When we love something there will be some aspect of sacrifice and heartbreak that comes with it. This is how last Thursday began for me. My eyes fluttered open, hands and arms reaching for the iPhone to shut the damn alarm off. The cold, dark early morning world trying to force me back into bed and under the covers. Inside my head a voice resisted, “No, it’s time to get up.” My feet swung out from under the blankets and met the cold hardwood floor and it creaked and complained as I shifted my weight onto it. Instinctively, I was up and moving towards the bureau quickly pulling a pair of wool socks over my toes. As I continued to get dressed I looked back at the bed and sighed. It contained my wife and two dogs, the most precious things in the world and I did not want to leave them behind. I felt that slight tingle of pain we call “sense of loss” creep its way into the mind and I took a moment to give it my full attention. I was so grateful. What could I possibly lose?
The dogs knowing the routine sprung up and out of bed and made their way towards their collars and leashes. I snapped out of it as they both rumbled by, their combined weight shaking the floor and me back to the present. I took them outside to do their business trying hard not to wake the neighbors in the apartment below. After a short walk we were back inside and the dogs dutifully took their positions back in the bed. I kissed my wife, put on my grandfathers old coat and left the warm, dry comforts of home.
I headed north towards B’s house again. We were taking part in another Woodsman School LLC, Advanced Survival Course, and this time with a late winter twist. After completing the class the previous September, B and I decided we would benefit from doing it again in the winter. The more “dirt time” we could get with Sarge, the better. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in recreational camping to survival, meet a teacher and get some experience. As with anything there is only so much we can learn from books, blogs and YouTube videos. A good mentor will help us reach our goals without standing in our way or use us as a way to fulfill their own ambitions. I’ve heard Sarge say on many occasions “It’s not about me, it’s about you.” and he has proven this to me, time and time again.
We pulled into the meeting spot near Sanbornville, New Hampshire a few minutes after 8AM. I saw four strangers standing around Derek “Sarge” Faria and his truck. B and I got out of his Jeep and made our way over to them to say hello and introduce ourselves. There was Mike, Dan, Eric and Chris, after shaking hands I told them there was no way I’d remember their names. Eric in his Texas/Maine accent (yep, that’s right) said that was fine and that we could call him “ugly”. The camaraderie was already developing. We laughed and exchanged some more small talk before loading up and heading out to Derek’s property.
Before long I found myself back inside the familiar classroom above Derek’s garage. There was a short lecture about survival priorities and objectives and then he went around the room and asked us why we were there and what we wanted out of the course. I heard people give answers like “to test myself or skills” to “learn the bow-drill” or “practice shelter building” etc. I had been watching the weather report all week prior to the course and couldn’t help but think that we were all going to get a chance to test ourselves. It was going to be wet and cold, perfect conditions for hypothermia.
After going over our packs, we partnered up and headed outside to make camp. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It seemed that the weather reports could end up being wrong, but I knew better. We were in New England after all… There were certain tasks we needed to accomplish within a twenty-four hour time frame including building shelter; making fire and cleaning water and we spent the better part of the day working on these tasks. B and I also set up a large tripod for cooking and helped fly a tarp near a large common fire we all shared. Although I misunderstood Sarge’s instructions and he had to set up the tarp all over again. Sorry Sarge!
By mid-afternoon the sky began to grow dark and soon after the first rain drops began to fall. We still hadn’t finished our shelter so we worked quickly to put it together. I was felling trees with my axe to create a large raised bed large enough for the both of us while B was sectioning them with his saw and collecting pine boughs to make a soft, insulating mattress. For a roof we made a ridge with paracord and hung a large tarp to create a lean-to shanty with a long log fire in front. By the time we had finished we were both soaked and it was a relief to know we had a place to get dry. We spent the next couple of hours collecting firewood for the long night ahead.
It was getting close to chow time so Derek headed back inside to help his wife Marie prep dinner. He instructed the class to get the common fire going and collect enough fuel so he could cook on it. This was the first time since that morning the group had a chance to meet back together and it was nice to see how everyone was progressing. The weather might have been wet but good dry humor began to float around the campfire. Having the correct mindset is often an underestimated survival “skill” and being able to lift the spirits of those around you will make you a valuable team member. By the time we left on Sunday our cheeks and stomachs ached from laughing as we tried to out-do one another with the next witty joke. I believe Chris won that contest.
As the rain fell, we shared a hot, delicious Maine Guide style soup full of carrots, potatoes and beans, served with coffee and tea. After, Derek cooked up some bannock that we eagerly devoured before heading back inside the classroom for a short discussion. It was soon time to call it a night and with the temperature dropping we trudged the couple hundred meters through the snow covered ground back to our respective camps. Getting the fire going that night was tricky as our supply of wood was wet. B and I worked together to get the fire going as the rain fought to extinguish our small flames. We eventually got it big and hot enough to where we could feel its warmth and could turn our backs on it. Sometime around midnight the sky opened up and it began to pour. We decided we had had enough and crawled into our shelter and underneath our wool blankets. With the fire dying and neither of us eager to climb out and get wet all over again, we closed the front flap and relied on our body heat for warmth. As sleep overtook me and the rain drops splattered against the tarp a few inches above, my thoughts went to the guys up the hill, hoping they were ok.
The next morning arrived and we emerged from our shelters wet, tired and cold. It was a rough night by anyone’s standard and the weather had taken its tole. The group was working together carving feather sticks to get the cooking fire going while Derek was busy getting breakfast together, helping us with the fire at the same time. There was a brief scare when I couldn’t find my wedding ring. Feeling a little lost and distracted I let the guys know my plight. Dan must have seen the worry on my face and he immediately offered to help look for it. However the crisis was soon averted when in a weird twist of fate I suddenly felt like I might be sick. I walked over towards our shelter and bent over towards the ground and right there in front of me was the ring! Needless to say this changed the mood, and we all laughed and shared stories over hot oatmeal, bannock, coffee and tea. We took our time with breakfast enjoying in the shared experience of being there, outside.
It was late in the morning before we headed out to find the materials to make our bow drill sets. I think Eric was the only one who thought to put his snowshoes on. The rest of us post holed around as we followed Sarge around his property trying to find dry dead standing trees. By the time we collected what we needed and got back to camp our socks were completely water logged. Live and learn… At camp, Sarge demonstrated how to make the bow drill set from start to finish and proceeded to produce a coal with it, then put the coal into a tinder bundle and blew it into a flame. Then it was our turn. Mike was the first to succeed, I’m not sure how long it took him but it wasn’t long at all. A good teacher will show you how to do something but a great teacher will show you how to teach others how to do that something too. So I wasn’t surprised to see Mike walking around after his success helping out anyone who needed it. Some of us were ready to move on to the next task so Sarge gave a demonstration on flint and steel fire and had us practice that as well.
The sun was beginning to make its Western decent towards the horizon so Derek headed back inside to prepare dinner. I’m sure Marie was working hard behind the scenes too, between the photography, shopping, admin, food prep and clean-up there is a lot of work involved that often goes unnoticed. We often only seem to see the glamorous side of things and survival schools are no different. Nevertheless Derek and Marie continue to host class after class without complaint, welcoming everyone, helping us reach our goals.
While we were collecting our fire wood for the coming night, Derek had hauled out the stuff for dinner and started cooking up another soup. This time it was chicken and rice served with bannock, coffee and tea. As we gathered around for chow time I could see how tired everyone was. The bad weather mixed with wet feet and the lack of sleep from the previous night was having its effect. Nevertheless we had good Woodsman time, sharing insight, jokes and stories as we ate and warmed ourselves by the fire. The other four guys decided to change up their shelter in order to have a more comfortable night while Sarge headed back in with another sled load of dirty pots and gear. Before long the dark curtain of night had fallen around us and B and I were back at our camp next to a roaring long fire. We all slept better that night, the rain had stopped at some point and although it was below freezing we were glad for a break in the precipitation.
The break didn’t last long and by morning the rain had turned to snow and a fresh white blanket was beginning to cover everything that wasn’t already buried. We gathered around the common fire and got it going again. Sarge made oatmeal and bannock and brewed coffee and tea and after another hot breakfast everyone naturally fell into their unfinished tasks. The snow was coming down but I could see a new determination in everyone’s face as they worked to make fire from the bow drill sets they crafted with their own two hands. Everyone was working together to help each other succeed, giving praise when deserved and criticism where needed. The jokes were hilarious, the banter had picked up with a feverish, unrelenting intensity and it was clear to me the team had formed. We would be successful or fail as a group.
We continued to work on our primitive friction fires as the snow continued to float down from the sky. Derek made another run back to the house with a sled full of dirty pots and gear and was back. It was time to learn about primitive fishing and trapping. He talked about how to effectively hunt with a frog gig (in different weather) and showed us how to make primitive fish hooks out of tree sapling branches. He then showed us how to set up a trotline and tie on our hooks. After, he talked about hanging snare traps and demonstrated how to set one up, also giving a few examples of the many ways to utilize its design.
It was getting late in the day at this point and there was still a couple of bow drills to do and a lot of firewood to collect, so Derek asked what everyone wanted to learn next. The group was interested in what type of shelter he would have built. He had mentioned a small half wigwam before but we still didn’t know how to build one. So after making sure everyone was on board, we walked up the hill a ways to a grove of saplings and began assembling a springy raised bed and the framework for the wigwam. It didn’t take long at all and was minimal effort compared to the heavy raised bed B and I built out of logs.
Soon it was time to head back to camp. We needed to collect enough fuel for cooking and to heat our shelters. The fact that it was going to get down to 14 degrees that night was in the back of all our minds. As we stood around the fire, about to go on a wood run, Tim Smith, founder of the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School walked up. Apparently he was dropping by to say hi to Derek and to see how things were going. This was both unexpected and exciting. If you haven’t heard of Tim Smith, he was recently on an episode of “Dude You’re Screwed” but more importantly he’s probably one of the most accomplished teachers and woodsman I know of. It was great to meet him and get his encouragement.
For the next couple of hours we went through the daily ritual of chopping wood, hauling it back to camp and melting snow for water. This was followed by an amazing Portuguese Kale soup, which we practically inhaled. The coffee and tea were flowing and the bannock was filling and hot. After dinner we all turned our attention back to primitive fire. Over the next couple of hours the sun faded behind the trees and for the first time in days we could see the stars. Over the course of the day, one by one everyone was able to get their bow drill fires. We had one left at this point and with a single determination, underneath the early evening stars, Chris produced a coal, transferred it to a tinder bundle and blew it into a flame. It was a great moment and the lively celebration that followed could be heard well into the night.
It was dark and getting late so we all prepared to settle in for our last night. In order to get more sleep, B and I had opted to let the fire die out each night instead of taking shifts to keep it going. This night was no different. In an attempt to sustain a fire for longer we constructed a self-feeding fire lay with eight foot logs and piled on the majority of our fuel. However somewhere between 1:30-2:00 AM the fire had gone out so we closed the front flap and slept the rest of the night hiding underneath our blankets.
The morning eventually came and we emerged from our shelter eager to thaw out. B sprung into action and got the fire going as we started breaking down camp and packing up. The other guys were a few steps ahead of us and it wasn’t long before we saw them coming down the hill with their packs on. We got our asses in gear, finished packing up and met them back inside the classroom.
The last test was a land navigation course that followed a route across 40 snow covered acres. Students are given an azimuth and must go from point to point relying on only their pace count and a compass. Before we set out, a few of us were comparing our compasses. Chris had overheard how I wanted to purchase a Silva Guide compass when just like that he produced one from his pocket and handed it to me saying something like “here it’s yours” I was floored and could barely squeak out a thank you. At the halfway point of the navigation course we all met up, gathered twig bundles and practiced one match fires before finishing the course and subsequent survival class. Spirits were high as we walked back towards the classroom to receive our certificates.
We did the usual after action report and posed for photos. Dan stood up at one point and commented on how he had appreciated the experience and each one of us for sharing it with him. After this he took out a bag and presented each one of us with a Japanese sharpening stone. Throughout the course he freely shared his knife sharpening knowledge and now he was giving us a tool to help practice that knowledge, we were blown away by his gift.
The class ended with Sarge taking us out to the local diner. There was much chocolate milk and bacon to be had. It was only last Thursday when these guys seemed like total strangers. Now, inside the diner, over bacon and eggs, we all reveled in each other’s company laughing and joking as if we had known each other for years. There is something to be said about sharing a campfire with someone. Especially when you worked together to collect that wood, start the fire and rely on that fire for food, water and warmth. As we said our goodbyes in the parking lot, I felt that familiar sense of loss from the previous Thursday morning standing in my bedroom. Although eager to be heading home, I did not want to leave these guys and our experience behind.
Photos c/o The Woodsman School, LLC