RAYMOND — Nicole Apelian is a survivor.
She leads safari groups to Africa, teaches outdoor survival skills and competes on TV reality shows which push endurance at bleak locations well beyond reasonable bounds.
Her motto is “survive and thrive.”
But her biggest challenge came 18 years ago when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
As her body weakened, she said Western medicine failed to allow her to lead anything close to a normal life, so she embraced holistic health strategies and became versed in herbal remedies. Now she shares them with others as an online apothecary.
Apelian, 49, lives in an attractive rural home in the woods east of Raymond. Her five acres include a tidy garden in which she grows greens for food and medicinal purposes, plus a camping area and fire pit for her outdoor survival classes which she describes as “empowering.” Mushrooms, lichens and huckleberries abound.
“I felt at home,” she said, recalling her move there from Portland 18 months ago. She had been teaching high school biology, but wanted a more rural setting for her children. “There is access to wildlife, I love that there are no neighbors, and my two sons and I live in the woods where we see bear, cougar, elk. It’s a lovely place to live.”
Apelian was born in Massachusetts, and got a biology degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Hankering for the West, she earned a master’s in biology at the University of Oregon, studying marine biology, ecology and evolution at its Charleston, Oregon, location.
“When I came in 1991, I felt like I came home,” she said.
A research career took her to Alaska to delve into its recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, then the San Juan Islands. She worked for the Fish and Game Department in Alaska. Later, she added a Ph.D. in sustainability education and cultural anthropology.
An early encounter with Africa came in 1995 with the Peace Corps, where she spent two years as a game warden, conducting environmental education in Botswana, then 10 years on a private lion research project, much of the time living in a tent.
“It was an opportunity to live in the bush,” she said. “I love doing research, because I love to be in the middle of nowhere and you need to be able to live among wild predators and have mechanical skills if your truck breaks down.”
She cherishes contacts with the Kalahari San Bushmen (San refers to a language group), whose photos adorn her home. Since her first trip, she has established her own safari company, Eco Tours International.
She splits her time between trips to Africa and teaching wilderness living skills workshops, while promoting herbal remedies and healthy lifestyles.
As she was turning 30, Apelian’s MS diagnosis left her bedridden for two years.
“It hit me really hard,” she said. “I lost the sight in one eye, had fatigue and balance issues. … I said, ‘This is not living.’ I was so sick.”
The change she embraced was considerable — yet successful.
“I wanted to have a child,” she recalled. “I just couldn’t take it any more. I knew that there had to be a way to make a change in my life. I have showed that you really can do it.”
Diet changes were important, favoring vegetables, eliminating gluten and almost all sugar, limiting carbohydrates, and adding natural supplements. She also practices intermittent fasting.
Her research into herbal medicine and holistic health strengthened her commitment to ethnobiology — a study of human and nature interactions — and the medicinal uses of plants.
She embraced a parallel concept that mental attitudes can have a significant effect on physical health; that led to expressing daily gratitudes and practicing mindfulness.
Now she has two sons, Quinn, 11, and Colton, 15; a third, Beau, died at 27, drowning after the Bay to Breakers endurance race in San Francisco in 2013.
She substitute teaches in nearby Willapa Valley schools, has joined the Raymond Elks Lodge and participates in the local music scene.
“I love my life,” she said. “I am very happy.”
Apelian has posted survival training videos on YouTube (one with her younger son describing his emergency pack is hilarious while informative), and two TV appearances on History Channel shows have spread her story.
Her success as the longest-surviving woman competitor on Season 2 of “Alone,” filmed in Canada, led to a second appearance in Season 5 in Mongolia.
For Season 2, the show’s producers selected 10 finalists after “auditions” in a rugged area of upstate New York, then trained them how to film themselves using six cameras each. Three of the 10 participants were women.
They were flown by helicopter to remote locations on Vancouver Island in Canada. The premise of the show is competitors are left to fend for themselves, build a shelter, catch their own food — and film themselves doing it. The only human contacts are when medical personnel arrive for required check-ups and when replacement camera supplies are delivered.
The person who survives the longest wins $500,000.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “You take 10 items and survive as long as possible. You’re completely solo, with predators, the fall-winter cold and rain, existing on limited calories. You have to forage, fish, hunt and trap — and build your own shelter.”
After 35 days, three men and Apelian were surviving at their separate locations.
She enjoyed testing herself while establishing herself as a role model through the scenes she filmed.
“I loved my time,” she said, proud to have lasted 57 days (the winner lasted 66). “I was fourth — the last woman standing. It was a long time to be solo, but I loved the time alone. I have a really strong connection with nature. It was beautiful by the ocean. There were cougars, wolves and lots of bears at my site.”
Competitors are allowed to bring 10 tools with them. Apelian is a knife enthusiast, so her specially designed knife with a 10-inch blade was her first choice. She chose a tool to create sparks for a fire, a saw and ax to cut firewood, fishing line and hooks, a gillnet and a cooking pan. She ate fish, plants and insects. “Banana slugs — they are great protein!” she said, a comment which invariably inspires the headline when she is profiled.
“I am so glad I did it. Women are not often portrayed in survival skills shows and three out of 10 were women.”
When producers received word of a family crisis and alerted her, she had to pack up and fly home. “It was a great way to test myself … I never got to find out my limit.”
Another survival instructor, Jose M. Amoedo, who lives in Canada’s Yukon Territory, praised Apelian’s accomplishments.
“Nicole is a fascinating person,” he said, noting that she combines practical skills and high-level academic study.
The former Spanish special forces soldier survived 59 days on Season 2 of “Alone.” They have taught classes together and Amoedo has taught her sons.
“She’s very well known in the primitive-skills community,” he said. “Women that invest as much time and effort as her in primitive life, well, it’s a rarity. … The number of women at that proficiency level, you can count on the fingers of one hand. She’s right there at the crest, at the top.”
“Alone” Season 5 took participants to Mongolia; Apelian was voted back as a fan favorite. “It was beautiful, very remote near the Siberian border,” she said.
This time when selecting her 10 tools, she kept her knife, but traded her ax for a multi-tool gadget; she used snare wire to trap animals.
However, early into her stay, Apelian fell. She believes she was severely weakened by a reaction to a required vaccine. Temporarily paralyzed, she endured a three-day wait for rescuers before she was medically evacuated. It took two months to learn to walk again. “It was four months to be really better.”
Despite the mishap, Apelian said she believed both TV experiences offer an educational opportunity that can inspire others.
“Girls and boys can watch and get ideas about how to live your life in an active way,” she said, expanding to discuss her wilderness workshops. “I want children to understand that you can live your passions. My kids see that — but I want other kids to see that you can blend modern life and nature.”