As a child, Nikki Van Schyndel always knew she wanted to become one with the wilderness. She aspired to be Sam Gribley—a character from a children’s adventure novel that lives off the land. But that dream quickly perished when modern comforts veered her in the opposite direction.
At age 29, Schyndel decided to make a drastic change in her life. She stepped into her childhood dream, spending19 months in a remote rainforest in the Broughton Archipelago—a maze of isolated islands near the north part of Vancouver Island—with her house cat and a virtual stranger. She abandoned a life of pedicures and restaurants for roasted mice and wild flower salads. She fended off harsh weather, starvation and hungry wildlife, including a cougar that stalked her for two weeks.
In her new book Becoming Wild, Schyndel chronicles her primitive journey on a West Coast island. She recently shared her experience with Canadian Geographic.
What inspired you to take on such a journey?
Something inside — against all reason and logical — compelled me to learn how to start fires with sticks. I wanted so badly to live this experience of primitive survival for a year in the woods. A lot of people in the primitive survival world dream about it and don’t do it. I was tired of dreaming.
What was your most rewarding moment?
When we caught our first salmon on a primitive bone hook. It was the culmination of all the lessons I had learned. The salmon is so sacred to people in the Pacific Northwest. To catch the fish — using barbed rope tied to your toe and a cedar bark dip net to get the fish into the boat — was like living back in ancient days.
What was your most challenging moment?
Starving. I got to a point where I could barely walk properly. Another was my encounter with a cougar. It brought up my fears of dying.
The thing about starving is that I could actually row away to get a hamburger somewhere. But with the cougar, there was nowhere to go. All during the day, I still had to forage for food, get fire wood and collect water. I was constantly paranoid, knowing the cougar was around. As soon as the lights dimmed, it would come down on the beach and circle around us, roaring and screaming with such anger.
Without spoiling the book, could you describe how those 19 months in the wilderness changed you?
I came to know myself and my place in the world. In the wilderness, you are free to be you. There is no judgement and nature just reflects how you feel inside. It taught me lessons of who I truly am and my capabilities have helped me enormously to re-integrate and find that balance in the world. It changed my perspective. I am not attached to anything anymore, like I was when I left. It’s an incredible feeling to be so self reliant and know that I developed a keen sense of intuition.