Woodsman School, Land Navigation

“Nineteen, Tango, Charlie, Juliet, two, seven, three, zero – two, nine, eight, one.” I gave out my eight digit grid coordinate and glanced up from my map at Sarge, looking for his nod of approval. Eric’s voice called out from behind me.

“I have, nineteen, tango, Charlie, Juliet, two, seven, two, nine, five – two, nine, eight, one, five.” Giving a ten digit grid coordinate, providing a spot on the map within three feet of the target location. Compared to the ten meter area that I had provided, this was obviously much more precise.

“Friggn’ army guys.” I joked. He wasn’t showing off but he also wasn’t hiding his skill with a map and compass, which I appreciated. That’s one of the things that make The Woodsman School a place conducive to learning. Students are given a space to thrive and flex their skills so they have the ability to step into a leadership role and help other students learn.

This was last weekend during the basic land navigation course. Two days and one night of map and compass work, camaraderie and learning from Registered Maine Guide, Derek “Sarge” Faria. Although this wasn’t a survival course, land navigation is a skill all outdoor enthusiasts, including survivalists, should learn and practice. I’d hate to rely on batteries and technology alone if I ever found myself lost. Having a GPS device is absolutely a good idea, but what are you going to do if that device stops working for whatever reason?

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Sarge knows how to teach and you can tell he loves it. He doesn’t rush through a syllabus, moving from topic to topic. If you want to learn it, he’s going to make sure you get it. It was a ton of information and practice crammed into our heads and I can speak for the whole class when I say we came out of it with a lot more knowledge than we had going in.

B and I did the usual drive up from Southern New England at four in the morning again. I didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before so I pounded a couple cups of coffee between Rhode Island and New Hampshire. We grabbed breakfast and more coffee at Milo’s in Sanbornville and then met up with Sarge, Keith, Eric and Chris at the usual meeting spot. We picked up some Red Bull at the gas station to tide us over until we reached the coffee pot located in the classroom, less than five minutes down the road.

We were all Woodsman School veterans so Sarge got right into it. We were each issued a map and told to produce our compasses, protractors and mechanical pencils. For the next few hours we learned the basics of the Military Grid Reference System or MGRS. We went over things like what the colors on a map mean, the different terrain features, the information in the bottom or side margin including map scale, declination diagram and other pertinent details. It wasn’t long before we were learning grid coordinates and the difference between intersection and resection.

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Somewhere around noon we took a break for lunch. B and I took advantage of the time to set up camp. The raised bed we made during the advanced course a couple weeks earlier was still in good condition and with little effort we straightened out the logs, put up a ridge line and hung a tarp in the familiar lean to, shanty style we often use. Chris and Keith set up their hammocks nearby while Eric threw up a tent on the opposite side of our fire pit. It was a nice break in the day that felt reminiscent of elementary school recess, especially when it was time to head back inside the classroom.

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We spent the better part of the afternoon practicing, practicing and practicing. We were finding azimuths and back azimuths, the distance to and from different locations, talking about terrain association, handrails, backstops, and negotiating obstacles using the box technique. The time passed quickly and after four hours or so it was time to break for dinner.

We made our way back to camp and began collecting wood for the cooking fire. It had been raining for a while, a lot of the fuel was wet but we all worked together and without much talking we had a nice fire going. When I say “without much talking” I mean we weren’t talking about getting the fire going. We were talking about all sorts of things, laughing and joking the whole time, sharing stories, getting to know each other. We just weren’t talking much about the fire. A question I often get asked is “How do you get a fire started in the rain?” I could describe all sorts of technical answers on how to do this but the best way is to actually do it. Go out in the rain and practice building fire lays and work on your skills. After doing this time and time again, the question disappears and it just “get a fire started in the rain” It’s a great experience when you’re with a team and everyone knows their job.

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We cooked a lot of food. Chris was frying bacon, while B was cooking up yellow rice with chorizo. I was making bannock and I saw Keith heating up a steak stir fry type concoction. Meanwhile Eric had constructed an upside down fire-lay from only ten sticks. After lighting a small teepee fire on top he got that thing to burn for a couple hours without adding anymore fuel. He cooked some hotdogs and beans and I ended up using it to cook the bannock. We feasted and talked for hours while we waited for the darkness to fall.

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It didn’t rain for long and the sky was clearing up so we looked up and watched as the stars began to poke through the dark, round, endless, above. Sarge instructed us to each grab a stick, pick a star near the horizon and practice the LURD method of celestial navigation. We spent some time watching our stars, like cats watching a hole, waiting for a mouse to appear. I grabbed a couple of readings from different stars before making my way back to the fire.

The night lingered on; we relaxed around the fire and shared the event, giving our accounts of various outdoor adventures. We talked about the bushcraft community as a whole, different survival TV shows and cast members, philosophy, religion, history, current events, a little politics and of course, lots and lots of jokes. Most of these jokes I wouldn’t repeat here and at times I felt like I was hanging out in the dugout with my baseball team instead of camping in the woods. At some point Eric began assembling a large upside down fire lay in the shelter area and set it ablaze. One by one we gradually faded off to bed. I hadn’t slept the night before and was ready for some shuteye. I slept well on a bed of logs and pine boughs that night.

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The next morning came quickly and we were up, warming ourselves by the fire and heating water for coffee. I ate a granola bar as we broke down camp and packed up our gear. Just before 8AM we made our way back inside the classroom. Sarge gave us a few minutes to ask any last questions and then it was time for the test. For the next couple of hours we answered fifty written questions worth one point each, ten problem solving questions worth five points each and two bonus questions also worth five points each. It was a new experience having a written exam at The Woodsman School. In some ways it was harder than having timed tasks to do but it was nice to be inside the classroom. The morning light was shining through the window and the coffee pot was full and again I felt like a little kid doing my Sunday morning homework.

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We finished up the exam and then Bryan, Keith and I hopped into Sarge’s truck while Chris and Eric followed in one of their cars and we took a short drive down the road to Wolfeboro. We came to a clear and scenic valley and got a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. We practiced resection and located various features on the map before heading back to the classroom for the after action report and pictures.

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It was a great course, Sarge knows how to teach in a clear, simple and articulate manner. Something that seems complicated at first becomes a straightforward and easy process. Now that he’s guiding snowshoe and canoe trips in the North Maine Woods, I hope you’ll take advantage and get some traditional Maine Guide style dirt time with him. As I said before, if you want to learn, he’s there for you. For most of us, our time and knowledge are the most valuable things in the world and we’ll guard them with our lives. For Sarge it seems things are different.

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2 thoughts on “Woodsman School, Land Navigation

  1. Nothing like a pot of beans..outside…around a fire. The stuff of Blazing Saddles lore. The school looks great.

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