Pennsylvania survivalists are preparing for a doomsday scenario like the coronavirus. Now many feel vindicated.

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

Wowak, from the Schuylkill County town of Mahanoy, brought along an ax and saw, a sleeping bag, and a ferro rod, which you can smash to spark in almost any condition. He also picked out fishing lines and hooks, which proved invaluable. In 51 days, he only ate fish 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 lumberjack, quit reality TV Only early, choosing sanity, food, and family over the jackpot. Now, at 38, he teaches survival and outdoors classes through his company, Coal Cracker Bushcraft, giving crash courses on how to stay alive in the woods or when goods are being made. rare. Over the past week, he said, he has received hundreds of emails expressing interest as America has rapidly moved from normal shelves to empty supermarket shelves. He’s seen people make smart decisions, like social distancing, and bizarre decisions, like grabbing all the toilet paper they can.

“You don’t use toilet paper if you’re in the woods. Just take a few sheets 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 him.

Wowak, who earned an MBA from Alvernia University in Reading, defines essentials as shelter, water, fire and food. Translated to an urban or suburban environment, this could be a house, heat sources like blankets and fireplaces, your faucet, and extra cans of beans. If people would keep calm and think about those needs, he said, they would find better alternatives to the store.

“I went to Target the other day and there was no water on the shelves,” he said. “I walked down the driveway to the campground and all the water purifiers and jugs were there. You can literally boil a pot of water in the morning and evening.

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

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

Dawes said people should use the coronavirus pandemic to make plans, to list things they would take with them if they had to leave the house. They should also hone in on basic auto repairs.

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

The two woodcutters teach primitive skills to their students, such as making fire with an “arc drill”, as cavemen might have done. But they are also practical and carry tools that make lighting the fire much easier.

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

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

A Facebook preparedness group admin said he added 2,000 members a week.

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

Wowak and Dawes don’t consider themselves “preparers”, both preferring to be called lumberjacks who practice bushcraft. Wowak said he uses firearms for hunting, not for “tactical” reasons, but he thinks trapping is more practical for foraging.

Some Pennsylvania preppers agreed to speak to The Inquirer, but none would release their full names for fear their locations would be found out. Many declined to be interviewed, saying “the media” perpetuated the “preparer” stereotype.

Robert B., 40, of Lebanon County, said he and his daughters had “bug out bags” packed and ready in case they needed to leave the house immediately. He owns 45 acres “elsewhere”. Bug out bags usually contain essentials like extra medicine, sleeping gear, tools, lighters, etc.

“We prepared for different scenarios, from home invasions to mass riots and pandemics to possible war,” Robert B. said.

None of the pickers could think of a specific event that caused them to start stockpiling.

“I guess growing up in extreme poverty and seeing how one bad day can easily turn into a major problem,” said Michelle, 44, of Center County.

READ MORE: How to cook for and with your kids during extended coronavirus school closures

Many say the reaction to the coronavirus – mass layoffs, shortages of food and goods, relaxed law enforcement for certain crimes – could be as bad as the virus itself, which could explain the rise in arms sales to fire and ammunition. A Montgomery County gun store owner told The Inquirer last week he couldn’t order more ammunition. When asked if he had any guns, Erie County prepper Jon K. replied, “Use your imagination.”

According to Jon K., the most important aspect of preparation is water and food conservation, either by drying or canning. Michelle has a greenhouse and root cellar at home.

Wowak and Dawes agree that in a survival scenario, finding food is the most critical and difficult task. Buying milk and fresh meat thinks a lot about the present, Wowak said, but when shopping for an extended quarantine, look for canned foods, protein bars, nuts and even pasta — high-calorie foods that can last.

In the wild, Wowak said, small foods like blueberries or frogs are the easiest to eat, but low in calories. Large protein sources like deer or turkey are more complicated, even with a gun.

“If you were able to kill a deer and it was 70 degrees, would you be able to preserve it?” said Wowak.

Both men tell their students to avoid eating plants unless they are really good at identifying them. Many can make you sick or worse. Dawes suggested buying edible plant field guides and adding them to a bug out bag.

Despite being on TV, Wowak said many strategies perpetuated by film and TV aren’t entirely practical in a real survival situation – like roasting a fish over an open fire and just eating the fish. fillets. He prefers boiling them whole and essentially consuming everything but the bones to get every calorie.

“Even fish heads,” he said. “Eyeballs liquefy.”

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