The rushing burble of water seemed soothing — just the thing to block out any hints of foraging predators (bears, cougars) or nocturnal visitors while I slept in a shelter of my own making. There was a flat clearing in the sandy soil, and I was four feet higher than the water, so barring a flash flood I’d be safe for the night. There were no trees growing exactly where I wanted my shelter, so I began fashioning a standalone shed in a log-cabin style, using a very large log as the base of the back wall. After several sweaty hours I’d built rock walls and a pitched cedar bark roof. There was just enough height for me to crawl into the opening, but once inside I’d dug out the floor so that at the back of the one-small-person-sized shelter I could sit up without hitting my head. Thanks to the roof and walls it was quite dark inside. The view was of the pool just below me, and beyond that a golden meadow. Behind the forest to the West was Mt. Shasta, an ancient volcano that rises out of the flatlands of far Northern California.

When I was done, I trekked back to join the Boy Scouts. It was November 3 and we were at Headwaters Outdoor School, 270 miles north of the Bay Area, getting 36 hours of wilderness survival training from Tim Corcoran, the school’s founder. Our troop and the accompanying dads (I was the only mom) went from shelter to shelter, listening to Tim’s critique of our choices. Each group had built something quite different; some were enormous tepees, others were cave-like lean-tos. My son had been in a large group that had built a fragrant shelter with a soft, insulating floor of fresh cut evergreen boughs. Outside each shelter the boys had created a small altar with totems they found (leaves, stones, feathers or ferns) as a sign of respect for nature. Critiques pointed out whether our shelters would be rain-proof (mine would not as I’d laid my cedar bark the wrong way) or warm (mine had the advantage of size, but my floor needed to be lined with pine needles as insulation).

Learning to be Invisible
This was only one of several activities we packed into our limited time at the school. We started with a tree climb. The entire troop ascended an enormous 500-year-old tree with a view of the volcano and we communed with it for 10 silent minutes (a feat, considering these were Oakland boys aged 11-16). Then we stripped down to skivvies, covered ourselves in mud, and hid, shivering, in a camouflage exercise that was absolutely unbelievable in its effectiveness. Tim gave us multiple tips on disappearing in plain sight (no one ever looks up, for example — one muddy boy froze himself to a tree trunk about 12 feet up and no one saw him). After two hours of this, done barefoot in mild-yet-cold winter weather, we jumped in a frigid pond and scrubbed off the mud, which clung tenaciously to our numb bodies.

Next, we warmed by the campfire. After lunch, we spent several hours building shelters. I had never been taught that building a shelter is your first priority in a survival situation — before fire and certainly before food. It’s important both for warmth and for psychological reasons. (We were in a moist environment under threat of rain, so water wasn’t a concern, but of course it is too.) After shelters and dinner, we played stalking.

Stalking in the Dark
Stalking involves two groups. One stares at the campfire while the other sets off in the dark. Once the game starts, the campfire group turns their backs to the fire, in a circle, and stares out into the dark. The stalkers’ goal is to walk or crawl as close as possible to the fire without being detected. We took 30 minutes to do each round. The process was absolutely mesmerizing. Even one of the most compulsively loud and talkative boys managed to nearly touch us, maintaining stealthy silence for a half hour. When we turned our flashlights on, it was hilarious to see the boys frozen in position as they approached. My favorite was a pudgy blond boy who had been totally invisible. When we shone a light towards him, all we saw was a headless torso. He had hidden his straw colored hair and his light arms inside his black T-shirt, and then he popped them out like a turtle… and he was standing only about 7 feet away from us. We switched roles and it was my turn to crawl, soldier style, toward the fire. I loved the game and got fairly close without being discovered, though a dad managed to sneak all the way to the fire circle and grab Tim by the ankle (win!).

After washing up it was time to find our shelters and spend the night. I was the only one going it alone. I followed the ducks I’d set up to mark a path back to my mini log cabin (it was hard to find, even in daylight), crawled into my shelter, snuggled into my sleeping bag, and slept like a baby. At one point in the night I woke and heard small snapping sounds — nothing really loud. I could feel fear starting to set in but I simply chose not to be afraid and was able to let the deep bass of the stream’s rush soothe me back to sleep. In the morning, I was woken by “Jubilate!” yelled by one of the dads who’d come to wake me. It was 9 o’clock! My shelter was so dark, I’d slept better than if I’d been in a luxury hotel room!

Call Me ‘Fire Girl’
We had breakfast, and then I learned yet another incredible skill: fire making. We used the American Indian bow method, which requires:

  • a small bow (can be made with a shoelace and a small curved branch),
  • a very straight stick (they used Mule Fat, which is native to Southern California and was favored by Indians for friction fire starting),
  • a piece of hardwood (mine was oak) that fits comfortably in your palm to hold the friction stick,
  • a fresh green leaf or ear wax to lubricate the top of the friction stick,
  • a board long enough to be immobilized by your foot for the bottom of the friction stick, which is where you create the fire coal,
  • a knife (could be an obsidian knife) for carving the notch in the bottom board and perfecting the vertical stick,
  • a small flake of bark to catch the coal and transfer it to the kindling,
  • a nest of extremely dry tinder such as the fibers scraped from inside a piece of cedar bark, and
  • patience and tenacity.

It’s quite tricky, because each element in the system has to be calibrated just right. If your bottom block is too thick, your coal doesn’t fall down the notch to the coal catcher. The notch in the lower board must be wide enough to let the coal build up and fall through. Your friction stick must be smooth and pointy on top but a little notched and rough on the bottom so that the heat generates on the bottom as it’s drilled into the board. Finally, your tinder nest must be just right — super-fine, fibrous, dry, and large enough to protect your hands from the flame — and you have to be careful how steadily and strong you blow on it to start the fire from your coal. Finally, you must transfer your burning tinder nest inside a small tepee of kindling and logs to build your actual fire.

Needless to say, I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe that I, once a little girl who played Indian in the yard for days at a time, building forts and running around naked, was finally learning to build fire three decades later! Please forgive the boast, but I was the only one who managed to do it, and once I did it, I repeated it two more times, figuring I wanted to practice this incredible skill! Our teacher, a young Afghanistan war vet who recently spent 40 days in the wilderness with nothing but a pocket knife and a sleeping bag, assured us this was incredibly difficult. In a survival situation, it’s literally nerve-wracking. One of the dads dubbed me Fire Girl!

Talking to Trees
My tongue-in-cheek title makes this trip sound epic. In fact, I can’t believe how much Tim managed to teach us about the wilderness in just two nights and a day and a half.

“If you have any kind of trouble in your life, go out and find a tree and talk to it. I guarantee, going out into the forest will change your life,” he told us. Tim believes that most nature conservation has made it too difficult for urban kids to get hands-on camping experience. You’re not allowed to build a shelter or forage for firewood, you’re told to stay on the path — so you begin to see nature as a boring museum. While he’s not advocating rampant destruction or disrespect of national parks, that’s why his 140 acres, dotted with sturdy tepees and a sweat lodge, are a haven.

His philosophy is extremely influenced by American Indian beliefs about animism and respect for all life. He told us that on his longer classes (a week or more) he would have a goat brought in and they’d slaughter it, then clean and prepare it for cooking. “It’s important to know where your food comes from, so you can be thankful for it and give it the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, I found out that some of the kids who saw me do this were going back home traumatized by the killing of the goat, so I started having the goat slaughtered at the farm next door where it was raised instead of us doing it,” he said. Even though I too would be saddened to kill a goat before eating it, I do believe that if you eat meat you should probably at some point learn the process of turning a living creature into meat. If nothing else, this also would mean less wasteful meat-eating. I’ve only ever killed a catfish, and while it was traumatic to bash it in the head, I soon forgot that after sauteeing it for dinner.

You Need Less Than You Think
I bought Tim’s book, Growing Up with a Soul Full of Nature, which describes the wilderness adventures he had growing up in California. My son eagerly wishes to return in the summer. I highly recommend Headwaters Outdoor School! I can only imagine how much I’d learn if I had a week there, let alone months. That feeling of sleeping in a shelter was something I kept returning to in my memory, in the days after the retreat. Now the feeling is fading. It is a simple, glorious lesson: All you need is already in nature. We’re so accustomed to living in captivity, measuring and acquiring, we’ve forgotten that we are animals, and that our Mother Earth holds all the knowledge and resources we require. I love the city — don’t get me wrong — but when that tapped-in, electronic feeling threatens to overwhelm, there’s an answer. At any point, you can take a walk in the woods, ask the trees your questions, and listen for the answers.