Going into Thursday night’s episode of NBC’s Running Wild with Bear Grylls, we could be fairly certain that this week’s celebrity guest survived the ordeal. That’s not only because the adventure was filmed more than three months ago, but also because of that guest’s day job: President of the United States.
Yes, tonight was the night that America finally saw Barack Obama tackle the wilderness of Alaska with the famous risk-taker Bear Grylls. Back in September, the president traveled to Alaska, where he participated in various events that aimed to highlight the perils of climate change in a state that could see its landscape altered drastically as temperatures rise.
In an effort to reach more eyeballs that he could with a dry press conference, the White House reached out to Grylls and his production team (which includes Electus, a company owned by The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC) to inquire about yet another unconventional TV appearance for the president. This time, instead of selling Obamacare from Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, he would be joining Grylls on a survivalist mission into the Alaskan wilderness.
Obama addresses the inherent security challenges of such an adventure in the episode, speaking directly into the camera, reality show-style, about how the Secret Service will sometimes say “the bear is loose” when he does something unexpected, like walk a few blocks away from the White House to get lunch. “So to be with Bear in the woods, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Obama says.
Speaking about the threats of climate change after he meets up with Grylls, Obama explains, “I’ve two daughters, and I don’t want grandkids too soon, but eventually I hope to have some. And I want to make sure that this is there for them, not just us.”
Throughout the production, the show strives to make it seem as though Obama and his host are alone in the wild. But in an interview with reporters today, Grylls said there were up to 50 people accompanying the president, from Secret Service to the press team to Obama’s official food taster. He described “snipers in the mountain, the helicopters in the air, and the things you don’t even see” as making him “mega-nervous” during the shoot.
That food taster did not, however, prevent Obama from sharing with Grylls a meal of salmon that had been previously gnawed on by an actual bear along with some tea made from catkins. But while the host probably would have eaten the salmon raw if he were on his own, he decided to put some fire under it for the president.
“I’ve seen some of the stuff Bear eats, and it’s gotta be something that doesn’t still have its legs and eyes on it. I want it not to be too recognizable,” Obama said. “Bear’s a mediocre cook, but the fact that we ate something recognizable was encouraging,” he added. “Now, the fact that he told me this was a leftover fish from a bear, I don’t know if that was necessary. He could have just left that out.”
One thing the president would not do is drink his own urine. “I suppose, in extremis, it’s something that I would do—if the alternative was death,” he said. “It’s not something I’d make a habit of. And I probably wouldn’t do it just for a TV show.”
Obama was full of funny quips like the one above throughout their journey. For instance, when Grylls told him bears are the most dangerous when you surprise them “fornicating,” Obama said the same could be said for humans.
But they also made sure to include serious discussions of climate change, at one point showing just how much the glacier they were looking at has receded during the seven years of Obama’s presidency. The president previewed the importance of the Paris climate summit for Grylls months before the global deal was reached.
“I’m a big believer in science,” Obama said when Grylls brought up the warming skeptics, calling the information he has consumed “indisputable.” The president called fighting climate change as important a part of his legacy as giving health care to millions of Americans and preventing another economic depression.
“This climate change agenda is as important as anything I’m going to do,” Obama told Grylls as they ate their wild Alaskan salmon. “I think it will have a more significant impact on the lives of future generations as just about anything. And we’re still a long way from getting it right, but it’s something that, working together, I think we can make a difference on.”
One of the biggest challenges for President Obama or anyone else who cares about preserving the environment for the future is finding a way to make the world pay attention to the less-than-sexy issue of climate change.
While the president’s appearance on Running Wild is unlikely to change the mind of any climate change deniers out there, at the very least it produced an entertaining hour of television that showcased one of America’s most beautiful landscapes before it’s potentially altered beyond repair.
Beyond that, by taking him out into the wild, Grylls managed to humanize Obama more than a typical sit-down interview ever could.