Conquests of Tankbird


Primitive Skills School: Earth Living 5-Day: Part 1 of 2
July 14, 2009, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So this past Wednesday I did wilderness survival training with the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta, Maine. It’s more than wilderness survival, the “suffer until you’re rescued” theory of survival that is perpetuated through current media and military training. This is Earth Living, how to sur-thrive, how to live off the land, how to go native. It’s interwoven with earth philosophy, the underlying understandings of the native people: how all things are interconnected, and the importance of maintaining reverence for all living things even as you have to take life to survive, maintaining caretaker mentality. This course was everything I wanted it to be and more than I could have imagined.

I started packing on Monday, ensuring I had everything stuffed into my giant Luna pack (which holds some serious stuff). This is definitely filled to capacity.
Luna pack

Here’s my food for the week, along with the cheapo cooler I’d need to transport refrigerated stuff on a 4.5 hour drive.
food

I didn’t sleep Tuesday night at all. I had to get up at 4 on Wednesday, but since I’d been sleeping so much, I couldn’t even think about going to bed until midnight. Then I lay awake until 1… until 2… until 3… and finally just got up at 4. I didn’t feel tired with all the adrenaline, though. I didn’t have any trouble staying awake on the journey. I arrived up in Augusta a little before 9:00 and it was raining. This is the sign outside the winter classroom, where we met whenever we were meeting inside.
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I met the group: 4 guys and me, plus our instructor. The guys were John, Brad, Tim, and Paul, and our instructor was Mike. We did introductions, then got right into things. We started with the sacred order of survival and the 7 points of awareness. Then we went out to the tracking box. The tracking box is the 3-sided sand-floored outdoor “classroom” space seen here. On the left is John, and Mike is on the right.
tracking box

We first did a string stalk to practice awareness. We were led blindfolded and barefoot to a string run through the woods, and we followed it while practicing various stalking and movement techniques we had just learned. Everything was wet (it was still lightly raining), and it was quite cold, but a really amazing way to start out. Then we came back to the winter classroom, where Mike had started a fire in the stove, and we journalled about our experiences and then shared out. After this, we got right into learning about shelter. We started with studying the shelter of our clothing, and how to stay warm and dry. Then we moved to learning external shelter.

The shelter we focused on was the debris hut, because it requires no knife, no rope, no fire, and you don’t have to kill any plants or animals to build one (providing you have a good location). Here are the whiteboards with our debris hut instructions.
debris hut
debris hut2
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Debris hut is quite technical, because if you do it wrong, you’re way too cold. Built correctly, the debris hut will keep you warm to 30° below zero. We took lots of notes.

Then we went up to the sample debris hut area and studied one that had been built by a previous class. We chose a member of our group to be the guinea pig (Brad) for our group-built debris hut. We chose our spot, then had him lay down to measure the dimensions of the hut. Standing left to right is Tim (in the cowboy hat), Brad (laying down), Paul and John.
measuring

Once we laid the ridgepole and the ribs, we started piling on the leaves. So many leaves to pile on! It doesn’t matter that they’re all wet; wet leaves insulate as well as dry ones when it comes down to it.
group hut1
group hut2

Once it was built chest-height all the way around and 2′ of debris on the sides, it was done. It took us as a group about 40 minutes to cover it with leaves, including having rakes and tarps to help. Multiply that by the fact that there were 5 of us, and you’ll realize that it can take over 3 hours for one person to cover a debris hut with leaves, and that’s AFTER the ridgepole and ribs have been set. Here’s Brad inside the debris hut. Notice how small and snuggly it is inside.
brad in hut
brad in hut

Then our big test: with Brad still inside, MIke dumped a 5-gallon bucket of water on the hut, and he had to stay in for a minute to see if there were any leaks. No leaks! If a 5-gallon bucket won’t get you wet, a rainstorm won’t, either.
group hut water

Then we learned about the dangers of dehydration and different methods of water disinfection. Later, it was time to head up to shelter ridge. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the main base. Last year’s shelters had been left up, so we could see them and learn what others’ mistakes had been. Then we each chose a spot near one of the existing shelters. I chose the one in the middle, next to a mother/daughter shelter pair (the two shelters faced each other). This is the site I chose, right near the path.
debris hut site

So I laid down and measured the correct width (a hand-span from all the widest points of my body) and scratched it out in the dirt.
measuring

I found a ridge pole that was long enough, and set it up in the right spot at the right height, supported by two forked sticks.
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Then it was time to set the ribs all along both sides. This took a lot longer than I’d have expected: finding sticks that weren’t punky and breaking them to the correct length was very time-consuming.
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In my searches, I found some bear scat.
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And I also found a hole, probably an old ground squirrel nest.
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I had just gotten one tarpful of leaves when we got called back in for the night.
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So the next day we were up at 6 and ready to go by 6:45. We started with awareness: when you enter the forest, you don’t see animals because they’ve long since been alerted to your presence. It takes 45 minutes for things to return to almost-normal again. We learned about the 5 voices of the birds and how to recognize them. So then we each took a spot in the woods and stayed there for 45 minutes and tracked animal noises and movements. By the end, there was a chipmunk that hopped up on my log and looked around, and that was neat.

Then it was back up to shelter ridge to have 4 hours (ended up being 3.5) to work on our shelters. I was pleased to see how pretty my shelter skeleton looked in the daytime.
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I raked up piles of leaves for the first hour and a half, saying I was going to do nothing but rake until 10:00. When I finished, I had about 15 piles of leaves all around. You can see some of them here if you look closely.
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Then it was piling time. I started by building up the foot area to chest-height.
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Then I continued that length all the way along. Notice the bug head net: the mosquitos were FIERCE.
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At 12:00 we were called in for lunch. I was almost done, but not quite. We found out Brad’s ridepole BROKE, so he had to start all over! Poor Brad.

After lunch, it was time to learn about water collecting containers. We headed out to learn to make pine bark bowls. Carving bark from a living tree trunk would kill the tree, so Mike felled this white pine to allow us to learn. After we had used it all week, it would be turned into benches. Here are (L to R) Mike, Brad, John and Paul standing next to the tree.
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Here I am, carving out a piece of bark for my bowl.
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Here’s the spot where I removed the bark.
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And here’s my piece of bark! This would make two bowls.
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Brad cut his finger using his giant knife, so we learned to make pine bark bandages. Pine pitch has natural antimicrobial properties, so just taking a bit of bark and putting it on the wound will help.
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From here, we came back and folded our pine bark into bowls. We first fastened them with wooden clothespins, then learned to make clothespins from pine branches.
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After this, I started to feel sick. At first we thought it was dehydration, but the more water I drank, the worse I felt. We came inside to learn about clay for making bowls. I kept feeling worse, and water wasn’t helping. Mike had me stay in and lay down, thinking it might be heat exhaustion. Everyone went out to make clay bowls. Mike was kind enough to take some blurry pictures.
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I ended up throwing up all my water (not a pleasant experience, for the record), and Mike came in to try to deduce what was wrong with me. I mentioned the problems I’d had before with this, and we figured possibly blood sugar. I took an Aleve, but after a half hour it still hadn’t helped. He brought me a Capri Sun, and after 30 more minutes I was fine, and then I was as if I’d never been sick. Guess it’s time to see my doctor about possible hypoglycemia.

Anyway, then we made tongs to remove coals from the fire. Here are my tongs, wrapped in cattail to keep them from continuing to split. (We later wrapped them in cordage.)
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That night after dinner, it was back up to shelter ridge. We got a primer on making a door for our shelters, but I wasn’t there yet. I had leaves to finish. I had just finished my leaf building when Mike stopped by and took some pictures for me. In this first picture, please note the GIGANTIC mosquito glowing in the bottom right… yeah, there were that many of them.
Here I am getting into the debris hut.
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Almost there, time for some wriggling:
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Inside!
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We were originally going to stay in the shelters that night, but since Brad was still trying to catch up (after the ridgepole incident), I had been sick, and someone else had mild dehydration issues, Mike decided we’d stay inside. No complaints here; I needed another good night’s sleep. Rest is awesome.

The next day it was time to study fire. FIRE! Staple of primitive living. I was very excited for this part. I had high hopes and low expectations, and was just excited to be trying. We learned about gathering tinder bundles and the ratio of gathering tinder to kindling to fuel. We then had to try to get enough material (in the wet, wet forest) in 15 minutes to light a fire that would burn through a string about two feet above the ground, and we had only one match to get it going. We didn’t do it, but we got it after a while. We learned different types of fire lays and what types of woods make good bow drill materials. Then later, we learned the intricacies of bow drill form.
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Here’s the troubleshooting guide to bow drill.
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Then it was time to practice… and practice…and practice.
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John has a coal! Can he blow it into flame?
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Yes, yes he can!
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This is me unsuccessfully starting a fire. Note the incorrect angle of my wrist on the handhold… I corrected this a few days later.
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No coal for me yet.

Then it was time to move on to throwing sticks. I loooooooved throwing sticks. Here Tim strips bark from a large branch for his throwing stick.
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Brad practices sidearm throwing:
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Here are two videos, one of Tim, one of John and I, throwing sticks at the target range. Tim requested that this first video be hidden forever, because of his unsuccessful throws, but he has great strength and so I included it anyway. I’m pretty proud of nailing the milk bottle on that first throw.

Then we went and played a stalking game. One person sits blindfolded, and there’s someone serving as referee. Each other person puts one shoe next to the blindfolded person, then their other shoe 15 paces away. The task is to approach the blindfolded person, take your shoe, and return to your other shoe without being heard. When the blindfolded person hears something, they point where they think a person is, and the referee says “Yes” or “No.” If the stalking person is caught, they must start over. This was SO much fun. Here are some shots when I’m the blindfolded person.
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In this one, Brad attempts a somersault ninja roll. He tried this about four or five times but got caught every time. He got a LOT quieter by the last time, though.
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That night, it was back to shelter ridge to finish our doors and shelters and actually sleep in them. The idea was not to “tough it out:” if we couldn’t fall asleep, go back to the winter classroom/bunk room. Don’t stay awake all night; we’ll iron out the kinks the next day. So I built my door. In retrospect, I know now to make it a lot thicker and make sure it fits more securely, but here it is.
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Mike had left us for the night, but we all sort of banded together to hang out, which was awesome. We knew Brad was still working on finishing, so individually, we all meandered over there to help. Here he is getting into his finished shelter to test out the leaf stuffing:
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Then we went to help out Tim, who needed more leaf stuffing in his shelter. We wanted to smudge the shelters for bugs, so we attempted to build a smudge, but it was unsuccessful, and we eventually gave up. For a little while, though, we had a nice fire.
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We then went to our own shelters and went to bed. I was good for a while, but I had built my shelter small (as it should be), and due to my hips, I couldn’t roll over so I was stuck on my back. I was warm for a while but started getting colder despite my layers. I had a hole above my door where it didn’t fit snugly, and I tried to stuff it, but couldn’t do too much for it. I heard Paul about an hour later, since the path passed right by my shelter. He had built his too small, and couldn’t get his arms in, so he was headed back.

Mike came by at midnight to check on us, and handed me my knit hat from my bag through the hole in the door, then helped me stuff my door. I was getting a little sore from just laying on my back with my feet together, but now I was somewhat warmer. Then, of course, I had to pee. I tried to rationalize it away, but that wasn’t working, so I got up, took care of business, put on a few more layers, then got back in. I managed to re-stuff the door somewhat. Now I was getting sore in my hips and knees. I said if I wasn’t asleep by 2, I was going back. Well at 2, I wasn’t asleep, so I crawled out, gathered up my stuff, and had one of the creepiest 15 minute walks I’ve ever had. The woods is a freaky place at two in the morning. So I went back and slept in my wonderful sleeping bag, dumping so many leaves on the ground I think I took half the debris hut with me.

(Continued in Part 2)

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1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leah, this is fantastic! I thought I would never be able to do anything like this, but reading what you’ve written here, I actually think I could do it – or not be too afraid to try it anyway! Thanks!
Jerri

Comment by J. Higgins




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