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April 20, 2016
An excerpt of this story appears in the spring 2016 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To view more content from the magazine and an e-edition, visit www.nwmissouri.edu/alumni/magazine/.
Tara VanRyn Skubella enjoys a challenge. So she didn’t hesitate when she was selected to participate on Discovery Channel’s extreme survival show “Naked & Afraid.”
Skubella, a 1997 Northwest alumna, was depicted last October in a new episode of the show, which places one man and one woman in the wild for 21 days without clothes, food or water.
“I’ve just been drawn to challenges in my life,” Skubella said. “I like to overcome things and work toward a really hard goal.”
Accompanied by a small production crew, Skubella and her counterpart, Dustin Hobbs, were left on the jungle island of Isla San José on the Pacific side of Panama – a lush landscape teaming with crocodiles, 10-foot boa constrictors, giant cockroaches and swarms of biting insects.
She used her experiences in the wilderness therapy field to her advantage while the episode portrayed her as a 40-year-old “mountain momma” from the high country of Colorado.
Skubella was a year removed from Northwest when she was hired to join the staff of a youth wilderness therapy program in Florida. She worked with adjudicated youth and lived with them outdoors.
“It was more primitive living, so we had tools, and we built structures that we lived in that were open to the air,” she said. “I just became really comfortable being outside in the elements.”
In 2000, Skubella moved to Colorado and worked as an outdoor guide, hiking mountains and learning about high country safety. She also had a stint as an earth science teacher before returning to the wildness therapy field and averting bears, mountain lions and other wild animals on multiple occasions. Today, she works in post-family adoption in Aurora, Colorado.
“It’s a great field to get into if you really like the outdoors and can adapt to that environment and you can work with tough kids,” Skubella said of wilderness therapy. “It’s been my favorite job to this date, by far.”
During “Naked and Afraid,” she caught and boiled shrimp and termites. She and Hobbs also killed and grilled a boa constrictor. But Skubella was “skin and bones” by day 17 and said her stomach had been growling consistently for days.
“I should have eaten cockroaches,” she said. “I look back and that’s the one thing I would have done differently. There were a ton of cockroaches the first few days we were there and then they all kind of disappeared and went away. It’s protein.”
As reality television goes, producers centered on the drama of a misunderstanding between Skubella and Hobbs. Cameras caught Skubella breaking down and complaining about Hobbs’ apparent lack of effort after their fire burned out.
“They took my weakest moment and kind of built the entire show around that,” she said. “We just had way different views of survival. After I cried it out, I was able to accept our differences and bond. He did sleep a lot, but that was part of his survival tactic. Everybody’s different.”
Skubella also suffered intense bug bites from the start of the adventure. She eventually found some relief by standing close to the fire and applying ash to her skin.
“The bugs were pretty bad as soon as we started building shelter because we were moving debris around and they were coming up from the ground,” she said. “They would crawl around on me and then I would try to wipe them off, and they would automatically burrow into my skin. As the days went on they got worse.”
When Day 21, “extraction day,” arrived, the challenge was far from over for the pair. They navigated a thorny jungle, followed a river for six miles and stayed clear of killer bees and salt water crocodiles to reach their waiting boat.
“Hearing the water first and then seeing it and seeing our boat out there was a really amazing feeling,” Skubella said. “It was very empowering. At that moment you feel like, ‘I can do anything if I can do this.’”
Skubella lost 16 pounds during the experience. The conclusion of the episode commended her for showing incredible mental fortitude and communicating diplomatically with her partner. Her primitive survival rating – a measurement based on assessments of the players – increased from a 6.8 to a 7.6.
Yet, Skubella says she felt like she could have stayed on the island for another couple weeks.
“I wanted to be at that point where I was considering tapping out, and I never got to that point where I wanted or even thought about leaving,” she said. “Even though the ending was really empowering and blissful, I went away with a little bit of an urge to experience more and even push myself to even more extremes.”
Skubella says a combination of growing up in a rural community in Illinois and her experiences at Northwest fueled her curiosity and passion for the outdoors. She still maintains and adds to “an amazing rock and fossil and mineral collection” she started as a Northwest student.
Courses in hydro geology, meteorology and petrology as well as activities with the Geo Club helped lay a foundation that inspired her to further develop her skills and knowledge. She learned how water flows under ground and where to find clean water sources.
“Northwest changed me by introducing me to adventure and exploration through Geo Club and through learning about the outdoor sciences,” she said. “I think as you grow up in college, learning your independence and what your boundaries are and what you crave, Northwest really provided the opportunities for me to do that.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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