Keepers of the Flame

An outdoor survival class pays tribute to indigenous ways


We muster at 10 o’clock under the redwoods on a Saturday morning in February, 19 people shivering in our fleece and sweatshirts around a smoky fire. We are here to learn basic wilderness survival—how to keep ourselves alive in the elements in case someday, somehow, things go terribly wrong: we’re jogging in the woods and fall into a ravine and lie there for six days until our neighbor finds us or our car breaks down on an isolated road and a storm hits or the Shit Finally Hits the Fan and we have to light out for the hills with nothing but a Levi’s jacket and some Twix to escape the flaming apocalypse in the cities. The people who’ve paid $95 today to learn survival skills our ancestors used on a daily basis are a mix of the pessimistic, the playful and the paranoid. And we’re all pretty stoked about making a friction fire.

Cliff Hodges, the founder of Adventure Out and one of our instructors for the day, is striding around the site in a black T-shirt and jeans. Hodges, an MIT grad, starts the class by introducing his co-instructors: Tom McElroy, a former instructor at the New Jersey-based Tracker School who is now studying the human rights of indigenous people at the University of Connecticut; and Jack Harrison, a North Bay native who met Hodges in an indigenous-culture class at Arizona’s Prescott College.

Hodges tells us this is a leave-no-trace class that takes its cues from techniques used by indigenous people today. We go around the circle briefly introducing ourselves, then Hodges explains that the four areas we’ll cover today—shelter, water, fire and food—are, in that order, the things a person needs in order to survive in the wild. We start with shelter.

Not a Single Luxury

Following Hodges, we trudge a short distance away to Exhibit A, a long, low pile of duff with an opening at one end. “This is not a high-tech shelter,” Hodges says without irony. “This is a shelter to keep you warm, dry and alive.”

I try to picture wiggling into this natural fiber bivouac for a toasty night of shut-eye, but the picture doesn’t come easily. “All shelter is, is insulation,” Hodges continues. “Depending on the quality of the insulation we have, we need a lot of it.”

Turns out when you’re using forest debris—the needles, sticks and leaves scattered all over the forest floor—it takes a layer four to six feet thick to achieve insulation comparable to that offered by a basic down sleeping bag. It’s as labor-intensive as it sounds. Hodges says his first debris hut took eight hours to build—”and I was still really cold,” he laughs.

The three instructors demonstrate the principles behind building a debris hut, which starts with a skeleton of branches and lattice-style woven sticks to keep the structure from collapsing into a pile of leaves. Our first assignment is to break into groups and build a hut of our own. We have half an hour. All we get is a length of twine to help secure the frame.

When someone finds the end of a big hollowed-out redwood log, our group’s work is half done. Building off the existing log, we construct a respectable shelter in short order. Someone wonders aloud whether this is cheating.

But when our time is up and we gather for a tour of each group’s site, with attention paid to insulation, rainfall and construction, we get the nod. “Looks sick!” Harrison exclaims. Group gloating commences until Hodges points out one minor issue: we’re in a dry gully. “If it starts raining, you’re pretty much in the creek,” he says.

“So think about these things from a survival point,” McElroy tells the group. “If you know your car is three miles away but it’s freezing, how could you apply these principles?”

One guy volunteers. “Stuff your clothes with debris?”

“Right,” McElroy says. “Or if you’re in your car, what could you use to go walk for help? You could tear open the seat cushion and make yourself a coat out of that.”

An anachronistic technique to be sure, from the standpoint of honoring ancient ways. But what could possibly be more human than opportunism, than creativity, than good old Yankee ingenuity?

To Build a Fire

After shelter, it’s on to water, sort of. Hodges informs us that learning how to find water in an emergency situation is easily a full-day class. Instead, we’ll be focusing on how to purify water, which brings us to the height of the day’s summer-camp-style awesomeness: making a fire from sticks.

“As a little kid, you hear that if you rub two pieces of wood together you’ll get fire, right?” McElroy asks. “But as a kid I tried that, and no fucking way.” Everyone laughs. “So we’re going to make what’s called a bow drill. It’s a universal technique for making a friction fire.”

The bow drill consists of three pieces of wood and a piece of twine (note to self: buy some twine). A long, slightly curved limb makes a bow when twine is tied to either end. A second length of wood, 10 to 12 inches long and the circumference of a broom handle, is whittled to a sharp point and set on top of the third piece of wood, a block with a notch in it. As Harrison demonstrates with intimidating speed, the twine of the bow can be twisted around the “drill”; a strong back-and-forth sawing motion spins the drill into the block of wood until—voila!—an ember tumbles through the notch and onto a waiting leaf, where it’s carefully transferred to some dried moss or other tinder. It takes Harrison about 10 seconds to produce a flame. We applaud like we’re at the circus.

We’re each given twine, pieces of wood and a knife for making our cylindrical drills. A whittler I am not, and after about 10 minutes I have a slightly oblong block of wood. The instructors, roving throughout the group, take pity on several of us. Harrison gets my drill into shape. McElroy helps me with the bowing, which is really hard, much harder than, say, typing on a laptop. But when I get an ember and blow it into a fire, it’s a great feeling.

While people throughout the group are working on their bow drills, I get a chance to talk with Harrison about why he does this work. He talks about “nature-deficit disorder,” the term coined by writer Richard Louv to describe the alienation experienced by kids who never go outside, and mentions “coyote teaching,” an immersive, experiential approach to outdoors education. “Our passion is teaching the knowledge that’s been lost from indigenous cultures who lived close to the earth,” he says. “We try to keep it intact as much as we can.”

Primitive as Can Be

After fire, we learn how to make twine, in case we forget ours at home, using techniques still employed by tribes in the Amazon. We also learn how to make bowls (necessary for purifying the water) by using coals to burn out depressions in the wood. Finally, we get a brief rundown from McElroy on a few edible plants found throughout North America and the basics of making a Figure 4 trap, which basically consists of a heavy object leaning on a stick configuration that collapses when some unsuspecting critter takes the bait. “This can work on animals as big as deer,” McElroy assures us.

“You’ll notice that we don’t spend that much time on food,” says Hodges, “because, really, in a survival situation, it’s not that important. I’ve never heard of anyone getting stuck in the woods and staying dry and getting water and dying of starvation.”

Easy for you to say, I think, recounting the list of vitamins, fruits, leafy greens and high-quality protein sources I consider necessary to propel myself from home to car to office and back. But after giving a modest pitch on Adventure Out’s upcoming snow camping and desert survival workshops, Hodges says something that puts it all in perspective.”You are the direct descendant of people who lived in earthen shelters, found water and knew how to find food,” he says by way of sending us off.

It sounds true. And if they could do it, why can’t we?

Adventure Out runs the Wilderness Skills and Survival Clinic on a regular schedule throughout the year at Camp Tamaracho in Fairfax. One-day course, $95. For more info, cue up