CHIPPEWA FALLS — The spark for Dan Cooper’s recent wilderness adventure came from an unlikely source: his television.
You see, the 69-year-old Chippewa Falls man is hooked on the Discovery Network reality show “Naked and Afraid,” now in its ninth season.
The concept for the show is that two strangers — a man and a woman meeting for the first time in the nude — are paired and tasked to survive in some of the world’s most extreme environments for 21 days with no food, water or clothes. The duos must battle the elements and overcome threats from wild animals and insects, all while finding ways to create shelter, forage for food and acquire water.
Despite teasing from his wife, Nan, that he watches for the occasional glimpse of a bare butt that makes it on the cable TV show, Cooper, an avid outdoorsman, insisted he watches to see how participants handle the mental, physical and safety challenges that go along with surviving in the wild.
His captivation with the show got him to thinking about how he would handle such reality TV-style adversity in real life.
Cooper didn’t look far for inspiration — gazing out the window of his house on the eastern shore of Lake Wissota at a large uninhabited island about 250 yards from his dock. He hatched a plan in 2016 to see if he could endure five or six days on the island alone with just a few simple tools. To his great disappointment, the plan unraveled when a work commitment got in the way of his adventure. But the idea survived.
Now retired from a career as a corrugated box salesman, Cooper decided this was the year to resurrect the plan. He chose the week before Memorial Day weekend to reduce the odds that any summer revelers would crash his one-man party.
Nan wasn’t going to stand in his way, although she admitted to being worried about exposure to poison ivy and bear ticks, and the safety of drinking lake water boiled for at least 20 minutes to kill bacteria.
The adventure begins
Cooper shoved off in mid-afternoon on a Sunday in his kayak, establishing his home base on the far side of the island from the shoreline to limit the chances his neighbors might spot him and report the crazy guy on the island to authorities.
After beaching the kayak, Cooper took stock of his other assets: a few coils of rope, a camouflage tarp, a sleeping bag, a role of duct tape, a hatchet, a machete, one pointed metal pole, a first-aid kid, a small spade (to dig a fire pit and bury his waste and fish bones), two kid-sized fishing poles, a couple dozen minnows and waxies for bait, one life jacket, a two-quart pot, a flint striker (to create a spark in hopes of starting a fire) and his cellphone (he allowed himself a one-minute call at sunset each night to let Nan know he was OK).
While this is more gear than the folks on “Naked and Afraid” are allowed, Cooper figured he was older (and this might suggest wiser) than them and still undergoing adequate deprivation. After all, he brought not even one emergency snack and planned to boil lake water for his only source of drinking water.
This is where I promised Coop, who I know as an accomplished pickleball player, that I would make it clear he was never naked like his TV role models, although he did go without shoes on the damp island.
He devoted most of that first day to digging a fire pit, collecting wood and erecting a makeshift shelter using the tarp, a rope tied between two trees and some stray logs to hold down the ends of the tarp. He caught no fish and thus did not eat.
Cooper spent the first uncomfortable night tossing and turning. He was hungry and cold, as the temperature dipped to 46 degrees.
The second day he caught a bluegill that he ate for lunch and another bluegill and a crappie he devoured for supper, boiling the small fish in the pot over an open fire. He released two catfish and a walleye, which was too small to legally keep.
The absence of any side dishes left him still hungry. As Nan said, “Dan likes to eat.”
With no one to talk to, Cooper, who anyone who knows him would characterize as a “people person,” also acknowledged missing human interaction.
The combination of his bare feet and an abundance of poison ivy on the island prompted Cooper to restrict his search for wood primarily to the beach instead of the woods. Thankfully, the mosquitoes were not yet out for the summer.
“I was always thirsty. I was always hungry,” he said.
The real excitement came at the end of Cooper’s third day on the island. He caught a large walleye just before sunset and was eagerly looking forward to a Wisconsin fish boil — his only meal of the day. He cleaned his catch, placed the fillets in the pot and walked about 15 feet to the edge of the water to tie up his kayak for the night when he heard a noise.
To his horror, he saw a large black bear a few feet up a tree right next to where he had placed the pot with his fish. Trying not to panic, he pointed to the bear and calmly repeated “no, no, no” as he walked backward to get the kayak between him and the bear, which he estimated to weigh 325 to 350 pounds. Cooper figures the bear hibernated on the island, likely making him a hungry bear. (Cooper had forgotten — until that moment — that the previous spring he and Nan had seen a bear swimming from the island to the mainland.)
The bear then ambled over to the pot, stuck its snout in and grabbed one of the fresh fillets before tilting its head back and shaking it back and forth while relishing the meal. At least Cooper hoped his walleye wasn’t just the appetizer.
“I wasn’t afraid, but I was very, very concerned,” he said.
Cooper did have the presence of mind to pull out his phone and take a photo of the bear, thinking, “If I don’t have a picture, no one is going to believe me.”
Then, as suddenly as the bear appeared, it was gone, apparently going to investigate a noise or smell from three fishermen who had stopped on the other side of the island. Several seconds later, Cooper heard the men exclaim, “Oh my God, a bear!”
It was at that point Cooper realized his adventure was over. He couldn’t justify sleeping out in the open knowing a hungry bear was prowling nearby.
“I had to tap out for that reason,” he said. “I couldn’t take that chance.”
So Cooper grabbed the pot with his remaining fillet, jumped in his kayak and paddled home, stopping to check on the well-being of the fishermen, who confirmed the wisdom of his retreat by reporting that the visiting bear had risen up on its hind legs upon encountering them.
A disappointed Cooper shared the story with his wife, ate the remaining fillet and hit the sack, although even the softness of his mattress wasn’t enough to deliver a good night’s sleep, as he couldn’t shake the image of the bear and the feeling that he’d failed in his personal challenge.
A proper ending
The following Tuesday he returned to the island in hopes of retrieving his gear and at least executing a proper island extraction — finding a way to get off the island without relying on his kayak.
“I needed an end to the story,” Cooper said.
That meant attempting to build a raft with materials he salvaged on the island. He started with a chunk of dock that had washed ashore and still had a few boards screwed together. He tied a couple of logs to the boards in hopes of creating a viable vessel, but it was far too tippy once he dragged it into the lake.
He adjusted the logs, but the raft still sank. Finally, he tied two more logs to his raft and thought he had created a seaworthy craft — or at least enough so to navigate the relatively short (but 14-foot deep) crossing back to his property.
Propelled by a homemade paddle created with duct tape as the webbing between the ends of a Y-shaped stick, Cooper launched his raft from the island and began the wobbly voyage home. It didn’t sink, but it didn’t exactly float — maintaining just enough buoyancy to keep the upper half of his body above the chilly water. The journey may have taken 25 minutes, but he made it, putting a soggy exclamation point on an unforgettable week.
Will he try it again? No. Is he glad he did it? Absolutely.
Though Cooper didn’t like failing, he proved to himself he could survive barring something unexpected happening.
“It was a great experience, but it wasn’t fun. I felt what I wanted to feel as far as being hungry, thirsty and lonesome,” he said. “Most importantly, I didn’t get sick, I didn’t get hurt and I didn’t get eaten up.”
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