When Woniya Dawn Thibeault was a young girl growing up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, she wasn’t very confident. She wasn’t particularly good at sports and she was always picked last for team games during gym class.
“I wasn't your athletic, confident kid who people would picture spending a lot of time in the wilderness by herself,” she recounted.
Thibeault’s younger self never probably would have believed what she would go on to accomplish in her 40s.
Not only did Thibeault win The History Channel’s “Alone” solo survival challenge in 2021 spending 50 days alone off the coast of Labrador, Canada, but she also set a record for the most time – 123 days across two seasons – spent in the wilderness alone.
Before winning in 2021, she competed in “Alone” Season 6 in 2018 in the Arctic, where she was a runner up. She survived 73 days by herself -- building shelter out of tree branches, hunting for food with a bow and arrow and bearing harsh winter storms. She survived for 10 weeks off of 10 snowshoe hares, 10 squirrels, one grouse, and quarts of berries. In the process, she lost a third of her body weight as she fought the bone-chilling cold.
“It was important for me to take things day by day,” Thibeault said. “I practiced a lot of positive self-talk, especially on the days that were extremely hard. I needed to push through…”
And now, Thibeault, 47, is out with new book, “NEVER ALONE: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey.” In it, she shares her personal journey surviving in the wilderness and the challenges she faced on “Alone.”
The premise of “Alone” is simple. Contestants are dropped off in the wilderness to survive for as long as possible with just 10 survival items of their choice. The last contestant standing wins and takes home a large cash prize of $500,000.
Thibeault, who currently lives in Grass Valley, Calif., and teaches classes on how to tan hides, turn them into clothing, harvest and process wild foods and more, described her experience on “Alone” as “incredibly transformative.”
“Learning I was capable of living for months by myself in the Arctic was the most empowering thing I’ve ever experienced,” Thibeault said.
Thibeault chatted with Know Your Value about being on "Alone," how she found resilience, what it’s like to make history and more. Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Know Your Value: How did you approach this challenge, knowing that you would be alone to fend for yourself for an extended period? No women had ever won the show before. Did you think about gender a lot:?
Thibeault: As I share in the book, a lot of my early adult life involved denying my femininity to prove that I was good enough and could compete with men, on men’s terms.
I was always trying to be tough enough and strong enough, and it was exhausting. I’m not a big burly woman, I am 5’4” and small-framed. And I was very intentional going into “Alone” with the idea of approaching wilderness exactly who I was.
Woniya Dawn Thibeault first competed in "Alone" Season 6 in 2019 in the Arctic, where she was a runner up.
I made a real point of showing up as a woman, not as someone denying my femininity. Femininity isn’t a handicap, it's a strength. We have an idea in our culture that survival requires going out there and duking it out with nature, which is ridiculous. I'm not going to wrestle the Arctic into submission. I arrived and greeted the lake, letting it know who I was and my intentions. I believed the land would respond better to that than it would to someone who is clearly out to dominate it and take from it without asking.
Know Your Value: What are some of your top survival tips, as well as how to connect ourselves with nature?
Thibeault: Whether you live in a rural setting in the country, or in New York City, there are ways for you to be connected to the natural world around you every day. We must breathe in. When we breathe in, we're breathing in oxygen that was exhaled by green plants all around us. We then must exhale and are feeding those same green plants with our carbon dioxide. Reminding ourselves that we have to be connected to nature to live gets us more grounded. A lot of my work and teaching is about recalling ourselves to our senses and remembering that we're animals in nature, too. It's physically impossible for us to be disconnected with the natural world around us.
I also always try to focus on plants and birds, because no matter where you are, even in the busiest city in the world, there are probably dandelions coming up through the cracks on the sidewalk and there are probably birds around us. When I am in a new place and don't know any of the birds and animals, I generally find that some that look like ones I know from back home. If you've learned a little bit about the natural world, anywhere you go, you can find some familiarity. Learning some basics about plants and birds is a really good way to increase your awareness and make you pay more attention, recognize and connect with the natural world around you.
Lastly, I think why I didn't feel alone and was able to survive was largely because I brought a child-like sense of wonder and curiosity to the Arctic. I had questions and curiosities about the new land I entered. When I was in that observation, questioning and curious mindset, I was not focusing on my fears or worries. I was able to engage with the world around me in a way that calmed my nervous systems and took me out of the modern human mindset into the more ancestral mindset.
Know Your Value: Your journey was televised and out there for the world to see, what do you share in the book that the audience couldn’t see on the screen?
Thibeault: I recorded thousands of hours and footage out there, and roughly on hour total made it onto the show. Many of the stories that meant the most to me didn’t. The book is a way to share them, but also to allow people to experience them vicariously. My experience there is also a metaphor for how we treat nature in society today. It shows how things could be different and so much better with a change of attitude and recognizing that we're not in control, nature is. We have a responsibility to cherish, protect and give back. The damaging things we do to our world by taking from nature aren’t in our own best interests, and are in fact against the interests of every other living thing on the planet. I hope the book will inspire people to be more connected to the wild and with the land around them, whatever that may look like.
I also wrote the book in a way that really shares my vulnerabilities and challenges. I talked about an abusive relationship, my miscarriage and abortion. I wanted people to identify with me, rather than putting me on a pedestal. I wanted to be seen as me, as the common person, not a survival superstar. With all the challenges and the lack of self-worth I once struggled with, I hoped that others could see themselves in my position and know that because I was capable, they are probably more capable of what they assume they can do right now. I hope this book encourages people to believe that they're more capable and more powerful than they would ever have dreamed.