Using the back of his hunting knife, Dan Wowak scrapes downward on a ferro rod, creating a very hot glowing spark that ignites the dry grass he has piled on the ground to build a fire in the woods.

RINGTOWN, Pa. — When Dan Wowak went to live alone in the wilds of Patagonia in 2016 for a chance to win a half-million dollars on reality television, he was allowed to bring 10 items. Toilet paper wasn’t one of them.

Wowak, a Mahanoy City native, did bring an ax and saw, a sleeping bag and a ferro rod, which you can strike to make sparks in just about any condition. He also chose fishing line and hooks, which proved invaluable. Over 51 days, he ate nothing but fish he caught in a lake: nine of them.

“I lost 54 pounds,” he said. “I know what hunger feels like.”

Wowak, who worked in the juvenile justice system before becoming a full-time woodsman, left the reality show “Alone” early, choosing sanity, food and his family over the big prize.

Today, at age 38, he teaches survival and outdoors classes through his company, Coal Cracker Bushcraft, giving crash courses in how to stay alive in the woods or when goods are scarce. He said he’s recently gotten hundreds of emails expressing interest as America quickly went from normal to empty supermarket shelves. He’s seen people making smart decisions, like social distancing, and bizarre ones, like grabbing all the toilet paper they can.

“You don’t use toilet paper if you’re out in the woods. Just grab some leaves and wipe your butt. At home, you can cut up old T-shirts,” he said. “I think, honestly, a lot of people just don’t know what to do. They see me buying toilet paper, they see you buying toilet paper and Uncle Frank, and they go looking for it.”

Wowak, who earned an MBA from Alvernia University in Reading, defines essentials as shelter, water, fire and food. Translated to a city or suburban environment, that could be a house, heat sources like blankets and fireplaces, your faucet, and extra cans of beans. If people remained calm and thought those needs out, he said, they’d find better alternatives at the store.

“I went to Target the other day and there was no water on the shelves,” he said. “I went over to the camping aisle and all the water purifiers and jugs were there. You could literally boil a pot of water in the morning and at night.”

Art Dawes, 51, of Lock Haven, runs PA Wilderness Skills, a business similar to Wowak’s. He said he took a survival class offered by his junior high school decades ago and has been hooked ever since.

“We were starting fires on the front lawn of the school,” he said.

Dawes said people should use the coronavirus pandemic to make plans, to list out things they would take with them if they had to leave home. They should brush up on basic car repair too.

“You never know if your car is going to break down,” he said.

Both woodsmen teach primitive skills to their students, such as making fire with a “bow drill,” the way cavemen might have done. But they’re also practical and carry tools that make lighting fire far easier.

“There’s a reason why lighters were invented,” Dawes said.

All across the country, people who identify as “preppers” have spent years stockpiling food, even ammunition, for disaster scenarios, and many feel vindicated as the coronavirus and efforts to stop it spread. They’ve often been ridiculed or called paranoid, but they say many of their critics are now asking for their help, or whether they can spare some of their surplus if times get tough.

One administrator for a Facebook prepper group said he’s been adding 2,000 members per week.

“The only story we want to tell is that everyone, every member of a community, should learn the basics of survival not only for themselves, but for their communities,” he said in a message.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020
Tuesday, June 30, 2020