Waukon High School graduate Debbie (Buege) Harris "surthrives" television debut

Waukon High School 2001 graduate Debbie (Buege) Harris, now of La Crosse, WI, teams up with her survival partner, Bo Stuart of Virginia, to create a meal during their television survival series "Naked and Afraid" broadcast by the Discovery Channel. Harris was selected for the television show following an application process, and the one-hour episode that she was filmed in during three weeks in the fall of 2014 finally aired in late July of this year. Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Dictionary.com defines endurance as "the ability or strength to continue or last, especially despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions; stamina.”
Debbie (Buege) Harris epitomizes the term “endurance.” A recent participant in the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated series, “Naked and Afraid,” Harris endured 21 days in a tropical jungle with a total stranger. The show’s challenge is to see if the two strangers, one man and one woman, can survive naked for 21days with almost nothing to protect them from the elements of a challenging environment.
Harris and her partner, Bo Stuart from Virginia were dropped in the remote wetlands of Guyana in South America. Although the title of the show is “Naked and Afraid”, both Harris and her co-participant, a former Green Beret who had been trained in jungle survival, proved that "being afraid" doesn’t enter into successful survival skills. Teamwork and the ability to face challenges confidently make the difference.
What inspires a person to make such a commitment to leaving his/her family for three weeks so that they can endure bugs, dangerous reptiles, blistering sun, drenching rains and starvation without even the protection of clothing? What type of person can endure and learn from that type of experience?
Harris (the former Debbie Buege) is a 2001 graduate of Waukon High School and grew up on a farm between Lansing and Waukon. Harris said she was a timid high school student who spent most hours out of school working as a CNA at a local nursing home.
“My parents raised us to be independent, hard workers," Harris said. "We helped at my parents’ bait shop. I spent a lot of time outdoors on my parents’ farm and grew to love nature. In my twenties, I started gaining more self-confidence. My mom encouraged me to pursue a nursing career. I went to NICC and have found nursing  to be a good fit for me, but I find myself seeking new challenges. I work with an elderly population and want to do as much as I possibly can while I am still physically able. If I can learn from an experience, I want to try it. I’ve done marathons and triathlons. Someday, I hope to run a 100-mile race.
"My husband and my three children were very supportive of my trying out for this show," she continued. "As a family, we enjoy honing primitive camping skills. We’ve even taken a few survival skills courses. It’s a powerful feeling to make fire when all we have are sticks. I want my children to know that power and to have that confidence as well. If I can motivate others to be positive about challenging themselves, then I’m willing to try it."
In addition to the challenge of survival in a remote location, Harris also had to overcome what she considered to be the greatest challenge of the entire experience.
“The biggest obstacle to me was the being naked part," she explained. "I don’t like being naked in a locker room, but after we watched the show several times I realized the naked part was just about being vulnerable without any protection and it didn’t really have anything to do with being sexy. It’s just that being naked is such a taboo in our society. My partner, Bo, was more at ease with it. When we first were dropped in the middle of the jungle swamp, he gave me a very awkward naked hug, but it was just a fact of life that we had to adjust to. He later helped me fashion some coverings so I felt a little more comfortable about it."
Harris started her process of participating in the show by submitting an online application but didn’t think it would go any further. Then the phone interviews began. The interviews were long and very detailed exploring her skills, personality and background.
Eventually, she was flown to California for a medical evaluation. A survival skills expert evaluated her survival skills. She underwent psychological evaluations and finally met the producers. She never encountered any other contestants because the show’s producers want the participants to be strangers. Next she was asked questions in front of a camera.
Finally they asked, “Can you leave next week?” They don’t want to give the contestants too much time to prepare. The show was actually taped during late November, 2014. “I spent Thanksgiving eating grubs,” she laughs. During the week ahead of time, she knew what country she would be in: Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, close to Venezuela.
Contestants have been dropped into a variety of terrains, including mountains. She immediately began researching the region. She learned that there were many diverse ecosystems in the area. “I wanted to be knowledgeable enough about the plants and animals that I didn’t eat something poisonous or kill something that was a protected species, like the black caiman alligator. We did end up killing a caiman for food, but it was not one of the protected ones,” Harris shared.
Visitors to Debbie Harris’ public Facebook page will find numerous comments from show viewers praising her and Stuart’s teamwork and resiliency. One Facebooker commented: “I have watched this series since its inception… I have never seen a team come together as a unit as you and Bo did and in a short period of time. You both didn’t just lay around and look miserable as many do but were super proactive in shelter and procuring food… Unlike others on the show, you quickly adjusted to your partner’s temperament and meshed in a cooperative way.”
Another local fan of the show said, “They were awesome. They were the best ones on the show so far. They worked together and really showed what two people can accomplish when they cooperate. Some of those contestants just whine and complain; they didn’t. They just figured out a way to survive. Their episode is called ‘Surthrive.’”
Harris stated that contestants can “tap out” at any time, meaning they can quit. That usually happens when egos get in the way and the participants can’t figure out how to work as a team. She explained, “The thought (of tapping out) did cross my mind, especially when I missed my family or when the hunger was so bad. I would dream of doughnuts, cake. I dreamed that I was eating all night. Then I’d wake up and be starving. I realized that I was just rationalizing, making excuses. In life, in work, we can’t make excuses. I’d think about all the people in the world who struggle on a daily basis to survive. We had to stay strong and focus on goals, so that is what I would do. Bo and I would talk about our families; we’d share stories. We learned a lot about each other. Bo has a great sense of humor, so that helped.
“We’d problem solve about how to survive: how to find food to eat, water to drink; how to keep the fire going; how to create a shelter.  We had to learn to work as a team. We each brought skills to the experience. We had to have each other’s back. We had to know we were committed to support each other. His Green Beret survival training helped out, but if he started to push himself too hard, my nursing background would kick in and I’d remind him to slow it down and hydrate. Nursing helped me to be aware of what my body was going through. There were physicians on call who could respond within 15 minutes if something disastrous happened, but my nursing skills made us comfortable about being able to handle most situations. Also, I’m a very organized person, so keeping our campsite organized helped my stress level and attitude.
“The biggest physical challenges were being cold and wet. It rained a lot of the time, and it would get cold at night so it was tough trying to stay warm. Even with our basic shelter and our fire, we were always wet, cold and itchy. In addition to the cold and wet, there was always the hunger; we ate grubs, some berries; we eventually killed a caiman, but we were always hungry. For me personally, a tough physical challenge was that I didn’t have time to toughen the bottoms of my feet."
Harris said that the camera crew with about four people would show up daily to shoot about eight hours of footage during the daylight. The crew would follow them around as they foraged for food, traveled, or made shelter and weapons. In addition, there were cameras that were on 24/7 set up in several areas around the campsite. There was also a diary camera which the participants could turn off and on so that they could record their thoughts. From all that footage came a one-hour episode.
Harris had not seen any of the footage until the episode aired July 19. Her family, co-workers and friends gathered together to watch at a viewing party. “We asked people who came to make donations to a local food bank," Harris said, noting that she has an increased empathy for those who are hungry. “I was pleased with the teamwork and how the episode really showed that we survived because we communicated and respected each other.
“Bo and I talked a lot when we first got back. Now we mostly stay in touch through Facebook. He’s a busy family man with two kids in high school and I keep very busy with my family and work as well. I’m glad that I’ve gained a new life-long friend from this experience.
“The best part of the experience is that I leaned a ton of things. I got through it; I stayed positive. I gained confidence and strength. I am so thankful that I had the experience and now I appreciate so much more, especially the little things like having a cup or a fork, being able to turn on a faucet and get a drink of water. Your wireless internet not working is not a problem. People who don’t have water have the real problems of the world.
“I’ve learned, especially after I turned 30, that life is a journey of self-exploration. I want to be a good example for my kids and show them that they are more powerful than they realize, that they don’t have to put limits on themselves. I want to challenge myself so that I can better learn how to help and motivate others. The first step to accomplishing anything is to believe.”
On Harris’ Facebook page, a quote from an unknown author proclaims, “Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.” Harris’ journey of self-exploration took one more step after successfully completing her “Naked and Afraid” experience. It didn’t change her but she said it certainly solidified her positive outlook, her confidence and her enthusiastic approach to living which can inspire many to throw away their self-imposed limitations.
To watch the episode with Debbie Harris, go to Discovery Channel On Demand and view the 7.19 “Naked and Afraid-Best of Surthrive” episode or view segments of  “Best of Surthrive on Naked and Afraid” on the Discovery website at www.discovery.com.