During a casting call for Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment, a TV executive questioned John Ulmer’s outdoor experience. Out of the Wild is a Discovery Channel reality show. Could city slicker Ulmer ford a river, build a fire, trap a ptarmigan?
“I’ll survive,” Ulmer, a City Island native, crowed. “I’ve got one thing no one else has. I’m from the Bronx. I’ve got heart.”
Ulmer won the part. He and eight strangers flew to Alaska for six weeks of snow, hunger, drama and desperation. Out of the Wild debuts on Tuesday, April 14 at 10 p.m.
“We went five or six days without eating,” Ulmer, 38, said. “We hunted brown bear, grizzly bear, moose, caribou and squirrel. When you’re hungry, porcupine is delicious.”
Ulmer grew up on Earley Street, a block south of PS 175. He enjoyed fishing the Long Island South and camping with his family in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Now a building manager for the Rockefeller University in Manhattan, Ulmer goes bungee jumping and runs triathlons.
Before the show began, Ulmer and his fellow contestants received four days of training. They learned how to handle a .22 shotgun, read a topographical map and fish using paper clips.
“I’m not a big gun guy,” Ulmer said. “I went up there raw. By the end of the show, I couldn’t miss.”
Ulmer, a Discovery Channel fan, loved Out of the Wild – Season One. Last fall, he sent a letter to the show. The Discovery Channel invited him to California for casting.
“I guess they liked my accent,” Ulmer said. “I told them about my job. Alaska is rough. The city is rough, in a different way.”
The Discovery Channel simulated a plane crash north of Anchorage, on a remote lake near Alaska’s Denali National Park. Ulmer and the others hiked 60 miles to safety.
“There was a blizzard – a whiteout,” Ulmer said. “It was freezing. We had to bivouac on the side of a mountain.”
Ulmer lost 45 pounds in Alaska. He thought he’d find the forest teeming with wildlife. He thought wrong.
“Animals are very timid,” Ulmer said. “They smell you miles away. In a restaurant, you want your meal right away. In Alaska, you set your snare and wait.”
A bus driver from New Jersey, an angler from Oregon and six others joined Ulmer in Alaska. Saddled with 60-pound packs, they bickered and jostled for control. Ulmer doesn’t quit. As a teenager, he worked for his father digging graves.
“I went to Cardinal Spellman,” Ulmer said. “I got jumped waiting for the bus. Growing up in Bronx made me tough, tolerant too. On the show, I was able to deal with everyone. Race, background, sexual orientation – no problem.”
Ulmer is happy back in New York City. Part of him misses Alaska, though.
“Up there, it’s about survival,” he said. “It’s about putting one foot in front of the other. The scenery is gorgeous, peaceful.”