Survivalist Nikki van Schyndel is equally comfortable sitting alone on the Arctic tundra floor or inside a cosy spa in North Vancouver.
Van Schyndel exists in two realms: a remote rainforest – and the Marine Drive corridor.
In her late 20s van Schyndel, who grew up show jumping and with aspirations to become a lawyer, decided to check where her survival skills were at.
She made daily trips to a map shop, poring over B.C.’s topography until she found a place that “looked survivable” and was remote enough. That place was the Broughton Archipelago – a maze of isolated islands near northern Vancouver Island.
“I wanted to live off the land with stone tools and starting fires by sticks,” says van Schyndel, sitting urban side on Tuesday.
When van Schyndel first arrived on the archipelago about 15 years ago, she received permission to live on an ancient village site. Her accommodation was a stick hut made of bark that van Schyndel survived in from February to September.
“It was filled with hardships, pain and suffering, and starvation – and at the same time I had never felt more alive in my life,” she recalls.
To stay alive, van Schyndel had to become familiar with B.C.'s coastal flora and fauna, and acquire hunter-gatherer skills. Making clothes from cedar bark and gobbling a fish tail whole became second nature to her.
She hasn’t turned her back on this lifestyle, having laid part-time roots in the remote area. Where van Schyndel is situated, on Gilford Island, there are zero roads and no amenities.
Nine people live in the village. Van Schyndel’s best friend is an 84-year-old named Billy, an original settler in the area.
When a lack of connectivity to the world nags at her, North Vancouver lures her back home for a few months.
“The first thing I do is I pick up my grandmother and we go to a movie,” says van Schyndel.
She wrote a book, Becoming Wild, about her life in the Broughton Archipelago. Not surprising, van Schyndel caught the attention of reality show producers who recruited her to compete on the History Channel series Alone.
Armed with only 10 items of their choosing, contestants are abandoned in the wilderness to see how long they can survive for. They are alone. Multiple cameras strapped to each contestant’s body capture the bleak conditions. The last one standing wins US$500,000.
A helicopter dropped Van Schyndel on the frigid shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The smell of heavy snow was in the air.
“I was so excited to see that helicopter leave,” avows van Schyndel. “Because we are truly never alone. We don’t get to experience that.”
Van Schyndel surveyed her surroundings, as a blizzard enveloped the open tundra. She didn’t know what temperature it was, but there was “no way” her six layers of clothes were coming off.
“The hygiene in the Arctic, I have to say, was very difficult,” says van Schyndel with a laugh. “The only thing I craved was toilet paper.”
To help keep her alive, van Schyndel had an axe, saw, knife, sleeping bag, paracord, pot, trap wire, fish hooks, a Ferro rod – and a bow and arrow.
“I based my tool list on feeding myself,” she explains. “Almost everything was geared toward acquiring food and cooking it. And staying warm.”
A popular strategy for the wilderness reality show, says van Schyndel, is to pack on the pounds beforehand and then wait for the more lean contestants to fall.
“I just wasn’t a big believer in that,” says van Schyndel, who hunted big game as part of her food source.
Mental strength is the most important survival skill, figures van Schyndel, who was already acclimated to isolation before Alone.
“Your mind is your greatest enemy out there, especially when you’re alone,” explains van Schyndel. “It can tear you down quickly.”
Van Schyndel hardly recognized herself when she returned from the Arctic, because she was “fundamentally changed.”
The fierce warrior also gained some transferrable survival skills that she can apply to her urban world.
“To do something dangerous that has risks,” says van Schyndel. “We have risks all day long that we can take. We want a better job but we’re too afraid to leave the one we have. In survival, if you use too many of those excuses – you die.”
Would people from van Schyndel’s childhood expect to see her conquering the Arctic with ease?
“Definitely not – no way,” she says.
Alone is the most authentic reality show on TV today, promises van Schyndel.
“It’s real. I think they do a great job editing our footage. We don’t make up anything. We don’t redo stuff.”
Reflecting on the dichotomy that is her life, van Schyndel would pick isolation over urban living because the latter can suck the gratitude out of you, she says.
“Surviving in the city is way harder than surviving in the wilderness.”