Bush for Brains

Writers: Cassidy Oliver and David Leidl

Westworld, November 2003

Meet an Albertan who knows the proper technique for felling a tree with a kitchen knife. And how to build a five-star lean-to. And how to make emergency snowshoes from a pile of branches. In other words, meet your back country guardian angel.

YOU’RE CRUNCHING DOWN A TRAIL ON A LONG winter hike, alone and hours from journey’s end. Skimming the edge of a frozen lake, you get a little to close and – crack, splash – your leg slides into icy water. Unless you keep your wits, you’re in serious trouble.

Canadian winters are cold. They’re also unforgiving. If, for example, you continue to wear that book as you resolutely walk on, you’re courting crippling frostbite and, possible, the end of the trail. Your trail. If you’re smart, however, you’ll remember Mors.

Up at the Karamat Wilderness Ways winter camp in Alberta, one of Canada’s most renowned wilderness instructors, author and survival expert Mors Kochanski, teaches his students a simple way – and what to most eyes is a mad way – to keep walking safely; pull off that boot and walk through the snow in your wool socks. It sounds crazy, but it works. And to get this point across, Kochanski makes everyone in his classes pull off their warm boots, dip their stocking feet into a freezing stream and go for a saunter across the snow.

“Invariably, you have to make all the students do it, even though they see it as counter-intuitive.” he explains. “When they do, they discover what the “mechanism” is, how miserable it is to leave water in a boot and how quickly they begin to feel comfortable walking in just their socks.”

The mechanism? With the boot gone, that chilling water is drained from their wool socks. Start walking and the excess moisture is wicked away by snow. The meat of their feet heats the residual moisture in the socks while snow sticks to the outside, forming an insulating ice sole and cap. Voilá – warm toes and, likely, the difference between walking out of the woods…or staying there until spring thaw and ending up an unpleasant surprise for some future hiker.

The author of the bestselling outdoor survival book Bushcraft and numerous handbooks, Kochanski has taught wood wits to all ages from all walks of life, from kindergarten tots to bush pilots. And in all his 35 years of teaching, he has had few students quit midstream, so to speak. Before they hit the bush, he lets them know what’s ahead, and why. Still, the odd one does stalk away. Kochanski laughs: “The most recent quitter was an RCMP sting operator. He was checking us out to make sure we weren’t a rabid terrorist group or something.”

All students are instructed on the basics – fire starting, shelter construction, the use of crude, simple tools, travel and plant study – in two phases. A basic survival lecture and orientation, then the practical (hands-on) sessions in God’s huge, chilly classroom; the winter-shrouded woods around the town of Wildwood near Edmonton. Building a fire from wet wood, the niceties of “pot suspensions” and signal fires, how to construct a quinzee (an igloo-like snow cave), the joy of lichens and so forth, Kochanski teaches it all, along with anything else you might need to get out alive and well.

Obviously, in his 63 years here on the planet, Kochanski has learned may tricks. It’s about being prepared and not forgetting the basics or the obvious, he says. In the bush, grim things – such as running into a cranky grizzly – can happen quickly and through no fault of your own. The skill comes in knowing how to react.

The Kochanski checklist for heading into the bush this winter? On top, literally and figuratively, the right clothing. Think layers; insulated jacket and pants, warm yet “breathable” lighter clothing to wick off sweat yet hold body warmth, proper boots and yes, wool socks. “You don’t go to the moon without a spacesuit,” he notes, “and you can’t wander around the bush thinking you’re going to be comfortable inadequately dressed.” Other bare essentials include the means to light a fire, a good pocketknife, wite and confidence.

Kochanski isn’t out to teach mere “survival” skills, however, but the art of “wilderness living.” There’s a difference, and after a week of tromping around with him, armed only with your five-pound survival kit and growing wood wits, your confidence that there is indeed a difference grows more solid. And it’s this reality-based confidence – and maybe those ice- encrusted socks – that will get you out of the woods every time.