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Wilderness survival for the rest of us

An ember ignites a tinder bundle into a flame. Making fire without matches is a must-have skill for any outdoor survivalist.
An ember ignites a tinder bundle into a flame. Making fire without matches is a must-have skill for any outdoor survivalist.Wilderness Awareness
/ Source: contributor

One guy had reached his limit.

We’d been hiking and foraging for three days as part of a weeklong wilderness survival course.  We had dug up bitterroot and caught a rattlesnake, making a pot of stew the night before which we passed around like an oversized beer mug. We had munched on wax currants and other edibles. But the calories weren’t making up for the hiking, nor the bone-chilling nights for which we had nothing more than an Army poncho thrown over all the clothes we had brought.

Joe, as I’ll call him since he asked for anonymity, wasn’t the one in the group I’d expected to hit the wall. He was an experienced camper, with sinewy strength and a sharp mind. But he had heard the siren song of a road we hiked near and he could picture himself too clearly hitchhiking home.

We had started out at the offices of the Wilderness Awareness School, northeast of Seattle, all well groomed with clean clothes and not a clue as to what the week ahead would hold. The instructors wouldn’t give us an itinerary; wilderness survival was about dealing with the present, not knowing what lay ahead.

To avoid distractions on our walkabout, Dan, the lead instructor, laid down three rules: Don’t talk about food, don’t riff lines from movies or TV shows, and no sex.

The list of what we could bring was pretty short. Aside from clothes and a poncho, we each carried a knife, water bottles, a water purifier, a small medical kit, duct tape and parachute cord. The instructors checked our packs beforehand, purportedly to ensure we had all the gear, but I suspect to look out for cellular phones or any stashes of chocolate bars. (Rob, a civil engineer from Seattle, managed to sneak along some NoDoz, to quench his daily caffeine craving.)

Following the preliminaries and a three-hour drive, us eight clueless participants, shepherded by the instructors, found ourselves bushwhacking up a hillside in south-central Washington state, with no moon, no flashlights and only a vague image of the person tromping in front. We had no idea of where we were headed, or how long we’d be hoofing it.

It was well after midnight when we reached a copse of trees. Dan told us to find a place to sleep and walked away.  We spread out to find a spot to curl up under our ponchos and got what little sleep we could.

Well before the sun rose, three of us sleepless souls found ourselves huddled under some fir trees, swapping stories. There’s nothing like a little deprivation to bring common ground to a cop, an aerospace engineer and a stay-at-home dad.

Once the sun rose and everyone was up, we headed out to dig up a dinner’s worth of bitterroot and to learn about other edible plants such as mustard, Hooker’s onion and currants, which we munched on as we came across them. (We also learned that the soft leaves of wooly mullein serve as a handy substitute for toilet paper, which, or course, wasn’t part of our gear.)

The high point of Day 2 was finding meat. The three instructors pinned and beheaded a rattlesnake — which keeps on squirming even without its head. We also learned that you can eat the heart and liver; the latter, while small, tastes rich in iron.

We then hiked down to a burbling creek to fill water bottles, take naps in the sun and clean the bitterroot for stew that night. Once evening arrived and we’d set up camp, we gathered around the fire, enjoying the heat and the steam of the cooking pot. Bitterroot and snake were new to us, but the combination never tasted so good. With no utensils, we passed around the pot, drinking the warm broth and picking out chunks of rattlesnake with our fingers. (It tastes somewhat like chicken, but with lots of bones.)

That night, we also got a few lessons in making a bed that’s not wholly uncomfortable. Low-hanging branches can help retain heat, as can sleeping on the on the lee side of a log when there is wind. Avoid anthills and dead trees still standing, otherwise known as widow-makers.  A bed of pine needles and oak leaves can provide ground cover, but we found it was a skill to make something even close to being comfortable. It also helps to share a sleeping spot with one or more bodies; spooning shares body heat, and the larger the bedmates, the better. (Rob was the only participant who slept well every night, and thus was way too perky in the morning. We later decided that if we devolved to cannibalism, he’d be the first to go.)

Day 3 was tough. My legs felt rubbery and slow. We spent the day hiking and collecting food, including another rattlesnake, which was fat from having a half-digested long-tailed weasel in its belly. (In a real survival situation, that weasel could have been used as bait for deadfall traps.)

Nearing nightfall was when Joe hit the wall, ready to drop out. It was a crucial moment. But some encouragement and kind words carried him through to camp that night, where we got the good news that the toughest part was over.

In such an intense experience as survival training, group dynamics loom large. Fortunately, we quickly become a group intertwined, lending a hand, sharing jokes and stories, and our disparate backgrounds.

J.D., a Seattle cop and veteran of the first Iraq war, was always full of good humor and great stories. Tal, a facilitator of group work from San Francisco, shared his compassion and led us in yoga stretches before our hikes. Chris, a computer whiz from Columbus, Ohio, was a self-professed geek, but a rare one to tackle such an offline adventure. Josh, a Boeing engineer, earned the nickname Forest Ninja for his quiet movements. And then there was Jonanne, an environmental educator from Vancouver, B.C., and the sole female participant. As for me, it was a chance to catch a mental break from the busyness of raising two young boys.

Everyone had gotten the warning about the Walkabout Wilderness Survival Skills Expedition: “This course is very challenging, both physically and mentally. As a participant, you must be prepared to push yourself beyond perceived physical, emotional, and mental boundaries while amongst the elements of nature. ... We will cover large distances over uneven ground, potentially without food and water for extended periods of time.”

The rest of our week was spent absorbing an array of lessons, including how to make fire, create sharp edges from rocks, form cordage, and a sampling of other skills. The three teachers — Dan, Lindsay and Matt — epitomized the attitudes needed for backwoods success: enthusiasm, patience, keen eyes, presence and curiosity.

There are tougher wilderness survival courses out there, and gentler ones that teach skills from a base camp.

The Walkabout course intermingled survival training with being tuned to our surroundings, such as the plants, bird calls, tracks, scat — all bits of information that can help us to not only survive but to have a bit of confidence being in the wild. One morning I startled a bird, realizing that it was trying to distract me from its well-camouflaged ground nest. Inside were four small eggs, a high-calorie snack if need be.

Stressing out about the unknown wastes a lot of energy, not only in the wilderness but anywhere.

In his book, “Deep survival: Who lives, Who dies, and Why,” Laurence Gonzales concludes: “I believe everyone should learn about basic survival skills and the survivor’s frame of mind, because they come in handy when the trappings of civilization (or even the financial or support) that we take for granted drop away for whatever reason.”

Wilderness survival courses can also be lessons in gratitude for what we have. Such trips typically don’t involve clean water, toilet paper, cutlery or anything comfortable to sleep on. Returning home to a shower, a full refrigerator and a bed becomes pure luxury.

Mark R. Bryant is a freelance writer living in Seattle.