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“Primitive living reminds us that no matter what technologies we have, we are still an integral component of the ecosystem,” he writes in Participating in Nature, the updated version of his original primitive-skills book. “It’s a model way of life that reveals the basic foundations, the very laws of nature, upon which all of our solutions must be built.”
No solutions will be built, however, if people don’t get out and enjoy extended experiences in natural places. It’s only then that they’ll understand where the animals go at night. That is why in 2004, after watching the riverbanks get increasingly developed and fenced off by landowners, Elpel established the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. In an effort to protect the historically wild experience of paddling this 83-mile tributary of the Missouri as it curls around the Tobacco Roots, Elpel created maps for paddlers and a guide for landowners that encourages conservation easements and development setbacks. Now he’s working to create a series of campsites.
“Historically Montana was a very open place,” Elpel explains. “When I grew up running all over around here, including the Madison and Jefferson rivers, there weren’t ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Now people come here from other places and bring their culture; they think the river is theirs when they buy land along it. But when we put up those ‘No Trespassing’ signs we’re losing something that’s important to the next generation.”
Elpel thinks a lot about future generations. He knows that if they don’t have a connection to the world outdoors, our future is grim. Every year he takes kids from local schools out for overnight primitive-skills camps. “I try to teach them skills they can use,” he says, explaining that the kids learn to start fires without matches, build shelters from found materials, and cook foods they harvest. “It’s a powerful experience for the kids.”
The first overnight trip he took with students, however, was almost too powerful. It was spring 2002, he had a dozen seventh-graders with him, and it rained 1.3 inches during the 24 hours they were out. They had no tents or tarps. “I wondered if our first campout would be our last,” Elpel admits. But they spent the afternoon making wickiups, or debris huts, out of branches, logs and cottonwood bark. Not only did the kids stay dry, but he says they couldn’t wait to come back the next year, when they found their wickiups still standing.
In a report on the experience one student wrote afterward, “I want to go outdoors way more than I did before we went to the campout. I love the outdoors. The food was all very good. I hope we get to stay longer next year.”
The student trips have grown progressively longer over the years as kids and teachers have learned to trust Elpel and his methods. This year the school board gave Elpel permission to keep the kids out for three nights. With his newly christened Outdoor Wilderness Living School, or OWLS, he’s working to extend his reach and host public-school students from across the region, as well as put on summer camps and adventure programs for high-schoolers. For adults, he’s developing Green University, a fledgling program focusing on sustainable living and green business development, which he hopes will “provide a new model for higher education.”
“He’s been amazing at helping me make my dreams come true,” says Katie Russell, 29, who is helping with Green University and who recently launched a business selling buckskin bras and “Wilderbabe” calendars featuring women wearing her line of clothing. “One person can’t change the world, but they can help people make their dreams come true—which might be Tom’s greatest strength.”
Kris Reed, 25, applied for Elpel’s informal internship program in 2006 and never left. He’s an integral part of OWLS and says he wants to help people follow their passions and “achieve their dreams without getting a job.”
Elpel has no problem promoting a jobless lifestyle, but Reed seems aware it could be misconstrued. “It’s not an anti-money thing,” he clarifies. “It’s just about freedom.”
“A lot of people that come here don’t like the way our culture treats other people and the planet,” he says. “But they need to eat and make a living, so they get a job and feel trapped. I’d like to help them see they don’t have to.”
Meanwhile Elpel, the mountain-man philosopher, has become something of an elder statesman in the sustainability movement. He gives keynote speeches at environmental conferences on “The Coming Age of Self-Sufficiency.” People are using his books to build their homes and reshape their careers. Others are posting videos on YouTube about how “my whole perspective on life changed” after reading his work.
The curve seems to be catching up with Elpel. He says his writing and publishing business brought in over $100,000 last year. Not that he really needed the money, though it did allow him to purchase 21 acres of riverfront land for OWLS and his outdoor-education work.
But his lifestyle hasn’t changed, and no amount of money will change it. As he’s quick to point out, “The only problem with money is that people get caught up in the illusion that it is real wealth.”