Outdoorsman Christopher Nyerges has made a life of exploring the urban wilderness
By Justin Chapman 04/21/2011
Over the past several decades, Altadena’s Christopher Nyerges has lived the life he’s written so passionately about in numerous books, magazines and newspapers — that of a philosopher outdoorsman traversing an increasingly urbanized wilderness,
a man able to survive off the land in any given situation.
“In a survival situation, you’re either prepared or you’re not,” the fit and trim 56-year-old Nyerges said recently. “And most people are wholly unprepared. That being said, I look at failure, which most people try to avoid, as a good thing. Failure from the standpoint of character-building means that you have your weaknesses exposed, and if you’re smart, you then do something about it.”
Nyerges, who writes the Outdoors column for the Pasadena Weekly, once edited and wrote for the now-defunct Wilderness Way magazine, along with several other publications. He’s also appeared on a number of TV shows and has penned 10 books about survival strategies in various settings. His best seller is “How to Survive Anywhere: A Guide for Urban, Suburban, Rural, and Wilderness Environments,” which is popular primarily because it covers the basics of just about any given survival situation a person could find themselves in.
“I teach old-fashioned skills that people have lost because we’ve become more specialized and technologically advanced,” said Nyerges. “Although that has its plus sides, it makes us more dependent on devices and other people. There’s a generation coming up that doesn’t have a clue how to do things.”
Nyerges became interested in backpacking at age 10, and his interest in all things outdoors blossomed from there. Since 1974, he has taught classes at Pasadena City College, Los Angeles City College and Glendale Community College. He’s also taught survival techniques to a wide variety of local groups, including schools, churches and Boy Scouts — a total of 35,000 people, by Nyerges’ estimate.
He also runs the Glendale and Highland Park farmers markets and teaches survival workshops on weekends as part of his School of Self-Reliance. As ambitious as he is, though, Nyerges said the workload isn’t overwhelming. He simply loves what he does.
“I haven’t canceled classes in a long time because the classes are always full. People are looking for reasonable, sensible, non-fanatical answers,” he said. “Unfortunately, most people like fantasy more than reality. Some things are useful, like a fishing pole, but we fill our spaces with things that ultimately clutter our minds.”
As one of Nyerges’ survivalist classes got under way one recent Saturday morning, this one on using an ancient skill to create ornamental gourds, about 15 people gathered at one of the picnic tables near the entrance to Hahamongna Watershed Park, saws, pencils, sandpaper and files in hand.
As Nyerges started the session, a couple of people — among them 16-year-old Piero del Valle, who travels from Palmdale to attend Nyerges’ classes — began building a fire with a bow to keep the group warm.
Nyerges demonstrated how to clean, cut and empty the gourds of their seeds, which are edible when cooked, then explained how to smooth the edges of the newly made bowl with files and sandpaper.
Bob Schneider, a 15-year-old from the San Fernando Valley, said he has been coming to Nyerges’ workshops for about three months, and shares the lessons he learns with the skateboarding collective he is a part of in the Valley.
“The [workshops] have been extremely informative, especially when Christopher takes us on walks to learn about edible food identification,” said Schneider. For instance, gourds belong to the same family of vegetables as squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins, but are not edible. However, their seeds are, and the plant itself can be turned into many types of household items — bowls, vases, canteens, even pieces of art. “I can now make a whole meal from things I find in nature, and that’s pretty cool,” Schneider said.
During his courses, Nyerges works with individuals and explains to the group the historical significance of whatever project they’re working on. For instance, he explained, ornamental gourds have been used in this way for thousands of years in Africa and in the pre-colonial Americas, particularly in what is now the Southwestern United States.
“I’ve worked with Christopher for about eight years now,” said Gary Gonzales, del Valle’s uncle. “I gotta say the most important thing he teaches people, the essence of his message, is how to be self-reliant in any given situation.”
Ready for anything
The gourd workshop attendees each made their own unique item, reinforcing Nyerges’ central belief that skills needed for surviving in the wilderness have practical applications in the urban world.
“People are so dependent on retail stores,” said Nyerges. “If some sort of catastrophic event were to happen, or if you find yourself living in some sort of isolated society, people will become much more creative in terms of the everyday things that they view as having only one use and that’s it. Just look at all the stuff that’s thrown away every trash day. People are so wasteful, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.”
Patty Dwyer, who works with the US Forest Service and has been attending Nyerges’ classes for 15 years, said she’s learned much from the seasoned outdoorsman.
“He really is a wonderful guy,” said Dwyer. “He’s a great instructor, he listens to people and he knows what he’s talking about.
I use the outdoors skills he teaches me almost every day.”
Nyerges’ workshops cover a wide variety of extremely useful skills.
This Saturday he’ll be showing participants how to make two kinds of shelter in the forested area of Hahamongna, the types of emergency shelters that can be carried in a backpack, and what to do in your own backyard in the event of an earthquake.
Next Saturday, Nyerges will conduct a workshop on one of the most fundamental skills he says everyone should master: building fires. Participants will practice using the bow drill, hand drill, plow, pump drill, batteries, flint and steel and reflectors.
“I always liked the idea of making more out of less. It is possible to live quite well without a lot of wealth. You don’t necessarily have to be frugal, but you just have to know what you’re doing. Buy bargains, don’t waste things, learn how to barter, be part of a community.”
Nyerges couldn’t help but make “what if” comparisons in terms of what’s happened in Japan and the types of calamities that could occur here.
“That’s the kind of thing I’ve always emphasized people should prepare for,” he said of the deadly earthquake that sparked a ruinous tsunami.
“But also any kind of catastrophic event, especially living in an urban area, and having a low impact either by choice
To learn more about Christopher Nyerges, visit christophernyerges.com.