Callie Russell, a competitor on the reality-TV series Alone, appears tirelessly optimistic—even with a porcupine quill embedded in her flesh. This season, the History Channel show dropped contestants in the remote Arctic with cameras to film themselves, limited tools for survival, and the promise of a $1 million prize for lasting 100 days. The seven-season series has routinely reduced people to screaming at trees and weeping into their mittens, but Russell consistently gives the camera a big, toothy, and most of all genuine grin in the face of all manner of adversity.
When temperatures plummet and it starts to snow, Russell enthuses to the camera, “GOOD MORNING! Winter has arriiiiiived!” She calls it her “Arctic paradise.” Later—SPOILER ALERT—her big toe blisters and turns purple a mere 11 days away from the big prize, but she doesn’t rail at the injustice of frostbite threatening her shot at winning. Instead, she gives her foot a friendly little pep talk. “C’mon, toe!” she tells it brightly.
It’s somewhat fitting that Russell’s unflappable good cheer found its way onto TV and laptop screens a few months into lockdowns and social distancing when Alone’s seventh season premiered in June. Throughout the season, I thought of her as a dream camp counselor, the kind of person who could rally even a sullen teen out of their sleeping bag. Needless to say, this year sometimes turned me into the sullen teen in need of a dream camp counselor. Russell, who has worked as a trail guide doing “wilderness therapy” for teenagers, was made for that task.
Russell grew up in “the sprawl” of Phoenix, Arizona, she says, but often went camping and hiking on the weekends. When she discovered the unsavory realities of the food industry as a teenager, she vowed not to eat meat unless the animals were “treated with respect,” which led to her learning how to hunt and fish. At 33, she’s spent much of the last decade stringing together various jobs, from teaching wilderness skills workshops to tracking mountain lions for a conservation project, all while living what she calls a “nomadic” lifestyle. “I’d park at a trailhead and cruise out into their wilderness for weeks or months,” she said.
For now, though, she’s staying put in a canvas tent in Montana with a wood stove and a bunch of goats. Russell lives off milk, cheese, and yogurt from the herd, collects wild berries, and sometimes hunts and fishes for food, although she tries to rely on roadkill. “I have some quarters hanging right now,” she told me of a recent deer found on the roadside. “One of the most powerful things that a person can do is be connected to their food,” she said. “It gives you so much reverence for other life, but also for your own.” That partly explains her good cheer on Alone, she says, where Russell found that her survival meant “something else needs to die.” She explains, “There’s a sadness but also, holy moly, a rabbit died so I can have energy just for today. I’m going to appreciate that.”
On Alone, Russell is shown softly telling a dead rabbit that she’s killed in a snare, “Alright, let’s get you home.” Later, once she’s processed the animal, she holds up its bloody lungs to the camera and blows into it like a balloon, making it inflate. “Pretty wild, huh?” she says. As a hunter, Russell is tender and awe-filled. She’s also extremely capable and fearless: At one point, she’s shown crawling headfirst through a teeny-tiny opening between two snow-covered boulders to enter a porcupine den as dramatic music swells and an informational text overlay reads, “Porcupines have over 30,000 barbed quills that can be used defensively, if threatened.” Then we hear Russell gasp, “Oh my gosh, the porcupine’s right here.” And then, “Oh shit!” But she resurfaces, seemingly un-phased: “So, the cool news is,” she says with a huge grin, “the porcupine’s back there!”
Later, she casually removes a porcupine quill fully embedded in the back of her shoulder, using tweezers, a knife, and the viewfinder of her camera as a mirror. She responds to getting it out with, “Nice! Heh heh heh.”
Alone is set up for harrowing displays of tooth-and-nail endurance, but Russell tends more toward enjoyment. “I’m burning tons of calories because this place is beautiful and I’m just hiking all over it,” she tells the camera at one point. At first, she was hesitant to even appear on the show, but says she warmed to the idea of displaying a survival attitude that veered from the conquering, “manly man” approach. As she put it in contrast, “I am powerful because I’m connecting to the power that is in the wilderness versus I’m trying to impose my will on the natural world.” Eventually, at the 89-day mark, Russell was pulled by the show’s medics because of her worsening frostbite. She cried, not about losing a shot at $1 million, but about having to leave. “Everything I was eating was that land. I really felt I was becoming the land,” she told me.
As Russell was evacuated in a helicopter, a crew member reassured her that there was a hot shower awaiting her as soon as they landed. “I was like, ‘I know hot showers are great, but there’s something even greater down there,’”she told me. Watching Russell on Alone, I was often tempted to find ways to apply her sunny perspective on survival to life in quarantine. There are no porcupine quills, of course, but occasionally I’m able to shout “GOOD MORNING” to my household in this interminable year of being distant but never alone and feel like I’ve become the camp counselor for just a moment.
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that Russell blew into a rabbit’s lungs, not heart.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)