Native Intelligence: Kau‘i

The Backwoodsman

Story by Brittany Lyte. Photos by Mallory Roe.

Crouching on a grassy hilltop, Jeremiah Felsen vigorously rubs two dried branches of hau together. The friction produces white smoke and eventually an ember. This, says a now breathless Felsen, is how ancient Hawaiians made fire.

Felsen, a primitive-skills expert, knows how to live in nature. Over the last twenty years, the gregarious, articulate 38-year-old from Washington, DC, has guided hundreds of people into the woods—on wilderness therapy retreats for at-risk youth and on tech-free adventures for overstimulated adults. His credentials include a bachelor’s of science in outdoor recreation and stints living in isolated places like the Arizona desert and the arid steppes of Patagonia. He even has a skin loincloth he made using a rock-sharpened animal bone and that he tanned in a solution of elk brains and water. But Felsen is hardly suggesting that humans head back to the caves. “We can’t go back in time,” he says. “We have all these things that make life easier, but they sort of pull you away from remembering that there’s this deeper connection we all have to something greater.”

Felsen, who moved from Bend, Oregon, to work on an organic farm in Hawai‘i, started Kaua‘i Hiking Tours four years ago. While some of the excursions he offers are customized for day hikers and sightseers, Felsen also offers camping trips for those who wish to practice survival skills: finding water, building shelter, making cordage, harvesting medicinal plants, gathering wild foods and—for the desperately hungry—trapping rodents for dinner. A typical tour might take would-be survivalists to a little-visited nook of Waimea canyon with a freshwater spring, bananas and taro. At night Felsen tells stories from Hawaiian mythology around a matchless campfire.

Felsen says he derives a sense of calm and confidence from living off the grid, though he has no plans to permanently withdraw from civilization. Rather, he views his time in nature as an escape from computers and consumerism. “When you start to learn these skills, it’s almost like you begin to remember them,” Felsen says. “These are the forgotten parts of ourselves that have been repressed, but they’re always there if you decide to tap back in. You remember that, ‘Oh yeah, life isn’t really so complicated. You just need to breathe, sleep and eat.’”