Archive for Monday, July 17, 2006

Recapturing the pioneer spirit

Competitors test skills as ‘survivors’ on the prairie

July 17, 2006


— Mark Haralson was sprawled flat on his tent, fighting the 50-mph wind gust that threatened to send his home for the week flying across the southwest Kansas prairie.

"I'm afraid to move. I don't want to chase everything in this wind storm," Haralson, 49, shouted in his west Texas drawl.

A few feet away, Jasmine Salley, 20, and Justin Swank, 22, searched around their campsite for heavier logs and branches to try to hold down Swank's tent. Megan Jones, 21, hunkered inside her tent, trying to keep it in place.

It was the night of June 21, and they were protecting all they had. They were part of a group living on the ranch of Robert Davies, near the Cimarron River in Seward County.

The campers were replicating the living conditions of the pioneers who settled in southwest Kansas during the late 1800s.

It was a summer competition modeled after the "Survivor" reality television show with a grand prize of $2,000. The Southwest Daily Times newspaper in Liberal for three years has organized the annual competition known as "Pioneers on the Prairie."

The storm, which came the second night out, was the first real test for the faux pioneers. They had spent the previous two days mostly passing the time, swimming in a water tank, hiking or inventing a horseshoe-type game with gourds.

"I know they had pretty tough lives, and I thought this wouldn't be anything like the real thing," Jones said.

"With the tents and everything, this is not really roughing it like the original pioneers," Haralson said one day before the storm.

This summer was the first time the competition was on the Davies Ranch. Bob Davies owns and lives on the land where his grandfather, Robert Sr., settled in the 1880s.

The game

The four, along with Sergio Covarrubias, 22, of rural Liberal, were selected to spend the week on the ranch with only their tents, the clothes on their back and one personal item.

On the first day, they were dropped off and given a map to find their food for the day - a can apiece of pork and beans - and instructions how to find their water and a first-aid kit. video

Justin Swank discusses his objectives and strategies. Enlarge video

The newspaper's publisher Earl Watt and other staff members, who were avid "Survivor" fans, created the Ultimate Pioneer game in 2004. Watt is also a southwest Kansas history buff. Managing Editor Larry Phillips is an outdoors enthusiast.

They try to include local history lessons in the competitions as much as possible and stress the perseverance of the Seward County settlers who fought off drought, blizzards and other extreme conditions.

"We appreciate you guys living out here and seeing what our predecessors had to go through," Watt told the competitors.

The game works much like "Survivor," with players voted off and sent home until there are two finalists. Then the expelled players return to cast votes for the winner. This year's result will be a secret until August, when it will be announced at a county fair event in Liberal.

The Times publishes two stories per week through July to chronicle each day of the survival activities on the prairie. video

The competitors discuss their firepit. Enlarge video

The week is filled with drama as the pioneers try to survive with scarce provisions, no contact with the outside world and hardship alongside people they have never before met.

Wind and water

On their first day, Phillips handed out a map and gave the contestants a hint to surviving: a windmill.

They would need to find a way to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground reservoir found beneath much of western Kansas. If Spanish explorer Coronado had known about it, maybe he wouldn't have been so quick to call the land "The Great American Desert," Phillips said.

A windmill and water tank was about a half-mile from camp, and it came in handy the first day not only for filling water jugs but for coping with a high temperature of 106 degrees and blasting wind. Haralson, who owns an oil and natural gas leasing business in Liberal, said it felt like a "hot blow dryer." video

Supplies were hidden for them, and the first-aid kit the competitors found came in handy. Enlarge video

The algae and dirt at the bottom of the drinking tank didn't scare Jasmine Salley, a waitress at a Liberal cafe.

"Dude, I'm definitely jumping in here later when it gets too hot," she said.

The pioneers took a couple of dips a day, usually after their afternoon competitions, which involved climbing up and down two large plateaus - known as "Dot" and "Dash" because one had a short top and the other's was elongated.

Pioneer living

The modern-day pioneers said they had trouble identifying with the early settlers at the beginning of the week, but the stormy weather changed some minds.

"Obviously we were like them because they had to brave the elements," said Jones, a pharmacist assistant and student in Liberal. "It gave me a lot of respect for what they did for settling out here."

"They didn't have a lot of luxuries," said Swank, a firefighter and medic in Ford County. "I always have a cell phone with me, and a vehicle to go to town. But even just having a pantry to grab food - they didn't have near what we have at our houses." video

Shelter became very important. Enlarge video

On the first day, Haralson said the key to the game would be discipline and he had an advantage as a 49-year-old, while the others were all younger than 25.

"I think being outside and not in the air-conditioning in front of the television and playing Nintendo will be tough for these kids. As the days drag on, they might be thinking more about wanting to go home," he said.

The Times started its series about the Pioneers on Sunday. The stories are available at its Web site,

"It sure makes you appreciate what our forefathers had to endure to establish this great country," ranch owner Davies said.


Susan Harper 11 years, 11 months ago

What wonderful photos.

Congratulations to all who competed.

Ah....the beauty, the majesty & the power of the plains.


justsomewench 11 years, 11 months ago

uhm...yuck. all of it, really.

quick, someone get a mountain.

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