Becoming Wild by Nikki Van Schyndel

Becoming Wild by Nikki Van Schyndel was an eye-opener for me.

Last fall I had a volunteer whose dream was to be apprenticed to a survival school.  A guy in Ontario was giving a 3-month course on wilderness survival, on his acreage in Ontario.  Participants would build a shelter in which they would live, learn how to start a fire with a hand-made bowdrill, track and trap animals and learn to flint knap, ie make arrowheads.

I had never heard of such a school and put it down to a modern whim on the part of both the teacher and the student.

However, this spring, the publisher of my 11th book (And the River Still Sings – out this fall) issued Becoming Wild by Nikki Van Schyndel, which showed me that primitive survival skills were something of a well-established minority cult, and that it has been going on for a lot longer than I realized.

Nikki dreamed of surviving on a desert island as a child; then forgot it while she took on a life of Olympic-standard horse show jumping, followed by being a sponsored snowboarder.  One day she had an epiphany and realized the natural world was still out there.  Learning survival skills at a school, plus an intensive course of studying wild plant uses, gave her the background, ten years ago, to attempt primitive living on a remote part of BC’s west coast.  She was accompanied by a cat and a fellow enthusiast, Micah.

Their story is nothing short of remarkable.  At first, the only food they could find was plants and shellfish.  They were hungry to the point of starvation, and existing almost permanently in damp, mouldy clothes and bedding.  Their leaky shelters were thick with smoke from their cooking fires.  Their lovingly hand-made bows and arrows and fish-hooks proved inadequate, and it was a long time before they made the physical and psychological effort to kill a bear, which they then preserved and ate to the last rancid mouthful.

As we follow Nikki’s journey we are swept up into a world that is both uncomfortable and very spiritual.  Congratulations Nikki, Micah, and Scout (the cat) for taking on a hugely difficult task, and, quite literally, surviving.  Becoming Wild is a fascinating read: you can also see a bit of their lives in this video.


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Where There’s Smoke….

smokey sunrise at Ginty CreekThe heat waves bring smoke.  This is partly because of the inversion effect, and partly because, when there is a large high pressure in the interior of BC, the winds are light and come from the northeast to southeast quarter, and this is where the fires are right now.

Here is the Google Earth active fire map for BC on 15 August 2014.  Round orange balls mean new fires: red mean active, and flames mean a fire of note.  (Ginty Creek is not too far from the thumbtack just to the left of the middle.)

10 Google Earth_ImageThe daily temperatures reached 33C again; the smoke exacerbated the heat because of the greenhouse effect.  I could work only for a few hours in the morning before retiring inside, and even there it was too hot to do much.  The gloom from the smoke was depressing.  So when the wind switched and it blew cooler from the southwest for a couple of days, it was like looking at a whole new world.
perkins peak


McClinchy riverThe clear days coincided with the full moon

4 moon 1`

Moon on a stick.

5 moon 2

It set before any colour appeared on the mountains.

6 moon 3

The next day I had my camera ready, hoping for the perfect shot, but the wind had changed again and it was too smokey.

8 smoke moon


7 smoke coming inSoon, the mountains disappeared.

I was planning to go to town to pick up a wwoofer, but Highway 20 was closed because of a fire about 2/3 of the way into town.

Wildfire Management Branch is responding to a wildfire currently estimated at 600 hectares that is burning 14 km west of Bull Canyon, near Highway 20. Airtankers and helicopters supported ground personnel and heavy equipment late into the evening of Monday, Aug 11. The wildfire displayed aggressive fire behaviour yesterday and challenged the fire retardant lines.

Objective today is to build a guard to contain the blaze. Today, 5 helicopters and heavy equipment are working to assist firefighters in establishing a guard around the wildfire. Crews will be closely monitoring the weather today as there is the potential for extreme fire behaviour, winds and warm temperatures. Cooler temperatures and rain are expected later in the week.

Highway 20 was closed temporarily as a result of this incident, but has been re-opened 24 km west of Alexis Creek. Traffic on the highway continues to be impacted with limited access. Flaggers are in the area directing traffic. Depending on the fire’s activity, the highway could be closed again. Up-to-date information will be available on

Further updates will be sent as necessary.

Sandra Wagner
Communications Specialist
Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations
BC Wildfire Management Branch | Cariboo Fire Centre

Most BC fires are triggered by lightening, but this one was caused by “person.”  People have deliberately started fires in that area before so they can get work as firefighters.    The above notice was published 12th August: I wanted to drive into town on 14th.  On the 13th we heard that the road was in fact closed, but a detour – which was actually the old highway – was in operation.

I was on the road early.  Sunrise happened about an hour along the way.

11 sunrise on way to townI soon reached the detour.

12 road blockThe old road ran through a couple of farms.  It was narrow and windy and pretty, but very slow to drive.

13 bypassI spent the night at 100 Mile House, where we had a tremendous thunderstorm and heavy rain.  Something was struck nearby with a huge explosion.  I expected the whole world to erupt in red flames.  But apart from a short loss of power, nothing was changed.  100 Mile and Williams Lake are much lusher than Kleena Kleene – they had a good snow cover and a wet spring.  The weeds around my friends’ house were waist high.  I wondered if the rain would spread west.

In Williams Lake, I found out how the “person” started the fire.  Apparently a truck lost a wheel and the hub was dragged along the highway, showering sparks, and igniting six fires.

East of the fire on Highway 20, the smoke was not too bad on the way home. That is the Chilko River in the back ground: it is glacier fed, which gives it the blue colour, and it was full.  All those glaciers must be melting like mad in the heat.

Chilko riverI was most surprised to find that Highway 20 was open.  The extent of the fire was 880 hectares, but in fact it was obviously very spotty.  It was still smouldering in several places.

15 smouldering fireBecause the wind was behind me, west of the fire the smoke thickened.

16 smoke thickening on way homeAt home, I could not see the mountains.  But during the night the wind changed again and the morning brought a beautiful sight.

17 clearingAnd, even though a couple of new fires have started a little closer to Ginty Creek,  soon the mountains were perfectly clear.

18 plane

Judging by the tracks on my road, there had been a very small sprinkle of rain while I had gone.  Nowhere near as much as happened during the 10-minute rain a couple of weeks ago.  The forecast is for cooler weather and more chance of sprinkles.  Let us keep our fingers crossed.

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Another Heatwave

2 roadside grassTwo days ago it rained for 8 minutes.  It was a thunder shower, so quite heavy at first.  It was the third rain of significance since the meagre snowpack melted in March, and neither of the other rains were particularly heavy.  It has dribbled at Anahim and at Tatla Lake on occasion, and it rained on us at Nuk Tessli, but when I returned home from there, after 11 days away, the tracks on my driveway were as clear as when I’d left Ginty Creek.  Not a drop had fallen here and the temperature has been up in the 30Cs again for several days in a row.

The grass is as brown as late September.

1 brown grassThe river is low.

3 river downFireweed struggles beside my dusty driveway.3a fireweedThe lower pond, which is fed by two little creeks, still has a a bit of water in it.

4 lower pond

It is the dogs’ cooling off place.

13 dogs

But the upper pond is bone dry.

5 upper pond dryThe cracks are deep in the mud.

6 deep cracksIt is a fascinating ecosystem that manages to survive under these conditions.  They would prefer to be sitting in water, but I guess the soil is still damp.  Water crowfoot is continues to bloom prolifically.

6a warter crowfootThe northern burr-reed is flowering.

7 burr reed

Mares tails, a curious plant that has minute flowers in the axes of its leaves, is doing well.

9 marestailsAnd I am pretty sure this is water hemlock (which is deadly poisonous.)

8 water hemlockHopping gaily through this landscape were numerous frogs.  The largest were about 2″ long.  Many were smaller.

10 frogI wonder where the great water snails go in the drought?

10a snail shellsThe air, for the most part, has been quite smokey but the smoke might have travelled hundreds of kilometres so it was hard to pinpoint where it came from.

11 smokey sunriseSmoke filtered light gives an orange cast to everything.

11a orange lightAfter our little grumbly thunderstorm, it looked as though there might be a closer fire.

12 fire over KKI checked the BC Forestry fire website.  At the bottom of the page, it gives a link to the Google Earth Active Fire map.  I cannot find this link directly on Google Earth, so if you are interested in checking out fires anywhere in north America, you can get the link via the BC Forestry page.

Sure enough, there was a new fire the other side of Kleena Kleene, possibly 20 km from me.  Being East, it was unlikely to spread my way as we don’t get strong winds from that direction: in fact the wind strengthened from the SW, and while this fire was roaring away we had a day completely clear of smoke.  However, it was obviously of concern because suddenly I heard a deep-throated rumble and at least two, possibly three waterbombers trundled slowly over the fire site, often swinging close to my house as they circled round.  Fortunately, the runway on the defunct Puntzi Mountain airbase (about 90 km east) is kept operable and these great heavy propellor planes, which need a very long runway, are able to take off from there.  They are very effective, because today the wind is pounding again but there has been no resurgence of the fire.




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Nuk Tessli Revisited

Mt Monarch and windmillThe name Nuk Tessli had not even been thought of when I first stood on this point more than a quarter of a century ago.  There was not even an axe mark on the place, which was a day and a half’s walk from the nearest bush road.  During the first three summers and one winter, I built two cabins single-handedly, using no heavy machinery, and wrote Diary of a Wilderness Dweller about my experiences.  Several other books followed.

Two years ago, mostly because of bad knees, I sold the place to Doron Erel.  Because of a knee replacement in 2013, I had not been back since I sold it.  I was very curious to see what Doron had done with it.

I used to hike in most of the time, but my knees wouldn’t like that any more.  So two friends, Doreen and Patricia, and I arrived at Tweedsmuir Air’s dock in Nimpo Lake, early on the 16th of July.

Tweedsmuir Air dock

The hot weather was still continuing, but it was cool and calm enough to give us a smooth flight.  Twenty minutes later, Nuk Tessli lake came into view.  Hard to imagine that I called this body of water “My Lake” for over 23 years.

Nuk Tessli Lake

I had built 3 cabins altogether while I lived there.  Doron has turned my living cabin into a cooking and dining place.

Cabin 3The big indoor stone bread oven is gone. (They have a very sophisticated stone oven outside.)

6 stoveAnd all the cabins have been opened up to create sleeping lofts.

Cabin 2


5 sleeping loftThe big innovation is the shower cabin!  What luxury!  I don’t even have a shower at Ginty Creek.

12 showersSome things I recognise, like the owl I carved, but it has been moved to a more prominent place.

7 owlSome things are new, like this rather wonderful bird chair.

8 bird seat(And the windmill in the first picture.  Doron has also added another solar panel.)

Doron uses wwoofers to help him, but these are all brought over from Israel.  Janiv and Ishay are particularly creative.

JanivThey have been cutting boards with an Alaska Mill, and towing them home by boat.

9 towing boardsThey are making them into doors and shelves and counter tops.  Saha is sanding.

11 sandingWith scrap pieces, they are making signposts and displaying them all over the bush!

13 signpostsItaman is an excellent cook, and every day, Ishay makes the most wonderful bread.  They are a fun bunch of young people.  I thought that the style of carpentry fitted my somewhat funky buildings very well.  I am very fortunate in having a buyer of my creation who is continuing the original atmosphere of Nuk Tessli.  I felt completely at home.


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Nuk Tessli: Gentian Valley Part 1

Canoe trainThe main focus of our Nuk Tessli trip was to see rare alpine plants in Gentian Valley.  Doron, the man who bought Nuk Tessli from me, would take us up the lake with his motor canoe, but we would need two canoes to get home.  Badger was too stiff and old to pack so we left him at the cabins.  Harry rode in my canoe.

The man standing on the dock is Chris Harris who has a great photography blog.  I have known Chris for years – this is his second visit to Nuk Tessli.

Doron fired the motor,

Doron Erel

And we were away!

Nuk Tessli lake

We portaged into the upper lake.  The wind was really wild – great for keeping the bugs away, but very hard to canoe against.

We climbed through a series of meadows (that is Nuk Tessli lake below).

cotton grassIt was very hard to get Doreen past the patches of paintbrush.

common red paintbrushNot only did Doron help us up the lake, he also provided some of his young helpers to carry a lot of our gear.  From the left: Janiv, Ishay, Patricia, and Doreen.

4 our portersAt last we climbed high enough to see our destination.  Gentian Valley is tucked below the highest peak.

gentian valleyAs we crossed the creek in the foreground, we had a lovely view west.

common red paintbrush and coast rangeSoon we reached our camp.

7 campThe wind grew stronger during the night.  I had my own tent, and was awakened at first light be Doreen as the tent that Doron had left them had collapsed.  The fly had ripped right down one side, and the plastic connector for the poles had snapped.  Fortunately, Patricia had brought duct tape and we were able to fix it, and stitch up the fly.  These repairs lasted through many more hours of violent winds.

1 broken tentThe winds were so bad that we had to put rocks on the pot lids to stop them blowing off.

2 rocks on pot lids

As we were ready to set off up the valley, the weather looked ominous.

camp in Gentian ValleyIn sheltered spots, the heathers were magnificent.

heather speciesWe soon started climbing up the main creek in the valley.  Normally, this whole section is full of snow.  But Nuk Tessli, like all the west Chilcotin, is incredibly dry.

partridge footAbove the falls, the winds were maniacle.

HarryI would normally hope to find a host of roseroot and moss campion, but all but this single clump of roseroot were finished.

red roserootThere were, however, a lot of butterwort in flower.  This insect-eating plant has sticky leaves.  Bugs get stuck on them and are digested.  Note the copious meal these plants are having.  The wind was thrashing the blossoms about so much I only got one reasonable photo.  It was now rattling with rain as well.

common butterwortAnd this is one of the plants I had come to see.  I don’t think that there are any recorded locations of the slender gentian (Gentianella tenella) outside Mt Fairweather on the BC, Yukon, Alaska border.  In Alaska it is common (and blue), in Europe rare.  I have seen plants labelled as G tenella in the Victoria herbarium, but they are the very common G stelleria, which grows all over the Chilcotin. My several pictures were ruined by rain except this not very good one.

gentianella tenellaWe skirted a small lake and managed to find some alpine harebells, one of my favourites.

campanula lasiocarpa

We had to abandon hopes of getting into the upper part of the valley where many more rare plants reside.  We camb back to camp a sheltered way, and stumbled upon a magnificent grouping of alpine hemlock.  They are loaded with cones – many conifers are this year, no doubt because of the drought.  Behind is the spear of the subalpine fir, and the sprawly, cone-laden top of the white-bark pine.

mt hemlockBoth people and camera lenses were pretty wet when we arrived back at camp.

18 wet hikers.




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