Shaq in the backwoods
LAKE PLACID – Monday night between 10 and 11 p.m. 4.29 million Americans turned their attention to the Adirondacks as they watched an episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls” that featured 2016 NBA Hall of Fame inductee Shaquille O’Neal.
The viewership, according to The Nielsen Company, made the NBC show the most-watched program on network or cable television at that hour.
In order for the 7-foot-1 Shaq and the TV adventurer Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls to train-hop, bushwack and cliff climb through the wilderness, a team of television personnel and rock climbers had to put in the work for what would become the episode. During O’Neal’s two days in the wilderness, locals such as High Peaks Cyclery mountain guide Royce Van Evera got to know the 350-plus-pound behemoth.
On Monday’s broadcast, O’Neal was shown eating what appeared to be a deer or moose placenta after he and Grylls started a fire to cook it on a rock.
” Ah, somebody had a baby,” O’Neal said on the broadcast when he and Grylls happened upon the placenta after they completed their first cliff climb.
“It looks like dinner,” Grylls replied.
Speaking Tuesday after viewing the show, Van Evera said the placenta was “obviously” fresh.
“Who knows, maybe it was a moose or a later birth of a fawn,” he said. “Whatever it was, it was fresh.
“I know the next day when (the crew) came out, the guys who were the caretakers there (saw the placenta), and the coyotes had already gotten it.”
When O’Neal and Grylls weren’t feasting on wild placenta, in between takes Van Evera said the cast, crew and climbers re-charged on a typical spread put out for a television or movie crew, including sandwiches, chips, juice boxes and water. That’s when he got the best opportunity to mingle with O’Neal, who he said was the nicest and “by far the most humble” celebrity he had ever worked with.
“Just a sweetheart of a guy,” Van Evera said. “As funny as the day is long.”
O’Neal, wearing what Van Evera said were size 23 LL Bean rubber duck boots and oven mitts, engaged the longtime High Peaks guide at lunch. The scorer of more than 28,000 NBA points echoed the same thing he said on the broadcast.
“He almost said the same thing word for word: ‘You rock climbers are amazing,'” Van Evera recalled. “When I saw him come over the top (of the cliff) – I was responsible for (securing a) cameraman – he said it was the toughest thing he had ever done in his life.
“It probably took him, I’m gonna guess, 30 to 40 minutes to go 65 feet,” Van Evera said. “He worked his butt off.”
Van Evera said O’Neal camped overnight and rock climbed for the first time in his life as part of the show.
“(At lunch) he and I talked about the fact, because I have grey hair, he asked, ‘Do you still climb?'” Van Evera said. “We got to talking about dieting, and then he starts getting concerned about the wildlife in the woods. He asked me if I have a gun. I said I had lots of guns. He said, ‘Well you’re going to be here tonight?'”
That’s when Van Evera had to break the news to O’Neal.
“No, I’m not going to be here, and I’m not going to have a gun, either,” Van Evera said he told the NBA star. “Number one, there are no animals here that are going to do anything to you (considering your size). And you got Bear.”
Van Evera said the depiction of Shaq staying overnight in the wilderness was accurate: O’Neal, Grylls and one of the lead crew members stayed on site.
“He slept with Bear in a pile of leaves,” Van Evera said. “Some of that stuff he said was hilarious.”
Van Evera’s name appeared in the credits as the episode ended with O’Neal and Grylls disembarking on a logging truck in the pouring rain. The climbing guide also mentioned some things the audience might not have noticed.
The first was what the crew had to do to get O’Neal safely on the helicopter from the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as the train traveled the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake corridor. Considering Shaq weighs more than 300 pounds, the crew had to put a precise amount of weight on the other side of the copter to ensure safety as he boarded.
“If anybody was paying attention looking at the helicopter, you would say ‘What are the black things on stanchion outside (the helicopter),” Van Evera said. “(The crew) had to put 180 pounds of weight on the opposite side of where Shaq got into the helicopter to keep thing things balanced. You could see it two or three times (on the broadcast.)”
Some Adirondackers who watched the broadcast tried to figure out where in the region Shaq was. Lake Placid resident and Adirondack 46er Dennis Gallagher, 24, thought it might have been in the western High Peaks as Shaq and Grylls started a fire.
A former employee of the Adirondack Mountain Club, Gallagher felt Grylls and the show’s production crew could have made a better effort to educate the millions of viewers of the “Leave No Trace” program of backwoods ethics. Overall, though, he enjoyed the show for what it was.
“What I did like about it was how it made the Adirondacks seem like a desolate place, truly a place where it could be dangerous to some people,” he said. “It’s not definitely a safe place. It’s challenging.”
Brendan Wiltse of the AuSable River Association saw the episode a day late. Earlier on Tuesday, he had heard similar rumblings in the Adirondack outdoors community with concerns over the show’s lack of mention of Leave No Trace, as O’Neal jokingly tore down tree branches and buried his oven mitts. But after watching the show, Wiltse said the show was entertaining and he didn’t see much of a problem.
For all those wondering where Shaq’s Adirondack adventure took place, Van Evera wouldn’t disclose the exact location, but he did say it wasn’t in the High Peaks. It was on a 5,000-acre private preserve in the Willsboro, Wesport area.
Officials with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism thought the show reflected well on the region.
“Promotion of the Adirondacks brand to such a huge audience is the kind of exposure we simply can’t buy,” said Kim Rielly, director of communications for ROOST, based in Lake Placid.