In season 7 of the History Channel survival show, Only, Roland Welker won the $ 1 million prize by surviving 100 days in the Arctic. Without food, a film crew or a support crew, Welker survived on just 10 items to help him build shelter, hunt, and live on his own in temperatures as low as -40 degrees.
Although the show aired a year ago, its recent release on Netflix has attracted a whole new set of fans enticed by Welker’s strong survival skills. Welker grew up in rural Pennsylvania for many of the skills that helped him earn, but he has also spent the last 28 years living in Red Devil, Alaska, a remote village accessible by air, trapping, hunting, shoot down and work as a big game guide.
Welker brought a wealth of experience as a hunter / trapper to the show, but it was his quiet resilience and ability to remain seemingly unfazed in the face of the extreme challenges he faced that wowed many viewers. That, and the incredible moment he took down an 800-pound muskox with an arrow and a belt knife. But we’ll let him tell you the story.
You arrived in the living room with a wealth of experience working outdoors. How did you become so interested in the desert?
Almost everyone hunts in central Pennsylvania, and when I was a kid I was crazy about hunting, fishing, and trapping. I was checking my first traps with a flashlight before school in the dark when I was 8 years old. And I would get off the school bus, take my backpack and go camping on my own from about 11 years old. I could have been good at sports and stuff, but there was no time for that when you had the fever of hunting, fishing and trapping like me. I’m 49 now and just started pulling it out of my system.
Did you have moments of doubt during the competition where hunger, loneliness or anything else made you wonder if you were going to make it through the full 100 days?
Loneliness has never been a problem for me. I have lived in the desert several times for two or three months on my own. But the hunger factor was real. Even though I had more food than any participant in Only story, I’m still fed up with the same old stuff. Try to eat meat, even good meat, not to mention muskox for 70 days. It’s hard. Even if you’re full, your damn jaw starts to ache from chewing meat.
What do you think was your greatest achievement during the challenge? Slaughter a muskox with a belt knife? Building a “House of the Rock”? Or maybe that creative meat stash?
I would say rock house first, then muskox. As it snowed and the stone house became more camouflaged, you really couldn’t tell how impressive the shelter was, as it was sort of built into the hillside. They’re building a replica of Rock House in Bilger’s Rocks, Pennsylvania.
How did the muskox hunt go?
The muskox hunt has been a very long one. I had a few missed opportunities before I finally had an arrow in him. I only carried two arrows and one was twisted, which is what led me to decide to use the knife to finish it off. After he was injured I found him and remember the wind turned where he couldn’t smell my entrance. He was 30 yards from me and I watched him lay there for a while. It was getting late and I was far from Rock House.
I thought, ‘He could just sit there and breathe all night. I can either go camping with this stuff or go back to Rock House and come back in the morning. That’s when I decided I was going to stab this muskox. Throughout this I needed to rotate the cameras. In one of the fireside conversations at the end of the episodes, I compared it to having an arm tied behind my back as I tried to survive.
I was really struck by the way you used every part of the muskox like using the grease to oil your gloves and putting moisturizer on your face. But when I saw you eating weed that was pre-chewed and regurgitated in your stomach, I almost lost it. Did you really need to eat it to survive?
Yes and no. I still had several things that I had put away: roots, berries, mushrooms, dried fish, marrowbones, muskox meat and stomach contents. But around day 80, I got tired of eating the same things every day. I was just hungry for something different. I thought, ‘I’ll try the stomach contents.’ And I couldn’t believe it. It was great compared to eating meat all the time. From there, I couldn’t wait to eat it. They didn’t have such bad taste. It tasted like silage.
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What was your first meal after the show ended?
When the crew brought me back to base camp, they slowly took me back. My first meals were just light soup. I said man, I don’t need this. Give me something good. But they wouldn’t because they have a protocol to follow. Four or five days after I was released, we went to a restaurant in a town called Yellowknife. Of course, I ordered a big beef steak and fries, and the crew let me have a beer. After they all went to their hotel rooms, I went back to the bar and got six more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.