The more you know, the less you carry.
This is the mantra of Mors Kochanski, an internationally renowned wilderness survival expert in Alberta fighting for his life after being diagnosed with mesothelioma last month.
Known to his fans around the world as the “Patron Saint of Bushcraft,” Kochanski — who lives near Bear Lake in Yellowhead County — turns 79 years old on Oct. 11.
Born in Saskatchewan and honourably discharged from the Royal Canadian Navy as a young man, since 1968 Kochanski taught wilderness survival skills to countless students — including thousands of military personnel and civilians in Canada, the U.S., the UK and Sweden.
He became an associate professor at the University of Alberta in the 1970s, editing Wilderness Arts and Recreation Magazine as of 1976. His masterpiece and international bestseller, Northern Bushcraft came out in 1988, the flagship publication of his many books, booklets and video courses released through the years.
Edmonton mycologist, herbalist and prolific author Robert Rogers first met Kochanski at a wilderness event decades back: “We instantly enjoyed each other’s company and love of boreal plant medicines.”
Rogers, co-founder of North Country Fair, recalls travelling Alberta with Kochanski and naturalist Randy Breeuwsma, filming documentary footage of plant life. “I would scout them out and Mors would talk about their uses in survival and bush craft situations, as well as health benefits.
“We did a series on poisonous plants and travelled the province looking for poison ivy. Apparently cattle love it — hence the lack — until we found some in a provincial park near the Saskatchewan border.
“Mors and Randy ran out of truck and rubbed their bare arms and legs with the plant to elicit a reaction that never came. I laughed and laughed, but refrained.”
Says Rogers, “For many great years we shared a deep bond, entwined by our love and respect for nature.”
In his classes, Rogers has a mantra of his own: “You can eat any mushroom — once.”
This past summer, Rogers notes Kochanski was given an honorary degree by Lakeland College for his contributions to outdoor education with young people. “In June, a gathering of survival, bush craft and wilderness instructors from around the world met near Bowden for the Global Bushcraft Symposium.
“Mors was honoured for his lifetime of dedication and contribution to the educating of so many people around the globe.”
Like many over the years, local indie rock band Faith Healer’s lead singer Jessica Jalbert was one of Kochanski’s students when she worked at an outdoor education centre in Athabasca. “Back in 2006 I participated in Rat Root Rendezvous,” she says fondly, “which is basically a wilderness skills course. It was called that because we harvested the tubers of this plant called rat root, which has lots of medicinal uses — though it’s also toxic in more than small quantities.
“Mors was one of the facilitators. He taught about a lot of the plants we encountered in the area and, yeah, gave great anecdotes about them — including one about blueberry leaves and stalks harvested in spring and made into tea to go for a wicked trip,” she laughs.
“Hoping I remember that right so that doesn’t seem too tell-all.”
Testimonies of Kochanski’s skill, passion and widesperad knowledge from survivalists and outdoors enthusiasts are many, but his knowledge of the outdoors also spread from his artistic inclinations.
In Northern Bushcraft, Kochanski drew his own illustrations, and also published a well-loved craft book called Bush Arts, showing us how to make everything from cow parsnip flutes to a kitchen witch out of natural materials.
Visual artist and musician Nickelas “Smokey” Johnson was asked to redraw Kochanski’s illustrations large scale for Art Gallery of Alberta’s 2017 exhibition, Survival Guide.
Johnson describes Kochanski’s style as “outsider art, which is not for everyone. It’s like messy handwriting wasn’t cool until Starbucks did, then everyone’s like, ‘Oh, OK!’
“When we went out to meet him at his property, he wasn’t immediately warm to me,” he laughs, “and that became fairly quickly obvious as to why as we sat down and talked about the project. My limited experience with bush craft seemed to warm him up and he told me, ‘I hate working with illustrators.’
“In the past, they’d get little details like the curve of an axe handle wrong, and that would drive him crazy because, ‘If you aren’t getting that right, what else do I have to micromanage so that you aren’t leading people into the woods to die?’
“He’s talking about things that will help you survive, so every single detail has to be accurate. My biggest flattery was for him to not have any edits for the art show.”
Whenever Johnson is out in the woods, he carries a non-folding knife around his neck on a string — “which is directly from his teaching,” which he was following for years before they met. “My mom randomly bought me a disposable magazine about bush craft ages ago, and he was referenced in it numerous times. Dad and grandpa were hunters, but all of their skills were utilitarian. If you could beat a log in half with a blunt axe, that was good enough,” Johnson laughs.
“All of this what seemed to me esoteric knowledge in this survival text was exciting and new. It required some attention. This was levelling up, like nerd territory to add to all the good stuff my dad had taught me.
“I’m not one of those survivalists types who’s like, ‘I gotta prepare for when the government takes our guns!’ or whatever,” he laughs again. “But I make art habitually, and to do that in a way that helps set up the camp more efficiently with a feeling of craft gives me more of an enjoyment.
“There’s a 1:1 purpose with everything you’re doing with your hands. One of the other things that keeps bringing me back to this lifestyle or skill set or mode of learning is I don’t need these skills, I just like having them. But, as above so below, knowing this way of thinking transfers into other elements of my life that makes me better at surviving, just living in society. It makes me think better.
Johnson paraphrases his favourite lesson: “If you let despair creep in, you’re f—ed.”
Kristy Trinier, now the executive director of Southern Alberta Art Gallery, curated the Survival Guide show when she worked at AGA.
Having taken his courses, she, too, was attracted to his artwork. “His graphic illustrations make clear the most essential things to remember when survival is at issue, knowing most people will remember the image before a long list of instructions on what to do next.
“It was incredible to visit with Mors and his family in Peers, to learn from him and to witness his incredible research process of documenting and linking knowledge of biology and the wilderness, so others could feel more safe, adept and respectful to the environment of the boreal forest.”
From an outdoor class, “I remember him sharing the exact size of a fire that would be needed to keep you warm all night, in a winter snow quinzhee — and how to angle the logs to ensure you didn’t get smoked out of your shelter.
“But mainly, it is his credo. It has come to mind a few times in my life since I first took survival training with Mors — and I think it is applicable to other scenarios than only survival in the forest.”
That credo begins, “The bush is neutral. It is neither for nor against me. My comfort depends on what I can do for myself and how much I know about using the bush materials around me.”
It ends, “I will not let fear or panic rule my mind as this only works against me. The bush is inert. It is incapable of doing me harm.”
Messages to Mors Kochanski can be sent to him through his Facebook page under his name, where his mailing address can also be unearthed.