The foot-long piece of wire wasn’t much thicker than a strand of hair. It twisted and flexed too easily under the pressure of my fingers: I had to use a light touch as I tied one end into a silvery metal noose. I attached the other end to the long, wrist-thick branch of dead wood that Fabian Schmidt had propped up against a living tree. The slanted limb was bait for squirrels—a tempting on-ramp from the ground to the canopy and back again. If I were starving, Schmidt explained, I’d decorate such a branch with three or four or five of the little nooses, bending them so the open loops hovered above its surface at just the right height. When the squirrels skittered up or down my on-ramp, they would run headfirst into the snares, and their own momentum would tighten the 26-gauge filaments around their little throats.
I spent 27 years as a vegetarian. Cautiously carnivorous now, I tried to imagine how hungry I would have to be to choke a squirrel to death, gut it, roast it over a fire, and then eat it. Hunger, true hunger, wasn’t something I had much experience with. The vision I conjured of myself, desperate enough to use this new knowledge, was ugly.
I untied the bit of wire, pocketed it, and knocked the slanted tree branch back to the ground before we moved on. We would kill no squirrels today: Snaring them is only legal in a true survival situation, and this wasn’t the real deal. Schmidt, the owner-operator of Bushcraft Yukon, a new survival and wilderness skills school, was offering me a crash course in the art and craft of staying alive in the Yukon backcountry. I was here not because I anticipated a need to snare and devour a squirrel anytime soon but because I wanted to explore our growing cultural fascination with wilderness survival—and to understand why that fascination so often seems to fixate on the North.
When I was a teenage aspiring writer, and the original reality TV juggernaut, Survivor, was in its prime, I tried to write a satirical television script about a survival show set in northern Canada. The built-in joke was that survival can be a lot more challenging, and a lot less visually appealing, in the cold. The beautiful young men and women that populated each season of Survivor spent most of their time, it seemed to me, lounging on tropical beaches and conniving with each other while wearing very little clothing. I envisioned a show filled instead with parka-clad characters, fur-rimmed hoods cinched tight, so bundled up they were unable to effectively whisper and plot. Instead of living a life of tropical ease, they had to hustle and dig in the frozen earth for every hard-earned calorie. The idea was meant to be laughable—a farce, a parody. No one would ever make a reality TV show about survival in the frozen North.
Nearly two decades later, the joke is on me. There have been so many reality TV shows set in the North—nearly all of them framed around the idea of surviving or enduring in extreme conditions—that I’ve lost track of them all. Ice Road Truckers. Deadliest Catch. Ultimate Survivor Alaska. Bering Sea Gold. Out of the Wild. Ice Pilots NWT. The Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska’s largest newspaper, has a dedicated weekly columnist who reviews Alaska-set reality TV. South of 60, Les “Survivorman” Stroud and Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild crank out season after season of their respective hit shows about wilderness survival. Last December, when President Obama visited Alaska, even he got into the survival act, appearing in an episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls. “He helped make tea from catkins, ate a salmon prechewed by a bear, and discussed why people would drink their own urine,” wrote the New York Times.
Survival stories crop up in books and movies, too. Think of Cast Away, or Into the Wild, or dystopian variations like The Hunger Games. And people don’t want to just watch others survive on screen, or on the page. These days, they want to get in on the act themselves.
We’ve become a “spectator society,” Fabian Schmidt told me early on in my course, as we worked on a quinzee, an emergency shelter made of packed snow. A German transplant in the Yukon, Schmidt is a veteran musher, a search-and-rescue volunteer, and a longtime student of bushcraft—the art and craft of staying alive in the backcountry. He first got hooked on learning survival skills back in Germany, when the question of survival was largely hypothetical to him. Bushcraft, he notes, is most popular in places like the Lower 48 states and the United Kingdom: “There’s no wilderness, but everyone’s out practicing wilderness skills.”
There are survival schools scattered across North America, like Schmidt’s, catering to that desire. I was fascinated by the trend, and by the apparent disconnect between the people most interested in survival—those millions of armchair watchers and readers—and the people most likely to ever be in need of survival skills. ⎦
But what seems on its face like a disconnect is actually a causal connection. The further we get from a life lived at the mercy of the wilderness, the more we covet the experience from afar. As a city kid, I was fascinated by survival stories: I read Robinson Crusoe and a dozen of its imitators, or fantasy novels where the characters journeyed through the hostile wilds for days and weeks, hiding and foraging and fighting and running from their enemies. One year, before my birthday, I begged for a Swiss Army knife. I lived down the street from a CFL football stadium, and when the snow from its vast parking lot had been heaped up into giant piles, I climbed them, and pretended they were mountains.
People, especially urban people, are drawn to the wilderness as a testing ground, a place where—we imagine—modern life’s complications are stripped away and we’re left with our wits and our strength and our grit. We imagine ourselves heroically surviving a wilderness adventure in the same way we might picture ourselves in a boxing ring, or calmly delivering a baby while trapped in an elevator, or running and winning a race. When I’m on the treadmill at the gym, mind drifting, trying to stay energized, I don’t imagine myself successfully completing my next freelance writing assignment, or visualize my RRSPs climbing in value. Instead, I’m hauling my butt to the top of a mountain. I’m navigating a rapid in a canoe. I’m starting a fire in the darkness of a wild winter night.
I guess that’s where my imagined reality TV parody script fell apart. I thought the key ingredients in Survivor’s success were the bikinis and the beaches, but that’s not really—or, at least, not only—what draws people to survival scenarios. Looked at another way, the North makes the perfect setting for a competition, or a novel, or a movie that revolves around the idea of wilderness survival. Here, survival stops being a pure hypothetical. Even for the region’s urbanites, the realities of the wilderness hover closer than they would down south. On any given day I might actually have a use for that Swiss Army knife. The North is the place where the gap between fascination and necessity begins to close.
While we shovelled, Schmidt walked me through various real-life survival situations he’s encountered or learned about through his work as a search-and-rescue volunteer. Most of them took place within a 30-minute drive of Whitehorse city limits; many of them started out as innocent daytrips that turned potentially deadly through a sequence of small errors or bad breaks. You don’t have to venture far into the bush, Schmidt told me, to find yourself in need of survival training and skills. That’s true down south, too, but it’s truer here, where cell phone service is spotty to nonexistent, the chances of encountering other people in the backcountry are slim, and the weather and the wildlife can be merciless.
As Schmidt talked, I thought back to the time I’d gotten hypothermia while wading in a remote Yukon creek on a sunny August day. Survivor’s tagline had been “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.” But in the North, even in summer, human endurance can shrivel and shrink in the cold.
The most basic requirement for human survival, Schmidt explained to me, is a core body temperature of roughly 37 degrees Celsius. Everything we do to survive in the wild serves that need.
We’d started our day on a frozen pond a short tromp from Schmidt’s cabin, just outside Whitehorse. We’d traced a blueprint in the snow and then begun shovelling, piling and packing the loose powder into a rough dome within our planned perimeter. The pile of snow would stiffen and set under the day’s faint sun, and later we would come back to dig out its innards, creating our quinzee.
Now, as we sat on a ridge above the pond and ate the sandwiches he’d packed us for lunch, Schmidt walked me through some theory. On a scrap of paper, he wrote: 37 DEGREES. Then, in an arc around the temperature, he added words: FOOD. WATER. FIRE. SHELTER/CLOTHING. FIRST AID. Attending to each of those things would keep my body temperature stable and, thus, my heart beating, he explained. So which one should be tackled first?
Survival experts often talk about the “rule of threes,” which can vary slightly according to climate and circumstances, and which offers a kind of crude hierarchy of needs. The version Schmidt shared with me went like this: You can survive three minutes without air, three hours without warmth, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
Although we can go longest without it, food is the obvious cure for a falling body temperature: Calories are our fuel, and without them we begin to fade. Water keeps our system regulated and running smoothly; neglect it, and we’re like a car running on a dry radiator. Fire offers an external heat source, keeping our temp up without requiring us to do the hard, calorie-burning work of staying warm ourselves. Our clothing, our shelters, do a similar job—like the plastic sheeting that so many Northerners stretch across their windows every winter, shelter makes the work of our internal heater more efficient, so our bodies won’t need to burn so much fuel.
Let’s say all your efforts on those fronts aren’t enough. Once your body temperature drops below 37 degrees, your exit from the situation becomes urgent. In Schmidt’s system, that triggers two questions: “How do I get out?” and “How do I get found?” Everything he teaches is designed to address those core survival needs, and those two burning questions.
I practiced starting fires with a variety of tinders, and then we moved away from the frozen pond and into the woods, where he had me practice building snares for squirrel and hare. Next, I made a series of basic shelters, built from a tarp and cord and the trees around us. Schmidt had me roll inside one of the tiny lean-tos I’d constructed, and showed me how I’d push snow or leaves into the gap between the ground and the tarp, to block the wind. The space was small, dark and cold. I was uncomfortable within minutes. I imagined lying there for hours or days, waiting for rescue. There was nothing romantic or heroic about it.
At the end of my day in the bush, I thought back to that image I’d conjured of myself: a wild, ragged Eva Holland, a woman hungry enough to overcome a lifetime of reluctance and strangle a squirrel for my dinner. A person reduced to those essentials Schmidt had so bluntly explained to me: Food. Water. Shelter. Calories in to match calories out; my every act aimed solely at maintaining my core body temperature at 37 degrees.
That potential self was terrifying, harrowing. So why, then, do we romanticize and fantasize about survival the way we do? Why is it something we seem, almost, to yearn for?
While researching his book, Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales interviewed dozens of survivors of life-threatening wilderness situations: plane crashes, avalanches, mountaineering disasters, hikes gone awry. And he found something curious.
“All the survivors I’ve talked to have told me how horrible the experience was,” he wrote. “But they have also told me, often with deep puzzlement, how beautiful it was. They wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.” He recalled one woman in particular: “She told me, ‘I kept stopping to appreciate how beautiful the place I was in was. There I was in this amazing wilderness, and I had the whole place to myself.’ She even found time to stop and skinny-dip in an icy mountain pool and was moved to cry out with joy.”
When I was 12, I went to summer camp for two weeks, and signed up for an overnight hiking trip with a handful of other girls around my age or a little younger. At a certain point along the trail, we came to a lake, and one of our two camp counsellors loaded all our gear into a canoe—she would solo the boat to the campsite while the rest of us walked around. We carried nothing with us, just the t-shirts and shorts we’d left camp in that morning—our one remaining counsellor, a 16-year-old hippie, hiked barefoot.
It wasn’t long before we realized we’d lost the trail, but we kept moving, determined to find it again. Sometime after that, it started to rain, then pour. We shivered in our cotton t-shirts. We walked deeper into the woods. Hours passed. My memories of the day are hazy, but I remember that we took turns screaming into the silence, begging the empty forest for help. I remember that our barefoot counsellor’s feet bled, and that I started to panic because I was epileptic, and my anti-seizure meds were in the canoe with all our food, clothes, water, and shelter. Mostly I remember being cold and afraid. I do not remember stopping to appreciate the beauty of the world around me.
I do, though, remember how I felt when we stumbled across an old ATV trail, grass growing up tall between the twin tracks, and picked a direction at random and followed it. I remember the moment we looked down the trail and spotted one of the search parties that had by now been sent out to look for us. I remember how we screamed and laughed and ran toward them, and cried and hugged them and hugged each other. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt a more pure, undiluted joy.
Gonzales’s reports about the beauty to be found in survival situations surprised me —and yet, on some level, they made perfect sense. Maybe we’re drawn to survival because we know intuitively that there’s something rare and precious to be experienced in those trials. We know, or at least hope, that we can find a glimpse of something that’s lacking in our day-to-day lives; that there’s beauty, alongside the desperation and the ugliness, to be found in a thin, twisted piece of wire.