Almost four million people tuned in for the premiere of “Mountain Men” on 31 May 2012, and it became History Channel’s No.1 show. That it became a hit was not surprising at all, as it gave the viewers the chance to see another way of life, one that was way different from their own. It also provided the people living in the big cities some form of connection to the ‘outside world.’ The reality television series featured men living off the grid and off the land. Living in the wilderness was not just about foregoing modern comforts and conveniences available to man; it was also fraught with danger from freezing temperatures, unforgiving terrain, and wild animals.

As the 10th season started airing in June 2021, it was clear that it continued to hold the interest of the viewers.

The success and longevity is due to the men that the production company, Warm Springs Productions, painstakingly searched for and vetted to make the show authentic. According to the producers, ‘We’ve found some of our best characters with boots on the ground…asking local game wardens and townspeople.’ They did criminal background checks as well, to ensure that the guys living in remote areas preferred that kind of life, and weren’t hiding from the law. Also, a senior company executive said that although the men were paid for being part of the show, they would still be living as they do, whether they were being filmed or not.

As with all reality TV series, viewers had some doubts about what was shown being real or scripted, as every episode was said to be overly dramatic, making it seem more dangerous than it really was.

Others said that it wasn’t an exaggeration, as accidents do happen and it would take some time before help could arrive. Things happened beyond one’s control, so it pays to be prepared when leaving one’s home, and one has to think fast in dealing with situations that could cost them their lives.

The production sent a five-man camera team to live with the mountain man in extreme conditions for weeks, to capture their everyday lives, and carrying 50-pound cameras. They experienced first-hand how difficult it was to survive in the wilderness, and knew the dangers that these men face each day.

The cast and their stories

Since the show introduced Oar, Conway, and Meierotto during the first season, they have since included other mountain men for the succeeding seasons. Here are some of the interesting characters that the viewers of the show had come to love:

Mountain Men

Tom Oar, tanner

Montana is said to be the traditional home of mountain man Tom Oar, who’s in his late 70’s, and has been living in its northwestern part near the Yaak River Valley for over four decades. He said, ‘The forest means life to me…I don’t know what I would do without this.’

Tom hailed from Illinois, and had worked on the rodeo circuit, riding bucking horses and bulls for over 40 years before he retired. He had two children, Keelie who died in 2015, and Chad from his previous marriage to Jan Frazer. He remarried, and together with his wife Nancy, they enjoyed the solitude afforded to them by living the way they do in the mountains. They have a dog named Ellie that would accompany Tom when he’s out hunting. Winters in the Big Sky Country last for seven months, and they spent the rest of the year preparing for it including getting firewood, putting their garden to bed, and stocking up on food, as the nearest supermarket is 100 miles away.

He hunted wild animals for their meat and fur, utilising the primitive method of tanning, using animal’s brain as he said it makes the hide softer and more comfortable to wear, later selling them in regulated gatherings called “rendezvous,” which is some sort of a re-enactment of how fur trappers in the 1800’s sold furs and replenished their supplies.

When hunting or running traps, he was often accompanied by his neighbor and friend, Will. Encounters with grizzlies were possible, as their population has grown due to their protected status. One of Tom’s major concerns is that when the bears are hungry, they would be aggressively looking for whatever they could find to eat; he found bear tracks 50 yards from his house. He said that if one has to worry about something while living there, it has to be getting mauled by a bear. His wife said, ‘you gotta be aware of it, and know how to react in the right way to save yourself.’

His children wanted him to retire, given his age and the long harsh winters, but he couldn’t imagine himself leaving his home forever, and turning his back on the lifestyle. His wife reminded him that he retired from the rodeo because it wasn’t fun anymore, so if he felt that the Yaak way of life no longer appealed to him, then he should consider making the big change. However, he said he wasn’t ready for it, and he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he retired; he still wanted to work. Despite some reports that he and his wife already moved to Florida to be closer to his son, he continued to film for “Mountain Men.”

Eustace Conway, subsistence farmer

Eustace has been living in the forest for over 40 years, and when he first lived there, some people said to him that he can’t escape reality, but he countered ‘I went to reality. You’re living in the virtual reality.’

He also said, ‘For me, it’s about being close to the land, growing my food, and seeing where stuff comes from.’ It was all about freedom to live naturally.

Eustace lives in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains near th,e Tennessee border. He built a sanctuary in the mountain and called it Turtle Island, which is a thousand-acre area, its name coming from Native American stories, as many tribes considered the earth supported by turtles. It’s an outdoor education center, teaching basic survival skills, including how to live off the land including hunting for their own food, planting, traditional woodworking, blacksmithing, and building structures. Eustace trades his knowledge as well as room and board for the help he needs in maintaining his place. Living in the woods is not easy, and the work is never done, but he chose this way of life, saying, ‘you learn to roll with whatever punches that come your way.’

Marty Meierotto, fur trapper

Marty lives in a small town in Alaska called Two Rivers, which is 37kms (23 miles) from Fairbanks, with his wife Dominique, and daughter Noah. Every winter, he would leave them to run over a 240-km (150-mile) trapline in the northern Alaskan range. It was so remote that it’s not on the way to any place, and he had to fly his own bush plane to get there. As he said. ‘This is the last good place of wild America, its land is untouched, and it’s just the way I like it.’ He stays in a cabin with no electricity and no running water, so his first order of business once he arrived there would be to cut firewood and get water from the river. He built his own radio tower so he could listen to messages from his wife, to know how they were doing via a radio station hundreds of miles away.

Setting up traps for a lynx or a marten and checking them out isn’t that simple, due to the frigid temperature and large predators lurking around in the Alaskan wilderness. It was said that there are around 11,000 wolves and 40,000 grizzlies in the area, so he’s always armed to protect himself. Unless he’s teaching someone the trade, he’s almost always alone, so he had to be careful not to get injured, and he keeps his snowmobile, which he uses to get around, well-maintained.  Marty said, ‘you can’t get yourself into a situation that you can’t get yourself out of,’ and added, ‘The reality is there isn’t anybody who’s gonna come and help you, or find you in time if something bad does happen.’ If one lives out there, one has to think of the worst-case scenarios, and prepare for them.

A cameraman filming Marty went through the ice and into the icy river at 30 degrees below zero temperature, and had to rush back to the cabin to avoid getting hypothermia.

Mountain Men

He also almost lost his fingers due to frostbite while he was trying to film a lynx, and said, ‘If it weren’t for Marty’s help, I’d be missing three fingers.’

Rich Lewis, mountain lion hunter

Rich hails from Idaho, but moved to Ruby Valle in southwest Montana with his wife, Diane, where he hunted mountain lions. He transformed his jeep in such a way that he could sleep inside it and stay warm. During winter, wild animals such as cougars and wolves go down the mountains to look for easy prey, and ranchers relied on him to protect their families and herds against these predators. He would scout the area to look for signs of intruders, and track them down with the help of his hounds so he could kill them.

There were times when Rich would find bear tracks, which was surprising as they were supposed to be hibernating at that time.

The only explanation was that it was hungry, so it was likely to be aggressive as it would hunt for whatever food it could find before going back to its den to hibernate. He couldn’t bring his team of hounds when he followed the tracks, as they weren’t trained for bears, and it led him to the rancher’s cattle that are noticeably spooked. Since grizzly bears were endangered species in Montana, one couldn’t harm them unless in self-defense. He tried driving the bear away from the ranch by firing warning shots, which fortunately worked.

Due to his line of work, Rich is considered a local hero in Montana, as he is someone to call whenever residents feel threatened by predators in the area. Despite the danger, he’s avoided injury while doing his job. However, his dog named Roxie wasn’t as lucky, as he was killed by a lion named “Three-Toes” for obvious reasons.

Rich began appearing in the show in season two. When filming a lion hunter, encounters with these predators were inevitable. His camera crew said that they had been charged by these mountain lions many times, but they luckily remained unscathed.

“Mountain Men” Deaths

Preston Roberts

Preston James Roberts was surrounded by his loved ones, including his three children and Kathleen, his wife of 40 years, when he passed away on 24 July 2017, a week after his 60th birthday. It all happened quickly, as he was diagnosed with an inoperable liver tumor around three weeks prior to his death.

He had been living in the woods for most of his adult life, as he liked the primitive lifestyle. He had been an art professor at East Wilkes High School for 25 years, as well as the assistant principal (2004-2006) and principal (2007-2010), after which he retired.

According to one of the school directors, ‘He just brought out the best in his students, especially their personal creativity… When he had something to say, you wanted to listen.’ Preston had been inspired by the Native American people and spent so much time with them all over the country, as it was important for him to interact and learn from them. He said, ‘The core of my world has always revolved around the traditional Appalachian Mountain people,’ and added, ‘I have had the honor of being taught by some of the best.’ The mountain people also inspired him as he liked how they have close-knit families and lived off the land. His source of income after his retirement had been selling knives that he crafted.

Preston and Eustace had been friends for decades, since they met for the first time in 1982, and it was said that they had bonded as they rode horses together across South and North Carolina. They helped each other out financially and emotionally. Preston appeared from season one of “Mountain Men” as Eustace’s right-hand man at the Turtle Island Preserve, which he helped build. He’s on the board of directors and served as an educator. For him, filming had replaced teaching in a way, as he said, ‘I like to teach things and I like to share things, and it’s fun that now I can do that in front of a camera.’ The show had become a testament to the kind of person that Preston was, and the friendship that he shared with Eustace.

His loss was felt by many, and they took to social media to express their sadness and extend their condolences to his family. The Preserve stated that although Preston’s death was sudden, ‘we draw some consolation from the fact that his last days were full of family and friends instead of drawn-out suffering.’ It was said that a crowd-funding page was set up to ease the burden of the family in paying for the medical bills, memorial services, and the repairs to the roof of his home. According to Eustace, his funeral service was done in the way they thought he would have liked, but said, ‘Our hearts are still so full of sadness with a loss so profound.’ Hundreds of people came to pay tribute to Preston. A year after his death, Warm Springs Productions along with Preston’s wife, set up a scholarship program in his honor for the Wilkes County students that he worked with.


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