Scientist, educator, survivalist, herbalist, safari guide and caring mother — these are but a few of Nicole Apelian’s titles. But far more important than what she does is what she carries with her deep inside, being a vibrant recipient of all nature has to offer.
From an early age, Nicole has taken a path that few others would even begin to contemplate, let alone follow. She worked as a field biologist in Botswana, as a game warden with the U.S. Peace Corps, tracked lions in Africa and spent years immersed in the lives of the Sans Bushmen, a primitive tribe living in southern Africa.
Nicole also took on, not once, but twice, the most challenging outings of her lifetime, being a contestant on the grueling television survival show “Alone.” There, she spent week after week securing food, purifying water, constructing shelter and many other basic tasks, all the while keeping her mind focused during her entirely solo outdoor adventure.
Now, with a break from her overloaded schedule, Nicole shared with American Survival Guide a deeper look into what keeps her passionate about nature, her time on “Alone,” and what she has planned for her adventuring future.
FOLLOW NICOLE APELIAN
American Survival Guide: Your skills are numerous, but mostly involve some aspect of life in the outdoors. Has the love of Mother Nature always been a big part of your life since childhood, or was it something that developed later?
Nicole Apelian: I was a kid who was always outdoors, so yes, Mother Nature was always a strong part of my life. As a child I had a lot of collections: shells, insects, stamps, coins; my love of nature and travel has always been a part of me. My stepdad was a great mentor to me and helped fuel my passion for the outdoors. He would come home early from work and we would go canoeing or hiking, bringing our field guides and curiosity with us.
ASG: How have your fields of interest changed as you changed throughout the years?
NA: I am someone who likes to constantly be learning, so my fields of interest have shifted as I ask new questions. When I became ill with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, my questions shifted to holistic wellness and herbalism. When I have a challenge of a new survival location or a new TV show, I love the opportunity that a new environment may present. I used to focus more on biology (my master’s is in biology) but have shifted more to ethnobotany and cultural anthropology (which was my doctoral work). I also have shifted more into how to be helpful and make a difference, and I am able to do that through teaching wilderness living skills, nature connection and herbal apothecary.
ASG: As an educator and scientist, how important is it to guide young people today about the wonder of the outdoors and all that it has to offer?
NA: It is superbly important. My mentors taught me a lot, and I need to pass their knowledge and my accumulated knowledge to the next generations. Intergenerational knowledge transmission is how knowledge has been passed on for thousands of years, and I believe that it is our responsibility to continue this mode of learning. Plus, with the modern construct of social media and the internet, time spent outside practicing traditional skills and nature connection is what helps us be happy, joyful people. The importance of skills cannot be underestimated! My kids have a huge love and respect for the outdoors, and my teenage son spent this past summer teaching survival skills.
ASG: How did you add herbalist to your repertoire of skills? Did it start as simply dabbling in the field or was it a passionate and determined destination?
NA: I’ve always had an interest in ethnobotany, but I started a more intense study of plants, lichens and mushrooms after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I turned to natural ways of healing to help me get from bedbound with MS to the active person I am today, and my intensive study of herbal medicine has healed not only me but many others as well.
ASG: You spent some time in Africa, involved with lion research. How was that beneficial for them and rewarding for you? And on that note, did you have any scary, close calls with the king of the African plains?
NA: I lived in a tent in the bush in Botswana in the 1990s, studying African lions. Our research focused on genetics, ecology and disease of these large predators. Living in the territory of lions, black mambas, cape buffalos and more really tuned me in to bird language, sensory awareness and tracking. These are often considered the soft skills but, in my opinion, they are some of the most important. I have had a few close calls and have changed a flat truck tire next to lions many times. That said, bird language and awareness were my closest friends out there and are what kept me alive while living in places where I was a part of the food web.
ASG: You were a challenger on the second season of “Alone” (and again on Season 5), on the History Channel. What drove you to try out for the show, and how did you feel when you heard the news that you were chosen?
NA: The show contacted me — I didn’t search them out. I said no to Season 1, and when they came back and asked me to be on Season 2, I then submitted a video application after my Skype interview. I was both excited and nervous when I heard I’d been chosen for “Alone.” One thing I love about being offered a challenge such as “Alone” is the opportunity for learning. Each time I am thrust into a new landscape with its distinct set of rules, I study about that new environment and get a lot more dirt time when out on that land. This adds to my breadth of skills and expands my knowledge base … and since I love to learn, I find these new challenges to be a lot of fun.
ASG: After your initial joy of earning a spot on the show, did reality set in and you had some fears or doubts about your decision to take on the challenge?
NA: I did, so I tested myself and practiced various skills as much as I could before I went out. For example, I would put cedar bark in water before I went to bed and then make myself work the bark the next morning until I could spark it with a ferro rod. I practiced new knots until they were second nature, and I worked even harder on my primitive trapping techniques. I actually found Season 2 (where Nicole stayed for 57 days) to be easier than I thought it would be. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Vancouver Island.
ASG: Do you feel viewers underestimate what it really feels like to be in a strange environment virtually without any other human contact?
NA: I do. Most people don’t spend much time alone without the fallback of their cell phone or social media. I think it’s a great exercise to spend even a week solo. When you are alone living off the land with only your own company, you really get a chance to examine your priorities and your life. People go on four-day solo trips and have cathartic life changes. Translate that to 57 days solo and see what creeps up. One of the great lessons I learned is that I did indeed have peace and joy in my heart. I did shift some things in my life after returning though, like moving to the woods of Southwest Washington with my kids.
ASG: To expand on that, it’s been said that keeping yourself active during your challenge will help keep your mind from drifting to people and events back home. Did you find this to be true, and if so, how did you stay active throughout the day?
NA: I am actually OK being alone with only my own thoughts for company. That said, I didn’t really feel alone out there. I had a huge connection to the wildlife around me — especially the bears, the pair of kingfishers who lived at my site, and the mink that slowly got used to me. I did like to keep my hands active, so I made a lot of baskets out there. It is a calorie game though, so while there was always more to do (adding more debris to the shelter or cutting more firewood), I was careful with my expended energy. Basketmaking was a low-calorie way to stay focused. Plus … I needed some useful containers out there.
ASG: You were seen collecting wild plants throughout your stay on Vancouver Island and in Northern Mongolia. How valuable was this skill for you to get sustenance from native plants?
NA: My plant knowledge was a real key to my staying healthy and well-fed. I had a pretty varied diet (eating 26 species of food while on Vancouver Island) and felt pretty darn good while out there even toward the end of my stay. I also was able to heal a nasty cut (Nicole cut her knuckle off on Day 43 while gutting a fish) using yarrow I had collected before the frost and Usnea lichen. Without that knowledge of medicinal plants, I probably would have gotten an infection. Knowing the plants in both locations also gave me access to a source of carbohydrates, which you can’t get from just eating animals.
ASG: An “Alone” challenger may be skilled in survival and have plenty of supplies and gear, but in reality, how scary is it being alone throughout the night with only a tarp or a few branches between you and the wild animals wandering about?
NA: Well … I’ve been working in Botswana since 1995 (Nicole still works there to this day), so I am pretty used to being around wildlife that could eat you. But when you’re alone, you have to be careful not to let fear creep in. You don’t have a person to turn to and say, “Did you hear that?” It’s always more comforting to be with someone else. If fear creeps in, then you can be done for, so I simply didn’t let it get ahold of me.
ASG: Did you have a better understanding of yourself, whether coming to grips with your limitations or conversely, finding strengths that you didn’t think you had, after each of your two “Alone” challenges?
NA: Absolutely. When I came back from Season 2 of “Alone,” I’d been on Vancouver Island for 57 days, totally unwired, literally living on and surviving off the land around me. The question I got most was, “What was the hardest part of your journey?” People expected me to reply that being alone was the hardest part, or being hungry, or missing my kids. But the hardest part of my journey was the transition back to Western society. Once back, I had to figure out how to change my life so that I wasn’t stuck in fight-or-flight mode. My kids and I moved to the woods, where I can step outside into nature every single day. It’s what I need to thrive on a daily basis. Nature connection is key for both my physical and mental health.
ASG: What advice would you give to a person who just filled out their “Alone” application and hopes to be chosen? And what additional advice would you give if they did indeed land a spot on the show?
NA: I would recommend that, both in their application and on the show, to simply be themselves. Don’t try and pretend to be something else.
ASG: What is your current project or goal? And will we see you on television anytime soon?
NA: You will! I am working on a new documentary series on the Stone Age. I can’t say which channel yet due to my NDA (non-disclosure agreement), but I am continuing to work in TV and film. I also have two new books out. One is a reference guide to nature (wildlife, gear and first aid) and the other is “The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies: The Power of Plant Medicine,” which is a very thorough medicinal plant, lichen and mushroom guide. I enjoy writing, teaching skills and working in wellness through my apothecary and plan on continuing this work. I also work closely with a community of San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert and will continue and expand my work with them as well.
ASG: Where do you see yourself in the next five years? The next 15 years?
NA: Who knows?! I love how varied my life has been and welcome new interests and ideas. I would like to expand my work in film (Nicole was the survival skills consultant on last year’s movie “Leave No Trace,” which received a score of 100 percent on the review site Rotten Tomatoes) and continue my work in natural health and wellness, especially as it relates to people with autoimmune issues.
ASG: Looking outside yourself, using only three words, how would you describe Nicole Apelian?
NA: Smart, kind and joyful.VARIED VITTLES
Nicole’s survival menu was much more diverse than you may know. Although fish and some small game have been highly featured on the television show “Alone,” the truth is that Nicole ate a wide diversity of plant, animal and insect species while out in the wild — some of which you may recognize while others are unfamiliar and downright mysterious. Check out this list illustrating Nicole’s takeout menu.
Admiral boletes (mushroom)
Enteromorpha (sea lettuce)
Hemlock tree cambium
King boletes (mushroom)
Licorice fern roots
Macrocystis (giant kelp)
Marine isopods (crustaceans)
Mossy chitons (mollusks)
Nereocystis (bullwhip kelp)
Plantain leaves and seeds
Red rock crabs
Salicornia (sea asparagus)
Spiny wood fern roots
Spruce needle tips
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.