Meeting the Wilderness on Her Own Terms – Nikki Van Schyndel

Legacy Part 06 – Nikki Van Schyndel – Author / Wilderness Guide

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 28/01/2018 

I had no idea I was landing into a world inhabited by folk heroes.

Nikki would never call herself that but many would given her account of how she walked away from a long-term relationship and all the trappings of a successful modern life to survive on her wits in the wilderness of coastal BC.

She began to re-emerge after spending the week-or-so necessary to row in her small boat from her wilderness home to Echo Bay on the north-west coast of Gilford Island. She headed there to post a letter to her mom to let her know she was still alive.

Much happened between then and now. Work on fishing boats; Learning about fish and logging from, now retired salmon fisherman Billy Proctor (more of him in my next post); augmenting her ever-expanding knowledge of the natural world and how humans have and can survive within it, and, like everyone else out here, learning how to make a living somehow.

She has spent years building her log cabin from nothing but an uncleared 500 sq/ft or so with an epic view of Cramer Passage and Baker Island to the comfortable, compact and efficient home it is now.

It is still on the edge – electricity courtesy of a generator turned on once a week, light provided by candle in most part, heat from a wood stove fuelled by logs salvaged, hauled, bucked and chopped by Nikki herself with help from Billy, and now, hot water from a water heater that is a recent and hard-won upgrade. And how many homes can boast their own log chute? – a sturdy construction of logs and boards that allow salvaged logs to be winched from the water up the steep shore to where they can be chainsawed into construction material or firewood.

Now she’s dedicating much of her time to bringing people to a new awareness of nature, what it takes to live in the wilderness and the people of coastal BC.

It is difficult though.

She told me that local First Nations communities take exception to what they see as her appropriation of their cultural heritage and that the park service has restricted her activities in the Broughton Archipelago – running tourist trips there – a chance to transfer her knowledge to others – was a key source of income for her.

As with every point of friction I have so-far encountered between separate groups connected to the ocean, I am struck by how defensive everyone is about their slice of what is going with regards to making a living. The sheer hardship causes conflict. The hardship and the scale of caring for an environment like this and sorting out what constitutes fair use.

Ever adaptable Nikki is now collaborating with Charlie Sneed – another sometime resident of the community, working on a documentary film project that puts Billy Proctor’s life and stories at the centre of a discussion about coastal communities in BC, their past, and their future.

Nikki has the confidence of someone who has taken a bold step in her life and come out on top and as such she wears it with ease. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is so capable and yet so compassionate. She met the wilderness on her own terms, succeeded and did so without allowing the experience to turn her callous. A small miracle in my view.

It doesn’t mean everyone would like her point of view on everything. But that is the heart of the Sealives project – we are all alike in how different we are from each other, and the conflicts that arise from that just serve to remind us that we are all in this boat together.

In my experience, when you strive to understand all points of view the problem becomes three dimensional – an abstract shape you can rotate in your hands and analyze in the search for solutions.

It is my intention that Sealives will become that abstract shape for people – one place with multiple points of access into the issues of ocean health.

If I get even part of the way down that road it will be in no small part because of Nikki’s help in helping to arrange my visit to Echo Bay and for that, I owe her a debt of thanks.