Urban Survival Journey: Part I

Urban Survival Journey

With Christina Yu: Part I

Christina is a civil servant who lives in a condo by the lake. She is an amateur naturalist interested in tracking and bushcraft, and her side-interests include martial arts and emergency preparedness. She wrote one of the post in my ​

Part 1 of this post is a fascinating account of Christina being brought up in the city and having to seek out the knowledge and skills she needed. Part 2 is  on Christina's "10 Strategies for Building Resilience and Connecting with Nature." 

It’s morning, the first in my new condo. My friend Duncan has stayed overnight to keep me company because I’m nervous about being there on my own for the first time. We’re looking outside as we discuss what to get for breakfast. We can see all the way to the CN Tower. It’s rained all night. The sky is grey and dim, but the city is dotted with thousands of lights. That’s when it happens. 

As we watch, all the lights – all of them – shut off in a wave, moving from the downtown core towards us. The wave reaches my building and our lights go off, too. A moment later, they all turn on, then off again, as though the entire city blinked.

Duncan and I look at each other, awestruck. We’re about to have an adventure! We race downstairs to his truck and go on the hunt for breakfast.

I don’t know it yet, but for the next five days, I and thousands of others will be without power. It’s December 23, one day after the ice storm — the first day of the 2013 blackout.

My name is Christina Yu. I live in Toronto and work full-time for the Ontario government. My extracurricular pursuits include volunteering for my faith organization and my dojo, organizing my own tracking club and working as a part-time instructor for Canadian Bushcraft.

I’ve been interested in survival skills since 2008, when I took my first course at Sticks and Stones Wilderness School with Skeet Sutherland and Chris Gilmour. Chris has asked me to write this guest post to share some of my survival skills journey and the strategies that help me stay connected to nature and resilient in the city.

My journey has been long, and it began when I was quite young. I’ve learned a lot along the way that I hope will help guide you on your journey, too, and I welcome your comments below. If you’d like to read more about me and my story, continue on. However, if you prefer to skip this part and go straight to the strategies, you can find them here in Part II.

I grew up in the ‘80s in a small town in rural Ontario. My father was a minister and my mother worked part-time at a doctor’s office. They had three kids: my sister, my brother and I. We didn’t participate in many extracurricular activities. I took piano lessons, and that was about it – no hockey, no summer camp, no art classes. For entertainment, we either watched TV or were sent outside. One of my favourite memories was climbing up a “mountain” on the side steps of our church, wondering why the “dirt” was so crunchy — only to discover when we returned home that we had been up to our elbows in very old pigeon poop.

As a child I was not encouraged to be independent. Typically, Asian parents will do things for their children as a sign of caring — both the “It would be my pleasure to help you” kind and the “You won’t do that right, give it to me” kind. So I didn’t pick out clothes, or do chores, or try new things because someone else was always doing it for me. Over time I became very anxious about doing anything on my own. Combined with an overactive imagination, shyness and 1980s fantasy films, that upbringing produced a girl who wanted to be Atreyu from The Neverending Story (I was convinced that Atreyu was a girl because of the long hair), but was too insecure to actually do anything about it.

It is against this backdrop that I can tell you about what gave life to my survival skills journey. It was a death. One of my best friends died from a brain tumor at the age of 32.

At the time I was in university. I lived with my grandmother in Toronto’s Chinatown, taking Medieval Studies because I loved castles and King Arthur. I no idea what I would do after graduating; that aversion to risk, that fear of independence had stayed with me.

This was the first time someone close to me had died, and it seared a terrible, beautiful message into me: Life is short. Life is precious. Life is fleeting.

What was valuable to me in my life? Was it physical security? Was it mere peace of mind? Or did I want more? I thought about that often. When I went out alone at night or when I felt impatient with my grandmother, I would think to myself, “Our time here is short. This is worth it.”

Still, it would be several years before I felt confident enough to venture out on my own for my first solo course: dog-sledding in Algonquin Park. It was there I met Chris, one of two incredible trip leaders from Outward Bound. On our last day, he mentioned that he was teaching a survival course and, if I was interested, I should come check it out.

I was interested. I had read Robinson Crusoe and The Hobbit; I had watched The Swiss Family Robinson and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Surviving! Against all odds! In the wild! By myself! Who WOULDN’T want that?

That’s how I found myself at Empowering Ancient Ways with Sticks and Stones Wilderness School — my first ever survival course. It was a five day tour de force through basic survival skills, from debris shelters to friction fire to plant identification — and it was not at all what I expected.

For one thing, there was way, way more to know about survival than I thought. Fire, water, shelter, food: I knew about those already. But tracks? Stalking? Wind direction?! I mean, I knew what they were, but I hadn’t known they were related to survival.

Then there were the physical and mental challenges. While trying to get my first friction fire that week, I found out my arms weren’t as strong as I wanted them to be. Another night, I tried to sleep out in the debris shelter we made, but biting mosquitoes kept coming inside, and a few hours later I gave up and went back to my cabin, defeated. Some survivor I was.

Yet the week was also full of small victories, and through them I experienced some of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life. One morning my instructors covered themselves in coal dust, mud and greenery, and hid on the forest floor so completely that none of us could see where they were. That afternoon I covered myself in coal dust and got a red squirrel to do a double-take. Later that evening we went on a night hike, without lights of any kind. After standing still for 20 minutes, our vision adjusted enough to allow us to see the eyes of the local night life moving around, glancing up at us bipeds every so often, as we stood awkwardly with our mouths agape in the dark.

On our last night together, we went around the fire talking about how the course had changed us and what we would do when we left. Each of us spoke about how moved we were by each other and by nature, and promised to carry that forward into our lives … somehow.

Looking back, I realize that what I took away from the course was not at all what I expected to. I thought that by the end of the week, I’d know how to survive with a capital S: “Drop me into the wilderness with nothing but a knife in my hand, and I’ll come out alive!” Well, I came away with an academic knowledge of how to survive, for a few days. In that sense, you could call it a success. But my most precious takeaways weren’t about survival at all. They were about community, and how to fail.

I’m walking across a woodlot, somewhere in Hiawatha, looking for a good place to set up camp. It is springtime, and I am doing my first solo no-tent overnight.

Before sending each of us to our designated zones, the lead instructor asks what our biggest concerns are. “People with bad intentions, and bears,” I say. One of the other participants, James, says, “If you’re feeling nervous, just sleep with a knife next to your head!” I do, and it works. I get really cold at night when my fire goes out, but I’m not frightened.

When we gather the next morning, I ask James how he slept. Casually, he says, “Oh, I didn’t sleep. I stayed up because you said you were scared, just in case you needed me.”

The survival skills community in Ontario is made up of many different sub-groups, and I fell into one of those groups right after EAW ended: the Hippies.

Hippies can be very annoying. They’re flakey. They’re often late because they can’t drive themselves anywhere. They smell, and sometimes they need a shower. And they sing. All the time. About everything.

Hippies can also be astonishingly compassionate, forgiving and insightful.

In a community like that, to flip a saying on its head, suddenly failure IS an option. “You couldn’t make it for 8 o’clock? Then we’ll wait till 9.” “You couldn’t catch a ride? This person’s got room in their car.” “You didn’t bring enough food? That’s okay, we’ll share,” and so on and so on. I don’t say this to depict hippies as people waiting to be taken advantage of; I say this because I think there is a certain generosity that can grow inside when you don’t have a lot. Then you realize that giving anything, material or immaterial, is a privilege.

To be serious about learning survival is to admit that, left to your own devices, there’s a possibility that you won’t survive in a disaster. So if you want to learn, you need to be willing to put yourself into a situation that risks your safety, however slightly, so that you can find out what you need to do to survive. Put another way, if you want to learn to use a knife, you need to risk getting cut. You’ve got to have some skin in the game.

So many of my friends say they want to do the things I do, but they always have a reason not to. Bears is a popular one, and now ticks. But even when I explain how to mitigate those risks, most of my friends still won’t go out into the wild. Even more worrisome, I find that the number of children I teach who will make a consistent applied effort is decreasing. I’m not talking about going on a survival quest; I’m talking about doing push-ups and simple drills. They say things like: “They’ll make fun of me.” “I’m too tired.” “I can’t do it, so why bother?” I can sympathize, because I think about those things too. Here’s why I push past that: 

After we finished EAW, Skeet invited all of us back as course volunteers. I returned twice, for a total of three visits. During the third time, Skeet asked us to come up with a skills challenge for ourselves to complete during the week. My challenge was to make a fire by friction and brew some tea over it.

I almost didn’t complete that challenge. It took me right up to the very last day to finish it, and pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I sprained my ankle very badly. Then my cooking apparatus fell apart. Then when I got my first flame, I was so excited I dropped my fire on the ground. I also forgot to put any tea in my bush pot.

Someone shot a video as I began making the fire, and from start to finish, you can see everyone around me supporting me in some way. They’re giving words of encouragement, or they’re holding something for me, or they’re hurrying over to pick something up. Watch the video again and you’ll notice that at no time does anyone try to take over or tell me exactly what to do; they just see that I need help, and they support me without judgement.

I’m not sure who said it, but very early on in my journey, I learned, “Mistakes are our teachers.” It stuck with me, and I truly believe it is written in the heart of this community. What they deliberately and graciously gave me was the ability to fail at whatever task, safely — without shaming me or patronizing me — the option to ask for more help if I needed it, and unconditional support. Each time I failed, they helped me to examine what went right and what went wrong, and gave me the space to try again. They taught me that solo survival is possible, but community is the soil that you need to grow.

Without a doubt, my journey would have ended very shortly after it began were it not for this community. They were there to cheer me on in every attempt I made, successful or not — in bow making, plant medicine, basket weaving and tracking. Most courses drop you back into the world with no one to talk to, no matter how life-changing the experience was. That’s not what happened to me. Instead, I found my people

I’m back at the Wolf Den, where I took EAW, but this time it’s not for a lecture. George Leoniak, a Cybertracker evaluator, has just finished tallying our scores for the track and sign evaluation and he’s about to read them back to us. 

Cybertracker is an internationally recognized tracker certification program. Anyone interested can do the evaluation, including biologists, hunters and naturalists. My tracking mentor, Alexis, organized this one for a dozen people, including some friends and two former instructors: Chris and Skeet.

George is reading the scores from lowest to highest. He finishes with the 80% group and announces that the next set is for those who scored 90% and above. 

“Chris Gilmour.” Gulp. 

“Skeet Sutherland.” Double gulp. Oh my. 

“Christina Yu.” <hysterical blindness> 

Did that just happen? Did I just outscore my instructors? In TRACKING?! 

George finishes up and we walk around congratulating each other. Chris runs up to me and slaps my shoulder. “Heya, Christina! Way to go! Congratulations! I’m super proud of ya!” He’s actually more excited about my score than I am. Once again, I am profoundly grateful to have Chris Gilmour as a friend.

One evening close to the end of Empowering Ancient Ways, I remember being explicitly told that not all of this information would stick. Most likely, we would find only two or three subjects that really captured our attention, and those were the ones we should pursue when we went home. For me, those subjects were fire and tracking, and I pursued both with a passion.

Bowdrill was my focus for years, and every winter I ran a women’s bowdrill challenge, taking my first steps as an instructor. Tracking was not as easy to engage in. Tracks were everywhere, but trackers? Not so much. There was one course I knew of and then a monthly tracking club. That was all. Eventually, a friend told me about a week long winter tracking course in Algonquin. I went, and it was the trip of my dreams. But when I returned to the city, I faced a community problem: I was wound up, full of passion, but had no one to share it with.

Enter Alexis Burnett. In 2012, I enrolled in his Tracking Apprenticeship, a 10-month program that ran one weekend each month, with optional take-home assignments and phone calls to check on our progress.

Finding a way to commit such a significant amount of time and money was honestly very difficult. This was very different from taking a one-day workshop, and I had a full-time job in the city, no car, and a full social life. Fortunately, my good friend Bill had also been invited, and as we commiserated about how hard it would be, suddenly we both said: “I’ll go if you go.”

For the next 10 months, no matter how far it was, no matter how early I had to wake up, no matter how cold, wet, or buggy, I was committed. I wanted to graduate from this program because I wanted to know how to track, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. The results speak for themselves. I graduated third in my evaluation and got my Cybertracker Level III, making me one of the highest ranked trackers in North America.

How did I stay motivated? I firmly fixed in my mind an image of what success looked like: I would be able to look at a track, know what made it and be able to follow it. As I learned more about tracking, that image of success grew and took on more details: I would know how old a track was, what the animal was doing, how it was moving and so on. If I was interested by something that wasn’t strictly tracking related, I would investigate it outside of the apprenticeship. In this way I learned about clouds, winter tree ID, mushrooms and bird language.

As a result, my journey felt completely natural, always interesting and endlessly engaging. I never made a formal plan; if I had — with each step written out and dates to finish by and checkboxes to tick off — it would have drained the life out of it. It wouldn’t have been fun. And for me, fun is a big source of energy.

Every day now, I look out my window to see what direction the wind is blowing in, hoping to see the red-tailed hawks that nest on my building. Over lunch, I take a walk, always on the lookout for the baby raccoons in the park, listening for the taps of the woodpecker and sniffing the wind for the scent of Bergamot. About once a week, I grab my binoculars and camera and see what I can discover in the parks by my condo. Once a month, I’m in Hiawatha showing my friend Caleb the latest project I’m working on. Every few months, I’m out with my tracking club somewhere in the GTA, looking for deer, or ducks, or tracks. Once a year, I’m back in Algonquin for a weekend of winter tracking. I love it all. It is all worth it. 

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’”

I think less about survival now and more about being comfortable in the bush. Yet somehow over the past 10 years, I’ve gathered enough resources that if I were to be put into a survival situation, I wouldn’t just survive, I’d do pretty well. Still, over time, I’ve realized that mere survival isn’t enough. The topic is much wider and deeper than that.

What is your goal? Do you want to learn how to survive in the wilderness, like I did? Do you want to start homesteading? Are you preparing for the zombie apocalypse or the next financial recession? The answer could be setting you up for a short trip of “there and back again,” or it could send you on a life-changing journey.

As you travel towards it, I offer some lessons from the animals I've tracked.

Find your people. You are more resilient in a group than on your own.  

Keep your destination firmly fixed in mind.  But if you get distracted by sights and sounds along the way, enjoy them. They will make the journey more interesting.

Finally, continue moving forward. Even a small step will take you closer to your goal. Like our wild brethren, may you survey your environment, gather your energy, and move, fully committed, to make the next track on your trail, the next mark on your life's journey.

I would like to thank my editors, Andrea Jacobsen and Eli Fox. Their amazing advice vastly improved this blog.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider donating to the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station.

Resource Recommendations:

Earth Tracks:  www.earthtracks.ca

Canadian Bushcraft: www.canadianbushcraft.ca

Northern Karate Schools: www.northernkarateschools.com

Black Thunder Studios: www.blackthunderstudio.com

Outward Bound: www.outwardbound.org

White Pine Programs: whitepineprograms.org

Practical Primitive’s YouTube video on proper bowdrill form

The Canadian Canoe Museum: canoemuseum.ca

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