Unfrozen Caveman Camper Tells All

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1998

Unfrozen Caveman Camper Tells All

In the beginning, there was fire. And it was good. Later came KOAs and solar showers and freeze-dried. And they were bad. So let's go back. Way back.
By Hampton Sides

Unfrozen Caveman Camper The River That Time Ignored Paddling the River Primeval

You'd be surprised how many strange visitors show up on the doorstep of this magazine's offices each year — sour-smelling wall rats fresh from Yosemite, extreme athletes hunting ink, people who've just completed some highly dubious Human Trick and yearn to tell the world their "personal story." So recently when our receptionist buzzed to warn that an authentic "mountain man" had come to pay us a visit, we were a little skeptical. Yet there he was, waiting patiently in the lobby, a remarkable-looking gentleman pushing 70, with a battered bush hat, suspenders, and grizzled shoulder-length hair. His name was Dick Person, and he was passing through town on the way to a "primitive skills" gathering in Oregon. There was a sagacity about him that was instantly apparent. His hide glowed with vigor. His whiskers crimped and bristled when he grinned. He smelled of birch and spruce, and seemed somehow out of sorts standing beneath a roof.

For most of the last two decades, Person has lived out of a book-lined tepee by a stream in an extremely remote part of the Yukon Territory. He raised his family on less than $5,000 a year, living the life of a hunter-gatherer, not so far removed from the Stone Age — foraging for greens and berries, shooting his own game, tanning hides, becoming expert with ax and bow saw. But Person is no waiting-for-the-apocalypse survivalist, no backwoods misanthrope. The man has quite obviously been living a North Country idyll, and in his unboastful way, he's devoted much of his time to spreading the gospel. He teaches bush-skills courses at the University of Alaska. He leads canoe trips down the great rivers of the wild Northwest. He can be heard on the CBC from time to time, dispensing all manner of backcountry advice — how to build a fire in a blizzard, where to find the best edible mushrooms, how to keep the blackflies at bay. He gives traveling seminars on what he calls wilderness "thrival" — for what's the point of merely surviving in the woods, he reasons, when you can live like a sultan out there? "Once you develop a certain level of competence," Person says, "you stop being preoccupied with the needs of your body and you can start appreciating the subtler things."

Teacher, guide, environmentalist, and master practitioner of North Country bushcraft, Dick Person has lived most of his life according to what he calls "the big natural timepiece." His ideas on camping borrow liberally from the trappers and voyageurs of pioneer times, but he's a voracious reader of conservationist and contemporary outdoor literature, from Richard Leakey's The Sixth Extinction to In the Absence of the Sacred, by Jerry Mander, and he incorporates modern notions (such as clean camping methods) whenever they make compelling sense to him. Make no mistake, the man can seem a bit eccentric, and he's opinionated as hell. ("Sugar is the single greatest killer on the planet!") He's no respecter of synthetic fibers — strictly wool, silk, and leather for him, thank you. He attributes his ruddy good health in part to a daily routine of weight training, yoga, and a hearty dose of ginseng extract — hardly the regimen of your typical bear-meat-and-potatoes mountain man.

Person grew up in Minnesota near the shores of Lake Superior, "where the pavement ended and the bush began." His Swedish father made his first pair of skis for him when he was seven, and he's managed to keep himself outside pretty much ever since. He explored Minnesota's Boundary Waters during his teens and began telemark skiing when the sport was little more than a Norwegian cult. In the early 1950s, after a stint in the army and two years of graduate work in wildlife biology, Person took a job as a ranger in Glacier National Park. After that, he taught geology at a Lake Tahoe private school and studied lemming behavior in Alaska, a pursuit that "gave me a good idea of what overcrowding does to the mammalian brain. I thought, This could be me!" He went on to become a guide on Mount Shasta, a ski patrolman at Jackson Hole, and a fish-and-game officer on the South Fork of the Salmon River. "I've sampled widely," he says. "And along the way, I've picked up a few things."

Fortunately, that's an understatement as big as the Stikine, the mighty British Columbia river on which Person sometimes leads camping trips like the one described in the pages to follow — a river surely wild enough to bring out the primitive camper in us all.

Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen

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