Beyond the Dojo: When the Stakes are High, Martial Arts Discipline Becomes a Valuable Asset.

By Max Birkner

Masset, British Columbia.


Few Canadians will ever see the archipelago called Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. But for 21 soldiers from 39th Canadian Brigade Group, the archipelago became the site in January of a Basic Wilderness Survival Training course run by the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, a component of the Army Reserve. Among the candidates was Krav Maga instructor Borhan Jiang. The 29 year-old martial arts expert was a long way from his dojo, but the city slicker did pretty well for himself, and me, his partner in survival on our final 72-hour skill confirmation exercise.

The site where the training took place is called Rose Spit. Easily found on Google Maps the long spit is a geographical Pinocchio on the North Eastern side of Graham Island. On a clear day you can see Alaska, but there are no clear days, at least there were none when we were there. The place is ideal for survival training. The wet coastal conditions are unforgiving and January temperatures often hover between 5 and -2 degrees Celsius.

What we drink 🙂 Whiskey
This is not a Christmas tree but a signal fire

For the first three days of the exercise the candidates rotated through stands on the beach, each featuring a particular survival skill such as shelter building or food gathering. Every soldier was re-familiarized on the Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, and learned about bear spray and other predator deterrents. On the first morning of the confirmation phase candidates woke up at 0500 and gathered outside the tents at base-camp to be shuttled out to the areas (sited at intervals of one kilometer) where each group of two would survive on their own for three days. As everyone stood outside waiting to load into ATVs, the sergeant major walked through the ranks and split up the pre-determined partnerships, putting everyone with a stranger. We had minimal equipment for the three days and three nights. Two ponchos, a space blanket, knife, hatchet, lighter and fire starter, plus one ration between us and a small bag of deer meat was all we had to go on. We did not have watches or any way to tell the time, and only a disposable camera to take photos with.

The first two days were largely spent working on and improving our shelter – a lean-to with two wind walls, the fire very close to our sleeping spot. We invented a backpack for firewood out of the panel on an AC unit. There was a lot of useful garbage washed up on the beach. The darkness lasted 15 hours per every 24 and our shelter was 200 meters from the beach because of the sparse terrain, so it was a challenge to haul enough firewood. The last day was spent only gathering firewood. It was humbling to think how much energy it would take to gather any food other than seaweed and other plants if it had been real and we had no idea when rescue would be coming.

Home ! sweet home

On the morning after the third night the Rangers drove by the stands honking their horns. Everyone at their shelters ran out to light their signal fires on the beach and wait for pickup. An hour later we were eating breakfast at a motel in Masset, waiting for the flight out. We learned that over the course of the 72 hours two groups had given up and bailed out early. During our time in the wild Borhan demonstrated constantly the usefulness of martial arts discipline when applied outside the dojo or a combat situation. While he had very little experience in the outdoors, the mental and physical fitness obtained through constant training were important factors in our ability as a team. It made surviving a lot easier that it would have been otherwise.

Max and Borhan ~! oh yes and their manly beards

Max Birkner is a member of the Rocky Mountain Rangers in Kamloops and is enrolled in the Bachelor of Journalism program at Thompson Rivers University.

Additional photos of this training can be find at