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, Schuylkill County, 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. In the last week, he said, he’s received 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 M.B.A. 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, Clinton County, 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.
Wowak and Dawes do not consider themselves “preppers,” both preferring to be called woodsmen who practice bushcraft. Wowak said he uses firearms for hunting, not “tactical” reasons, but believes trapping is more practical when looking for food.
Some Pennsylvania preppers agreed to speak to The Inquirer, but none would divulge their full names out of concern that their locations would be uncovered. Many declined to be interviewed, saying “the media” perpetuated the “prepper” stereotype.
Robert B., 40, of Lebanon County, said he and his daughters have “bug out bags" packed and ready in case they have to leave the house immediately. He owns 45 acres “elsewhere.” Bug out bags usually contain essentials like extra medicine, sleeping gear, tools, lighters, and more.
“We have prepped for different scenarios, from home invasions to mass rioting and pandemics to possible war,” Robert B. said.
None of the preppers 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 turn into a major problem easily,” said Michelle, 44, from Centre County.
Many say the reaction to the coronavirus — massive layoffs, scarcity of food and goods, relaxed law enforcement for certain crimes — could be as bad as the virus itself, which might explain the uptick in gun and ammunition sales. A gun store owner in Montgomery County told The Inquirer last week that he could not order more ammunition. When asked if he had firearms, prepper Jon K., of Erie County, said, “Use your imagination.”
The most important aspect of prepping, in Jon K.'s opinion, is preserving water and food, either through drying or canning. Michelle has a greenhouse and root cellar at her home.
Wowak and Dawes agree that in a survival scenario, finding food is the most critical and difficult task. Buying milk and fresh meat is thinking very much in the present, Wowak said, but when shopping for a protracted quarantine, look for canned foods, protein bars, nuts, and even pasta -- high-caloric foods that can last.
In nature, Wowak said, smaller foods like blueberries or frogs are easiest to eat, but low in calories. Large sources of protein like deer or turkey are more complicated, even with a firearm.
“If you were able to kill a deer and it was 70 degrees out, would you be able to preserve it?” Wowak said.
Both men tell their students to avoid eating plants unless they’re really skilled at identifying them. Many can make you sick or worse. Dawes suggested buying field guides to edible plants and adding them to a bug out bag.
Though he was on television, Wowak said a lot of strategies perpetuated by film and television aren’t quite practical in a true survival situation — like roasting a fish on an open fire and simply eating the fillets. He prefers to boil them whole and basically consume everything but the bones to get every calorie.