Appleton man wins History's 'Alone,' describes experience
Appleton — Zachary Fowler, a boatbuilder from Appleton, survived 87 days in Patagonia, outlasting any other competitor and has won Season 3 of History Channel's "Alone." As the winner, Fowler received the grand prize: $500,000.
"It feels good; it's been pretty wild," Fowler said on Feb.10 of his win. Although he has known the outcome of the program since he returned to Maine last fall, Fowler has managed to keep the results under wraps. The season's final episode aired Feb. 9.
"It feels like I was writing a book [as the episodes aired], but I wasn't letting anyone know the ending. Now everyone knows the ending!" he said.
Fowler, as he was referred to on the show, grew up in Vermont and came to Maine to pursue an interest in boatbuilding. Having learned the craft at shipyards in the Midcoast, Fowler put down roots in the area when he was 21, purchasing a 2.5 acre parcel of wooded land in Appleton, where he and his family now live. Fowler, his wife Jami and their two daughters live off the grid in a yurt which he built, and practice a sustainable lifestyle.
Having survived the winter season in Patagonia, Fowler didn't let the blizzard-like conditions Thursday night prevent him from watching the finale of the show with friends at Threshers Brewing Co. in Searsmont, where he has been holding informal viewing gatherings since the show premiered in December.
"I don't mind watching myself. It's been a lot of fun to watch the show with a group of people; they get to laugh with me, they might tear-up with me. The hardest part of watching the show has been when I see the other [contestants], when I see how much weight they lost," he said.
Fowler and his castmates were scattered along the hilly, rugged Patagonia terrain many miles from one another. They never had a chance to see each other while they competed, and during their stay were tasked with videotaping themselves. No camera crews were at the campsites, and the only people to visit were a medical team who made sure none of the contestants were at severe risk of starvation.
"The camera was like my 'Wilson,'" Fowler said, referring to the volleyball that becomes Tom Hanks' companion in the film "Castaway." "I relied on it, and I got into the habit of doing stuff and talking to it as if it were my audience. One day the batteries died, and I didn't get the batteries back from the other site for about two and a half hours. I felt really lonely without it."
In a recent episode, one contestant, Dave, was removed because his body mass index (BMI) had dropped dangerously low and he was not eating. "It broke my heart to see him like that," Fowler said. "He had this look in his eyes, and I know how much he cared about being there."
Fowler said one of the times that was most difficult for him was around day 70, which he refers to as his "Zero Day." After days of heavy rain, the dock which Fowler had build to fish from, was partially submerged in water, and he hadn't eaten for some time. While attempting to bring a fish in, it fell from the line and back into the water, and Fowler's frustration could be sensed by viewers.
"I hadn't gotten a fish in days, and I was just boiling the fish bones in water and drinking it, trying to get whatever minerals I could out of it. I wasn't getting anything accomplished, so I patched a hole in the roof [of the hut], but I was really waiting for the other people to leave.
I told myself that I had to put my whole mental strength into this. Going into this situation, my mental prediction was that I could last 69 to 72 days. I didn't think that nine other people would be able to last past that."
Fowler says that his family was the the constant source of inspiration and motivation during the nearly three months he spent alone in South America.
"In some ways my family was the bane to my existence and the boon to my heart down there. I wouldn't give up, because I didn't want to come back and have us still living in this 12-foot yurt that we've been waiting two years to be out of. It had started to wear on us, and was very tough on my wife and kids. I couldn't give up for them."
Fowler said he did whatever he could to keep both his mind and hands busy — whatever it took to keep going.
"For the most part I survived with relative ease, being able to discipline my mind and know that I had hope of a better future for my family. But around 4 p.m. every day, when I would ordinarily be home with my family, it was tough. Nights were definitely the hardest," he said.
Returning to Maine victorious, and having secured the grand prize, Fowler has definite plans to build a new house. But instead of hiring an outside company to do the construction, it will come as no surprise to viewers of "Alone" that he plans to be very hands-on and build the house with his two hands and some help from his family.
"I'll get my dad up here from Vermont and we'll build it together. I want this money to go as far as it can, and I plan to do that by building my house and investing in the Fowler's Makery and Mischief brand," he said.
Fowler currently has a YouTube channel, Makery & Mischief, which is devoted to videos in which he teaches viewers how to build tools, furniture, and contraptions —many of which are similar to ones he used in Patagonia. Fowler plans to expand the video channel to include a variety of content, and is also considering writing a book about his experience and his homesteading and survivalist acumen.
"It feels like I've got a five-part book in me: what I did out there in Patagonia, what I've done here in Maine. I have journals full of designs from over the years. There's no limit to the amount of designs and materials I could put together," he said.
Although contestants were not allowed to bring a journal to write in, and had to use the cameras to document their experience, Fowler found an unconventional way to mark his days, his activities and his meals — he whittled a long stick into what he refers to as his "Wizard Staff." In a series of hieroglyphics scrawled into the stick, which Fowler brought home with him, he can remember the specifics of each day spent alone in Patagonia.
"I did pretty well [in the 87 days] I was there, I ate 53 fish and two birds," he said.
Contestants had been warned against eating any mice they might find near their campsites, as the rodents were known to carry Hantavirus, a negative RNA disease which can be fatal to humans. This didn't prevent Fowler from finding other creative food sources, such as dandelion roots and large grubs.
"The grubs were about as big as my thumb, so they were pretty substantial. I called them 'land shrimp,' but they tasted awful. The fish and the fish soup is really what I relied on and what saved me, that's why I carved a fish head at the top of the Wizard Staff.
Fowler described the arduous task of preparing the fish soup, which he would cook and then drink for days at a time. Provided that he caught something, he would then walk down to the edge of the water, fill a bag with a gallon or so of water, bring it up to his campsite, add it to a pot, repeat the trip to gather water, and then bring it to a boil with the fish.
By the last episode of the show, Fowler had lost 72 pounds, and looked like a completely different person than the man who had appeared in promotional photos for the program. His positive, down-to-earth spirit is still apparent as he describes the experience, despite this drastic weight loss and the desolation one associates with spending three months in a cold, unfamiliar environment, completely alone.
"It was great, I didn't suffer any adverse effects, and I was able to bounce back really quickly," he said.
On the last day, when he heard the boat coming with the medics, he said he thought they were coming to tell him it was time to go home.
"I wasn't sure what the magic BMI number was that we couldn't go any low than, they wouldn't tell us, but I was ready to protest if they asked me to leave. I was ready to tell them that I could last at least until day 100," he said.
Instead, producers surprised him with the news that he had won.
"I really didn't experience any culture shock once I left Patagonia," Fowler said. "It was a great feeling getting on the plane and being up in the sky. Since I've been home, I've just been spending a lot of time with my family. That's what I'm happiest about, and that's what's most important to me," he said.
Fowler said that if people enjoyed the show, they should tune into the Makery & Mischief YouTube channel as viewers will be able to see in detail what he did on the show and see the building and homesteading he's done here in Maine.
Courier Publications reporter Louis Bettcher can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com.