'Naked into the Wilderness'
Survivalist John McPherson on training troops, braining hides and living off the land
By Christopher Nyerges 08/26/2010
John McPherson, who grew up in Elmira, NY, always knew that he wanted to live in the woods and be close to nature. Today, he and his wife Geri live in rural Kansas, having sold more than 200,000 copies of their popular “Naked into the Wilderness” books while continuing to teach outdoor survival skills to not only US Army Special Forces but also students who come to their farm.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with McPherson about how he and Geri got to where they are today.
“I was 27 when I got out of the Army,” McPherson recalls, “having just spent eight years as a paratrooper. I’d been married and my first wife left me and took my son.” After the service he traveled and tried to figure out what to do with his life.
“I was as free as when I’d just gotten out of high school, except I’d been around the world a few times and had lots of experience. I had no debts, but no money either. I spent maybe three months drinking, wondering where I was going to go with my life.”
He went to Europe for awhile, then back to New York, where he took some photography classes and tried to get work at a newspaper. While on a break from school, McPherson visited some friends in Kansas just when the local paper there needed a photographer.
“I got hired and stayed in that area,” says McPherson. “That was my stepping stone to living in the woods.”
Eventually he managed to buy a 50-acre parcel and made a list of “to-learn” skills, which included building a fence, using a chainsaw, running a tractor and canning. When he moved to Kansas in 1979, he learned how to build a house by helping a local friend build his. Geri and John have been together since 1987, working together on running survival classes and writing books.
“I did all the Mother Earth News stuff, and we learned to brain-tan hides, make fire with bow and drill and so forth. I had trouble with everything, but we persisted. I had the most trouble with brain-tanning.”
Brain tanning, or braining the hide, involves cooking the brain of the animal whose hide is being tanned until it is tender. After that, the brain is put into a blender with water and then smeared on the dried out hide and left to sit 24 hours so the animal’s brain soaks in thoroughly.
McPherson explains that he met an editor of a buck-skinning magazine (The Black Powder Report) in 1985 and John asked him why the magazine always touted “doing it right,” and yet almost no one was wearing true buckskin. “Too hard to do,” said the editor. “No it isn’t,” said McPherson. “Write about it for us,” replied the editor.
Just about the time he was finished with his manuscript and photos, the magazine went bankrupt. And so was born McPherson's writing career. McPherson turned his article into his first 48-page booklet titled “Brain Tan Buckskin.” He took the booklet to various gatherings around the country and sold it at the same time he was teaching it. Then he decided to write a booklet on primitive fire starting, since that was his second most requested class. McPherson points out that he learned how to make his first fire with a bow and drill from Larry Dean Olsen’s book, “Outdoor Survival Skills.” His first booklet took six months to write, but it only took one week for him to make the second booklet on how to make fire.
“I’d found my voice,” said McPherson recalling this pivotal time, “and we did all the photos for the booklets. Eventually, we had 10 of these primitive skills booklets on subjects like shelter, food, fire, cordage, etc. All the skills one would need to master to create a life from nothing.”
Eventually, all the booklets were compiled under one cover, which made it more economical for them to produce and less expensive for the reader than 10 separate booklets. The big book, which their company Prairie Wolf published, was called “Naked into the Wilderness.”
Though they’ve been taking on students since the 1980s, the McPhersons currently only teach survival instructors of the US Army’s Special Operations Center Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school, located at Fort Bragg, NC. They take two students for two-week sessions twice a year from the Army Special Forces. Troops who go with the McPhersons learn fire- and shelter-making, flint-knapping, and about cordage, traps, tools, containers and basic outdoor survival. “These military students are the leaders who then go on and teach other troops these basics,” says McPherson.
To learn more about the McPhersons and their books, visit Prairiewolf.net.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills.” He has been leading wild food outings since 1974. A schedule of his classes is available from the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041, or online at christophernyerges.com.