Using only a thin, twisted, piece of plastic wire, Urs Schirmer reads the ground like a psychic.
The slight, Swiss baker gives his fingers a shake, lightly grasps the bent plastic rod in both hands and walks slowly across the Squatter’s Road property.
He’s looking for underground water.
“First you have to clear your mind,” says Schirmer, lowering his head.
“You have to think of nothing, cause if wish for water, you’ll get nothing; it’s like wishing for gold.”
When he was a young boy in Switzerland, Schirmer saw an old man wandering around his neighbour’s yard holding a willow branch.
The curious boy asked what the old man was doing.
“He was dowsing,” says Schirmer.
“Or witching, as you call it here.”
It turns out the neighbours couldn’t sleep, and were told their insomnia could be caused by the energy generated from an underground stream.
“These streams give off lots of energy, especially when water hits rocks; it’s almost like electricity,” says Schirmer.
“And this energy affects people and nature, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way.”
Schirmer surveys the Squatter’s property.
“Sometimes trees can tell you where water is,” he says looking around.
“Some trees try to flee the water and others get really big.”
A large tree in the yard catches his eye.
“I bet there’s water there,” he says.
“But we’ll start over here.”
He points about 20 metres from the tree.
He stands quietly for a minute, gives his fingers another flip and begins walking. Again, his head is slightly lowered.
The plastic rod, twisted like an A in front of him, is still.
But as Schirmer nears the big tree, the rod begins to quiver.
Then it twists toward the ground sharply.
“There’s a stream here,” he says.
Schirmer is grinning.
“Some people laugh at this,” he says.
“Some say it’s all nonsense.”
But doctors in Europe often recommend patients who are sick or have trouble sleeping get their property witched, says Schirmer.
“There are witching seminars there.”
A Swiss friend actually sent him the plastic rod he is now holding.
North Americans often use two copper-coated wires, or a willow branch, he says.
In fact, so does Schirmer, on occasion.
“If you’re using willow, it’s best to get it from the property you’re witching,” he says.
“I even have a friend who uses an old saw blade.”
Then Schirmer pulls two copper wires out of his old blue Suburban.
“Want to try it?” he says.
“Hold the wires lightly.”
Walking slowly over the gravel, Schirmer coaches me.
“Hold them further apart.
“Walk more slowly.”
As I near the spot where Schirmer found water, I notice I’m a little nervous, hopeful the wires will move for me.
I walk past the spot; one step, two steps … then the wires begin to slowly turn towards each other.
“Keep walking,” coaches Schirmer.
The wires move closer, then cross, forming an ‘X’ in front of me.
“Keep going,” he says.
After several more steps, the wires begin to separate, moving mysteriously in my loose grip.
I’ve passed the stream.
“The stream probably flows toward that big tree,” says Schirmer.
He walks past the tree, his plastic wire twisting in his hands.
He stops in a clear spot several metres from the house.
“This is a good spot,” he says.
“Do you want to know how deep the water is?”
Still using only the plastic wire, Schirmer lowers his head.
The wire is still.
And it looks like Schirmer is counting under his breath.
Almost a minute passes.
Suddenly the wire twists downward.
Schirmer looks up, “It’s only 86 feet down.”
But he isn’t finished yet.
After a few more minutes of concentration, he is able to tell me the water quality is excellent. The well will produce 12 gallons a minute.
“I can read other things too,” he says.
“I can sense minerals underground, and silver works really well, even oil.”
And what about gold?
“Well, gold is different,” he says.
“Maybe I wouldn’t find it … I’d keep it for me.”
After the old man in his neighbour’s yard taught him to witch, Schirmer didn’t keep using with the skill.
But when his sister’s baby was having trouble sleeping, the family had him witch the property.
He was 18 and still living in Switzerland.
“I found an underground steam running right under the crib,” he said.
So his sister moved the crib and the baby began to sleep soundly.
Ten years later, Schirmer and his wife moved to the Yukon.
And again, he used his witching ability.
“Before building, I checked the property for underground streams,” he says.
A friend came by and saw Schirmer wandering about with his wires.
Word spread quickly, and people began to employ Schirmer’s skills.
Over the last 12 years, he’s witched roughly 50 wells in the territory.
And he hasn’t been wrong once.
“There are some drillers here who work with witchers,” says Schirmer.
“But what amazes me is the biggest driller here doesn’t believe in it.
“And, if they are hired after a property has been witched, they’ll often drill down too fast and miss the spot, maybe on purpose, because the deeper you drill the more money you make.”
Schirmer charges $100 to witch a property.
If he doesn’t find water, it’s only $50.
And if he finds water and the driller doesn’t, he gives the $100 back.
However, this isn’t his business.
Schirmer and his wife are bakers, delivering tasty Swiss treats throughout the city on a weekly basis.
But witching is an interesting hobby, and Schirmer continues to research his art.
The Romans used witchers, he says.
“They used to burn the witches, but not those guys.
“And they used to build their guard towers on top of underground streams, so the guards wouldn’t fall asleep on their shifts.”
Old Chinese texts also mention witching, reporting that houses weren’t built until the properties had been checked, says Schirmer.
“It looks kinda funny when I walk through a yard, and people look out their windows and say, ‘What the hell is he doing,’” says Schirmer.
But with a 100-per-cent success rate, Schirmer is happy to let them laugh.
“Water is our future,” he says.
“We have to take care of it.”