Certain people were born to be on television. Steven Rinella admits he isn't one of those people.
Rinella's always been more Boone and Crocket than Regis and Kelly, a better fit for spending weeks alone in the wilderness—and then taking his time writing about the experience—than shooting multiple takes in front of an entire film crew. In fact, the award-winning author and graduate of the University of Montana's creative writing program remembers when the publicist of his first book—a woman who is now Rinella's wife—wouldn't even consider booking him for television interviews. She felt the same qualities that made Rinella's adventure writing so audacious would be his undoing on camera.
"One of the first times I met her she says—ask her; she still tells the story—she says she can't book me for any TV interviews because I was too coarse, too rough around the edges," Rinella says. "She thought I'd be terrible. So, she thought that. I thought that. And I never expected anyone to think any different."
All of which makes it that much more surprising that Rinella has assumed the role of host of his own adventure series on The Travel Channel. "The Wild Within" debuted January 9 in a prime Sunday evening time slot, and is scheduled for an eight-episode season. In each hour-long show, the lifelong outdoorsman and survivalist embarks on an elaborate demonstration of how to hunt for your own food—whether it's spear-fishing for Hawaiian octopuses (and then biting behind their eyeballs to kill them) or gathering snails from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In short, the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine and American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon basically does the same sorts of things he's been writing about for years—but now for a television audience.
"Let me just say, sneaking up on an animal by yourself is a whole lot different than sneaking up on an animal with four or five other guys, and two of the guys are carrying cameras," says Rinella during a recent phone interview. "It's a whole new set of challenges for me."
Rinella only started to welcome the challenges once he was lined up with Zero Point Zero Productions, Inc. The same company behind cantankerous chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain's Emmy-winning series "No Reservations," ZPZ is used to working with a "coarse" host who's new to television. The show took two years to plan before shooting started, and Rinella's still adjusting to his new role.
"When you're doing journalism or writing the stuff I'm writing, you go on a trip for a week or a couple years—my buffalo book took two years to research—and you come home and you think about it. You sleep on it and you go hang out with your buddies at the bar and you talk about it, and you slowly formulate everything that you're going to write," he says. "In TV, it's all on the fly. You don't have time to think about what you're going to write for your first sentence that's genius. You have to think quicker so you don't end up sounding like a moron. It's not always easy."
Rinella never aspired to work in television. When he arrived at UM, he'd left a career as a professional fur-trapper in hopes of becoming a professional trapping writer. Immediately, he says his interests and background separated him from his peers.
"You have kids come in from all these famous schools to the MFA program in Missoula and they all have these dreams of being the next avant-garde, right? They want to do all these experimental things and write about how much they drink and how hard they've had it," he says. "I think that must just be exhausting, you know? I came to school and I just wanted to write outdoors stuff. No one goes to grad school and says I want to write about hunting. I think what I wanted was so attainable, so realistic, that people helped me."
Rinella still recalls sitting in professor Deirdre McNamer's office, and explaining that all he ever wanted was for a magazine to pay him to write about anything having to do with the outdoors. Sure enough, he sold his first article to Trapper and Predator Caller during his first year of grad school.
"I was dating a girl at the time who lived at the Wilma—it used to be a whole lot different than it is now," he says. "And I remember picking up a letter from my P.O. box at the old Hellgate station, riding up the Wilma's old manual elevator—a guy named "Scootin'" Newton used to run it—and opening it at her apartment. I got $250 and couldn't have been happier."
Rinella, who also reviewed art exhibits for the Indy while living in Missoula, moved quickly up the outdoor writing food chain. Before earning his master's from UM in 2000, he sold an article to Outside, and is now a regular contributor to the magazine. His first book, The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, was published in 2006.
Despite his foray into television, Rinella still considers himself a writer first and foremost. He's working on a third book, and says his greatest satisfaction comes from finishing his writing projects. But "The Wild Within" has provided him with some unforgettable experiences, including paddling a boat made from a buffalo hide down the Missouri River in eastern Montana and bow-fishing in "treacherous death rapids" for a herbivorous piranha with a native tribe in Guyana. The latter—he carved the arrowheads from scratch—counts as one of his two biggest highlights working on the show.
"When you're bow fishing, you have to deal with refraction, and you also had to account for the speed of the rapids," he says. "I missed probably 25 times. Twenty-five misses, but I finally hit one. It took three days."
And the other highlight?
"I can't tell you," he says. "I'm not allowed. All I can say is that it happens in Hawaii and it involves a knife."
An expert tease delivered like a true TV host.
"The Wild Within" airs Sundays on The Travel Channel at 7 and 10 p.m.