Photo by Chris Casella

The Human Action Figure Named Coyote

Coyote Peterson eyed three ominous birds circling just above the tree line that rimmed the lake. “Those are turkey vultures,” he said. “I think they’re waiting for us to die.” He has the dramatic flair of any TV host, but at the time, his thumb was already bleeding and his left leg was soaked with all manner of filth from the hole a snapping turtle clawed into his waders—just another day at the office.

Before he was Coyote he was Nate, but now he’s known to most people by the moniker of the self-styled, wild-animal wrangling persona he created. That guise gained him a show—Breaking Trail with Coyote Peterson—on Animalist, a Discovery Digital Network. On the day we met at Blendon Woods Metro Park, he was excited about two new Animalist online shows, Coyote’s Backyard and Dragon Tails, which is all about his beloved snapping turtles.

But before he linked up with Discovery, he had to physically prepare himself for this line of work.

“In his words, he wanted to become like a human action figure,” said Brian Howe, his personal trainer and owner of Core Essentials Fitness in Powell.

Starting in December 2013, Coyote trained with Howe twice a week, in addition to working out on his own. Howe lead him through essential strength training and MMA-style workouts, and they incorporated homemade obstacle courses to replicate some of the jumping, rolling and diving Coyote does in the wild. Howe also designs workouts for Nate, Coyote’s alter ego, the guy who hunches over a desk editing hour upon hour of footage to cobble together the six-minute clips that comprise the series. Those post-production sessions bother an old back injury, so Howe wants to focus more on building his core.

“I’m gonna get a camera close to his face, let my guard down, and boom—he gets my finger, right? You have that happen with an alligator, you might lose your arm. Or your leg. Or it could be worse. It could kill you.”

The most important piece, however, is Coyote’s endurance, and as he prepares for the grind of 12- to 18-hour days filming in unforgiving climates—ranging from the mountains of Montana to the deserts of Arizona—they dial back the weights and ramp up the stamina exercises. That means more boxing, more obstacles courses, more ladder drills and more HIIT workouts. These routines not only train his body for long days in hostile environments, they also mentally prepare him for work in the field.

To illustrate the rigors of his job and the practical application of his training, Coyote invited Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Castle and I to Blendon Woods, where he wanted us to experience a tame version of his adventures, and hopefully to watch him snag a snapping turtle.

Only moments after he stepped into his ill-fated waders, he spotted the hardened carapace of a turtle breaching the surface of the lake near the shore. He strode into the water, creeping his way closer to the partially submerged beast. Then, with two splashing hops, he grabbed the snapping turtle by the outer edges of its shell and hauled his prize back to the bank. The animal opened wide its gnarled maw in apprehension, revealing a fleshy pink tongue. Coyote calls him Snagglebeak.

“Hey buddy,” he cooed as the turtle alternately retreated into his shell and lunged out in attack. “My goodness. Wow. Good to see you. Look at you gettin’ bigger. Alright, okay. Don’t bite my face.”

A few minutes later, as Coyote attempted to film a slow motion video of the turtle while chatting with us, Snagglebeak got his revenge—slicing Coyote’s thumb with his crooked jaws.

After releasing the snapper, Coyote led us around the outskirts of the lake through various low-level obstacles, walking through waist-deep water (where he discovered the hole Snagglebeak clawed into his waders) and showing us how to pull ourselves from thick, sucking mud.

He occasionally redirected attention back to his bloodied thumb as a cautionary lesson. That’s why his endurance training, and the disciplined concentration it reinforces, is so crucial.

“I felt the turtle was calm enough. I’m gonna get a camera close to his face, let my guard down, and boom—he gets my finger, right?” he said. “You have that happen with an alligator, you might lose your arm. Or your leg. Or it could be worse. It could kill you.”

His flair for the dramatic was on display again, but there’s bona fide reality behind this hypothetical in his line of work, stomping through the Everglades in pursuit of massive reptiles or trekking through the Sonoran Desert in search of diamondbacks. Not to mention those vultures, hovering, waiting for his attention to slip.