Survival Classes Thriving in Hard Times - San Francisco Chronicle
IT'S A SCHOOL WITH NO computers, televisions, cell phones — no light switches or toilets. If you want food or water, you're pretty much on your own. The classroom is the great outdoors - and the course is survival.
In today's tough economic times, when people are contemplating living with less, survival classes are attracting plenty of students who believe the primitive world offers an embarrassment of natural riches that not only can make the difference between life and death but also can expand personal growth.
"Five years ago, I founded Adventure Out. It was just me with a few friends helping to give surf lessons and survival workshops," says Cliff Hodges of Santa Cruz. "The company grew to 20 employees, and now we run programs all over the state. Now every class fills up with a pretty long waiting list."
Wilderness survival schools have been around since the 1960s, but interest began swelling during the Y2K scare. These days, people have access to plenty of survival material. They're watching survival television shows. They're reading survival books, such as "Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere - Alive" by Les Stroud, host of the Discovery Channel show "Survivorman." They're checking out survival schools online and through word of mouth.
What neophytes are quickly discovering is that survival schools are not just for Rambo anymore; they're for Bambi, too.
Most good schools teach that wilderness survival is not only about making a fire, capturing food and building a shelter, though those skills are important. It also requires an intimacy with natural systems. Students learn how things work in the environment around them, and how they themselves fit into that environment.
"We'll track the animals, but we'll also relate them to the ecological context," says Josh Lane, the creative mentoring specialist at the Shikari Tracking Guild in Santa Cruz. "There are so many mysteries at play on the landscape. If we see coyote tracks, we ask, 'What is it about the landscape that causes them to move in that way?' It seems to make a real tangible difference for people who are looking for that connection and wanting to feel it. They get immersed into nature, and they see quickly how alive that connection can be in their lives."
Sensitivity trumps toughness
The paradox is that the most powerful ingredient of toughness is not muscle power, but sensitivity. "Wilderness training always builds character," says Jon Young, Shikari's founder. "You have to face your fears. Learning to pay attention to the birds and animals around you brings you right to your edge. If you're used to a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, then a constant temperature of 62 degrees is going to feel intense, uncomfortable.
"And there's the edge. Your sense of touch, the humidity, the cold wind will take you outside your comfort zone. You slow down, pay attention with your eyes and your ears. You have to be a participant with much more consciousness. Being in touch with nature directly on a consistent basis is going to build the character needed for survival."
The lessons taught in survival schools can give students the kind of shakeup that might save their lives in any situation, not just the kind of trouble that occurs alone in the wilderness.
"We live in a fishbowl culture," said Laurence Gonzales, survival columnist for National Geographic Adventure. "Every morning we get a reward: The coffee goes on, and there's the croissant; it's lunchtime, and there's the sandwich. We get rewarded no matter the stupid things we do. That's great, until things go wrong." If all you do is watch "Dancing With the Stars," he says, you're not taking advantage of human intelligence. "It's not what's in your pack that makes the difference in survival; it's what's in your heart."
"Survivorman's" Les Stroud agrees. Since college, he's taken numerous survival courses, even lived a primitive lifestyle for a year in a remote part of Canada. "Most of what you need to survive is mental," he says. "When it's 3 a.m. and that cold chill is rippling down the spine, it takes more than a fire to get you through the night."
Wilderness survival schools vary wildly. Some teach what to do when things go wrong, and how to use available equipment to stay alive. Some teach only primitive techniques culled from indigenous cultures. Some incorporate natural history lessons and mental awareness skills. Some go further to forge self-discovery or build interpersonal skills, recognizing that people facing hardships are not always alone.
The schools generally help students shed what they know about 21st century living and plunge them into the unknown, where they must match themselves with nature.
Starting a fire took days
"They drop you into the middle of the wilderness with nothing," says Gonzales, who took two survival courses while researching his book "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why."
"The first thing we did was make fire. We broke a couple of rocks against each other and got an edge that was sharp enough so that we could strip bark off a tree branch." Gonzales then worked the bark into fibers and made a cord. With another branch and the cord, he constructed a bow drill, which he spun against a wood board with a notch in it until the friction produced a hot ember. "You put the ember into some dry material and blow on it, and you get fire," he says. Simple as the procedure sounds, it wasn't easy - it took him two days.
While the course taught Gonzales to build a shelter, navigate without map and compass and other useful skills, the most important lessons, he says, came from the practice itself. "Survival is not so much about technique; it's about the opening of your mind to possibilities."
Most of the American schools draw from indigenous approaches to primitive living. In Colorado, for example, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School presents seven-, 14- and 28-day survival skills and field courses in southern Utah based on lifestyles of the Pueblo culture. The school got some buzz several years ago when its instructors were consulted for the 2000 movie "Castaway."
Closer to home, in Santa Cruz, Adventure Out offers a one-day survival clinic as well as weekend and weeklong workshops in flint-knapping, bow-making, hide-tanning, tracking and other skills. A new program this year teaches about sea-foraging and edible plants during a backpack trip into remote parts of the Lost Coast. Shikari Tracking Guild presents a Saturday series in nature awareness and animal tracking as well as a weeklong course in bird language and a nine-month nature and survival skills program called Native Eyes.
Part of society too
Sometimes, individuals arrive at a wilderness training school and discover that it's not so hard for them to handle the wilderness alone; what's difficult is getting along when they return to society.
"We want people to realize that they are part of nature, and nature is their home - that they can trust nature, but they also can trust each other," says John Chilkotowsky, program director of Wilderness Awareness School, an outdoor school teaching survival, natural history and other courses in Duvall, Wash. "It's the opposite of what we call the 'sociopathic naturalist' syndrome, in which people think nature is good and people are bad.
"In our courses, students are learning difficult skills. When we put them out for wilderness tests, time and time again they discover that the way they survive and flourish is through their ability to function well in a community."
Many schools claim that students leave with a much greater understanding of themselves. "We're not a therapy camp," Chilkotowsky says. "But this experience is completely transformative. Part of that is that you have a bunch of people around you who are jazzed up about the natural world: They celebrate that nature is fully alive, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing. That is an immense contrast to our usual experience of some folks who are habitually depressed, expecting nothing to bloom or sing in their day. There's something elemental in nature that invites you to be who you truly are."
A person can't survive a grueling challenge without clarity and connection, according to Stroud. A panicked person will never coax that ember to flame. "Maintain the will to live," Stroud says. "What's the first thing you do out there in any situation? You have to refrain from panic. Once you've been able to do that, the rest becomes the technical application of your knowledge and skills."
Nurturing will to live
A lost person can become calm simply by taking the first steps taught by most survival courses and in most books: "You assess your own situation," Stroud says. First, by determining which aspects of the situation are working in favor of survival, and which are working against it. Are you injured? Is nightfall approaching? Then, assess the external environment and the tools and options for survival existing in your surroundings - tree limbs, grass, loose dirt, fire-starting tools, etc.
The most important tool for survival is an internal one, Stroud stresses. If you can manage your mind, by keeping calm and nurturing your will to live, the odds of survival increase dramatically. "The will to live is in most of us - sometimes it's hidden away," Stroud says. "None of us wants to die." --
Shikari Tracking Guild
(no phone available)
Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS)
Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School
Wilderness Awareness School