Canadian Boreal Forest Survival
The Canadian North is one of the largest wooded in the world. It also attracts a large number of hikers, hunters, canoeists, and campers. Unfortunately, nearly 2000 of these visitors get lost every year and need to deal with biting cold, starvation, and predators. Survivorman, Les Stroud, takes on the wilderness in the fall for 7 days. He’s equipped with just one match, a spare fleece, hat, rain pants, some beef jerky, and a swiss army knife. His adventure begins with a mock canoe incident where he spills in to the river and loses his canoe.
Our intrepid Survivorman starts by assessing his situation and reminds us that the key is to avoid panicking. It makes more sense to think about making a shelter and planning how to survive rather than running in a futile attempt to get out of the wilderness. It’s unlikely that safety is just around the corner or over the next hill so it’s better to plan with that in mind.
So Les starts off by locating a large, flat rock to use for a fire and drying out his clothes. It is snowing so a fire is obviously important. Big rocks can also be used to deflect heat from a fire while sleeping. Of course, building a fire requires tinder, kindling, and wood so gathering these is what Les does first. Unfortunately, with no ax the process is slow. Fortunately, he is able to start a fire with the one match he has using basic fire-starting techniques. Drying his clothes takes 2 hours.
With a fire burning and his clothes dry, Les plans to build the fire as high as possible and then let it burn down to embers. On top of these embers and hot rocks he plans to place tree boughs on which he can sleep in relative warmth. This technique won’t help as much if it rains or winds pick up since it doesn’t provide overhead cover like a true shelter would.
While taking a moments rest, Les informs us that the fall is rutting season for bull moose making. During this time, bull moose are the most dangerous animals in Canada — 1200 pounds of rage. And while a female is not dangerous, it is possible that a male is close by so beware.
During the next day Les moves on to a more sheltered area close to a large tree. He then begins to build an A-frame tree shelter. He opts for spruce boughs to cover the shelter which, when layered properly, will keep most of the rain out.
A sharp-edge can be quite useful in a survival wilderness situation. Such edges can be obtained by smashing apart rocks. However, this process can be dangerous as bits of rock can fly in to your eye. A sharp-edge rock can be used to scrape bark off of cedar trees which makes for good tinder. Using a rock also extends the life of your knife which you can use for other survival-related activities.
Without a match, Les opts to use a fire bow made out of a stick and a boot lace. He spins the stick on a flat piece of cedar with a notch cut in to it to direct the embers in to the tinder he has gathered. In terms of fule, a good rule of thumb is to look at your fire pile and once you think you’ve gathered enough continue to gather five times the amount so that it’ll last throughout the night.
With shelter and fire taken care of, food becomes the Survivorman’s next priority. The difficulty with the Boreal forest is that there is a short 8-week window for finding berries and other non-fish/non-animal foods is quite short. Les looks for grubs, worms, and ants, but doesn’t find any so he sets his sights on catching the red squirrels that are in the area.
To catch the squirrels he constructs a figure-four dead-fall trap. This involves carefully balancing sticks to hold up one side of a large, heavy rock. The sticks, when disturbed, will move and result in the rock falling and crushing whatever is beneath it. This trap is hard to setup because you’re likely to crush your own fingers. Ideally, the bait should be placed on the sticks, but Les gets sloppy and puts the bait on the ground beside the sticks.
Once the trap is set, Les ventures in to a nearby creek to grab the tubers of pond lilies which are full of starch. He acknowledges that venturing in to the water is dangerous because it is so cold, but feels that sustenance is worth the risk. And in fact Les’ core temperature drops precipitously and has difficulty warming up once again.
On the following day, Les cooks the tubers he pulled from the creek, but they taste too bitter to eat. He then boiling them by putting hot rocks in to water, but this doesn’t help the situation much. He forces himself to eat the tubers, but in the end they make him sick.
He ends up finding snails in the same water where the pond lilies were. Removing the shell reveals “meat” which he then roasts on the fire. With just two snails he doesn’t get much sustenance, but they’re better than nothing.
On day 5, Les finds that the bait for his trap is gone, but the trap hasn’t sprung. He now regrets not putting the bait on the sticks like he was supposed to. At this point, Les decides that he should try to plan his escape. He is aware of a highway that is to the east of his location, but is not sure how far it is. He walks through the logic of deciding whether to stay or move. The questions you need to ask include is there enough food and shelter in your current location? Does anyone know where you are? How far is safety likely to be? For Les, the decision to move makes sense.
While moving through the woods, he reminds us of the technique of using the location of moss on a tree to determine which way is north. While helpful, this technique is not guaranteed to yield correct results.
Along the way he finds bull rushes at the end of a lake. In June the lower portions are fresh and full of starches, but late in the season they become woody and inedible. Still, the top end is good for stuffing into clothes to keep warm and tinder. Les also stops to collect birch bark along the way to use for fire starting. In a survival situation you need to do whatever is necessary to stay alive, but if possible don’t strip all of the bark away from the tree as doing so can kill the tree.
Well in to day 6, Les notes the psychological difficulties of being in the wilderness alone. It’s difficult to not get spooked in the middle of the night in a dark forest. In addition to providing warmth, a fire is a great help in maintaining emotional health. Les also tells us of another technique for staying warm that he’ll be using. He’ll be warming small rocks by the fire and regularly placing them in his clothing.
On his second last day he continues his trek for the road. Despite the cold, Les is working hard to move through the forest. So to keep from sweating, he takes advantage of his layered clothing, removing layers as necessary. Before finding the road, he comes across a railroad. Should he follow them or keep looking for the road? He opts to keep looking for the road since he is certain of its existence.
On his last day and on day three of his walk to the road, he does come across hydro lines. He says they are not good to follow because they can go on for a long time and will cross areas like swamps and lakes that you can’t. So he keeps moving in the direction of where he expects to find the road. But desperation finally sink in and Les allows himself to get wet when crossing rivers. Fortunately for him he does find the road before hypothermia sets in.