Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On Surviving Alone in the Wild

On every forum remotely outdoors related, invariably, like clockwork, someone shows up to ask about going off to live by themselves in the woods. And, invariably the spectre of Dick Proenekke is brought up. How awesome it would be to do what he did. One forum I go to has a kid who I suspect isn’t entirely right in the head, who has asked a question along these lines once every 4 months, for years. 

I feel compelled to shout that this is a romantic notion, not very well grounded in reality. Mr. Proenneke was an exception. He was exceptionally skilled in a whole host of areas, had worked towards his goal for decades and saved, and had a support network in place. He grew up on a hard scrabble depression era farm where he had to do all the things he needed to do to survive. And I suspect he was also a realist. Don’t get me wrong. I admire the man immensely, and look enviously upon what he did. But I also grasp that I, with my life experiences, would likely be at a disadvantage trying to emulate his achievements. And I think that I am at an advantage compared to some people I read blathering on about heading into the woods to do what he did.

The early peoples who populated this planet, did it because they worked together in groups. In nearly every tribe, for time immemorial, they shared the workload as a community. The notion of the lone wolf, the rugged individualist using his wits to survive against nature, is just so much fanciful nonsense. Hunter-gatherers lived as part of a tribal unit. They had a social support network. People may have gone off to hunt or check the trap lines or forage by themselves, but they had a familial/tribal  support network that was doing the gathering, gardening, mending, sewing, tanning, tool making, etc., etc., etc. That’s why there was such an importance placed on having lots of kids. More hands to do the necessary chores around camp. Anyone that did live by themselves without benefit of that support, was invariably someone who had been banished. It was essentially a death sentence. 
I lived by my self for three years in an isolated hunt camp in northern Ontario. It was the hardest thing I have ever done - bar none. I had to fix structures, repair roads, prepare meals, bake bread, tend gardens, look after animals, do laundry, mend things, can, cut trees, chop wood, etc., etc., etc., etc. - pretty much entirely by myself. It was absolutely exhausting. And I had people who came up to help me once every two weeks or so, so I had some help at least. And I had running hot and cold water and electricity! Unless you have done this, alone, in less than ideal conditions, with primitive tools, you have absolutely no comprehension of how staggeringly difficult a task this is. Now imagine that scenario if you are really sick or injured.
A lot of the early mountain men dropped dead around forty or so. Not from disease or starvation, but just from having worked themselves into the ground. They were spent by middle age from the rigours of trying to do it all themselves. Tending horses, hunting, drying meat, fishing, running trap lines, gathering wood, building structures, making, mending and washing clothes, etc., etc., - quite often by themselves. While most of them worked in brigades, offering some form of support, largely they were on their own for long stretches of time.
Sorry to burst anyones bubble, but this is a  delusional pipe dream for the vast majority of people, that I know won’t end well. I have absolutely no illusions at all as to the feasibility of living by myself, far from anyone with no support network. And all those prerequisite tasks require skills, mastered skills, not fumbling to learn them along the way. I’ve been roaming around in the wilds for 30+ years. Hiking, camping, canoeing, hunting, practicing survival skills. I think I’m reasonably fit, well equipped, and I think most would consider me quite competent. But I don’t even remotely think that trying to survive on my own is at all feasible. 

I thought there was a guy in Norway doing it. I had seen his blog a few times. Looked him up. Whoops.
This whole concept of “self-sufficiency” is one often touted in the whole outdoorsy/survival/preparedness world. Sure, it’s admirable and frankly fun to learn as many skills as possible, and becoming really good at them even more so. Some people might look at me and think it’s really something that I can make a lot of my own stuff. It’s fun, and I’m proud of what I’ve created. But I have no idea where I would be if someone else hadn’t made the fabric I had. I haven’t learned how to weave. Not that I don’t want to learn, but time and cost prevent me from delving headlong into that pursuit. So I am reliant on someone else for the material I need. Thread. So simple, yet try making your own some time. Needles. I would be screwed if I had to try and mine the metal, process it and then try to create something as mundane, yet as complex as a needle. Again, I am reliant on someone else’s expertise to help me do the things I need and want to do. We are ultimately a social species, reliant on the skills and resources that others have specialized in. Each member of a society has a role to play. This was as true ten thousand years ago as it is today. No one person can possibly hope to do it all by themselves for very long.
And this whole idea of living in the woods by one self really gets tipped on its head when winter rolls in. The caloric requirements to survive in winter, rise steeply over those in summer. Just to sit still in camp would require between 3 to 8 pounds of meat a day, depending on the species. If you didn’t have dozens of kids spending weeks and months in good weather collecting fire wood, you had to/have to do it yourself - in winter. Which burns calories. potentially thousands. Which would require more meat. If you didn’t have time to hunt and process enough meat to get you through the winter during the warm months, you need to go hunting. Which means more burned calories, which means even more meat. Having to process that kill and transport it back to your camp burns even more calories, requiring yet more meat. You may have to move camp to find game. Which burns even more calories. More meat. Trying to survive for long in winter, alone, is a death sentence. Before long the individual will go into a calorie deficiency. Sure, you can burn body fat for a little while, but a hunting gathering lifestyle works against storing much body fat. With a group to spread out the work load, more food can be gathered and preserved, more skins can be processed for warmth, more firewood can be gathered, etc.
The idea of anyone who has spent most of their life in a city, walking off into the wilderness, alone, with everything they think they’ll need on their back, with no definitive means of resupply, and most importantly, if they have little to no experience......is fooling them-self.

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right. I think we have incorrectly developed this notion that if we only learn enough skills, we can live in the woods alone. It's the whole "bushcraft lets you thrive in nature" phenomenon. There is a sacred set of skills that if acquired, you will be able to go into the woods and "thrive" with them. This is of course absurd, but it's hard to see when one is typing about it from their living room sofa.

    For most indigenous people being sent to live alone in the woods was either a test of manhood or a death sentence. For many of the trappers and woodsmen we look up to, running out of supplies was a serious emergency.

    Skills are great, and they help. However, sometimes we get carried away with things we have not even come close to experiencing ourselves.