Rough edges 

"Mountain Men" struggles with nature's drama

In season two, episode two of "Mountain Men," Richard Lewis of Montana's Ruby Valley chases a mountain lion up a tree. The lion snarls at him and then jumps to the ground, scared off by the mountain man's aggressiveness. "Get out of here, ya son of a bitch," Lewis yells crankily after him. It works. The lion disappears. But then, if that weren't hardcore enough, Lewis gathers his three bloodhounds and heads after the lion. He plans to push the big cat entirely away from his land. "If it was anyone else, he would have been shot," Lewis says to the camera. Those of us who live in Montana know just how true that is.

"Mountain Men" is a reality TV show on the History Channel produced by the Missoula-based Warm Springs Productions. The upstart company's programming extends to the Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel, Travel Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Science and National Geographic Wild, but "Mountain Men" is considered its most successful work. It follows a handful of modern-day mountain men trying to survive in places like Alaska, North Carolina, Maine and, of course, Montana. This means, of course, battling nature at every turn. And it fits right in with all the other History Channel fare"Ice Road Truckers," "Pawn Stars," "Swamp People"that offers us a glimpse into subgroups, many of whom live dangerously in one way or another.

In its second season, "Mountain Men" continues with its rugged protagonists—including Tom Oar of the Yaak River Valley—and introduces new characters such as Lewis. We get short vignettes of each one. One treks through the woods to his winter trapping cabin, nervous at the sign of grizzlies. Another throws a fit when he finds some of his hens massacred. He stakes out the culprit, which turns out to be a possum. After catching the possum, he and a friend roast it over a fire in true and/or stereotypical mountain man style.

This is what I love about the show: All these mountain men, for all their roughness, deal with modern issues. Marty Meierotto flies a plane to a remote Alaskan landscape in order to get to his mountain man lifestyle. Eustace Conway, the possum-eating North Carolinian, is living hand to mouth mostly because he took out a $45,000 loan to save his land and he's still paying it off. Lewis' dogs wear what appear to be GPS collars, which is helpful when one of the dogs, Turbo, gets lost in the mountains for hours.

click to enlarge Tom and Nancy Oar in “Mountain Men”
  • Tom and Nancy Oar in “Mountain Men”

What doesn't work for "Mountain Men" is what doesn't work for all of those History Channel reality shows: When there's no drama, the drama is manufactured. A simple river crossing becomes a threat. In fact, in just about every scene the editing and music provides a menacing tone, with no relief. Can't we just sit around the campfire and relax for a minute? No. Even the campfire is keeping us from the threat of freezing to death. If these mountain men haven't developed severe anxiety disorders by this point, it would be shocking. As a viewer, it has the boy-who-cried-wolf effect; everything seems potentially dangerous, so nothing does.

The characters, by the way, are interesting—what little we do get of them. Some of them play into stereotypes that may be real, or may be amplified because they're on television. The one glaring exception is Oar from the Yaak, who doesn't over—dramatize his life, even if the narrator does. Don't mountain men have cool backcountry stories to tell? Can't we linger casually on the day-to-day life these men? (And its main focus is men.) Can't we acknowledge that Eustace of North Carolina, who lives in a shack, probably only lives a few miles away from the hustle and bustle of civilization? That's interesting. But nuance isn't really what the History Channel goes for these days.

"Mountain Men" does beautifully capture the landscapes in all their glory. We see the Ruby Valley in a veil of glittery snow. The starkness of the Alaska tundra. The lushness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Without saying anything, the show reveals that as dangerous—amplified or not—as mountain life can be, there's an allure to this lifestyle. It won't make you want to follow a mountain lion up a tree, but it does make you curious about why somebody would. "Mountain Men" introduces us to characters who we might otherwise judge as backwards. When we're surprised by the drama—and not hit over the head with it—it's easy to see how this show matters.

"Mountain Men" airs Sundays on the History Channel at 7 PM.

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