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Would You Take a 9-Month Honeymoon in the Wilderness? Andy and Heidi Brun Said, 'We Do'

This is the story of Andy and Heidi Brun—less about Andy's well-regarded gear company (Exped) and more about 2 people who were drawn to the outdoors, drawn to each other and strongly attracted to the idea of experiencing wilderness on its own terms, however unforgiving those terms might be.

Consider the unconventional path to romantic bliss traveled by 2 lovebirds from Switzerland shortly after their 1980 wedding while both were still in their wide-eyed 20s:

• Step 1: Agree to abandon civilization—so long to electricity, indoor plumbing and urban conveniences.

• Next, pick a remote patch of Canadian wilderness close to the Arctic Circle; hire a bush pilot to leave you there.
• Spend 6 weeks building a primitive cabin by hand; spend the next 9 months (a full winter included) in that faraway location.

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Newlyweds Andy and Heidi Brun and their hand-built wilderness Shangri-La.

Imagine, 2 people living in their own off-the-grid Eden on the edge of the Canadian Arctic. Picture the cozy intimacy that the 2 of them shared inside their handcrafted master suite. "Well, it was not such a nice cabin," Heidi concedes. "It was more like a shed." Andy: "You would call it a shack nowadays."

But the meals, enjoyed in a vast, wild setting, must have been glorious.

"In the summertime, mosquitoes were extremely bad," Andy says, recalling swarms of insects. "You couldn't eat; or you would eat mosquitoes, basically."

Well, how about that romantic Christmas excursion into town? For the holiday, the couple decided to trek to Yellowknife, civilization's northernmost outpost in the Northwest Territories, a province east of Yukon and north of Alberta.

One problem: Their cabin was roughly 200 miles away, and they miscalculated the mileage. "We thought, 'Oh, walking to Yellowknife, that's easy—5 days,' " Andy says. "It took us 10."

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A 9-month wilderness adventure begins: Heidi, her gear and a departing bush plane.

Deep Wilderness

The couple ran out of food in 5 days. Two days before that, a leg infection badly hobbled Andy. "So I tied some cords around my knees to pull up my legs to walk, but even that didn't help much," he says. "So we just stayed put for 2 or 3 days, when it was minus-40 degrees. That really gets you thinking."

They kept 3 to 4 fires burning around them in camp at all hours. "We took turns sleeping," Andy says. "She was down, I was up. When I was down, she was up. It was really on the (survival) borderline."

Eventually the couple mustered the strength to complete the trip. Once in Yellowknife, did they jump joyfully back into the arms of civilization?

"Though basically it's a village, we felt like, 'Oh my, everything is rushing. It's stressful here,' " Andy says. "I wanted to get out. We really felt at home in the wilderness."

North American Wilderness Viewed by European Eyes

What was the appeal of lonely landscapes to newlyweds from Switzerland?

"Because of the emptiness of the country we always had been very fascinated by Canada," Heidi says. "We read lots of books from all the explorers, all these old guys and trappers who lived in Canada, So we thought, let's try it. We were young."

Andy agrees. "As Europeans, we are quite condensed. We see the scars of civilization from thousands and thousands of years ago,," he says. "It's totally different for you in North America, right? It's still quite pristine here. This we (Europeans) don't know. Even in the Alps, where you think, 'Oh, this is big nature,' go to any summit and you hear the traffic, you hear the noise, you smell civilization.

"But to be totally away from it all, it's such a pure experience." he says. "You feel like the first man on the earth."

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Andy and Heidi s home sweet wilderness home. Below, Andy admonishes a visitor.

The son of a Swiss electrical engineer, Andy Brun (pronounced Broon) lived in Pakistan, Germany and Canada before settling in Zurich. He graduated from the University of Zurich with the European equivalent of an MBA degree ("I learned something about bookkeeping," he jokes), but more influential on his future was a wilderness survival course he took in Sweden in 1976.

"It got me to thinking, 'I don't want to be an economist,' which I am professionally," Andy says. "I should be in a Swiss bank, counting dirty money or whatever. But finally I really followed my heart."

A Perfect Pairing

He found a kindred spirit when he met Heidi during a college break on a beach near Barcelona. What was it about her that turned Andy's head?

"Both of us had sleeping bags, because we didn't want to sleep at the hotel," he says.

"We thought that was dumb, to separate ourselves from nature. We would just sleep on the beach."

They married in 1980. That August, when both were 28, they elected to immerse themselves in the Canadian wilderness that had fascinated them both for so long.

They hired a bush pilot to drop them off on the shore of Great Bear Lake, about 200 miles north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. They camped in a tent while building their cabin/shed/shack out of mostly dead-standing trees.

"We really had to do it very fast," Andy says. "We brought a book, How to Build a Log Cabin, but most of it was completely wrong. Everything went wrong. But what goes wrong is usually what's really interesting. It was a huge adventure."

Andy says he and Heidi were relatively poor. They invested in high-quality down sleeping bags, but made do with Army surplus clothing and wool garments from his grandfather.

"Just old stuff," he says. "We brought a shotgun, too, but it was totally useless."

He estimates he and Heidi brought about 40 percent of their food provisions with them. "But the rest came out of nature," he says. Fish. Ptarmigans. Rock tripe, a lichen, became a dietary staple.

"Old explorers lived from that," Andy says. "You can collect it and make flour for bread out of it. Trappers in Canada know about it. It's very nourishing, but it's a bit gritty because there's some stone in it."

An Experience Not for the Faint of Heart or Weak of Spirit

Challenges were plentiful. A black bear once pillaged their food supply when they inadvertently left a storage sack lying on the ground. Mice were regular pests. Daylight was scarce during the winter months.

One night, before the cabin was finished, a bear approached their tent,

"He came really close, like 3 meters (10 feet)," Andy recalls. "We heard him clawing and snuffing, then we made some noise, and he just ran away. That really taught us: These guys, real bears (those not habituated to humans), are much more afraid of us than we are of them."

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Andy Brun shows off a canoe he equipped with a self-built mast and sail.

Did their resolve to remain in the wilderness waver? Not really, Andy says.

"We learned we are a good team, I think, or at least you really learn about each other," he says. "On the walk to Yellowknife, I learned to be, like, 'Oh, I'm happy,' even if I'm not, just to keep up the morale. It's a play (an act) that you learn when you're really on the borderline (of survival)."

After 9 months, the couple's odyssey reached its conclusion. Before flying out, they disassembled their cabin in Leave No Trace fashion.

"We made a point to totally give it back to nature," Andy says. "You won't see any of it any more. It's all gone."

By 1983, Andy (shown in a 2011 photo below) created a European distributorship for outdoor brands such as Lowe Alpine, Moss tents, MSR and others. In 1997, encouraged by outdoor colleagues, he began creating products of his own making and acquired a following among outdoor types throughout the globe.

His Exped brand is best-known in America for its sleeping mats. I used a down-filled Exped Downmat 9 during a 2010 climb of Mount Rainier, and the 1-pound SynMat UL 7 comes on most of my backpacking trips. (The numbers refer to the mats' thickness in centimeters, by the way.)

In the United Kingdom, it's stuff sacks. In Asia, Exped is thought of as a trekking pole company.

"We are 13 people in Switzerland, 5 in Germany and 5 guys in the United States," he says. "We never want to be large, that's for sure. We learned it's exponentially more difficult to do what we like if we become too big. So we need to stay small and fast. We are a dwarf."

Dealing with too much gear is somewhat antithetical to Brun's aspirations for creating a gear company. A staffer says at Exped's Zurich offices Andy convenes "innovations meetings," not sales meetings. Too much gear could potentially obfuscate more sublime connections people can make when deep in the wilderness.

Minimum Means for the Maximum Experience

"The minimum means, the maximum nature experience," Brun says, summarizing the Exped philosophy. "Try to go light; try to go lesser and lesser. Try to go just with your brain.

"Now, that thinking's counterproductive to sales, right?," Brun says with a laugh.

He is amused by the paradox of his pursuits: producing quality outdoor gear while advocating a minimalist, purist point of view to wilderness travel.

"I think that's the final goal, because you're more exposed to nature. The aim is not to be like on the moon, with all this equipment and stuff. That's (the lesson) we have from Canada. The less you have, the more you are self-sufficient, and you feel more relaxed."

Symbolic of the self-reliance learned in the Canadian wilderness, the Exped logo features a Canadian goose in flight, which Andy and Heidi (shown above in 2011) often saw passing over their cabin.

"There are very few things that are really important," says Andy, who turned 60 on Wednesday. "One is to have a good connection to the people that you know. Two is to experience nature and to be…to be humble.

"Humble, you know? To get down to the real nature of yourself. You can really be absolutely relaxed deep in nature, and that's a major win. We have been out there; 200 miles, nobody around. We were absolutely relaxed. You can only find that, I believe, in nature."

Historical photos courtesy of Exped (thanks to Kaj Bune); contemporary photos of Andy and Heidi Brun by T.D. Wood.

Posted on at 7:53 PM

Tagged: Andy Brun, Downmat, Exped, Heidi Brun, SynMat and wilderness

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