Billy Rioux: Living Wild and Free in History

Billy Rioux at his cabin, where he lived the daily life of 19th century settlers for one year. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

Billy Rioux at his cabin, where he lived the daily life of 19th century settlers for one year. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

I first heard of Billy Rioux through YouTube. I was watching Bushcraftbartons' videos and came across one where he visits his friend, Billy Rioux. Billy was living in a rustic cabin he built in the backwoods of Quebec and emulating the life of settlers from the 1800s. I’ve always loved history and as a kid, I poured over every book in the school library having anything to do with the frontiersmen, mountain men, voyageurs or the pioneers, while my dog got fat on my overdue math and spelling assignments. So, I found it especially interesting to see how Billy built his cabin and watch him go about the day-to-day of an old time frontiersman. Aside from the obvious skill and effort Billy was putting into his project, one thing really jumped out at me: his incredible spirit and enthusiasm! It was clear that Billy was a passionate fellow who loved to have fun in the woods. 

Billy’s name came up again when I had the opportunity to meet and spend a bit of time with Andre Francios Bourbeau (“Dr. Survival”), a truly amazing woodsman! Dr. Bourbeau mentioned Billy and talked about how they often work together on bushcraft and historical projects.

Since then, Billy started posting his own entertaining videos on YouTube. His website details the monumental outdoor adventures and historical recreation projects he’s undertaken (Billy has climbed the seven highest peaks in Canada, traveled for months through Europe on $.01, retraced the Klondike Gold Rush, walked 4,000 kilometers of The Crusades route, and more recently, he spent a year living as a nineteenth century pioneer in his handmade cabin in the Quebec bush).

Billy is a guy I wanted to get to know and introduce to BMP readers! So, after a bit of correspondence we found ourselves connected via Skype.

So Billy, tell me, what do you do? 

Ha! That’s a good question. I am an adventurer. I am not a survivalist, not truly a historian, but I mix outdoor experiences and history together to create adventures. And I love dreaming up and living out these adventures! Thinking of a trip, choosing a destination, crafting the style of the trip, and then living it—it’s my passion. 

How did you get started in all of this?

I wasn't particularly interested in school when I was younger. I had a difficult time focusing on schoolwork and instead, I was always searching for what I wanted to do. I finished school, though, and earned a diploma to become a park warden. Getting out of the classroom and spending more time in the wild felt great! From there, daydreaming led to the idea of my own quests. After bringing to life my first adventure, I was fueled for the next. I did return to the classroom to also obtain a certificate in history.

Tell us a bit about your latest grand adventure: Living “in period” in your remote cabin for a year.

Billy canoeing in a bark canoe, similar to what early woodsmen used. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

Billy canoeing in a bark canoe, similar to what early woodsmen used. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

I worked to recreate the life of early European settlers in this area. This was the most beautiful year of my life! It was so intense and very powerful. The time spent remote and unplugged, living in nature and history, was a simple and wonderful existence. Yes, it was bare and rugged, and made me appreciate even more the life of the early settlers, but taking that time to slow down the pace of life was a great gift. I’ve come to believe that it is so important to unplug. I really encourage everyone to try and find ways to step out of our fast-paced modern life.

So, your goal was to recreate and live the daily life of an early settler for one year?

Yes, I wanted to live life like the early Europeans who came and lived in this region of North America. I wasn’t practicing native skills. I tried to recreate the experience of the Europeans who came to this area of Quebec, what they ate, how they dressed, the tools they used. I couldn’t be 100% accurate in my recreation though. It would have been incredibly difficult, and in many cases very expensive, to try to be completely accurate in my historical recreations. Some silly items, like a button or eyewear, might cost me a small fortune to acquire perfect replicas or the actual pieces, so I generally aim to be at least 60% accurate with the goods and materials I’m using.

Speaking of nit picking on small things, I couldn't help but notice you use a modern Gransfors Bruks axe. Many people seek out old axes and claim they are the best, and there are people who are Gransfors fanatics.  Bushcrafters obsess over axes and engage in endless debates in online forums about which axe is best. After using the Gransfors day in and day out, what’s your take on it?

Ha, yes, I really like the Gransfors axe. It works well for my projects, I like the way it handles, and I’m able to keep it very sharp. Besides, I was given it for free, so it was a deal I couldn’t pass up! I used older axes before, while building my wooden boat (a battue); however, the older axes I had didn't work as well…although I know there are high-quality older axes.

Did you have any early role models or inspiration for your adventure-seeking ways?

Billy Rioux and Andre François Bourbeau. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

Billy Rioux and Andre François Bourbeau. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

My father is a good hunter and loved spending time outdoors. He spent a lot of his free time in the woods, and I learned from him. I also saw that he worked long at a job that he probably wasn’t all that passionate about. I learned that I wanted to feel I was really living in my work. I've also learned a lot of bushcraft and survival skills from Andre Françios Bourbeau—you couldn't ask for a better teacher when it comes to those areas! Lately, Mike Barton (of the Bushcraftbartons on YouTube) has encouraged me to make videos, and I've learned about the power of social media from him.

My own adventures have built on each other. At age 19, I spent a year making my way across Canada to Alaska, climbing, hiking, and paddling. That trip changed the course of my life. Later, I lived in my van for a year traveling the western parts of the continent and climbing. Then, I traveled Europe and saw 16 countries with only one penny in my pocket. So, I've learned that if I dream it up and want to do it badly enough, it can be done!

Several of my outdoor activities have benefited from formal training, but lately I've been wondering if things have gone too far in this area…or have they not gone far enough? There seems to be no end to the recommended classes and certifications. A beginner could feel as if they shouldn't step foot off the pavement unless they’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on advanced training. Do you have any thoughts on this? What's your approach?

First of all, I've decided that I don't want to participate in other people’s depressions! That is, I try to not let other people’s insecurities or judgments hold me down. My approach is to take my time to practice, learn, and develop my skills over time. That works for me because I have time and passion for this, and I’m careful to judge my skills and abilities. I’ve also had some very close calls, from which I’ve learned caution. But if someone doesn't have as much time to practice as I do, maybe they only have a couple of weeks of vacation to spend outside, good training can really speed up the learning.

I know you speak a lot at schools. Do you have a main message?

Listen to your dream! Everybody has a dream. It feels sometimes like the world is pushing you into a corner, or you must follow a certain path, or take certain steps in life; but, you need to push to the sunlight, do what you need to do, and your energy will grow from it!

Billy Rioux rock climbing in the Chamonix Valley. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

Billy Rioux rock climbing in the Chamonix Valley. Photo credit: www.BillyRioux.com

What’re you working on now? What’s next?

Most of my written work has been done in French. I’m working on updating my website and converting my books and adventures into English. I’m also excited about the prospect of a survival and bushcraft TV show here in Quebec, so I’ve been spending time looking into possibilities there. And, you never know, the inspiration for the next big historical adventure may bubble up at any time!

An Adventurer to Watch

Our call was too short, but we both agreed to talk again soon—hopefully the next time is around a campfire, instead of through computer screens. Billy is doing some amazing things. I encourage you to follow his blog and YouTube channel. You’ll learn a bit about history, pick up some outdoor skills, and most importantly, come away smiling and excited to live life!