Features & Columns

Survivors

We are descended from people who knew what to do in an emergency
fire

WE MUSTER at 10 o'clock under the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains between Los Gatos and Boulder Creek 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.

This is not an unreasonable fear to have, as recent events suggest. Images from the tsunami are a potent reminder that Nature can still trump humankind's most sophisticated plans, even in a place like Japan—or, one has to figure, Silicon Valley. And if an 9.0 quake or massive ocean surge doesn't get you, the nuclear meltdown or some other disaster borne of human ingenuity gone awry (Y2K comes to mind) might.

People everywhere, from the real estate agent who has a dirt bike packed and ready to go to the KQED supporter who has a hand-crank emergency radio in the garage, are aware of this. The official name for it is When the Shit Hits the Fan, and it conjures images of clerks and computer programmers alike lighting out for the hills with nothing but Levi's jackets and some Twix to escape the flaming apocalypse in the cities.

The people who've paid $95 to head to the woods and 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, a Santa Cruz native and MIT grad who also co-founded CrossFit West, starts the class by introducing his co-instructors: Tom McElroy, a former instructor at the New Jerseybased 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—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.

survival skills WE'LL BE WARM IN NO TIME: Instructor Cliff Hodges imparts some vital tips about making a fire without a Zippo.

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 4 to 6 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 basic debris hut of our own. We have half an hour. All we get is a length of twine to help secure the frame.

As Group Three mills around, it quickly becomes apparent that one of the primary challenges is the group dynamic. Who's in charge here? Fortunately we're a harmonious lot that coalesces loosely around a consensus-driven process. When someone finds the end of a big hollowed-out redwood log, our work is half done. Building off the existing log, we construct a respectable shelter in short order. Someone wonders aloud whether this is cheating.

When our time is up, we gather for a tour of each group's site. Group One has wisely chosen a hilltop location—high and dry, as they say—but when we arrive all we see are a few sticks leaning against a natural berm. The Ones are shamefaced. "So—what happened?" Hodges asks. "We had too many ideas," one mumbles.

The Twos fare significantly better. Their hut, not far from ours, is picture-perfect, though its position in a slight bowl at the base of a redwood is problematic: in a rainstorm, water would pour right in the entrance. "It is a little bit of a water trap," says McElroy, "but it's well-constructed. This entire thing should be covered with leaves. Three feet of debris out from the ribs will stop a good rainstorm."

"You don't want to leave rib poles sticking out," Hodges warns. "You create a path for water to come in."

Finally it's our turn. "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?

survival skills

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 campstyle 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 (it looks like a crayon) 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 drills. "Some might be thinking, 'Where will I get a knife and a square block of wood?'" Harrison says, holding up one of the blocks being passed out for carving into a drill. "Don't worry. Branches are round."

It's hard enough with the modern equipment. A whittler I am not, and after about 10 minutes I have a slightly oblong block of wood whereas most of my classmates are already rocking giant crayons. 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. As Nicole Zapata, a web developer for Wells Fargo, puts it, "After getting fire, well, I feel like I accomplished a lot today."

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, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, 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," Harrison says. "We try to keep it intact as much as we can."

survival skills CLOSE QUARTERS: Instructor Tom McElroy shows the class how to construct an igloo-style entrance to a debris hut.

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 absolutely 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?

For information on upcoming wilderness survival clinics and trips to the Sierras and Anza Borrego State Park, visit www.adventureout.com.

Preparing for the Worst

In a real disaster, almost nobody is really going to head into the mountains to fend for themselves. But you don't have to be profoundly pessimistic or deeply paranoid to prepare for a disasterous scenario.

It's not just about what supplies are good to have on hand in a disaster, but how much of those supplies.

Kirstin Hofmann, director of emergency preparedness for Santa Clara County, says items such as extra medication can be especially important. Supplies such as water and food should be able to last 72 hours, but sometimes disasters can keep people isolated from other less obvious necessities. "I have a daughter, so I have baby food that is appropriate for her," Hofmann says.

Also, it's important to make sure everyone in the home and workplace knows exactly what to do in case a disaster strikes.

"Sometimes, people have a plan, but they haven't shared it with everybody," she says. "If you have kids you need to talk to them and show them what to do." One easy and crucial precaution is to sign up for free disaster alerts at alertscc.com. Notifications on what to do will be sent to users' cell phones.

10 Ways To Be Disaster Prepared

1. Learn which kinds of natural and human-caused disasters pose a risk for your area (earthquakes, fires, floods, etc.)

2. Develop a Family Disaster Plan and put it in writing.

3. Build Disaster Supply Kits for your home, office, and car.

4. Choose an out-of-town contact person whom family members may call to report how and where they are during an emergency.

5. Know where to go during an emergency; designate a park, school or other convenient location.

6. Prepare your children and remember those with special needs, such as infants, seniors, and people with disabilities.

7. Include your pets in your Family Disaster Plan.

8. Eliminate hazards in your home and office.

9. Learn how to keep yourself and your family safe by taking first aid, CPR and other preparedness classes.

10. Get involved—donate blood, educate your neighbors, and join your local Citizen Corps and volunteer!

Top 10 Essentials

1. Water (one gallon per person per day)

2. Radio (separately packaged, extra batteries)

3. Flashlight (separately packaged, extra batteries)

4. Raingear (lightweight)

5. Blanket / Clothing (warm)

6. Food (canned, with can opener)

7. Shoes (sturdy)

8. First Aid Kit

9. Mobile Phone

10. Fire Extinguisher

Misc.

Crowbar, Tool Kit, Hygiene Kit, Plastic Garbage Bags, Mess Kit , Duct Tape, Shovel, Dust Mask, Gloves, Sunglasses, Fire Extinguisher, Writing Kit, Documents (important copies), Waterproof Sack, Bleach , Whistle, Sleeping Bag, Money /Credit Cards.

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