Wilderness Skills Course teaches, entertains, and empowers

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Alone survival TV series contestants, from left to right, Megan Hanacek, Greg Ovens, and Carleigh Fairchild, taught a two-day basic wilderness skills course. Photo by Trish Weatherall.

By Trish Weatherall

Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper May 5 2017

Do you have what it takes to survive an emergency situation in the wilderness? Fifteen people are better equipped after attending a two-day wilderness skills course with celebrity survival experts. Alone survival show contestants Megan Hanacek and Carleigh Fairchild hosted the workshop at the Old School in Port McNeill from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 29th and 30th, covering basic wilderness and survival skills with a focus on the North Vancouver Island environment.

“We live in one of the most unique areas and harshest environments in the world,” said Hanacek, a local forester and biologist who has previously taught a three-week foraging course at North Island College.

“The extreme challenges are what I really love about this area,” said Fairchild, who began developing her outdoor skills at age 13, in Ohio, Washington, and Alaska, and specializes in basketry, fire making, shelters, and foraging. 

Fairchild, of Edna Bay, Alaska, placed second in the televised survival contest, with 86 days alone in the Patagonia, S.A. wilderness, and Hanacek, of Port McNeill, placed third with 78 days of survival. Fellow contestant Greg Ovens of Canal Flats, BC, also joined the class as a guest, contributing his experience and trapping knowledge.

A diverse group of participants including 10 women, four men, and a Grade 9 student, came from Vancouver, Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Courtenay, and North Island locations, to learn survival and outdoor skills from the celebrities.

“It’s vital that everyone has a baseline of wilderness skills,” said Annie LeBlanc, owner of The Rock pub in Port McNeill. “It builds confidence and is empowering.”

“I found that I know more than I thought I did. But I got some new little tips, like the fire-building process,” said Hannah Murray from Nanaimo, who camped in the area Friday and Saturday night. “There were different techniques I hadn’t thought of that make camping and survival better.” 

The classroom portion was conversational and interactive. Hanacek and Fairchild discussed risk assessment and prioritization, local predators, emergency first aid, shelter building, water, cordage (making rope from natural materials), fire-building, local foraging for food and medicinal use, and provided samples of fresh stinging nettle tea and Fairchild’s homemade usnea tincture.  The pair brought favourite wilderness and survival books for students to review on breaks.

Hands-on outdoor activities were held behind the Scout House, including shelter building, a fire-starting challenge using a ferro rod, identifying edible plants, a demonstration of Oven’s tension trap, and a chance to use Fairchild’s handmade bowdrill to ignite tinder.

Along with learning new skills, participants heard first-hand stories about how the three survived in the Patagonia wilderness last summer, and other adventures and mishaps they have had in their previous outdoor experiences.

“On the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels, we really pushed it,” said Fairchild.

Participants also had opportunities to chat one-on-one with the experts.

Aaron Brevick of Port Alberni had not seen the Alone show, but his own experience of being lost in the wilds near Prince George at age 12, a homeless period as a teen living in the bush, and more recently as a Search and Rescue member, generated his interest in the wilderness skills course.

“Little tips I’ve learned are like gold – like Greg using a bullet to write with,” said Brevick. “I’d love to see a more advanced option, and I’d love to see this offered as a college course. Any course they have – I’m in.”

Fifteen-year-old Tristan Lahti of Sointula said, “It was a good opportunity to get more expert knowledge – more than I’ve learned in outdoor education class. Like learning how to light a fire using a ferro rod and about local plants. I might go camping without a tent to try out some of these skills!”

“We are super excited about the engagement of participants in this course, which is designed to encourage survival skills and an appreciation of nature in general,” Hanacek said. “We’re looking forward to offering this basic survival course in other locations in B.C. in the future, as well as more in depth classes. You can easily spend a few weeks on each topic.”

She said possible course plans in the future may include First Nations-inspired cedar craft skills, seaweed and shore exploration and uses, in-depth foraging, and local mushroom picking.

Upcoming editions of The North Island Eagle will further explore the basic wilderness skills course. Next week: Find out Fairchild and Hanacek’s advice on risk assessment, priorities, and shelter in an emergency situation.