Bear GRYLLS threw a lizard at me.
We were climbing in Franklin Canyon Park in the Santa Monica Mountains on a cool, hazy afternoon recently when Grylls, host of Discovery Channel's popular survival series “Man vs. Wild,” spotted a small dark reptile, no longer than a pencil, scurrying up the trail.
Our group quieted. Grylls stopped, squared his lean body, pounced. Too late. The reptile darted away. "That's one lucky lizard," Grylls said with a smile.
A few moments later, our guide plunged headfirst into a thicket of scrub and, to my astonishment, emerged holding his prey by the tail.
"See, if I were doing this on the show," he said in his British accent, "I'd do like this and" -- he mimed biting off the lizard's head.
"Oh, please don't!" someone in our party pleaded.
Grylls chuckled and gave the wriggling lizard an appraising stare. He gazed down the path toward me. "Here, catch," he said, suddenly lofting the critter in my direction with an underhand pass. I stepped aside and watched it disappear in a pile of brush.
If you're unacquainted with Grylls, any culturally aware grade-school student can likely tell you all you need to know. That he travels to the most dangerous wildernesses in the world. That he brims with survival tips and camping lore. And yes, that he literally sinks his teeth into all sorts of disgusting things, from a blood-engorged grub to a still-flopping-about salmon to a rotting carcass not quite finished by maggots and hyenas. The poor man has demonstrated how to hydrate oneself by squeezing water out of elephant dung.
In the wake of the 2006 death of Australian wildlife guide Steve Irwin ("The Crocodile Hunter"), Grylls has become Discovery Channel's premier ambassador of outdoor danger. The son of a politician, he trained in the British military, where he seriously injured his back in a parachuting accident. Nevertheless, he climbed Mt. Everest at age 23 and parlayed his minor celebrity into a book. His TV career started humbly enough with a deodorant commercial. Grylls now spends the few weeks each year when he's not working with his wife and two young children on a houseboat on the Thames.
Yet whether Grylls' exploits can be trusted as dependably "real" has made him the subject of controversy. A fuss erupted last year when Britain's Sunday Times reported that he and his producers exaggerated dangers he encountered during filming, stayed in hotels during supposedly overnight camping trips and contrived certain scenes for dramatic effect, including adding fake smoke to a volcano sequence. (Who among TV producers would do such things?) The network has since added a disclaimer; viewers are told that Grylls and his crew receive support in "potentially life-threatening" predicaments.
Although Discovery executives consider "Man vs. Wild" -- which starts its third season this summer -- more of a how-to than a reality show, the series is caught up in the debate over whether reality TV is a contradiction in terms. Partisans of "Survivorman," another lost-in-the-wilderness show on Discovery, have compared Grylls unfavorably with that program's host, Les Stroud, who travels into the bush alone, no crew in tow.
I hoped to get a sense of what Grylls is really like in his more customary habitat during our trip to Franklin Canyon, a dense, 605-acre preserve tucked amid the stately mansions of Beverly Hills. Naturally, I also wondered what backwoods delicacies I might sample during an encounter with a man known for devouring creepy-crawlies most people wouldn't dare touch, let alone eat.
The first rule
Iarrived a few minutes early. In the back seat sat my daughter Gabby, an inquisitive third-grader and devoted "Man vs. Wild" fan. (It might be less humiliating to have a close family member rather than Grylls run for help if something dreadful happened on the trail.)
A black limousine glided past on the main paved road through the park and out tumbled Grylls, a tall, wiry, boyish-looking man of 34 dressed in a plaid earth-tone shirt and loose trousers from his own line of branded clothing (to be released this year). A photographer and a Discovery publicity executive rounded out our party.
After pleasantries, I suggested that we pretend as if we were stranded in the wilderness and had to battle for survival so that Grylls could show us some basic tips. This was a plan that required a healthy imagination, since we stood at a few miles north of the fancy boutiques of Rodeo Drive.
Grylls immediately shot down the proposal. If we pursued the survival scenario, he explained, we'd have to go in search of a stream and follow it downhill -- among the first steps for any unfortunate truly lost in the wilderness. Climbing was what he wanted to do. The chauffeur popped the trunk of and Grylls reached inside. "Rule 1: Take plenty of water," he announced, launching plastic bottles at us.