Sur­vival course leaves novice hun­gry and tri­umphant

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - DESTINATIONS - By Paul Aber­crom­bie

LIKE many lazy peo­ple who love to travel, I typ­i­cally pre­pare for my next trip by wait­ing till the morn­ing of de­par­ture and throw­ing stuff in a bag. That, and I let my wife make all the reser­va­tions. This strat­egy has worked crim­i­nally well for me with most fam­ily va­ca­tions. But when my 13-year-old son, Ewan, agreed to go prim­i­tive camp­ing with me next spring, I wor­ried we might need to do more to pre­pare than find our tent and sleep­ing bags. To be fair, my son and I have camped, al­though mostly on the kind of trips that fea­ture re­served camp­ing spots and nearby bath­rooms. As a kid, I of­ten slept out­doors — in­clud­ing a week spent rough­ing it in the Maine woods with a few fel­low pre­teen pals and no grown-ups. (This last de­tail was, un­til now, un­known to the other boys’ par­ents. Sorry!) But even I knew a hand­ful of Cub Scout overnighters and mem­o­ries of ado­les­cent bravado prob­a­bly weren’t prepa­ra­tion enough for a trip that might take us far from the near­est elec­tric out­let or other hu­man be­ing. I needed to upgrade my out­door skills. Which is why one Au­gust morn­ing I drove a cou­ple of hours north­east from my home in Tampa, Fla., to the edge of Ocala Na­tional For­est, north of Or­lando. For the next three days, I would be one of seven adult stu­dents in a wilder­ness sur­vival course taught by By­ron Kerns, a for­mer in­struc­tor with the U.S. Air Force’s famed SERE (sur­vival, eva­sion, re­sis­tance and es­cape) pro­gram. By the time I re­turned home, I had slept and eaten lit­tle, built a shel­ter that leaked like a bro­ken shower head dur­ing nightly thun­der­storms and im­pro­vised tools even pre­his­toric hu­mans would have ridiculed as hope­lessly crude. Or, as I gushed to my fam­ily, I learned a ton and had a blast. Lessons be­gin the mo­ment we assem­ble in a gravel park­ing lot that morn­ing on the edge of the sand scrub pine for­est. Ours is to be a class with min­i­mal food and gear, which means no back­packs or tents. Ditto for lux­u­ries such as sleep­ing bags and matches. Re­quired items in­clude a knife, ban­dana, rain pon­cho and fire flint. Mos­quito net­ting, con­tra­band I re­mem­ber none of the dozen or so knots I thought I’d learned as pre-course home­work. I man­age to dig holes into which I jam four armthick branches that’ll serve as sup­port posts. Onto th­ese I lash longer, thin­ner branches as roof fram­ing. I hack down stalks of dogfen­nel, tallish, wispy plants that a class­mate says con­tain chem­i­cals that act as a nat­u­ral mos­quito de­ter­rent. I feel clever us­ing th­ese for my roof. By mid­day, I’m filthy and ex­hausted. My fold­ing knife dou­bles as a blis­ter-mak­ing tool. By­ron’s cocked eye­brow dur­ing in­spec­tion of my shel­ter is the sole hint of dis­ap­proval I’ve seen. When thun­der­storms that night turn my shel­ter into a leafy colan­der, my class­mate Wayne comes to my res­cue. With a few neat fixes — es­sen­tially re­ar­rang­ing my dogfen­nel fronts, pine nee­dles and other leaves to plug holes — he all but seals my leaky roof. Morn­ing brings new lessons. And my first glim­mer of com­pe­tence: when I’m the first with a sling­shot to peg a pa­per tar­get, By­ron awards a round of store-bought cin­na­mon buns to the rav­en­ous class. Even the af­ter­noon trip back to our cars is a les­son, this time on nav­i­ga­tion by com­pass. In­stead of fol­low­ing the same dirt road we had come in on, we would take the short­est route back, through thick scrub and trees, over swampy ground. Again, I’m grate­ful for my class­mates’ abil­ity to co-op­er­ate. Which, as we all say our good­byes and head home, is among the most im­por­tant lessons in wilder­ness sur­vival I’ve learned here. But first, I want to tell my son how I can now make sling­shots when we go camp­ing.

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