Living off the grid
For many people stuck in the daily nine-to-five grind, the idea of simply walking away from everything and living in some remote location of the world is merely nothing more than a pleasant daydream.
For Nikki van Schyndel, it became reality.
“I sold my home and walked away from my life,” van Schyndel said.
In 2004, van Schyndel spent nearly two years living in a forest on Village Island, a remote island in the Broughton Archipelago. She was accompanied by her pet cat and friend, Micah Fay. When van Schyndel’s friends and family learned about her idea they thought she was losing it. They weren’t alone.
“I thought I was, too,” she said laughing.
Van Schyndel has since written a book about her experience living on Village Island. On Friday (April 25), she will share her experiences and read excerpts from her book, Becoming Wild, at Nanaimo’s Harbourfront Library.
“We didn’t think we would ever come back here. It was the most amazing life I ever lived. You’re in perfect happiness every day. You’re truly living,” van Schyndel said. “We lived with particularly nothing and yet we had everything. What could possibly entice us to go back into town?”
The idea to live in the wilderness began much earlier when van Schyndel had a “miraculous” encounter with a tree.
“I didn’t even know anything about trees and frankly, I didn’t even care about trees but I was like, ‘why do I love this tree so much? It’s so beautiful,’” van Schyndel said. “So I had this crazy encounter with this tree and it sparked this interest and embarrassment actually that I didn’t know anything about my natural world and that was something I really loved as a kid.”
Soon after the encounter, van Schyndel visited a bookstore, where she purchased a field guide on trees and nature. She would then spend the next decade learning about the nature around her.
“It really started me on this mission to learn about plants and everything you could do with them,” van Schyndel said.
Eventually, van Schyndel attended Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby. She also attended a survivalist school in Bellingham, Wash., and was inspired to live a primitive lifestyle in the wilderness.
“It was a home school kind of thing where you went once a week and I started learning about primitive skills,” she said.
During the course of her studies, van Schyndel met fellow adventurist Fay. The two of them decided that after they had learned enough about how to survive in the wild, they would spend more than a year living on Village Island.
“I decided to go on the coast. It was a landscape that both of us hadn’t really explored a lot of,” van Schyndel said. “It’s pretty isolated up there … It’s really a rugged coastline.”
Van Schyndel remembered the moment she stood on Village Island with Fay and watched the water taxi sail away in the distance and wondered whether she had done the right thing.
“It was really surreal when the water taxi dropped us off,” van Schyndel. “I had never been in the wilderness so much like that before and we didn’t really know each other very well either. So there was this moment where I was kind of looking at my partner wondering if I had made the right decision.”
Fortunately, for van Schyndel and Fay it was the right decision, even though the first few weeks were extremely intense.
“Of course we did argue a lot with each other in the beginning because we were competing with each other out there,” she said. “But we obviously ended up becoming the most incredible team.”
The situation on Village Island was, in many ways, similar to the concepts explored in the William Golding novel, Lord of the Flies.
“In the very, very beginning we ran through all those problems that come up with people trying to live in really stressful situations,” she said. “At first we were like, ‘Oh my gosh I am doing more work than you’ or ‘I got the water two days in a row’. All these really petty little things came up and immediately we said we can’t continue like this or we will end up dead. We really saw how you could progress to be someone like Piggy. We really saw that progression.”
The experience became much more than just learning to survive. “It really became about learning about yourself,” van Schyndel said. “The concept that continued over and over for us was this idea of not what you know, but it’s the strength of your mind and your ability to control your emotions. It is really what is in your heart. That’s the only way that for long-term living in survival situations is going to make you live. It’s not man versus wild. It’s man living with nature because otherwise it will get you.”
After 19 months of living on Village Island, van Schyndel and Fay decided to return to civilization. Van Schyndel cited her family as the major reason for wanting to come home.
“There was this idea that you had no idea what your friends and family were doing and that they thought you could be dead,” she said. “I had no idea that would be what made me come sooner, was my family. I love my family.”
Adjusting to life in a modernized society was no easy task. Van Schyndel had difficulties functioning in environments with unnatural light.
“My eyes would be streaming with water from all the smells. I had a headache constantly. I couldn’t have lights on in my mom’s apartment. I had to have candle light only. I couldn’t drive a car for weeks. I tried but you can see every single movement and I almost ended up crashing.”
Today, van Schyndel resides in Echo Bay on Gilford Island.
Van Schyndel’s talk begins at 6:30 p.m. She will also make an appearance at the Gabriola Library on Saturday (April 26) at 1 p.m.