Like many lazy people who love to travel, I typically prepare for my next trip by waiting till the morning of departure and throwing stuff in a bag.
That, and I let my wife make all the reservations.
This strategy has worked criminally well for me with most family vacations. But when my 13-year-old son, Ewan, agreed to go primitive camping with me next spring, I worried we might need to do more to prepare than find our tent and sleeping bags.
To be fair, my son and I have camped, although mostly on the kind of trips that feature reserved camping spots and nearby bathrooms. And as a kid, I often slept outdoors — including a week spent roughing it in the Maine woods with a few fellow preteen pals and no grown-ups. (This last detail was, until now, unknown to the other boys’ parents. Sorry!)
But even I knew that a handful of Cub Scout overnighters and memories of adolescent bravado probably weren’t preparation enough for a trip that might take us miles from the nearest electric outlet or other human being.
I needed to upgrade my outdoor skills.
Which is why one August morning I drove a couple of hours northeast from my home in Tampa to the edge of Ocala National Forest, north of Orlando. For the next three days, I would be one of seven adult students in a wilderness survival course taught by Byron Kerns, a former instructor with the U.S. Air Force’s famed SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program.
By the time I returned home, I had slept and eaten little, built a shelter that leaked like a busted showerhead during nightly thunderstorms, and improvised tools that even prehistoric humans would have ridiculed as hopelessly crude.
Or, as I gushed to my family, I learned a ton and had a blast.
Lessons begin the moment we assemble in a gravel parking lot that morning on the edge of 600-odd acres of sand scrub pine forest. Ours is to be a class with minimal food and gear, which means no backpacks or tents. Ditto for luxuries such as sleeping bags and matches. Required items include a knife, bandana, rain poncho and fire flint. Mosquito netting, contraband until recently in this so-called Bare Bones course, is also, mercifully, allowed.
To tote our puny pile of gear to where we will head, a half mile or so, we must fashion makeshift rucksacks from ponchos and paracord. If Byron is disappointed in how mine more resembles a wad of chewed gum than the neatly trussed squares adorning my classmates’ backs, he doesn’t show it. He patiently helps me fix it — the first of many times he’ll help me. With his laid-back manner, longish hair and beard, and fondness for words like “bodacious,” he reminds me of a woodsy, competent Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski.
When we reach the oak-shaded area inside the park that is to be our main training spot, Byron explains that the most important priority for survival is maintaining a positive mental attitude. Give up, lose the will to live, and you’re done for.
It’s one of a handful of basic tenets we’ll learn by heart over the next few days, enlivened by Byron’s personal anecdotes and umpteen practical tips. Most of us take notes.
Among that first day’s lessons are how a simple plastic sheet can be used to make a surprisingly comfy shelter that also serves as a condensation trap and vessel to collect rainwater. Also, everyone is required to make an eating utensil by supper time, Byron says. As if reading my mind, he adds, “Chopsticks don’t count.”
For this first night, he explains, fire can be made only by friction. “No fire by friction, no hot drink or hot food,” he says. I glance at the meager rations of ramen noodles and pair of Clif Bars that Byron issued to each of us. I’ve all but resigned myself to a dinner of the latter until, with Byron’s gentle encouragement, fellow classmate Mitch begins to produce faint smoke with an improvised hand drill and bow, a device I’d previously seen only in Boy Scout manuals and on Saturday morning cartoons. Sweat beads on Mitch’s forehead.
The key to creating fire this way, Byron says, is making sure the notch in the fire board at the base fills all the way with wood dust, which can then ignite. “When the glow of the ember is a good Crayola-orange color, you transfer it to the nest,” he says, as Mitch cradles a tiny coal in a little nest of dried palm tree fibers as if tending to a newborn bird. A moment later, flames appear. We all cheer and trade fist bumps.
Beside the soon-roaring fire, we tuck into our steaming ramen noodles. A quick survey of my classmates’ improvised eating utensils confirms my inferior status. Among their array of fine forks and sporks (whose flourishes include carved monograms and leather lanyards), mine is more of a rough stick with a divot on one end.
Most of my classmates, I learn tonight, are veteran campers and hikers. At least one has attended other courses taught by Byron. (Byron has for several decades taught wilderness survival schools to people ranging from active-duty Navy SEALs and college students to lawyers and retired librarians.) More curiously, all have day jobs in tech fields. Each tells me that the outdoors offers a kind of antidote to their workaday lives.
Lessons on identifying and treating snake bites plus various other potential wilderness medical problems encourage me to linger by the fire, but the flash and rumble of a coming thunderstorm convinces me to call it a night.
Tiny flashes seen through the clear plastic roof of my shelter turn out — to my delight — not to be distant lightning, but fireflies, whose glow I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. But they weren’t the only creatures in the air. By dawn, I’ve ranked mosquito netting among humankind’s greatest inventions.
Kill the rabbit
The second day brings fresh lessons and challenges. Today, Byron tells us over breakfast of powdered hot cocoa and coffee, we’ll be making slingshots, killing and cooking a rabbit, and sleeping in shelters made out of materials found only in the forest — namely, trees and foliage.
Shelters, being the most important and difficult, will come first. As with most tasks, these too will be judged. So build them well, he says, “but don’t build a Hilton.”
Over the next few hours, I toil on my shelter. I curse often and creatively. I remember none of the dozen or so knots I thought I’d learned as pre-course homework. I manage to dig holes into which I jam four arm-thick branches that’ll serve as support posts. Onto these I lash longer, thinner branches as roof framing. I hack down stalks of dogfennel, tallish, wispy plants that a classmate says contain chemicals that act as a natural mosquito deterrent. I feel clever using these for my roof. By midday, I’m filthy and exhausted. My folding knife doubles as a blister-making tool. Byron’s cocked eyebrow during inspection of my shelter is the sole hint of disapproval I’ve seen.
The rest of the afternoon is packed with lessons — fresh methods for making fire, finding and sterilizing water, signaling for help and, always, keeping an upbeat mind-set. It’s only when we get to the part about killing, dressing and cooking a rabbit that my enthusiasm flags. With no wild hares around, Byron says, we’ll have to make do with a domesticated bunny (which he supplied). Our classmate Steve, a self-effacing Air Force veteran, volunteers to snap its neck. Later, nibbling on fire-roasted rabbit, I guiltily admit it’s pretty tasty.
When thunderstorms that night turn my shelter into a leafy colander, my classmate Wayne comes to my rescue. With a few neat fixes — essentially rearranging my dogfennel fronts, pine needles and other leaves to plug holes — he all but seals my leaky roof.
Morning brings new lessons. And my first glimmer of competence: When I’m the first with a slingshot to peg a paper target, Byron awards a round of store-bought cinnamon buns to the ravenous class.
Even the afternoon trip back to our cars is a lesson, this time on navigation by compass. Instead of following the same dirt road we had come in on, we would take the shortest route back, through thick scrub and trees, over swampy ground. Again, I’m grateful for my classmates’ ability to cooperate. Which, as we all say our goodbyes and head home, is among the most important lessons in wilderness survival I’ve learned here.
But first, I want to tell my son how I can now make slingshots when we go camping.
Abercrombie is a writer in Tampa.
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