There has always been considerable interest in reality television shows featuring Alaska, and “Win the Wilderness: Alaska” was no exception. It featured six British couples vying for a chance to own the homestead of Duane and Rena Ose as a prize. The show premiered on BBC2 in 2020, and then Netflix, with one lucky couple, Mark Warner and Emily Padfield, declared as winners. An unexpected drama unfolded after the show as what was supposed to be a dream come true became a nightmare, and had people wondering why things turned out the way they did.
About “Win the Wilderness: Alaska”
The story of Duane and Rena Ose
The Federal Homestead Act of 1862 signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, had Duane Ose and his 15-year-old son Dan, trekking in the remotest part of Alaska in 1985 in search of a new home to pursue a life in the wilderness that he had always dreamed about. He did find it near Denali National Park, and in October 1986, he filed a claim to the five-acre land he later named Ose Mountain.
Duane and his first wife divorced four years after she accidentally shot him in the eye at close range in 1978, with the bullet said to be still inside his head. He owned a concrete contracting company, but after the accident he started receiving Social Security disability payments. This left him free to do what he wanted with his life.
It was said that he had to live on and make improvements to the land for five years after claiming it, so it would qualify as a homestead. He started by building a 12ft x 15ft (4 x 5mtrs) dugout and lived there for four years, often by himself six months at a time. Needing female companionship, he advertised for one in a magazine during one of his trips to Minnesota, where his ex-wife and children lived. Rena from New Brunswick, Canada, who’s in her 40’s like him, answered his ad and they corresponded for a year before they met in person; it was Rena who proposed to Duane.
They were married and he brought her with him to Alaska, where they lived in the dugout for nine years while building the three-story house made up of around 2,000 spruce trees before they finally moved in. Rena peeled the logs, and also skinned the animals that Duane trapped.
They survived and even thrived following a self-sufficient lifestyle. The couple made improvements over the years, including building a greenhouse and a guest cabin, using solar power or generator, and installing a satellite dish for internet access. However, there’s no running water so that came from rain or melting snow. The nearest road is 100 miles away, but they had an airstrip where groceries could be flown in once a month.
Ose Mountain had been their home for 30 years, but with Duane and Rena in their 70’s and with health concerns, living there became much more difficult.
— BBC Two (@BBCTwo) February 20, 2020
Their children had no intention of taking over their home and following their lifestyle. According to his daughter Carol Hansen, the couple had been trying to sell their homestead for several years, but nothing came of it.
The idea for a reality show was first pitched to American producers, and many were interested. However, they wanted to add their own spin to how his life story would be presented, and Duane wanted none of that. As a result, they ended up having British TV and a digital media group called Twofour as producers, and the couple was paid six figures. The six-episode series would be shown in the UK, which meant that those who would be competing to win the homestead and continue the legacy of the Oses would have to be British to make it more relevant to the viewers.
With almost 24 hours of daylight, filming was in May through June of 2019, at a wilderness camp near Lost Lake, almost 200 miles away from the Ose Mountain.
A local survival expert named Clinton “CJ” Stewart would give the challenges set by Duane and Rena which would ‘replicate the major hurdles they encountered in the wilderness.’ CJ would sometimes be joined by other experts to teach and assess each couple’s survival skills, and determine if they had what it takes to live in the area.
Six couples were chosen to participate in the show: world travelers Chris (sales manager) and Tina (industrial designer); long-time married couple Pete (retired police officer) and Jane (midwife); adventure-seeking academics Jerome (university lecturer) and Laura (sustainability consultant); childhood sweethearts Matt (RAF engineer) and Rachel; lifestyle bloggers Theo and Bee; and farmers Mark and Emily.
Their first challenge was to build shelters, and the whole group worked together in setting up tents for each couple.
It was followed by a series of tests, and after each one, a couple was chosen by Duane and Rena based on CJ’s feedback for a 24-hour stay at the homestead. so the elderly couple could get to know them better and observe them as they were put to work; only four couples were afforded this chance.
After staying with them, they would either head home to the UK or return to the wilderness camp to be part of the shortlist, no longer required to participate in the rest of the challenges but still given tasks. For Duane and Rena, the next owners should be able to fully commit to taking care of the place. They met with those on the shortlist to talk some more about how they envisioned life would be on Ose Mountain, and what their future plans were. It gave the Ose’s more insight into which couple would thrive living there. The Ose couple ultimately decided on Mark and Emily as the new owners of the Alaskan homestead.
Mark Warner and Emily Padfield had been together for 10 years when they joined the show. She said she couldn’t imagine life without him, and he found contentment with her despite the 16-year age difference between them. His family has a traditional English farmhouse that’s 350 years old, and around 850 breeding ewes and 80 cattle. Mark has twins from his first marriage that lasted for 17 years, and his 23-year-old son, William, was left in charge while they were in Alaska.
Some viewers found it interesting that they were chosen to participate in the competition, much less win it, as they had the other obligation in the UK, and Emily has multiple sclerosis. She admitted that she couldn’t afford the health insurance in the US, and that her MS could flare up anytime in the form of fatigue, numbness, pins and needles, as well as waking up one morning not being able to walk or see.
Mark understood her condition and helped her manage it, since there is still no cure. Fans of the show couldn’t help but wonder if they could take on everything in the wilderness, no matter how willing or determined they were.
They were upfront about their situation with the Ose’s, even if they knew it could lessen their chance of winning. At first, the Ose couple were unsure of Mark and Emily, not in terms of their competence and willingness to do hard work, but with his age as he’s in his 50’s, and her health issues. However, they really liked the two and said, ‘The reason we chose you two is because you’re basically in the same situation we were in when we started this. You two make a great couple.’ The deed to the homestead was signed in June 2019 – Mark and Emily stayed for a month with the Ose couple after winning.
Fans were wondering if the show was going to be renewed for season two, but so far there haven’t been any announcements from its producers.
What happened to Mark and Emily after the show?
As agreed upon, the remaining cast and crew left as soon as filming was over in 2019, and the Ose couple moved out by September and retired to Redwood Falls, Minnesota. However, things didn’t go as planned after that for a variety of reasons. Mark and Emily couldn’t go back to Ose Mountain due to the travel restrictions brought about by the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Their friends in Alaska were looking after the homestead in the meantime, and keeping them updated. Their plans for the place include staying there as much as they can, once everything was in place and they could travel and then make it available for ‘veteran and first-responder therapy resource for wilderness-based rehabilitation.’
Rena Adeline Ose died on 14 May 2020 at the age of 76, from complications after heart surgery at a hospital in Minneapolis. She wanted her ashes to be scattered on Ose Mountain, and Emily and Mark planned to go with Duane to do just that. However, Duane suddenly distanced himself from them as well as his family, and decided that he’d be keeping the homestead. ‘Reclaiming my legacy, my home from faux foreigners who do not care for my wishes,’ he posted on Facebook. According to Duane, Mark and Emily violated the terms of their agreement concerning Ose Mountain, as he claimed that it was being neglected since the couple didn’t live there, as they were supposed to.
Some were wondering why Duane had a change of heart when it was his and Rena’s decision to ‘give’ the homestead to another couple via the reality show in the first place, and they were the ones who chose Mark and Emily as winners, even after they disclosed their situation.
Duane accused Mark of lying to him about not wanting to steal his legacy, and would return the homestead to him. In his Instagram post, Mark said that he would give it back if he could talk to Duane and he was of sound mind. In another post, Duane wrote that Emily and Mark ‘incited five weeks of aggressive harassment of an elderly man and a sweet caring woman who has helped me more than any one fb friend ever has.’ According to him, all those wellness checks only wasted the time and manpower of the troopers.
Communicating with Duane had been difficult as it was done through social media, and Emily said that the words in the posts were not what he generally used. This was frustrating for the couple who previously had a good relationship with Duane. They believed that he might have been influenced by the woman named Ellie-Mae Blair, also known as Eleanor Ribera or Ellie White, whom he married after Rena passed away.
The marriage to Ellie, whom he met on Facebook, was not verified by the family.
Duane’s children were worried that Ellie was only after his money, and wanted to cash in on his life insurance policy. On his Facebook page, he had been posting his complaints against his children, accusing them of leaving hurtful comments such as ‘You are too old. You are crazy…You are drugged. You are spending my inheritance. You are not safe to be in Alaska…and finally, you are not you?!!’
His daughter believed that it was actually Ellie who had been posting on Facebook, as this wasn’t how her dad used to write. Carol is very much concerned about the welfare of her father, who had suffered a heart attack as well as survived colon and prostate cancer. She further revealed that Duane and Rena had already been living in an apartment in Fairbanks every winter in recent years ,as it had become much harder for them to stay at Ose Mountain with their health issues.
In October 2020, Mark posted a video regarding Ose Mountain, saying that they had no plans as of yet on spending money on their project for the place, considering what had been happening with Duane. They decided to move on and focus on their farm at this time. Mark further shared that Duane and Ellie found a pilot who flew them there, with the former subdued and walking on unsteady legs upon landing with Ellie doing all the talking. The owners didn’t want the newlyweds living there as they were trespassing, but also worried about their safety, especially Duane given his condition.
A US Army helicopter went to rescue Duane and Ellie after the pilot who delivered the supplies reported Duane’s condition. Ellie said he had broken his back after a fall, but was diagnosed at the hospital with dehydration and a bladder infection. While there, Carol had the opportunity to talk to her father, but couldn’t convince him to live closer to the family.
He said that Ellie had saved him, and didn’t like that everyone was mean to his wife and wanted to break up his relationship with her. Duane told Carol that he planned to hire people to help care for the homestead when they returned there, but troopers arrived at the hospital to talk to him about them invading the home that was already owned by the British couple.
On the Facebook page of the Fairbanks Police Department, it was posted that Duane was reported missing, was last seen on 29 November 2020, and asked for the public’s assistance in locating him. By 10 December 2020, it was said that he flew out of Fairbanks on the 7th to go to the Midwest and was no longer considered missing.
In his post, Duane wasannoyed about people disrespecting his new wife whom he calls, ‘my lil cutie pie,’ and had to defend his decision in life, saying, ‘What better way to relax and enjoy my retirement years than to chase a beautiful naked wife around the garden, and enjoying her awesome cooking in front of the fire…’
— BBC Two (@BBCTwo) February 20, 2020
People who had watched Duane in “Win the Wilderness: Alaska” might be surprised when they read his Facebook posts, as he seemed a different man. It might be hard for some to reconcile the two, but perhaps the difference was that he’s moving on with his life with a new wife after losing both the homestead and Rena, and his family couldn’t accept that. However, his children couldn’t be blamed if they didn’t believe it was their father who uses his Facebook, unless they had the chance to spend time to talk to him. They wanted to see for themselves how well he’s living, so that they could stop worrying about him. They did turn to Alaska Adult Protective Services, but the officials refused to intervene as they said that Duane was still capable.
It was unfortunate for Mark and Emily that their dream turned into a nightmare. Their fans were hoping that they would push through with their plans for Ose Mountain as it was legally theirs. Based on their Facebook page, they are now busy with their farm and other projects such as building a tiny house.