Life lessons from the wild
Story & Photos: Chris Long
August 23, 2019
Teaching survival training to scientists in Antarctica, inspiring people how to live off the land and working with the extremes of nature are just some of the ways Chris Long, aka @Wild Kiwi Adventurer, leads others on a more sustainable path. He grew up in New Zealand’s most remote family, two days’ walk from the nearest road and after learning bush-craft for 17 years, he left home to travel the world, and teach others about adapting and surviving in the wild. Here, he shares his top survival stories.
Gorge River, on the West Coast of the South Island, is a rugged, powerful place. On the river bank, a small house is nestled on the edge of the native bush. The wild Southern Ocean on its doorstep. There is a line where the turquoise green river meets the pounding waves. It’s stunningly beautiful, but with wildly changeable weather patterns, it has an unforgiving nature. This rugged, magnificent place is where I call home.
Growing up as part of New Zealand’s most remote family, I was incredibly lucky to live amongst the wilderness and learn to survive in it. It equipped me for a life of adventure exploring the world. Since the age of 17, when I left home to finish my studies, I’ve drawn on those skills to keep me safe through some wild experiences, and helped me teach others the skills to survive.
My top five life lessons:
1. Blizzard survival in Antarctica
As a field trainer at Scott Base in Antarctica, I taught our base staff and scientists how to live and work safely outside in the most inhospitable environment on earth. As part of this, everyone had to camp a night out in the snow. The first course I taught was the wildest to this day. We had -40°C temperatures and 5-10 knot winds. People were constantly taking turns going inside a little hut nearby to warm up. At midnight, the wind speed increased and changed direction to the south… the first warning sign of an approaching blizzard. At Gorge River I’m used to the cold, the wind and changeable weather and the importance of getting shelter in those conditions. In Antarctica the conditions are even more extreme. It was time to go home.
We woke up our group and gave them one simple instruction: “Roll up your sleeping bag and jump in the Hägglunds [all-terrain Arctic vehicles].” Instead of taking the usual 20 minutes, with limited visibility it took 16 people a full two hours to perform this simplest of tasks. As I sat in the warm comfort of Scott Base for the next 36 hours, watching the blizzard rage outside, I reflected on what had certainly been my wildest experience yet and how growing up at Gorge River had prepared me so well for it.
2. Sailing the Northwest Passage in a small yacht
Sailing the Northwest Passage on a 13m yacht took me to some of the most isolated and beautiful places I have ever been. There were five of us in a self-sufficient boat, sometimes over 1,000km from the nearest town, completely reliant on our yacht staying afloat. In this environment full of icebergs, storms and polar bears there was so much that could go wrong. A simple fire could be catastrophic. Hitting an iceberg could sink us.
At Gorge River my sister and I were taught to never have an accident. If we got hurt there was an emergency locator beacon to use, but that was a last resort. We could have been waiting hours for a helicopter, or days if the weather was bad. We learned to just never make a mistake. I applied that same idea to this trip and impressed it on the rest of the team.
For the entire three-month expedition, we had two people on watch at all times when on the move. One person could be down below warming up and keeping a close eye on the charts and navigation tools, while the other was up on deck watching for icebergs, other ships and wind changes. This gave us a sufficient safety margin and we finished the crossing intact.
I’ll never forget the beauty of our approach into Alaska. I woke at 4am to the crescent moon shining down as we were lashed by 45 knot winds, spray was biting into our faces and a dancing ribbon of Aurora Borealis cut the night’s sky in two. All the raw elements of nature at work.
3. Crossing a flooded river
Recently I walked in to Gorge River with a friend, Sarah. It was just three days after a flood had destroyed the bridge at nearby Franz Josef Glacier. The rivers were still large and the forecast said rain overnight. We walked the 20km into Barn Bay and stayed the night in the house there by the beach, comfortable by the fire listening to the storm rage outside.
The next morning we decided to attempt the river crossing. Experience told me the dark color of the water meant it was swollen but not in full flood. It took all our river-crossing skills to work out the one and only safe route across, and that we could get over halfway across before we would pass the point of safe return. As we neared halfway, we could see the swift water, over waist deep at this point, start to get shallower. We could make it. We had managed to cross without getting in ‘too deep’ – without getting to a point we couldn’t handle safely. It goes to show you can push the limits of your ability as long as you always have a clear way to get out.
4. Dealing with a skiing accident
Working on the ski fields, I was out with a friend one day in fresh snow, skiing hard and making the most of the soft conditions. At the end of the day, as the hill was going into shade, we built a small kicker off a rock. We were having a great time until my mate tried to do a backflip, landing on the harder snow upside down with a crack. He had snapped a vertebra in his upper back, with his body twisted on a 35° icy slope.
My pre-hospital emergency care training kicked in. I could see the extreme pain on his face. I knew I had to stabilize him on the slope to stop him sliding further, call for the rescue toboggan from the top of the ski field and notify the mountain manager who would call the rescue helicopter. All the while stabilizing his spine as best I could in such a precarious position. I could also see clouds rolling in and there was no time to loose preparing him for the helicopter ride. As he kept trying to stand up, I firmly spoke to him: “Stay still, Tom; stay still.”
I held his head straight and with the help of a couple of other patrollers and bystanders we rolled him onto the solid backboard stretcher as best we could from a really awkward sloping position. Hypothermia can set in fast after trauma and lying on the snow is very cold. To avoid this we tucked blankets over him and skied him swiftly down the mountain to the base area heli-pad. As the helicopter lifted off, a silence fell across the mountain and we waited for news. Tom walked out of hospital two days later with a fused spine. The right training had helped me stop him from standing up on the slope; if he had, there’s a good chance he would have been paralyzed.
5. Teaching outdoor education in China
After growing up in a changeable environment, it’s engrained in me to be flexible and always ready to change the plan. Teaching outdoor education in China required the same skills, but in a completely different environment – one full of people. As program coordinator at a remote hotel, I was thrown a curve ball. I was supervising 12 staff and we were set to host a 100-strong group of eight-year-old school kids visiting from Hong Kong. We met them and ferried them across the lake to the hotel, usually a tranquil spot with not many guests. In the two hours we had been away, another group had also arrived – 1,000 people there for a health conference. It was raining heavily and suddenly everyone had to cram into the dining hall together.
My group of kids were hungry and tired. And they all seemed to be disappearing into the crowd of much taller adults. We managed to round them up and come up with a new plan for the next few hours, seriously changing the expectations for the day. The skills I had learned in the wilderness – to adapt and change at a moment’s notice – were transferred to a vastly different environment in the world’s most populated country.