If you are faced with a survival skills situation in nature, you are bound to encounter challenges. Our challenge in interviewing wilderness skills expert Dr. Nicole Apelian was how to narrow the focus of our interview when our interviewee has such a diverse and prolific background.
Nicole is known to many around the planet for her experience as a cast member on the History Channel's Alone Series, where she survived solo for 57 days in the wilderness of Vancouver Island. Side note, she developed a taste for giant slugs while on that trip, but that's another tale. Nicole is much more than a connoisseur of slimy gastropods. She has been a field biologist and game warden for the Peace Corps in Botswana where she began her studies of African lions. She has worked with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. She earned her doctorate in Cultural Anthropology. She has been a consultant for television and film projects including the acclaimed film Leave No Trace. She also is a sought after wilderness skills instructor.
In addition to enduring wilderness survival situations, she has persevered through other personal challenges. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she turned to medicinal herb studies which led to her recovery from this disease and the creation of Nicole's Apothecary where she sells herbal remedies and helps others treat this disease. She is also a co-author of the The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies, A Reference Guide to Surviving Nature, and her newly released book The Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods: Edible Plants, Lichens, Mushrooms, and Seaweeds.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Nicole and learn more about her strategies to prepare for and thrive in survival situations. She also shares how she finds balance and time to actually be alone in a distracted world.
Pathways: One thing stands out when watching your videos or browsing your websites...your beaming smile. Have you always been this happy since your girlhood days collecting shells and nests, or has your happiness grown as your connection to nature has deepened?
Nicole: I was always a pretty happy child, though any childhood has its moments of sadness and grief. I lived a pretty feral existence. I definitely had nature connection in my life. As I aged, my connection with nature grew a lot deeper. Not only did this connection increase my happiness, but it also helped me to move through periods of grief. We’ve all had moments of deep, deep grief in our lives, and I’m no exception. The two biggest ones for me are when I was diagnosed with MS when I was thirty, and the other was the death of my oldest son. For me, one of the biggest healers that allowed me to move through that grief was my connection with nature. The healing practices that nature offers allow us to move through grief with joy in the end.
Pathways: You write...
“When you experience discomfort in the wild like hunger, fear or severe weather, it’s not as if you are having “fun” during these trials. But six months later, while in the comfort of your home and thinking back on the hardship, there’s an indescribable joy that washes over you. It’s actually quite beautiful. I’m willing to contend with great discomfort to feel the joy in knowing that I was able to survive (and thrive) in raw, untamed wilderness.”
Pathways: When you have been in the moment of such discomforts in the wilderness, are you actually thinking about this joy that will come in the future as a way to help you persevere or is there a different approach you are using in the moment to get you through the challenges?
Nicole: I’m not actually thinking about the joy that comes in the future while in the midst of persevering or having moments of extreme discomfort in these wilderness experiences that I put myself into. That said, one thing that helps me get through it is that I actually find joy in the present moment, in the now. There is real power in that. When you are out foraging for yourself or surviving on your own, the only things right in front of your face in the moment are shelter, fire, water, food, and maybe medical needs. When you only have those things to think of, it really keeps you in the present moment. It’s like the old saying of “chop wood and carry water.” This holds true. When you are in the now, there’s a lot of joy that you have because you aren’t worrying about the past, obsessing about the future, or looking at your to-do list. I think this is really important. There is extreme discomfort at times, and while I’m not thinking about the end results, I am actually able to find joy through that discomfort. There are days of course that I really struggle like everybody else, but I’ve been able to move through those moments.
Pathways: You describe your life-changing experience of being diagnosed with MS and how you overcame this challenge in part through medicinal herbs. Was this a motivating force behind why you took a deep dive into the study of medicinal plants? Is overcoming this challenge a significant source of your happiness?
Nicole: Multiple Sclerosis definitely was a motivating force for why I took a deep dive into the study of medicinal plants. Overcoming MS was a significant challenge. Still, everyday I have to watch what I eat. I have to make sure I’m taking the right herbs and supplements, and I’m also spending time in nature and remaining balanced. That certainly has led to my happiness because all of those things discreetly, regardless of whether someone has MS, are important factors in how your body and brain feel, which definitely links to happiness. Becoming an herbalist has had a significant impact on how happy I am in life.
Pathways: In an interview, when asked about your custom knife that you used on The History Channel's Alone, you talked about spending lots of time training with it before going to the wilderness by doing things such as making feather sticks, splitting wood, etc. You practiced these skills as a way to develop muscle memory. Were there other tools or practices (athletic or mental/mindful) that you also did in preparation to develop a similar muscle memory for Alone?
Nicole: I definitely spent a lot of time using my custom knife to make feather sticks, split wood, etc. as a way to build muscle memory before going into the Alone experience. I did have other practices as well. I would take cedar bark and wet it overnight and then work it in the morning until it was fine enough to catch a spark. I did that over and over. I practiced the Wim Hoff method in order to get ready for the cold so my body would not be shocked by the weather. I practiced knots over and over, especially fishing knots for Vancouver Island, so I wouldn’t have to think about it, and instead it would be a skill that just came naturally. When you are tired, hungry, or cold, if you don’t have that muscle memory developed, it’s easy to forget things, and it’s harder to simply do these skills. I tried to overcome these challenges beforehand by making sure I had those things deeply ingrained in my brain. Traps were another thing that I practiced over and over to make sure I wasn’t thinking about how a trap would work while I was out there. I wanted to ensure that I knew them through and through.
Pathways: Many in the nature connection world thrive on being alone in nature, away from crowds, and the focus of attention. While you were on a program called “Alone”, this experience has helped to put a spotlight on you. How has that experience affected you? If you look back on yourself before and then after this experience, do you notice any changes in yourself?
Nicole: There’s been a lot of positive effects of being on TV, in that I’ve been able to have a big impact on the MS and autoimmune communities and give people hope for how to manage these disorders naturally through diet, lifestyle, supplements, and herbs. It’s also brought a lot of awareness to herbal medicine, wild foods, and foraging, which I think has been really positive. Demonstrating these skills on screen reaches people that might not be aware of these practices. To me that feels really good to expose more people to natural ways of being and natural ways of connection.
As for looking back on myself before and after these experiences, I have noticed changes in myself. The main change is that I am more guarded about my privacy and personal time. I live in nature, so it’s really easy to get regular alone time. I don’t have any close neighbors. I’m lucky that I have that kind of access to nature.
Pathways: You write about how you grew up with little television or technology. With all the digital distractions of the modern world, are there routines, practices, or boundaries that you set for yourself (or family) to ensure that you can still have regular alone time in nature?
Nicole: During Covid I found myself more digitally distracted. I have to actively set boundaries or it’s very easy to fall into a routine that isn’t healthy physically or mentally. I moved to the middle of nowhere purposely. I never expected that I would be in the public eye so much. While the wonderful things of this experience far outweigh any of the negatives, I’ve definitely had to learn the art of saying “no” to maintain my personal balance. Weekends and evenings are off limits. I reserve them for my family. I find that every three to six months that my plate gets so full that I have to reevaluate. I have to think- what is not important? What can I pull off my plate? A few weeks ago I spent a week writing down how I was allocating my time, including time online, in order to figure out what I could let go of or delegate. Maintaining this balance can be really hard but I find it’s necessary.
Pathways: Where do you see yourself going from here? What are your latest curiosities and skills that you are working on?
Nicole: I just finished a wild foods book, The Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods: Edible Plants, Lichens, Mushrooms, and Seaweeds, that comes out in mid-May. I’m really excited about this new book. Like my herbal remedies book I think it will have a wide appeal. I’ve tried to make it the most comprehensive wild foods book out there. I’m hoping it will inspire a lot of people to access resources in their own backyards. I’m always working on my herbal apothecary to make it better, and love writing for my blog. Family is really important, so I’m taking some trips with my teenage boys to make sure we have good quality time together before they fly the coop.
Pathways: You can connect with Nicole to learn more about her experiences, products, events, or to contact her through these links:
As Nicole describes above, knowing wild edible and medicinal plants is not only essential to surviving in a wilderness situation, but can have a transformative effect on your life. With so many plants to encounter in the wild, beginning this process can seem daunting. The good news is that for most people, there are edible and medicinal plants right outside your door, to be found in backyards, vacant lots, or nearby parks. In the video below we show you a handful of plants that can jumpstart your learning journey. If you research and journal these plants, you will open a doorway to an awareness of the natural world of edible and medicinal plants.