Survival course leaves novice hungry and triumphant
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.