Register Friday | November 22 | 2019
Fire Sale Illustration by Genevieve Simms.

Fire Sale

Toronto condos won’t seem so hot in a few decades—except in the literal sense. Here’s a guide for househunting for the end times.

Jose Martinez Amoedo’s central Yukon cabin is not the kind of place one stumbles upon: thirty kilometres outside the village of Mayo, which only counts about 250 inhabitants, it’s on five acres that back onto an expanse of undeveloped Indigenous land. Mountains loom on the horizon. Other than that, it’s just Amoedo and his cabin in the woods.

During hunting season, the long-haired fortysomething may be joined by moose. He gets up before the crack of dawn to find a spot to call out to them. Then he conceals his athletic frame among the trees, settles in and waits. It takes “a loooot of patience,” he says, unhurriedly stretching the “o” to hammer home his point. If all goes well, he snags a moose and has “extra work”—transporting and butchering it. Otherwise, each new day offers another chance. “There’s a lot of sitting and listening,” he says. “And shivering.”

Central Yukon, Amoedo freely admits, is a difficult place. It has none of the rich soil and bounteous wildlife that can be found in the Eastern Woodlands, as he calls it—the huge, fertile area along the banks of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, otherwise known as the Quebec-Windsor Corridor. A mere fraction of that mere fraction of Canada’s vast superficy, it is home to nearly half of the nation’s population. Canadians are clustered in the few places where living is easy. 

On the other hand, in the event of climate catastrophe, that could be a problem. “If the poop hits the fan,” Amoedo asks, “what good is it that you live in a place where the forest is teeming with white-tailed deer...[when] there will be millions of competitors around you for these resources?”

Amoedo’s advice would not be out of place at a real estate investment conference: don’t fight over prime habitats; go somewhere marginal. Go somewhere like Mayo, where the winters are especially punishing, the land is poor and additional calories are needed to cope with the cold. In the long run, these factors are not necessarily disadvantages. “Even though game is scarce here,” he says, “game animals per capita are still the highest here than probably anywhere else in Canada.”

A generation of prospectors once journeyed to the Yukon in search of a better life. In the late nineteenth century, they braved the ice and raging currents of the Yukon River in the pursuit of gold on its shores. Latter-day real estate speculators now seek different riches from the land. Climate change will displace many from their homes, and the search for land on which humanity can survive its uncertain future is very much on.

Billionaires, for one, are snapping up properties in isolated New Zealand so they can live out the apocalypse at a luxurious remove from resource wars and devastation. This pursuit of better land has an unsettling neo-colonial dimension. It also doesn’t require swapping continents; Harvard researchers have coined the term “climate gentrification” to describe the appreciating value of plots less threatened by rising sea levels. Amoedo may value his land for its peace and quiet, but communities like his could be some of Canada’s hottest neighbourhoods come 2050.

Mind you, everything’s going to be hot by then. Our planet, which is already one degree warmer than in pre-industrial times, is on pace to add another half degree by 2040. Capping global warming at 1.5 degrees, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, would require halving CO2 emissions by 2030 and entirely eliminating or offsetting them by 2050. This target, which Canada, like most nations, has little chance of meeting, wouldn’t really be a good amount of global warming; it would still involve hundreds of millions of people contending with extreme water shortages and heat around the world.

The appeal of the 1.5-degree mark is that it’s not 2 degrees. That extra half degree, scientists suggest, would make extreme heat waves “the new normal” in tropical regions and add another ten centimetres to global sea levels by 2100. Vulnerable communities, like Lennox Island, off the coast of PEI—home to a Mi’kmaq nation—could be wiped out. But all coastal communities, from Richmond, BC, to St. John’s, Newfoundland, would be subject to far more flooding. Deadly heat waves, which last summer led to overcrowding in Montreal’s morgue, would become more frequent and pronounced. The southern Prairies, which contain 80 percent of Canada’s croplands, would be dessicated by droughts. There’d be more of the wildfires that have blazed around Prince George, Fort McMurray and Prince Albert—only they’d be worse. In the Maritimes, heat and acidity would hinder fisheries. Warmer, snow-free winters sound appealing until you realize they’ll be replaced by freezing rain. 

Two or more degrees of climate change would transform our understanding of Canada’s geography. Inland areas, like Amoedo’s Yukon home, would have a newfound appeal. The Peace River region and northern parts of the Prairies stand to become more fertile in a warmer world. Areas that already challenge the limits of affordability—the Eastern Woodlands or urban centres that can invest in climate adaptation—would likely become more prohibitive. 

There’s a lot of country left if Canada’s low-lying coastal areas and wildfire hotspots cease to be viable. Some places won’t be so lucky: island nations that stand to be erased by rising tides, for example, and denser Asian states looking down the barrel of deadly, summer-long heatwaves. Canada’s outlook is better than most countries, but it’s still enough to make one consider beating the apocalyptic rush and finding a new spot to set up house.

Amoedo first learned about the Yukon as a child growing up in southeastern Spain. He inhaled Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. At last count, he’d read it nine times in four languages. When he grew old enough, he traversed the Atlantic and crisscrossed North America in search of elders who could teach him bushcraft skills. Back in Spain, he had worked as a bodyguard for the royal family. He grew tired of Madrid, its congestion, its stresses, its noises. He remembers the incessant ringing of ambulance sirens, as if someone was always dying. So he moved to the Yukon, just like Jack London’s characters did. He purchased his cabin and the surrounding land fifteen years ago, before even having secured the right to stay in Canada.

In a territory roughly the size of his home country but with 0.08 percent of the population, Amoedo has found the room he wanted. “It’s basically nobody here,” he says. Of course, to him, the wilderness isn’t simply staving off death—it’s fulfillment. “I’m not here just because of the survivability of a disaster-type of scenario,” Amoedo says, “although that’s part of it.” 

If you believe in Amoedo’s version of supply and demand—huntable animals per capita—and you possess the right skills, the Yukon can look quite appealing in a disaster-type scenario. The last census of Porcupine caribou, conducted in 2017, estimated the herd totalled 218,000. Only a few hundred people live along its migration path. King salmon, even if their numbers have dropped, still make their run up the Yukon River and its tributaries in July, while chum salmon do the same in the fall. “A lot of calories are swimming your way,” Amoedo says. What is this if not abundance?

A Canadian looking to live in the wild has the luxury of choice—at least for now. Options abound, except in the mountains, which are exciting but impractical, suggests wilderness-skills instructor Brian Lee. “There are so many Gore-Tex skeletons all over Mount Everest,” says Lee, who now teaches north of Vancouver, “because we don’t belong there.” You need equipment to make it in the mountains. You also need food, which is more easily found at lower elevations near the water. This tip, like much wilderness survival advice, echoes Indigenous knowledge about the land. It’s not for nothing that many Indigenous peoples and, later, settler-colonists chose to live on bodies of water.

One day, Amoedo would like to use his cabin as a base camp for a bushcraft school. He already teaches survival skills, which he confesses is something of a misnomer. “Survival is entirely fear-based,” he says. He is not afraid—far from it. He loves the bush so much that he wants to spend more time in it. That, he says, is the key to living in the wild.

“There’s no reason why a person cannot live comfortably in the Northern Forests with a few simple, well-chosen possessions,” Mors Kochanski declares at the outset of his 1981 book, Northern Bushcraft. Kochanski had been teaching survival skills in northern Alberta for two decades when it was published (he’s still going strong at seventy-eight). Northern Bushcraft’s intended audience isn’t doomsday preppers; it’s for regular people. The hand-drawn diagrams of fires and moose littering its pages are not incitements to immediately relocate to a remote forest. Rather, they suggest that survival is attainable if you study hard to lay the necessary groundwork. “Don’t go to the moon without a spacesuit,” Kochanski, wearing his signature beret, explained in a 1975 interview in the bush. “You should be prepared.”

Across Canada, wilderness preparation is often facilitated by Kochanski mentees like Dave Holder. The veteran of the British Army now teaches bushcraft courses with his wife in Alberta. Students sometimes come looking to try advanced techniques or eat critters like they’ve seen on TV, Holder says. He has to “pull them back to zero.” If you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t have to rub sticks together for fire and roast rats when you’re in the wild. Doing it right, however, takes time and knowledge. Students can learn to navigate the backcountry by foot in a weekend, but it takes years to develop an understanding of natural environments. Bushcraft is not just what Holder calls “the hands-on skills that I see from macho Special Forces guys.” It’s about taking the time to understand the complexities of your ecosystem.

Most survival experts believe you can get by in all kinds of ecosystems. The same survival precepts hold true on the best and worst land, so what counts as “good land” is largely a function of your skills. Gino Ferri, director of Ontario-based Survival in the Bush Inc., says humans have survived in the desert as much as in the Arctic or the boreal forest. To test the ideas he has used for his books and teaching, he survived twenty-nine days in the wilderness around Northern Ontario’s Albany River. He wanted to know what goes through the mind as food runs low. “Your stomach shuts down,” he says. “As a matter of fact, food is rather repulsive.”

The Canadian wilderness used to have a different cumulative effect on Marcel Prefontaine. He grew up in Saskatchewan back when winters were dry to the point of being synonymous with chapped skin. “Your hands and lips ended up looking like alligator skin,” he recalls. That no longer happens. Over the course of his life, as a conservation officer and now as survival instructor, he’s felt winters grow ever more damp. The cold latches on to every drop of water or bead of sweat. Chills quietly set in even at mild temperatures. The risk of desiccated skin has given way to something much worse: hypothermia. 

Prefontaine, who now lives in Alberta, still considers some of his favourite wilderness training spots to be in Saskatchewan, north of Prince Albert. Most of his pupils are government employees getting safety training for work in remote areas, or curious private citizens. 

He has integrated all the new changes and risks he’s noticed into his teaching. “I probably stress humidity more than ever before, he says, “because humidity is a killer.” There is no avoiding the effects of global warming, only the possibility of choosing where to feel them.

Even in sparsely populated areas, the already limited availability of land can constrain that choice. Amoedo counts himself lucky to have found property at all, even in a place with so few inhabitants. Much of the land either belongs to Indigenous groups or is Yukon government land, the territory’s version of Crown land. Wilderness house hunters beware; these public lands account for nearly 90 percent of Canada’s land mass, and they’re not for sale. 

Billionaires and, to a lesser extent, climate gentrifiers can opt out of learning about the bush by purchasing the most promising land. For everyone else, there’s education. Ferri says it’s better to start young; children have fewer preconceptions. If you teach them that the wilderness is nice, he says, they’ll accept it as such. They’ll grow up to think of the wilderness as their home in the same way city kids understand their neighbourhoods.

But adults are burdened with long memories. They’ll know how we once lived: the McMansions with rooms that went unused; the three-car garages for three-car households; the riotously inefficient glass towers that sprouted in every city; the seemingly limitless supply of water; the price of fuel, which never came close to reflecting its cost. Maybe Canada’s propertied classes will remember those heady days as the search for land with access to food and water intensifies. Having so successfully set the planet ablaze, they’d do well to find a plot in the bush and learn how to start a fire with their hands instead of their deeds.