Wilderness Living in British Columbia

At one time or another all of us have thought of starting over in some wild green corner of the world. The Kawatski family has done it. Here is their remarkable story of wilderness living and self sufficiency.

| August/September 1991

Tucked away among the mountains in a northern corner of British Columbia, a hand-hewn log home sits like a speck of propriety in the wilderness. Despite the logs, it's quite an elegant home with its dormer peaks and big windows looking down from a clearing on a hillside to the neat vegetable garden below. But just beyond the tidy house and clearing, the wild roses, columbine, and yarrow scramble over the hillside in summer. And in the neat garden itself, a creek frolics like a truant through the straight rows of hardworking cabbages and potatoes and onions and carrots.

Across a field, a blond, bearded man—my husband, Jay—drives a gaggle of crabby geese toward a fresh patch of horsetails. I am nearby, harvesting rhubarb with my eleven-year-old daughter while my young son looks on. This is no hobby for us. It is our way of life, and has been for the past seven years. My family and I live 120 miles from the nearest town.

I wasn't born to wilderness living; I adopted it. I grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, went to the university there, and then spent eight years seeing the world, mostly large cities like London, Berlin, and Paris. I tried hard to adapt to big-city life. In London, I was a nanny for twin boys. In Berlin, I had a job building harpsichords. I drank tea with the proud Afghanis before the Soviet invasion, and visited India, where I saw the human spirit soar above famine and poverty.

Short, intense bouts of tree-planting in British Columbia financed most of my wanderings abroad. It was a schizophrenic existence. One month I would be dressed in lace, sipping cafe au lait at a fancy sidewalk cafe in Paris. The next month, I was standing on some obscure Canadian mountainside, with my clothes caked in dirt and a mattock in my hand, planting trees for tomorrow.

But my serious move to wilderness life began in 1978, when the B.C. Forest Service hired me to be the first female lookout attendant at the Bob Quinn fire tower 120 miles north of Stewart, a tiny town near the Alaskan border. The prospect of spending three months alone on a mountaintop terrified me, but I needed the money. I also had enough solitary pursuits—writing, yoga, and reading—to keep me busy. I intended to explore my surroundings as much as possible. Wanting a little company, I acquired a husky pup in Stewart.

While in Stewart, I heard stories about the wild hermit who lived in the Bob Quinn Lake area near the fire tower. His bare feet would inevitably beat a path to my door, people said. His reputation as an unpredictable barbarian left such an impression in my mind that when I bought a buck knife it wasn't with the bears in mind.

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