The Wilderness Experience
If you find yourself stranded in the wilderness, Duke Edwards can feed, shelter, and warm you with just his wits, a knife, a piece of high-carbon steel, and a shard of flint, while keeping any curious grizzlies away with a can of bear spray.
And, if it’s the wilderness of the spirit that needs rescuing, Edwards can lead a prayer to ignite a saving relationship with Christ.
Edwards’ dual identities serve him well in remote Pinedale, Wyoming. A recognized “super minimalist” survival expert (he has appeared on National Geographic Channel’s Mygrations program), Edwards also is pastor of Wilderness Church.
Edwards, his wife, Beth, and their four children ages 6 to 14, launched the Assemblies of God congregation in 2013. Edwards depended on relationships, built one person at a time — a smile here, a helping hand with a needed repair there — to create a congregation of friends.
“If we live our lives by loving God and loving people, then we can change our community for the better,” says Edwards, who has overcome a host of personal difficulties in his own life.
While Sunday attendance fluctuates — Pinedale is a community where many live by subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, coming and going with the ebb and flow of drilling in the region’s natural gas and oil fields — a core of about 70 people consider the rented space in a former oil company building their church home.
A desire for volunteer outreach has made all the difference, and not only among the church’s regulars. Wilderness Church regularly offers 10-week to two-year internships to North Dakota’s Trinity Bible College students and graduates preparing to enter pastoral or missionary ministries.
“We just kind of give them the keys to the place and let them go, with some good mentoring, of course,” Edwards says. That training includes rotational preaching. Edwards may stand behind the pulpit only once a month, as he allows interns an opportunity to plan the entire service, from delivering a sermon to selecting the worship music.
Last summer, Wilderness Church sponsored 10 interns, and Edwards would like to boost that total to a dozen this year.
At some point during their stays, the church gives interns $500 for community outreach projects. Free barbecues, a dodgeball tournament, and Edwards’ favorite — gift baskets for area veterans containing homemade treats, food supplies, and personal care items — introduce local residents to caring Christians.
At the end of their internships, students also get a taste of the raw outdoors with Edwards as their guide.
As out-of-the-way as Pinedale is — considered the most remote town in the continental U.S. — the family home is even more isolated, on a 40-acre spread three miles from the nearest neighbor, a cattle rancher. The 7,500-foot elevations bring long, harsh winters — as well as plentiful moose, elk, pronghorn, deer, and bighorn sheep, not to mention fishing, for the family’s table.
“We are somewhat off the grid,” Edwards says. “We home-school the kids. We have electricity, indoor plumbing, a well, and a septic tank, but no TV.”
A large portion of food for the household comes from the land. The animal is butchered for its meat, but other parts are used for other purposes. Edwards uses a plethora of skills learned from other outdoorsmen to tan hides and to make bows, arrows, leather shoes, purses, duffle bags, and even pants. He also melts down fat for tallow for candles.
The leather goods, along with Edwards’ abilities as an outdoors and hunting guide, welder, and equipment and construction repairman, bring in money for the relatively few items the land and the family’s own hands or trading cannot provide.
It is a lifestyle respected and shared by others in Pinedale, where the sun rises over the 13,000-foot peaks of the Wind River Range and the untamed Bridger Wilderness. The nearest town of any size is Lander (population 7,700), located 135 miles southeast.
The affinity for the values of self-reliance and being good neighbors has made Edwards and his crew a perfect fit for the Cowboy State, says Alan Schaberg, superintendent of the Assemblies of God’s Wyoming District.
“Duke and Beth have been incredibly beneficial to our district by recruiting young people to come for training and mentoring, and giving them an appetite for rural ministry,” Schaberg says. “It’s amazing Duke can attract them to a small town in Wyoming with no guarantee of a salary, and yet still get them plugged into ministry and the outdoors.”
Edwards estimates that despite there being a dozen other churches in the Pinedale area, 90 percent of local residents won’t attend any of them.
“That’s where outreach and an outpouring of understanding and the love of God come in,” Edwards says.