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Ive interviewed a few different survival experts overthe last few years and I can understand why someonewho has never personally met a survival expert beforewould assume that theyre pretty much all the same, butI can tell you from my personal experiences that nothingcould be further from the truth. Although they might allagree with each other regarding what the basic survivalprinciples are and on other survival related theories,theyre all different & unique in their own way andCreek Stewart is no exception.
In my opinion, Creek is a legitimate survival expert.Hes the owner and main instructor for the WillowHaven Outdoor School, and is the host of The WeatherChannels popular survival themed show Fat Guys InThe Woods. But his resume isnt quite done; hes alsowritten several books, owns two survival-oriented busi-nesses, and has worked with different corporations andthe U.S. government on survival and disaster prepared-ness. Even with all of those accomplishments, Creekdoesnt consider himself a survival expert That term ingeneral makes me very uncomfortable because I learnsurvival skills and tips from my students every time Iteach a course. One of the most important things thatanyone should be looking for when pursuing a survivalinstructor is to look for a teacher who is also a student.
Ill forever be a student of survival and will never pre-tend to know everything there is about survival.
Creeks humble approach to life is hard not to noticeonce youre around him. A couple of months ago, I trav-eled to Indiana to interview him and to take a look at hisschool, which was ranked by MSN Travel as one of thetop ten survival schools in the world.
Willow Haven Outdoor School is in Anderson, Indi-ana, which is about an hour north of Indianapolis. It sitson twenty-one acres filled with meadows, ravines, forest,and lowland swamps. Its the type of terrain that pro-vides a great setting for a survival school.
Early in his childhood he was nicknamed Creek byhis grandfather because he was always playing in thecreek that was located behind his grandfathers house.The name ended up sticking, and I have to say its an ex-cellent name for someone who chose an outdoor relatedcareer.
Creek is currently shooting the second season of histelevision show in various spots around the country. Assoon as he is finished with the filming in March, hell beright back in Anderson preparing for the opening of hisschool, which operates April until October. If you signup for a class at Willow Haven, you will get Creek asyour instructor because he teaches every class. Occa-
Photo provided by The Weather Channel
sionally, he does bring in a special guest to teach a spe-cific skill such as fire starting or shelter building.
After making the trip from my home in New Mexicoto Indianapolis, it was just a short drive to Anderson.After becoming briefly lost, I finally arrived at WillowHaven on a very bitter & cold December day. Ideally, Iwould have much preferred to see this impressive pieceof property on a warm & sunny summer day, but beggarscant be choosers, right? As I drove through the schoolsentrance toward the massive 10,000 square foot lodge, Itook a glance at the surroundings and it was obvious thatthe land was in dormant mode and hunkered down forthe winter. Creek quickly came out of the lodge to greetme. One of the first things he said to me was Man, thisplace looks a lot different in the summer. I tried to vi-sualize green grass and everything in bloom, but I wasunsuccessful at tricking my mind and body into thinkingit was spring or summer so we decided to head inside thelodge. Its sitting empty for the winter waiting for whenit will be filled with all types of enthusiastic and eagerpeople attending classes that are held all over the prop-erty.
At the front of the lodge is the storefront for Creekssurvival store called the Not If But When Survival Store,which is open during the schools season for studentsonly. It is however, open for business online at notifbut-whensurvivalstore.com selling all kinds of survival gear,gadgets, etc. Being the owner of a business (BackwoodsMercantile) that also sells survival merchandise, I could-nt help myself from checking out all of his products. Itwas easy to tell that Creek was a fan of all types of sur-vival gear and products. I love all types of survivaltools, knives, and gadgets so I decided to open an on-linestore with some of the products that I like Creek said.He developed a motto early in his career that he repeats
often on his show and ends his messages with Remem-ber, its not If but When. Its a very attention-gettingstatement that truthfully represents the importance foreveryone to learn survival skills. It also makes for a greatname for a survival themed store. Creeks mom & dadrun the store and he begins to tell me how much he en-joys working with his parents, Theyre retired and verymuch involved with my business. I wouldnt be heretoday if it wasnt for them for a variety of reasons. Itsanother way to spend time with them and I love my par-ents very much. Its a good time.
The enormous Willow Haven Lodge is equippedwith a dining hall, a lounge area, and several rooms thatcontain cots. A camp attendee can either choose to campoutside or stay inside one of the rooms. You could tellthat this building had been here for a while, and it turnsout that the previous owners was General Motors. It wasused as an executive retreat and was abandoned severalyears ago once General Motors began decreasing factoryproduction.
Creek found the property after a long, exhaustingsearch of the entire state of Indiana for a place for hisschool. It was a foreclosed property and Creek knewright away that he had a major restoration project on hishands, When I first bought this place, the building wasdilapidated and squatters had been living here. It lookedlike a total battle zone. Wild animals would frequentlyroam inside the building and the land had not been caredfor in quite awhile. I put a ton of work into this placebut it all paid off in the end and buying this property wasdefinitely a game changer for me, says Creek. We thensat down close to the huge fireplace that had a nice, rag-ing fire going and began to discuss how he has gotten tothis point in his life.
Creeks Not If But When Survival Store.Photo by Creek Stewart
The dining hall at Willow Haven Outdoor School.Photo by Creek Stewart
Creek grew up in Milan, Indiana, a very small, ruraltown located in the Southeastern part of the state. Thetown is famous for winning the 1954 boys basketballstate championship against the much larger Muncie Cen-tral High. At that time, they were the smallest town everin the U.S. to win a state championship and the 1986classic movie Hoosiers was based on the story of thatteam. It was a fitting storyline and place for him to growup considering that he has never given up on his dreamsdespite being told that his odds of making it were veryslim. After deciding against a career as a Pharmacist, hehas been able to carve out a very successful career in theself- reliance and survival industry. An accomplishmentthat is not easy at all.
Growing up on a farm and spending most of his child-hood outside and in thewoods fueled his passionfor the outdoors, but it washis time spent with the BoyScouts that really sparkedhis interest in learning self-reliant skills. At the age offourteen, Creek achievedthe highest ranking that isattainable in the Boy Scout-ing program by becomingan Eagle Scout. The BoyScouts motto is Be Pre-pared, and this sayingwould hold true for Creekmore ways than one. Hisexperiences in the scoutswere just the beginning of what was to come for him inthe future.
It was while attending college and studying to be apharmacist at Butler University that Creek realized whathe wanted to do with his life. He decided to switch gearsand pursue his dream of teaching survival skills, and itsnot like theres a manual on how to achieve that. Creekspent a good part of his sophomore year of college writ-ing his first survival manual, a ninety page self-publishedbook that was photocopied at Kinkos. The book wasabout building shelters, survival fishing, tracking, hunt-ing, etc.
Looking back now, Creek does admit that at the timehe probably wasnt qualified to write a survival book, Iguess it was me being sort of nave. Hindsight is 20/20and when I look back at some of the stuff that I wasdoing early in my career, I realized how little I knew.There is only one way to really pick up knowledge in thesurvival industry and that is to go out and do it. I com-pare learning survival skills to playing a musical instru-
ment. You can read all the books, watch all the videos,learn from the best instructors, but until you pick up thatinstrument and start playing, youll never learn how toplay that instrument. Its the same way with learning sur-vival skills and I learned that lesson early in my career.
He was now an official author of a survival book, butthe next challenge was to sell them. It doesnt appearthat Creek created a formula for how his career wasgoing to take shape, he knew deep inside that he wantedto work with people and teach survival skills. Maybe itwas a hunch that he had in his mind that writing a sur-vival book would build momentum toward teaching sur-vival skills and ultimately owning and operating his ownsurvival school. But first he had a huge pile of books tosell so he decided to invest a few hundred dollars in an
ad in the back of Boys LifeMagazine, a magazine forthe Boy Scouts. He onlycharged $1.00 for postage& handling and even gaveaway a free compass withevery order. Creek cameup with a marketing strat-egy; he offered a free sur-vival booklet that wasdesigned as a teaser toorder his