended up happening was they didn't want me to leave. So they ended up circling around me and making sure I didn't leave, too."

Plus, she had no idea how her husband was doing. All the show producers would tell her was that he was still out there. Nothing about his condition.

"I felt like I ended up worrying and losing weight," she said, "And he was totally fine."

That made the reunion all the more sweet. And the $500,000 prize gives the family some breathing room and a chance to reconnect.

They plan to move back to North Idaho, at least part time, and Janahlee will likely study nursing at North Idaho College.

"I'm glad it went as well it as did," she said. "Obviously, I was worried about him. I didn't realize how well he'd done until I saw everything and heard everything."

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