Western North Carolina has a long history of self-sufficiency, from growing our own food to hunting to locating medicinal plants in our ecosystem. When Anthony Coppage moved to Waynesville 3 1/2years ago, he fit right in with this self-sufficient spirit, thanks to his pastime of developing primitive survival skills.
Coppage is a two-time contestant on “Naked and Afraid,” a reality show on the Discovery Channel that sends survivalists into remote environments around the world. Viewers watch the survivalists test their bushcraft skills and brave the elements for 21 days or withdraw due to hunger, sickness or mental turmoil.
During Coppage’s first appearance on “Naked and Afraid” in Brazil in 2018, he tapped out of the challenge after four days when he pushed himself into dehydration. But he got a chance at redemption when he was asked to film “Naked and Afraid” once again — this time in the South African desert with a team of three other contestants who also left previous challenges early. The episode for his second appearance on the show aired in March, and upcoming segments are posted on the Discovery website.
During Coppage’s most recent episode, he built several shelters, a smoker and a stove. “But the skills aren’t what keeps you out there,” he tells Xpress. “It’s the mental fortitude to not — as I call it — ‘go dark.’ And people ‘go dark’ out there a lot. They start thinking, ‘My God, this sucks! This is so terrible. I can’t do this. It’s so cold.’”
Some contestants can focus only on the difficulties and get trapped in a negative mindset. “And that’s what takes people out,” he explains. “If you’re not medically tapped, you likely [withdraw] because you went dark and you spun yourself out of the challenge.”
Coppage spoke with Xpress about eating insects (it’s unavoidable), his reaction to seeing hippos in the wild and his relationship with fear.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Xpress: Did production for “Naked and Afraid” tell you that you’d be going to the desert so you could study up on how to survive there?
Coppage: About a week out, I knew I was going to South Africa. You land in Johannesburg, and I knew I was flying to Hoedspruit, which I found on the map. But no, you’re very much left in the dark.
You spent a long time living in Las Vegas prior to moving to WNC. Did any of your knowledge about the desert there help you in South Africa?
A lot of people feel like they can study up for something like this [show], and you really can’t. [There are] different deserts. Africa is very comparable to Red Rock Canyon and Vegas. But all the trees are different. The sand is different. The rocks are different. … In Vegas, there were several types of cactuses around and trees that allowed you to make bow drills [a tool for making fire] quite easily and cactuses that you can eat readily. [In South Africa], none of those plants were there. But the one similarity that I keep finding in different spots of the world is prickly pear cactus, which is great because it’s in every desert and it’s edible.
If you couldn’t really prepare, how did you know what was safe to eat or not?
[Contestants] get a little briefing sheet the day before you go out on the plane, so you’ve got a little idea of what’s edible and what’s not. … But [production] won’t let you eat something that they know is violently poisonous.
They will let you eat things that are out of season. There’s certain seeds or fruits that if you eat them too early on, there are tannins in them, and they will make you sick. And they will let you [eat them], as people have seen in past episodes. If it’s edible, it’s edible. You may not like it, your stomach may not digest it well, you might be throwing up. But it’s edible.
What were the most memorable things you ate during this challenge — either good or bad?
Bug-wise, we ate scorpion, grubs, crickets and beetles. And all of that sounds disgusting — it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, either. It’s not something I’m gonna run out and ask for on the menu anywhere. That’s just what you do while you’re out there. If you think you’re going out there and you’re not going to eat a bug, you’re probably delusional. We found a nice little harvest of bugs and continued to cook those up. [We ate] prickly pear cactus as well. And we were able to catch fish. … We ate better than a lot of people do as a team.
What memories do you think will stick with you forever about this “Naked and Afraid” experience?
The location itself. You are sleeping on the ground, making your own fire, having to hunt for your food, collecting your own water, everything is as it was before technology. It kinda hits you in the feels that you’re in the Motherland of all things — Africa is the cradle of life. And I think all of us had that sort of epiphany, those moments out there, watching the sunrise or sunset, like, “Wow, I’m really living as close as I could today, to how people lived 1,000 years ago.” That sticks with you.
I’m really curious about how you modulate fear, both as a survivalist and as someone who has held some dangerous jobs. I read in another interview that you used to protect boats from pirates.
[laughs] I was doing anti-piracy. Up until about 10 years ago, all maritime laws [said] that you couldn’t send Coast Guard or Navy into international waters. International waters are not that far off the coast. So, pirates were actively working. Not the “Shiver me timber pirates,” but more like hijacking boats, boarding boats and stealing things from the people and then running off on a small boat. So, we were just stopping that from happening for some of the larger yachts and whatnot as private contractors.
What do your loved ones think of you taking so many risks? Aren’t they scared for you? Aren’t you ever scared?
There’s a switch in everybody. If you saw a house on fire, at best, most people might call 911. There’s a switch that I don’t have that much control over that goes, “Wow, there’s a fire! I should run up to the house and see if people are still inside. And if people are still inside, I should try and find a way to get inside!” Like, my brain just works differently, and it’s not always a good thing.
We saw some hippos out there [in South Africa]. The editing is kinda like [frightened voice], “Oh my god!” It was actually more like [awed voice], “Wow! There’s hippos! These are the No. 1 killers in Africa, but man, they sure are cool-looking!” I’m not sure how you stop something like that.
If you said to me there’s a bridge that people are jumping off of, you’re supposed to think, “Your mother said if everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you?” Probably! [laughs] That’s just always been my attraction. I’ve soloed Mount Whitney, which is the highest peak in the continental United States, along with soloing a lot of other fourteeners [mountains with a peak elevation of at least 14,000 feet]. I’ve jumped off cliffs paragliding and jumped out of planes. Just whatever seems like a new challenge has always drawn my interest.
I’ll drop this in a second, but I’m really curious. Do you feel any fear at all? Like when you saw the hippos out in South Africa, do you just not feel scared?
Excitement is probably the better [word]. I have the commonsense to understand I’m supposed to be afraid. Certainly, fear helps because fear keeps you on your toes. But I think there’s a type of fear that people are sort of horrified and frozen by, and there’s a type of fear that causes an adrenaline push, and there’s a certain level of excitement or thrill to — and I lean toward that side.