Over 20 years ago, Mick Dodge walked away from the modern world to live alongside nature’s wonders.
IT’S EASY to understand why people occasionally report sightings of Bigfoot in the mossy forests of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, United States. What else could explain a fast-moving biped with long, flowing hair climbing trees and plunging into icy streams?
It might be Sasquatch. But it’s probably Mick Dodge.
Fourteen years ago, Dodge was working as a heavy equipment mechanic at Fort Lewis. Dissatisfied with the 9-to-5 grind, he gave up civilisation for a life in the rainforest, living off the land, sleeping in tree stumps and bartering for necessities.
Recently, a television series about Dodge’s unusual lifestyle, The Legend of Mick Dodge, premiered on the National Geographic Channel. The show focuses on his adventures in the mountains and Hoh rainforest.
But that’s only part of who he is, Dodge said. The former Marine has spent a lifetime maintaining extreme physical fitness. Look beyond Dodge’s impish blue eyes and flowing hair and you’ll see broad shoulders and well-developed muscles. “That’s my real passion in life,” he said inside a small log cabin on a friend’s forested property along the Sol Duc River near Forks, Washington.
Dodge’s story is full of colourful tales and daring adventures. It was his father who instilled a lifelong passion for fitness. Every day at 5am, Dodge’s father would rouse his son. “‘Get your feet on the deck!’ We’d run three miles. I wouldn’t wake up until half way though.”
Dodge spent six years in the Marines and is a Vietnam veteran. After the Marines, he spent years bumming around the country. By the late 1990s, he was working at Fort Lewis. He owned a house in Yelm and ran across the base to his job daily. His commute included a swim across the Nisqually River. He kept a stash of dry clothes on the opposite bank.
Eventually, unbeknown to the Army, he lived in camps on the base to shorten his journey, he said. But the job itself hindered the time he wanted to spend in the wild lands and his physical training. So he quit and moved to the forest. Dodge created what he calls the Earth Gym. Picture a YMCA in the forest where nature provides most of the equipment for physical training.
Using cargo nets, straps, ropes, stones, limbs, burls and other found and created gear, Dodge teaches his techniques to students who come to him via websites and word-of-mouth.
He eschews the fluorescent-lit confines of urban gyms with their high-tech equipment and linear movements. Instead, he uses a connection with nature to teach movement. Who needs a treadmill when you can run upstream in the Sol Duc River like a human-size salmon?
Run, Mick, run
Dodge is 62 now. Aches and pains can make him cranky. In winter, he enjoys a warm cabin and spending time with a lady friend. But, he said, he can stand only a few days cooped up inside four walls before he feels the need to run. He loves to take to the forest and move as fast as he can, losing himself mentally for hours, sometimes for days.
“I just step out the door and choose a direction,” Dodge said. Along the way, he eats what he finds. From his neck hangs a tooth from a sea lion he found washed up on a beach. He took it after he ate from the remains.
Dodge doesn’t filter, treat or boil the water he drinks from streams and springs. Foraging from nature is how he survives in the wild. He recounts the time he found an elk killed by a cougar. “There was a bear coming in for it, there was a coyote coming for it, and there was Mick,” he said. “I got my share.” Sometimes, all he finds are maggots. He’ll eat those, too. Many of his students are vegetarians, and they assume he is one as well.
“They say they don’t want to hurt animals. What? You hate plants? What I learned is that I’m a hungerarian.”
He flirted briefly with the running community that took off in the 1970s. Invited to a race in those early days, he said he couldn’t understand why a woman was trying to sell him a bib number. He declined the purchase and ran the race anyway. He was the first to cross the finish line but scurried under the tape, fearful that if he broke it, he might have to pay for it. “I dodged under it, and I’ve been dodging the running crowd since then,” he said.
Whether walking, running or climbing, Dodge usually does it without the benefit of shoes, sandals or any other kind of footwear. In 1991, he made a vow to live barefoot. The move cured his plantar fasciitis, back pain and hammer toes, he said. It also allowed him to interact more intuitively with the natural world.
“Once I put shoes and boots on, I walk with a dominator’s attitude,” Dodge said while wearing knee-high buffalo skin boots with elk horn buttons.
He’s not a barefoot fanatic, he explains. After making the barefoot vow in 1991, “I took off up to the glaciers and almost lost my feet,” Dodge recounts.
Recently, an author sent him a how-to book on going barefoot – hundreds of pages long – hoping for an endorsement. Dodge declined. If Dodge wrote a book on the subject, it would be one-sentence long: Take your shoes off and walk. Or, as he more poetically puts, it, “Land your feet and the earth will teach.”
It’s not just Dodge’s feet that go bare. He often trains in the nude or, as he calls it, “nekkid.” Viewers will see some of that in the series – with crucial parts discreetly blurred.
What viewers won’t see on The Legend of Mick Dodge is Dodge wearing plastic garments. Instead, he wears buckskins on TV. While they are the clothes he wears in dry weather, Dodge often dons artificial material for rain protection.
“The art of living out here is the art of staying dry,” he said.
But the show’s crew often shoots scenes out of sequence. And the occasional appearance of plastic would have ruined the continuity of the episode. So, he got wet. And annoyed.
It wasn’t the only conflict Dodge had with the show’s producers, the Seattle-based Screaming Flea Productions – creators of Hoarders. As with many reality shows, Dodge was given a script with lines to say. Dodge protested. “I wouldn’t say those things,” he recounts.
In one episode, the producers wanted him to hunt a bear. Dodge refused – he no longer hunts. It became such a point of contention between Dodge and the suits in New York that he sent a video-taped message of protest to the top brass at the National Geographic Channel, he said. The execs relented. The bear-hunting episode turned into a mushroom-hunting episode instead.
By the end of the 12th episode, the crew would just follow Dodge and capture his natural dialogue. “It would be easier and faster to give him lines to say. But he’s not an actor. He’s a real person,” said Liza Keckler, vice-president of development at Screaming Flea.
Dodge is learning about the techniques behind television, but he maintains strong ethical standards and wants the show to reflect reality. He praises the crew that followed him tirelessly for weeks in the forest, climbing trees and enduring the same hardships. Before he agreed to being filmed, Dodge led the crew through his Earth Gym training.
“You hazed us,” Keckler told Dodge with a laugh. By the end of the filming, the crew had grown beards and they were walking barefoot. Keckler said the series will expose viewers to Dodge’s sense of humour, the beauty of the Hoh rainforest and some unique survival tips.
Though he was paid to appear in the series, Dodge said he turned his salary over to a non-profit, Olympic Mountain EarthWisdom Circle. Dodge doesn’t use money, he said, instead choosing to barter for everything. He doesn’t own a car, cellphone or TV. He hasn’t seen himself on TV and doesn’t want to.
Dodge said he makes most of his own clothing. On this day, he was wearing a leather kilt and a knit cap. Whether training or on a wilderness journey, Dodge relies on just three types of equipment: sticks, stones and sacks.
Back to nature
Dodge wants people to know he’s not some strange hermit living in logs, or a survivalist. “I’m a thrillvilist,” he clarified. Some have likened Dodge to a Forrest Gump-type character. It’s a comparison he doesn’t mind.
It’s harder now, Dodge said, to find the unfenced lands of his youth. He tries to play by the rules when it comes to making camps in national parks and forests, but eventually, “Guns and badges are going to show up and tell you to move on.” He supports the idea of preserves but doesn’t like to be charged to use them.
Forks has seen an economic boost from the popularity of the vampire-werewolf-themed Twilight saga but it remains a logging town. Though he espouses a back-to-nature ethos, he’s not against logging. “Our problem,” he said, “is the demand and the desire (for material goods). Not loggers.”
Dodge sees a schism between the city and the wild lands, and it’s only getting worse. “Roads are walls,” he said. “The guards are all the people riding their cars and machines on it.” The movement and habits of city life are pulling people further away from nature, Dodge said. And in turn, people fear nature. It’s something he has to fight in the students who come to learn from him.
“Their biggest fears are cold, wet and where they’re going to sleep,” Dodge said. “Fear is such a beautiful thing if you turn it into excitement.” – The News Tribune/McClatchy Tribune Information Services