Flipping The Line: This doomsday prepper is going to make it (and was ready for COVID)

The owner of the International Canadian School of Survival thinks you really ought to be a little more prepared if civilization goes pear-shaped.

In a recent column at The Line, Jen Gerson, writing on the misunderstood meaning of “apocalypse,” had a bit of fun at the expense of “preppers.” “If you spend a few hours devoted to consuming episodes of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers,” she wrote, “it becomes impossible to avoid this obvious conclusion: doomsday preppers are probably the least prepared of any of us to survive the apocalypse.” 

But … is that true?

In the spirit of keeping an open mind, The Line set out to find and interview a serious, thoughtful Canadian prepper. We struck gold with Dave MacDonald. MacDonald is a 25-year-veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. He spent 19 of those years with Air Force search-and-rescue units, and having retired from the military, now runs his own survival training business, the International Canadian School of Survival, where he is president and lead instructor. He spoke to The Line by phone from Winnipeg.

The Line: To start, please describe your professional background …  in terms the general public can understand!

MacDonald: It started young. I grew up in southern Ontario. My grandparents were preppers in a way — homesteaders. They always prepared enough food to get them through late fall to summer when they could harvest again, and with canning and preserving, one harvest to the next. I joined the Army Cadets and spent six years there, until I was 19. I did lots of courses: cadet leader, instructor rifle coach, etc. I gained a lot from that and then I joined the Army Reserves with the Toronto Scottish at age 19. I decided to enlist full-time and I asked to be a firefighter or a clearance diver or a search-and-rescue technician because I prefer a life of adventure and risk. They didn’t let me join as any of those so I joined as a land weapons specialist. I fixed everything from 9mm pistols up to 155mm howitzers, Coleman stoves and lanterns. 

In 1993 I did the search-and-rescue course — best course ever, that’s an in-joke for my fellow SAR techs — and a stint at the air force survival school, where we taught both basic land survival and escape and evasion. I retired after 25 years in the military, but I learned how important it is to have health and safety in the outdoors. I really didn't see any programs other than the Adventure Smart program, which is a national program, a very good program. But I found it lacked a bit of substance in the practical side of it. It gives you everything online. I found it lacked actual hands-on training. So I started my own survival school. We teach a variety of subjects, including wilderness safety and survival. I basically teach the same thing the air force teaches. We also teach wildlife awareness and predator safety. We do cold water immersion as well.

We also do land navigation. For the most part, people end up in a survival situation because they get lost and they don't have the proper equipment. So we're trying to cut that down for them by giving land navigation skills so they can find their way out. And then we also do wilderness advanced first aid with Wilderness Medical Associates.

We focus on the personal safety triangle: first aid, survival kills, navigation skills.

The Line: It’s almost a running joke that end-of-the-world movies always have a protagonist who’s ex-military and supremely skilled and prepared in all the things he’ll need to be. And you’re basically that person.

MacDonald: [Laughs] I guess so! I am definitely good to go for just about anything.

The Line: So that’s your professional background. How does all of this influence your personal life? Are you focused on survival there, too?

MacDonald: I try and keep enough food stored in the house that we can make it through the winter as a family of four. Survival is incorporated into everything in my life. I bought some acreage on the precipice of wilderness, right on the edge of civilization, so I can disappear into the woods if I want, or head into the city. I researched the area where I bought my house to look for possible environmental hazards like flooding or maybe some man-made hazards as well. I try and carry my personal survival kit with me at all times. I call it my Get Home Bag. Others call it a bug-out bag, prepping bag, a search-and-rescue bag. I also use it for search and rescue. I use it for mushroom picking. I use it for traveling. It's got enough gear in there for 72 hours. Minimum! I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. But I've got enough equipment there that I can get home to my family whether it's on foot or however else.

The Line: You’ve used a few terms interchangeably so far: prepping, survival, preparedness, safety. All of these terms are loaded with a lot of baked-in assumptions. The average person hears “survivalist” or “prepper” and they think someone in a bunker with machine guns. What do you say to people who have good-faith questions and an open mind but don’t know anything about what you do?

MacDonald: I ask them to think of our forefathers. When they came to Canada or any other country, they understood that you needed to be prepared. Nature is harsh. In the winter, there was no food growing. Travel was difficult. They needed the right tools and supplies. They needed food and water that they could store or access. They needed to survive the elements. Were they preppers? You bet they were. They had to be.

For people today, again, it’s hope for the best, prepare for the first. There’s a lot of things you can do to make yourself safer. Get a compass. Carry it on you. Carry a paper map. Don’t trust in your tech gadgets. They can fail, especially in the cold. Get First Aid training. Carry some supplies, but also learn how to make supplies. You can save yourself a lot of time, money and even suffering by getting some professional training in these things before you need it.

The Line: Let’s talk specifically about the pandemic. When did you first start paying attention to the reports out of China about some weird new pneumonia?

MacDonald: Right away. To be honest, even before. It’s just nature. Whenever a population exceeds the density that the local environment can support, something like this is bound to happen. People can turn on each other, or nature culls us back. We have known for a long time that there was going to be something like this, and I wasn’t surprised when we started getting those first news reports out of China. It was inevitable. Man always tries to control nature. Nature always prevails. 

The Line: When did you have that first moment of sitting up a bit straighter and realizing it was going to come here, and not helpfully stay very far away? Was it when it hit Iran, or Italy?

MacDonald: As soon as we heard about it in China, I assumed it would come to Canada. I assumed it was everywhere already. In an era of air travel, things like this will always disperse. I didn’t think we could contain it.

The Line: After you sort of absorbed that, however long that took emotionally, where did you mind go first? What was at the top of your list?

MacDonald: My family. Looking after them. That means, to me, obtaining resources. Food and water especially. Keeping my fuel tanks full and making sure I have extra gas. Making sure I have supplies packed and ready to go so we could leave in say, four hours, if we chose, heading to a remote location. I have sites picked out in all four directions of the compass. I had those places picked before this hit. A war breaking out, a natural disaster, or a man-made disaster, can strike without warning. I need to be able to look after my family immediately. I know I can look after myself. So I immediately thought of them. I kept them close.

The Line: When it did arrive in Canada and the lockdown began, how did the expectation meet the reality for you, someone who’d spent years planning for this kind of thing? 

MacDonald: I felt pretty well prepared. There were runs on a lot of things that you’ll remember. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer. Some food items. I had enough. [laughs] I’ve been out in the bush enough times to learn how quickly toilet paper can run out, but there are other solutions to that problem. Hand sanitizer is good, but so is soap and water. We had enough food on hand. So we were well prepared. 

The Line: If you could go back in time six months and tell yourself anything, give yourself any advice, what would it be?

MacDonald: Ammunition. [laughs] Not for battle or killing anyone, don’t worry. But hunting ammunition. Most of Canada’s supply is manufactured in the United States, and when the pandemic hit the U.S. they began selling out of everything. Ammunition was disappearing off the shelves. Canada won’t get supplies of ammunition until the American market is taken care of, so it was hard to get ammunition here. Part of my plan is feeding my family with what I could hunt. Ammunition was something that became surprisingly hard to find. 

The Line: That’s a specific item. In a more big-picture sense, what has surprised you about the last six months?

MacDonald: Information. How hard it was to get it. I don’t mean misinformation, though there was a lot of that and you had to be careful to check your sources. I mean real information. I expected the government would do a better job telling the public what they needed to know. A lot of information that was publicly out there — I was finding it myself online or via social media — took weeks to get to the Canadian government and then to the public. I needed to search around to figure out what's actually going on or I needed to contact people in different countries to find out what's actually happening where the boots were on the ground. 

The Line: We’re six months into this thing now, more or less. No one knows what’s coming next. What are you thinking your next six months are going to look like? Not in terms of a prediction, but for planning.

MacDonald: I’m planning on holding in place with my family for as long as I can. But a lot of times in situations like this you may not be able to stay in your location. You may have to migrate somewhere safer or better. So I’m prepping for both of those. I always do this, every year for the last 30 years or 40 years, since I got into air force search-and-rescue, where no mission was ever the same. We never knew what to expect, so we’d take everything into account that we could and make our best guess. An educated guess, certainly, but still a guess. And that’s my attitude now. I want to be prepared to keep my family safe and healthy and happy and keep a positive attitude on life. 

The Line: Any parting advice?

MacDonald: Get some professional training. Learn your survival triangle: first aid, survival skills, navigation. Stay entertained. That’s important too. But use some free time to practice your skills and stay current. Get your kids interested young. That will help set good life-long habits. Hope for the best, prepare for the first, and enjoy life. Stay safe and stay happy. 

*This interview has been edited for length.

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