Suffer and Reward: An Interview with Ultimate Survival Alaska's Scott McCleskey

ALASKA, USA: Scott "Cluck" McCleskey and Kasha Rigby crossing through a waist-deep river.
ALASKA, USA: Scott "Cluck" McCleskey and Kasha Rigby crossing through a waist-deep river. Photo Credit: National Geographic Channels
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Scott "Cluck" McCleskey, a bearded outdoorsmen from Sylva, N.C., describes himself as a "carpenter by trade and professional kayaker by hobby." This past summer, he put his survival skills to the test as a contestant on National Geographic's Ultimate Survival Alaska.

On this reality TV show, four teams are dropped in the Alaskan wilderness and made to endure a series of 60-hour missions through dangerous terrain and extreme conditions. Cluck, along with James Sweeney and Kasha Rigby, comprise Team Lower 48, where the contention between Cluck and Sweeney immediately distinguishes theirs as a team riddled with argument and aggression.

In person, Cluck is soft-spoken and introspective, more inclined to discuss the challenge of interpersonal conflict than the punishing conditions of Alaska. I spoke to him about the show's hardships, and how life in the Blue Ridge Mountains prepared him to take them on.

Ultimate Survival Alaska is a reality show, and we all want to know.... just how 'real' is it? 

They were very real about the game...more so than what I’d like them to be. We were not allowed inside for three months. And we were not allowed to change—they tried their best to keep you in the same clothes from the get go.

If a suffering act occurred, they wouldn’t do anything to make it any easier—they could make it almost harder on you. So I’m not saying they didn’t tend to us, but the reality of it is, if you're injured, you’re injured. You could be airlifted out at any point, you could quit at any point. And you weren’t going to be left for dead, but you still had to get that person to an evacuation spot. Beyond that, injuries just go. I had a broken thumb, I dealt with that for three weeks straight. I asked, "Can I tape my hand?" And they're like “How can you do that? You don’t have any tape.”

Scott McCleskey
Scott McCleskey National Geographic Channels

Was it the goal of the producers to simply make you suffer?

The more you’re willing to suffer the faster you can go. Every time you see a suffer coming, you want to take it—you know you’re going to slip through quickly. If you try to take the more pleasant approach, you’re not going to do very well. That’s the give and take. The audience will be like, "Why’d they pick that way?" After a certain period of time, you realize that’s what you need to do.

On episode one, Dallas (of team Endurance) and Military went right across the lake and got all their stuff sopping wet immediately. But both of them were on the show before, so it made sense for those two teams to go right across the lake. And we’re just like, "Uhn, uhn, we’re not going to drag our stuff across the frozen lake and sleep on a glacier! That doesn’t sound good for us at all!" But as it goes on and on, you learn to take the suffer—and you get the reward for it.

Kasha Rigby and Scott McCleskey on a homemade raft.
Kasha Rigby and Scott McCleskey on a homemade raft. National Geographic Channels

What aspect about the show did you find the most challenging? 

Being reality TV, I thought maybe there’d be some conflict. But it’s turned into way more than I ever thought I’d have to deal with in terms of how real it was. I mean, being cold, being left without food, and being left with someone that’s in self-conflict, which makes it really hard not to be in conflict with him myself. So it was a test upon who I’ve really strived to be. There's Kasha, who is everything I've been striving to be in life in terms of how to treat people. And Sweeney, that's where I would have been if I hadn't learned to control myself, if I hadn't changed at all since I was 22. It's like good conscious, bad conscious.

Sweeney is a self-described "Loner" who is unabashedly antagonistic. Did the producers pick him on purpose? 

I can’t say. That’s not my job, to figure things out like that. For an audience, that’s a very good question to ask. For me, I just have to deal with it. I had to face my own demons.

Why do you choose to live in the Asheville region?

Being able to be outside and travel, trek and mountain bike here, it’s very accessible. Up there in Alaska, it isn’t so accessible. The expense of getting in by boat, helicopter, or float plane to completely remote locations was a great change coming from here in the Southeast, where you can go out in the woods easily, and do many different trails and activities. On the same hand, on the East Coast it’s hard to get fully remote, meaning you’re within a day’s reach of pretty much anywhere.

We all have our reasons for choosing Asheville. Asheville has a general population that is very accepting of all different types of people. I mean look at me. I like to hunt, fish, go mountain biking, wear spandex, go to wouldn't be accepted for being all those things at once just anywhere.

Team Lower 48 at a river crossing.
Team Lower 48 at a river crossing. National Geographic Channels

How has life in the Blue Ridge helped you prepare for the show?

Paddling the Green River in Hendersonville and mountain biking at Tsali—who knows how may times I've been around Tsali. For hiking, I like the Bartram System, South of the Appalachian Trail in Franklin. It’s pretty sparse of people with big views. I also really like going to Panthertown. I’ve paddled the whole bottom end, biked the whole upper end, and hiked all around it. That’s a good place to lose yourself.

I generally try to search out more unfound rivers, the ones that have wood, the epics. I’ve gained a bad reputation for sometimes pushing people into a woody situation for apparently no reason. And those situations were what trained me for the show, dealing with the struggle through the woods and bramble, the rough going.

What advice do you have for someone watching the show who wants to be able to compete some day?

Take every opportunity to get outside. If you do that, then you're doing nothing different than what I do everyday. I don’t consider myself the best athlete in Asheville, just maybe one of the luckiest. Because that’s what Asheville is all about: getting outside and doing it.

Scott McCleskey in the Alaksan bush.
Scott McCleskey in the Alaksan bush. National Geographic Channels

Watch Ultimate Survival Alaska  on Sunday nights at 9 EST on the National Geographic Channel.

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