Life Consists with Wildness
Location: Prince Rupert, British Columbia
Coordinates: 54° 19.210’ N 130° 19.165’ W
The British Columbia wilderness lends itself quite beautifully to the imagination. With its heavily forested islands that shoot up out of the water and scrape the sky, colors that dazzle both in the rare sunlight and the dreary rain, and a great sense of wildness, B.C. is nothing short of magical. A few days ago, the magic of this area was given a face and a name with Nikki Van Schyndel.
For a year and a half, Nikki survived off the land in this area, living in the woods and learning the ways of the native tribes and wild animals. Since returning to civilization nine years ago, she has been active in preserving the untouched beauty of British Columbia and spreading her message of following dreams and pursuing a life founded in bliss and centeredness. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a sense of possibility when listening to her talk about her extraordinary experiences. Our Flotilla group had the fantastic opportunity to hear Nikki speak about her survivalist year and the many things she learned. As someone who grew up with Island of the Blue Dolphins as a favorite book—and was even named after a survivalist heroine in Clan of the Cave Bear—I have always been fascinated by the idea of heading into the wild unknown, something Nikki did and succeeded at. She is incredibly inspiring: honest about the struggles she faced in the wild; respectful of the animals, land, and sea; and extremely thoughtful when it comes to her philosophies about the world and our purpose in it. Her message of tranquility and creating your own path came as a welcome reminder of the important things in life amidst the chaos of finals and school.
Nikki offers four-hour tours around the Broughton Islands where she spent her time surviving. The day after hearing her speak, the crew of Three@Sea and one of our newfound friends from the Waggoner Flotilla joined Nikki for a day of exploring, thinking, and discovering the seemingly infinite possibilities this land has to offer. It was, without question, one of the most incredible days I have ever spent. We began on a very small island we later nicknamed The Farmstand, as everything on it was edible. Nikki’s been cultivating wild onions there for quite some time, and we had the chance to get our hands in the dirt by helping her harvest a few for our lunch later in the day. Various berries, leaves, trees, grasses that one might usually pass over turned out not only to be edible, but incredibly flavorful. Each seemed to have its own purpose as well, whether as a moisturizer, a natural healer, or seasoning for a stir fry. One could have lived on the resources of this island alone (which also had an impressive crop of barnacles, something I had tried, per Nikki’s recommendation, the previous night; surprisingly, they were very good!). We spent a fair bit of time learning about the plants on the island and harvesting them in a beautiful cedar basket Nikki had made. It was as if we had stepped back in time; civilization was nowhere to be found. For miles and miles, the only life was eagles, bears, wolves, and us, all living harmoniously with the land. As I said, the imagination can run wild in these woods, and I felt as if we were in an entirely different time and place—someplace pristine, untouched, and untamed. Someplace wild.
After leaving The Farmstand, we took Nikki’s skiff to Village Island, where she spent the first six months of her time in the wild. Village Island used to hold a native village, and the only signs of human life are a few abandoned homes and some overgrown totem poles. It is easy to imagine surviving in that wilderness; the trees, beaches, and waters are gloriously pristine, and after trekking through the dark woods, we arrived at a lovely shore to make camp. Along the way, Nikki showed us what had once been a totem pole. Even now, though it has fallen, is overgrown, and is rotting, it is also incredibly beautiful. While the intricate carvings are mostly gone, it is still possible to make out the shape of a leaping wolf and a bear’s paws. It’s haunting to imagine the people that painstakingly created this work of art, now reclaimed by the land.
Along the way to our camp, we collected an impressive number of different herbs and plants, each with a unique flavor and purpose. As we spread out on the beach, Nikki started to show us how to make a friction fire, something I have wanted to do for quite some time. First, we stripped down cedar bark and made a sort of birds nest from the fibers; this birds nest serves as a starter. Nikki then created a hot coal using a combination of wood, sticks, and a clever, bow-like instrument to create enormous friction that ultimately gave way to a delicate, hot coal. It was amazing to me how gentle the process of starting a fire is. Fire often has a sort of violence associated with it, but watching Nikki slowly breathe it into existence was remarkably peaceful.
Our cedar bark nest eventually started to crackle merrily, and soon, we had a hot fire over which Nikki assembled a sort of stove with various sticks, and began cooking lunch. Nikki’s cooking—mostly with things we had collected that day—was phenomenal. With a dash of olive oil, some dried kelp for salt, and a plethora of delicious herbs and vegetables, a stir fry was soon sizzling over the fire while tea made of Western Hemlock and mint (both collected on Village Island) steeped beside it. It would be hard to recall everything that went into the stir fry—there were well over a dozen different plants—but some of the highlights included: Indian Parsnip (a member of the carrot family that you must peel before eating, lest it burn the insides of your throat and cause all sorts of nasty consequences), Sea Asparagus (a salty, crunchy stalk that grows in droves on the beaches), Miner’s Lettuce (a spectacularly delicious wild leaf that might be the next Arugula), and Salmon Berries (which are astoundingly juicy and the color of the sunset). With a handmade fire and flavors of only the land, we soon had a gourmet meal unparalleled in its raw, organic flavor. Standing on the beach next to a cedar fire, eating a meal we had helped create by tasting and understanding the land (we were, by the way, eating out of clam shells with an mussel shell as a utensil!), I felt at peace. The whole world could have been miles and years away. Everything was right.
Eventually, we cleaned up camp and trekked back through Village Island, hopping in Nikki’s boat for our trip back to the modern world. On the way home, something spectacular happened. We were just about to cross a channel between two islands when we noticed an odd-looking log in front of the boat. Distracted by a feeding frenzy occurring with some seagulls and what we thought might have been a whale, we didn’t give the log a second glance… that is, until its head moved. To our astonishment, the log was, in fact, a wolf, something Nikki said she hasn’t seen in this area for nearly three years. There are some moments in life when everything is perfect; this was one of those. Sitting in a boat, surrounded by vaulted mountains and wild woods, spring rain pouring down, and watching a wolf swim bravely across a stormy channel… there simply could not have been anything better. We made sure to give the wolf plenty of room, but we stayed to watch as it scrambled to shore on the other side. Once it got on shore, it stopped for just a minute and looked back at us; it was massive, astute, and one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. It gave us one look, then turned and ran into the woods. We all sat in the boat for a few minutes, just listening to the wind and the rain, before turning the engine back on and resuming our trip back into civilization.
Pretty soon, things settled back to normal; as always, there were finals to study for and things to accomplish, but not before taking a moment to reflect on the day that had just passed. I took my collection of Henry David Thoreau’s Natural History essays, and sat on the dock in the rain until I found the following quote:
For I believe the climate does thus react on man,— as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires…I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal as our sky, — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains, —our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightening, our tiers and mountains, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.
And one more:
So I would say, “How near to good is what is wild!” Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself surrounded by the raw materials of life.
Nikki, indeed, has made infinite demands on life, and has not only found herself surrounded by, but surrounded others with, the raw materials of life. It was a day of magical thinking, feeling, exploring, and becoming wild. Thank you, Nikki!