GENEVA — When he meets a bear deep in the forest, Kim Pasche doesn’t run away. And he doesn’t throw himself to the ground and play dead. He starts talking aloud to the animal, just like he would to a human. “I tell him: ‘Hey buddy, I’d like to go through.’ The sound of my voice intrigues him. It doesn’t sound like anything he knows, so he leaves me alone. If I’m facing a grouchy grizzly, I’ll step aside so he gets the impression that he owns this territory.”

Pasche’s long hair is braided down to his shoulders. In Switzerland, he walks around in jeans and sneakers. Back in the forest, he wears his Apache clothing. Eight months a year, the 30-year-old Swiss lives in the Canadian forests, between the Northwest and the Yukon Territories. He eats berries, plants and animals he hunts with a bow and arrows he made himself. He cuts up the carcasses, tans the skins and sews his own clothes with a bone needle and sinew. “I’ve almost achieved my goal: going into a forest naked and living there in total isolation,” he says.

Pasche characterizes himself as an “experimental archeologist,” following in the footsteps of indigenous people. He aims to go back in time as far as possible in terms of his lifestyle, until he reaches the era of the last hunter-gatherers — the ones he prefers to call “foragers” as opposed to “farmers.” It’s a lifestyle that Westerners dropped around 10,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic post-ice age when populations began settling down to grow food. That was when mankind decided to “transform his environment instead of adapting to it,” as Pasche puts it.

At 22, the Swiss went in search of the wilderness to live as close as possible to the way people did in prehistoric times. His heart was set on the Great White North, vast stretches of Canadian snow-covered forests, mountains and lakes surrounded by caribou, moose and grizzly bears. His friend Sophie Cartini says that the day before his departure he was extremely confident, with the unfailing optimism of someone who would do anything to achieve his “almost spiritual quest: finding mankind’s origins.” She adds that “everyone called him crazy, but he’s shown them that it’s possible.”

No mortgage for this wilderness

He acquired a piece of land bigger than the Vaud canton for next to nothing. Every August, he walks into the forest and keeps going for miles, just like a nomad. He then spends his days looking for food, building a hut in which he can sleep and lighting a fire. In November, he returns to his wooden cabin and becomes a trapper, with a snowmobile and a canoe, living somewhere between modern and wild. He hunts wild sheep, caribou, wolves, porcupines and partridges. But never bears. “With them, it’s an arrangement. They don’t attack me, and I don’t touch them.”

In the spring, he leaves the forest and heads back to Europe to teach survival courses, his primary source of income. “There’s a gap between the wildlife fantasy and reality,” he says. “I made lots of mistakes at first. My way of thinking wasn’t adapted. When it rained, I used to look for clothing to cover myself, then I realized the best thing to do is to look for shelter and wait for the rain to stop. I learned how to be patient and focused.”

Mathia Thorens, an old schoolmate, joined the trapper in the forest last year. “When he was 20, he didn’t have an easy life,” he says. “He left to look for freedom in extreme situations, and he made it by being smart.” There’s an even greater danger than bears in the Canadian forests: rivers. When the ice melts in summer, they become violent torrents. Underestimating their power can be fatal. It happened to Christopher McCandless, hero of the true-story film Into the Wild, when he found himself stuck deep in Alaska surrounded by a river and mountains.

Pasche doesn’t like being compared to the American idealist, who was searching for answers to existential questions and ultimately died alone of exhaustion and hunger. He says that trappers see more and more anxious city dwellers arriving in the forest, convinced that they will find meaning to their lives in the wild. “In general, it doesn’t go well,” Pasche says. “If we don’t make them leave, it ends just like in the film.”

Life before bear whispering

Before he learned how to talk to grizzlies, the young man grew up in a family of farmers and lumberjacks in the Swiss town of Moudon. He spent his childhood at the edge of the forest alongside his grandfather, a “pioneer” who was using electricity before the Swiss even started talking about it. During his high school years in Lausanne, he wanted to become a special education teacher, but he soon became bored with “theories.” So he decided to take up leather handicraft and acquired a pile of tanned skins, which he stored in his grandfather’s attic. His plans literally went up in smoke when a fire destroyed the house.

Yukon, Canada - Photo: Vincent Lock

His fascination of ancient techniques led him to Gletterens, in the Swiss district of Broye, where archeologists recreated a Neolithic lakeside village. He was hired as a guide to show the visitors and tourists how to carve flint arrowheads and light a fire with only two pieces of wood. Little by little, Pasche reached the limits of that experience. “You try to understand the human ways of life by imitating their techniques, but you can’t grasp the way they see the world. I wanted to experience the living conditions of the indigenous people on a day-to-day basis.”

It was during that time that Pasche met the man behind the lakeside village project, Daniel Dall’Agnolo. He also heads Laténium, an archeological museum in Hauterive, in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. “Kim Pasche wanted to experience everything alone,” the archaelogist recalls. “The self-sufficient isolation he’s looking for may be a myth. Thirteen thousand years ago, there were already schools and exchanges between communities. Hunter-gatherers lived in groups. Kim Pasche is a loner, that’s his experiment’s limit. But it’s the result that counts, and he has developed an outstanding knowledge of nature that we will all need one day.” 

Pasche says that every time he leaves the forest, he reminds himself that his experience was real. “Having to figure out how to catch an animal is real. Getting a paycheck at the end of the month isn’t.” But the woodsman is no utopian. For four years, he worked a few weeks a year as a seasonal worker in Canada marking the unexplored territories of the country’s north in preparation for the arrival of mining companies, which generate millions of dollars by extracting gold, copper and cobalt. Dropped off by helicopter on top of a mountain, he then walked down in snowshoes and planted a stake every 500 meters, following GPS coordinates. It’s the sort of job that pays up to $16,000 for a single month of work.

How do you sleep at night in the wild and simultaneously work for those who are exploiting it? “There’s no difference between buying an iPhone and participating in the extraction of the ore that’s used to make it,” the young man retorts. His telephone was stolen a few days earlier. “We live without limitations in a world where resources are finite. I belong to this system, and I need money like everyone else. The difference is that I’ve learned how to live without it. If I lose my belongings tomorrow, I won’t go and protest on the street. But my aim isn’t to leave civilization forever and live as a hermit. I want to pass down my knowledge.”

When he's in the wilderness, Pasche thinks differently. “We try to find meaning in what is happening to us. We think nature is against us. In the woods, I learned that things are neither good nor bad; they just are.” He remembers at age 10 buying his first book with his own money: The Wildlife Guide. Now he writes his own user guide — a book outlining techniques for lighting fires, making ropes and glues from plants, and fashioning bows and arrows.

In fact, the Canadian government just granted him a permit to teach such “ancestral knowledge” at Yukon schools in northwest Canada. “One day or another, someone will ask, and rightly so, how a descendant of the colonists is allowed to teach indigenous methods for making bows and arrows.” To resolve this paradox, Pasche plans to travel to the Amazon forest next year with Eric Julien, a French explorer who will introduce him to Colombia’s Kogi people. There, he will ask the local chiefs for permission to pass down his knowledge and to be granted the status of “guide of nature.”

On the eve of his return to Canada, Pasche is delighted because he convinced his girlfriend to go with him into the woods. “The work will take some time. It may even be the hardest one I’ve ever done,” he says quietly.