Spending the weekend with 'preppers' — people who prepare for the apocalypse
A reporter tags along to an annual weekend devoting to learning wilderness lore, self-defence and what to stockpile in the face of the coming apocalypse.
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A man who calls himself Che Bodhi draws a crude map in the dust on the hood of his maroon Volkswagen, a battered car that can run on used vegetable oil.
There’s the United States and all its guns to the south, Bodhi says. Highways 401 and 407 are heavily travelled. And St. Catharines and the Niagara Region are a “funnel point.”
“North,” he concludes, “is the only way that you can truly disappear.”
Bodhi is the organizer of the Annual Preppers Meet, held on a recent weekend on a patch of land near Shelburne, and he knows something about disappearing. I call him after the meet, having heard his name is an alias. He’s evasive and won’t confirm it directly.
“By having an alias, it’s a way to protect my family, and I would really appreciate if you didn’t publish anything in that respect,” he said.
Preppers anticipate various disasters by stockpiling food, honing wilderness survival skills and learning self-defence.
If a Katrina-like storm knocked out power in Toronto, you’d know the preppers by the lights in their windows, running on generators. And if things ever descend into chaos, they’ll grab their prepacked bags, loaded with essential survival equipment, and split, leaving the rest of us to fight over the last drops of gasoline and fresh water.
The schedule for the weekend is packed: archery, GPS and mapping, first aid, “firearms 101,” and a two-part lecture from Doug Getgood, who spent over a year living in a cabin in the Ontario wilderness. Six rabbits huddle in a triangle formed by blue pipes. “Dispatching and skinning rabbits” is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday.
Saturday kicks off with opening remarks from Robert Studer, a co-organizer who became interested in prepping in the lead-up to the year 2000, which arrived with none of the predicted digital disasters.
“That was kind of a downer,” said Studer. And 2012 was “another disappointment.”
He told the audience that he had struggled with drinking and a painkiller addiction and spent years immersed in conspiracy theories.
“Some things just didn’t look right (about the 9/11 attacks),” he said, declining to elaborate as a man in the audience shot video.
But today Studer’s prepping is grounded in positivity.
“The more preppers there are, the better the world becomes,” he said.
The weekend takes place against the backdrop of a possible nuclear war, with many presenters speaking in front of the doors to Bruce Beach’s fallout shelter, called Ark Two.
Much of the shelter is composed of 42 school buses buried under earth and concrete. The ceilings, which often take the arc of a bus, are low and dripping in condensation.
The sunlight vanishes completely as you descend into the shelter. Inside, bare bulbs light the corridors. The place smells of wet earth.
In the event of a nuclear war, it will be particularly important to protect children, Beach said.
“Every philosopher has always said, ‘Send them to me, the children, because they’re our hope for the future,’ ” Beach said.
Beach says the shelter is a sort of nursery. It feels more like a tomb.
IN THE AFTERNOON heat, I climb a hill dotted with colourful tents and meet a man who introduces himself as Hezekiyah Ysrayl. I ask him about his interest in the event.
“I look at this as the end times,” he says, citing Matthew 24 in the Bible as proof, in which Jesus’ disciples ask him about the sign of the messiah’s coming and the end of the age: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places,” Jesus answers. “All these are the beginning of birth pains.”
Using the biblical passage as a checklist, Ysrayl believes the messiah will return “pretty soon.”
FIRST, THOUGH, we must handle a zombie outbreak.
Later in the afternoon, I follow Ysrayl through the grass to where his team of seven has gathered.
Participants are instructed to travel in pairs and speak quietly as organizers from Zombie Survival Camp give the participants, scattered over the hillside, a series of challenges simulating a desperate survival situation. Ysrayl’s team must retrieve someone who knows how to weld. A man and woman from another team arrive looking for someone who understands solar panels.
Teams have a length of white rope to symbolize the safety of a campsite, which they must leave to complete the tasks.
The simulation is quick and bare-bones compared with the full training camps offered by the company. But even after it ends, fantasy seems an important part of the weekend.
Bodhi discusses storing supplies underground at strategic locations, though he won’t confirm if he has any personal stashes. He is not a coffee drinker, though he also claims to have stockpiles of the stuff in case he can one day use it to barter.
But aside from the occasional blackout, he says he doesn’t believe any devastating event will happen in his lifetime.
“I don’t think the zombies are coming, man,” he said.
The zombies won’t come and the nuclear bombs may not fall. But if they did, Bodhi would be ready. And wouldn’t that be incredible?
ON SUNDAY MORNING, I have a question for participant Mike Bauer: Why all the camouflage?
It’s everywhere at the event, like Ugg boots on a university campus in winter. But who are participants trying to evade?
Bauer, who spent two weeks alone near Algonquin Park earlier this year, said he was wearing what he’d wear on a trip into the wilderness.
“I prepare for going out camping,” he said.
His explanation makes sense, but Bauer has noticed something else strange: it seems everyone is carrying knives. At one point, I watched a man show a companion one knife, before sliding it back into a sheath on his hip, and removing another blade from a second sheath.
Throughout the weekend, participants talk about equipment, how to start fires, which gear they like. You can buy a machete made in South Africa, different types of water purification, and a U.S. Army-branded knife.
As sure as conversation between vegans turns to juicers and moral superiority, wilderness enthusiasts love to show off gear. There are few obstacles and no infidels in the camp, but one man in head-to-toe camouflage carries a massive walking stick, looking as though Gandalf raided an army surplus store.
Later that morning, corrections officer Brian Opdenkelder leads a workshop on walking stick self-defence. He guides about 30 students through a series of attacks, including an overhead chop aimed at the target’s head, a swing at their clavicle or shoulder, and a stab in the “junk.”
“If you’re fighting with a stick, you play to win,” Opdenkelder tells the class.
Students battle with wooden rods, simulated clubs and dummy guns, the clash of their weapons a syncopated soundtrack for the camp.
Opdenkelder claims he was once kicked in the crotch three times in the midst of a fight and kept brawling. (He did throw up on his opponent, he says.) So instead of the crotch, he says, target your opponent’s head and try to destroy his hands.
BEACH LEADS a Torstar photographer and me around corners and down corridors, past sticky-looking cans of food, a stockpile of telephones and children’s high chairs. We visit washrooms, a decontamination room, and rows of cubbies, where Beach says police will store their guns.
A nuclear war will begin between Pakistan and India in “a matter of months,” Beach said, standing between rows of bunks reserved for children.
Prepping means anticipating a time when your world will shrink dramatically — from a home in an interconnected city to a tent in the woods or a shelter underground.
It seems natural that some preppers might isolate themselves in advance, perhaps polishing a shotgun and watching the news, as Bodhi describes more unhinged practitioners.
Studer used to spend nights in his bunker, drinking and endlessly preparing for some unknown event. As he spoke about breaking bad habits, Studer urged the audience not to fixate on the future.
“You have to live in the present,” he said.