It was early last Saturday morning around 3am, I got in my car and began making my way towards South Attleboro, Massachusetts. The Friday nightlife had spilled over onto the streets of Providence and into the fast food places and 24hr gas stations. I maneuvered my vehicle through the intoxicated, carefree drivers, dodging potholes and jaywalkers before reaching the on-ramp for 95N. Merging onto the highway, I reflected on how interesting it was that so many people hadn’t finished their previous day, while I had already started a new one. A Zen kong-an appeared, “When does a day end?” “When does it begin?” As the moment came alive, I looked at the clock, it was Saturday, March 14th 3:20am, and I’m headed to New Hampshire.
I still had to meet up with my buddy B and his nephew Travis, switch to his larger SUV and finish loading up our gear. It was probably close to 4:30am by the time we were back on the road headed North. Our destination was Wakefield, NH for the Woodsman School LLC, basic survival course. The sun had been up just a little while as we pulled into the village of Sanbornville. After a quick breakfast at Milo’s it was a short drive to the meeting spot to rendezvous with Registered Maine Guide, Derek “Sarge” Faria and the other students. After we all had assembled, we caravanned to his property not far away.
The course began inside the classroom with the usual filling out of legal paperwork, a short lecture on definitions and the key components of survival, followed by a knot tying demonstration with a period to practice after. There were six basic knots we needed to master in order to pass the course, some of which I picked up easily while others I struggled to get. Luckily I had one of the best instructors in the Northeast right in front of me to help me along, not to mention the support of the other students who offered great insight into how to succeed. It didn’t take long for these knots to become as familiar to me as tying my own shoes.
After an hour or so we packed up our kits and headed into the woods to make camp. Having snowshoes was a huge advantage. The guys that didn’t have them had trouble moving around, post holing well past there thighs at times. At camp, we immediately began putting our new knot tying knowledge to the test by setting up our emergency military space blankets into shelters. Good thing too, it wasn’t long after this when the freezing rain/snow mix moved in and didn’t let up until the next day. After a timed shelter building test we moved onto various fire starting techniques that gave us the opportunity to gather various natural tinder bundles, twig bundles, etc and practice our fire building skills in the cold wet weather. After a few hours of romping through the snow covered woods, collecting materials and starting different types of fires it was time for a break.
It was close to 4 o’clock in the afternoon at that point so we melted some snow for water and cooked hot dogs and beans over the fire. It was great to pause and reflect for a moment. The weather had changed over to large, heavy, wet snowflakes that whirled around the trees, creating a picturesque snow globe effect coupled with that quiet snowing “sound” that you can only know about if you have heard it before. We took advantage of the rest of our “down time” to gather firewood before meeting back up with Sarge and the other students.
Up next we we had a lesson on choosing an axe, safety and how to properly fell, de-limb, section and buck-up a tree. After this we went out and found dead-standing trees to chop down and process into firewood for the coming night. Soon the the sun began to set behind the trees and it was time to put away our axes and saws and head back inside for more classroom time. For the next couple of hours we had a lecture and discussion about navigating without a map or compass. This was followed by a delicious dinner of linguisa on bulky rolls prepared by Derek’s wife Marie. By then it was around 9PM and we headed back out into the freezing rain/snow mix towards camp to hunker down.
Instead of sleeping under our tarps for the night, B, Trav and myself chose to sleep in a wigwam built by another class during the arduous “Woodsman Course” the previous November. The wigwam comfortably slept the three of us and our gear, plus a wood stove and enough fuel to last throughout the night. If you ever have the opportunity to sleep in a wigwam in the woods, do it. I had the good fortune to be sleeping in front of the door to the wood stove so it was my job to crawl out from under my wool blanket every few hours to stoke the coals and add some more fuel. Next time I’ll let someone else have a try…
We were up the next morning before 8AM and started the normal routine of melting snow for water and brewing coffee so we could shake out the cobwebs. Right after that we were back to testing out our knot tying, shelter building and fire making abilities in a final timed test. We were required to set up our shelter and have a sustainable fire burning in front of it in ten minutes or less. Tying knots with cold hands and getting twigs covered in icicles to burn isn’t easy, especially when you have 10 minutes to do it. I think it’s a testament to Derek’s teaching ability that each student was able to pass the final test and subsequent basic survival course in such cold and wet weather. Throughout the weekend there was a team mentality that developed among the students and a no fail attitude that carried us through each task and test.
After receiving our certificates of completion we decided to head over to a local diner as a group to celebrate. As we were leaving we encountered one final test. One of our classmates had their car stuck in the ice and snow on a hilly part of the driveway. Without hesitation we all got out of our vehicles and with little communication proceeded to work as a team to get him free. Before long, we were all on our way to a hot greasy meal and some good woodsman conversation. I walked away from this course with some good, basic knowledge I wish I had years ago. More importantly I walked away having a chance to practice this knowledge, leading to a deeper insight into the way of the woodsman.
Photos c/o The Woodsman School, LLC