Saturday, May 3, 2014

March 23-26, 2014

We headed out into the woods from my home in Sultan from the same location that we did on the last trip back in January. There were four of us this time around (all either current or past Alderleafers) and the weather was much warmer. Just like the last trip, we headed out with only the clothes on our back, our canteens, knives, some 24 gauge picture framing wire for trapping and a camera with spare batteries. Jamie decided against bringing a canteen and brought a bow that she had made with a few arrows to practice hunting.

We walked a little farther back into the woods than we did last time – roughly 1.5-2 miles before we found an area that was satisfactory for us to set up camp for 3 days and 3 nights.

We decided coming in that we were going to take our time and find the best shelter location, even if that meant wasting valuable daylight and energy. I consider a great location to be a combination of the following:

1. On high ground, both to prevent water and cold air accumulation.
2. Within 100 yards of water.
3. Has plenty of debris for shelter and dry wood for fires.
4. Under a canopy to provide additional cover from the elements in case your shelter fails.
5. Near an edge where wild edibles are plentiful and diverse. On the edge of a forest and a clearing is also where wildlife is most abundant, making your chances at hunting and trapping much higher.
6. Has a good supply of natural wind breaks to prevent the heat from being swept out of your area.

We ended up choosing a spot directly off an old horse trail, with tons of moss and ferns for debris and dead, low hanging wood for fire. There were plenty of wind breaks and we couldn't have asked for a spot any closer to an edge. The only requirement we compromised on was our proximity to water. We ended up being about 250 yards away but the path was wide open and zero trailblazing was necessary. Below is a photo of the location before we began building the shelter.

















Since there were 4 of us, and the wind was coming in from multiple directions (regardless of the breaks), we decided to go with a modified debris tipi shelter for optimal insulation and cover from rain. We used the downed log in the picture as one of our walls, saving us quite a bit of debris and time spent building the shelter. We dug out a fire pit in the center of the shelter and all sat next to one another to determine how far out we should extend our ridgepoles so that we'd all be able to fit inside comfortably.

















Once we lined up the ridgepoles, we weaved thin branches and sticks in between them (latticework) so that any debris placed on the outside wouldn't fall through. Once our latticing was complete, we piled ferns, mosses, boughs and leaf litter on top to complete our roof. We also put plenty of debris on the inside for the bedding. We decided to put the door on the only side where the wind wasn't coming from.

We blocked the door our first night by draping a couple of coats down from the top. While it prevented some of the cold air from getting in, it just wasn't going to cut it for two more nights. Sam ended up devising a door block made of dead grasses found along the horse trail. When he had bunched enough grass together, he'd tie it with blackberry vines and fit it perfectly in the doorway - it worked out really well. But the door wasn't the only area of the shelter where cold air was getting in. We had left quite a few open pockets where we didn't use enough debris when contructing our roofing. Luckily, there were portions of the forest floor around us which we could peel off long sheets of moss, making filling in those gaps fairly easy. Between the door block and the extra debris on the outside, our last two nights were significantly warmer than our first.

Here's a look at our finished product. It was home for 3 days and all four of us were in agreement that it was the best primitive shelter that any of us have ever built. The only changes I think we could have made to it were to level out the floors a little more and to make it a little bigger. It was difficult at times to assume a comfortable position from which to fall asleep.

















The process of making the fire this time around went fairly smoothly. Instead of going with my usual cedar fire kit, Jamie suggested we try alder for both our fireboard and our spindle and it turned out to be a great decision. Along a logging road on the way to our camp location, Sam and Jamie gathered some dead alder which was laying alongside of the road. I also gathered a little cedar bark while Bernard, Sam and Jamie gathered some dried grasses for the tinder bundle. Aside from the gathering along our walk to camp, fire probably took us no more than 30 minutes or so. It also helps tremendously to have multiple people on friction fire duties because you can get fatigued pretty easily doing bow drill with a completely wild kit. Jamie and I tag teamed bow drilling and whenever one of us got tired, we'd switch out (although it only took us two rotations). Here's a pic of the fire once we got it going. Always a moment to celebrate in a survival situation.

















We also started acquiring our firewood farther away from camp during the beginning of the trip so that we wouldn't have to walk as far when we were drained of our energy towards the end. Most of the wood was wet in the area and only pieces the thickness of a marker would burn well enough to keep the fire going steady. The first night, the pieces that we gathered were a little too large and made the fire harder to tend since it went out frequently.

Another piece of advice that I'd like to pass along is that whenever you have a fire pit dug within your shelter, go above and beyond finding huge rocks to line the outside of your pit. There's nothing worse than being woken up in a panic because the debris right near your face just went up in flames. Our rocks weren't big enough the first night but we quickly rectified the situation for nights 2 and 3.

While fire was my nemesis last trip, food was where I felt I personally fell a little short this time around. Coming into the trip, I expected to run into multiple garter snakes along the old trails and logging roads in the area. I couldn't have been more wrong since we ran into only one the entire trip. You see, garter snakes are easy to catch and often require just walking up to them, reaching down and picking them up. So essentially you're expending little to no energy in acquiring easy protein and calories. The idea was that about 4 or 5 garter snakes would boost our energy enough to trap and hunt after we had spent good amounts of energy building fire and shelter.

But it's not as if we starved. Aside from the one snake, some wild edibles that sustained us were coltsfoot leaves/flowering stalks, plantain, western bittercress, stinging nettle, alder catkins, dandelion leaves, self-heal, indian plum, waterleaf, siberian miner's lettuce, bull thistle root, yellow dock leaves and salmonberry flowers. While it gave us some calories and boosted our spirits, it became difficult to even swallow greens after the second day. It's as if our bodies were telling us to feed it protein or nothing at all.

While we were near an edge, it wasn't one that was teeming with wildlife. Aside from just the one snake, we only heard one douglas squirrel and found a small amount of cottontail scat about 50 yards from camp. We went on a few hunting and trapping missions but fatigue really prevented us from putting forth the necessary effort to be successful.

Aside from trapping, I tried to locate food by watching and listening to the birds. For instance, wherever you see American robins congregating on the ground, there's a pretty good chance there are quite a few earthworms in that particular area (I ended up finding a couple). Another bird which nests near the ground in the forest is the winter wren. Winter wrens let out a loud, consistent, rhythmic alarm sequence whenever a predator comes near their territory. One of the predators which wrens alarm are garter snakes. I heard a few alarms throughout our stay but found nothing after thorough investigations of the areas. As I become more proficient at survival, bird language and behavior will play a much larger role for me moving forward in regards to acquiring food sources.

Aside from the couple of earthworms, we also found these termites within a rotten stump just outside of the shelter. They tasted pretty delicious at the time. A good rule of thumb when it comes to eating insects is to avoid anything that has bright colors. Whitish bugs such as grubs and termites, as well as ants, are excellent food sources. Here's a picture of the termites that we discovered in the rotten stump.

















Overall, we learned a ton and had an amazing trip. Here's a picture of us at a local diner for our first real meal in 3 days.

Lessons learned:

1. Even after you think you've scouted a location enough, do it for just a little more unless you've found a utopian location. If we would have headed another 10-25 yards up a trail near our camp, we would have found a water source that would have saved us roughly 200 yards round trip on each of our water runs.

2. Don't depend on any one food being available. The lack of snakes put a damper on our trapping and hunting plans.

3. During the wet season, pieces of wood which are no thicker than a magic marker are best for gathering. Anything thicker won't dry out fast enough and you'll spend too much energy tending the fire.

4. Place a makeshift lid over your canteen when purifying water over the fire. Ash got into our canteens a couple of times and made myself and Jamie get a little nautious.

5. When constructing your shelter, make it big enough so that all members of your survival party can comfortably lie down. Our shelter was a tad too small.

6. Make sure the edge that you set up camp near is one that opens up into either a meadow, wetland or fairly large space. Our edge opened up into a trail that was not much larger than 15 feet across. Wildlife seems to prefer the wide open edges. Next trip: The next trip will be a two day survival trip and it'll be taking place with between 5 and 10 of my students. We're taking the trip to help them better prepare for their 4 day survival trip that they'll be taking as a class in about a month. I'll be putting up another blog detailing this trip within the next few weeks so stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 5-7, 2014

On January 5, 2014 (9AM PST) I set out into the woods behind my home in Sultan, WA for a two day winter survival trip with my roommate, Richard Taylor. In terms of gear, we only brought with us 2 survival knives, 2 stainless steel canteen bottles, a small amount of cordage, our camera equipment (tripod, camera, extra batteries) and a small first aid kit in case of an emergency. The temperature was in the high 30s when we took to the trail and it slowly warmed up into the high 40s or low 50s by early afternoon. Little did we know that this would be our last taste of warm weather for the remainder of the trip.

In a survival situation, you have to constantly be proactive and pick up resources as you come across them. If you take the attitude that you’ll get what you need later, you’ll often find yourself in big trouble when later comes and you can’t find what you need. In addition, you’ll be expending valuable calories that you can’t afford to be losing searching for those items, especially in a cold weather survival situation where food sources are limited.

So almost as soon as we took to the trail we began collecting wisps from downed western hemlock branches and placing them inside our inner layers of clothing to dry them out. We were concentrating our collection on the thinnest of the wisps, since they would dry out and burn faster than almost any other item at our disposal in the woods. We also collected strips of cedar bark and shred the inner bark into a tinder bundle, fluffed it up good and put that inside our layers as well (there is nothing worse than expending a ton of energy/calories on getting a coal and having a bundle which is either too dense or too moist to take on a flame). We also collected pitch from a doug fir tree a little further down the trail, to ensure that when we did get a flame, that we could prolong it's life for as long as possible. This is one of the most difficult times of year in this region to start a fire using a wild kit, due to the cold and tremendous amount of moisture in the area.

Two final items that we decided to collect before going any further was our fireboard and spindle wood. There were a couple of cedars along an old logging road that had low hanging, thick branches good for both pieces in the kit. Richard tucked them in the back of his pants under his coat to warm them up during the rest of the walk. The mistake we made was not carving out the spindle and the notch in the board before we continued on. Essentially, we were drying unnecessary wood. The steps that seem so minimal can make all of the difference when making your fire. You’ll see why this is relevant when we get to actually making the fire later on.

We continued down the trail about another mile until we came across a small stream running alongside the trail. At the time, we were on lower ground so we decided to follow the stream uphill to higher ground and to check where the water was coming from (to make sure it wasn’t coming from an agricultural area where there could be chemical runoff). As we ascended, we came across a conifer stand (mixed hemlock and doug fir trees) just off of the stream and that's where we decided to set up camp due to both the cover it provided and it’s proximity to water. Once in the stand, we picked a downed old growth log that was close to 4' in diameter that faced away from the southwesterly winds. The site had good drainage and was on relatively high ground. We were no more than 30 yards from water and there was plenty of firewood for us all over the understory. Overall, it was a pretty good spot.

Once we had our site picked, we began to look for ridge poles, roughly 6' high or a little taller and rested them up against the old growth stump to form the frame of our shelter (see below).



We weaved in some thin branches (to hold the debris on top of the frame) and began to pack duff and mosses, along with sword ferns and downed branches on top to create an insulated roof. We piled over a foot of fir and hemlock boughs on the ground for bedding and left a small door where the fire was outside of that radiated heat inside. Typically, if we weren’t having a fire, we would put roughly 3 feet of debris on our roof to keep our body heat from leaving the shelter, but in this particular winter situation where fire was a necessity (due to the cold), we only put on about a foot to both shelter us from rain and to trap the heat generated from the fire in our sleeping area. We couldn't skimp on the bedding however, the ground is where most of the cold comes from. Once the shelter was in acceptable condition for the first night, we moved our priority to fire. We had roughly 3 hours of daylight remaining and we touched up the kit and began to work out a coal for a fire.

We carved out our spindle and notch, fashioned a bow from a branch on the ground and a piece of cordage, and began to dry out our wood. Moisture is your biggest enemy at this time year because it prevents your coal temperature from getting hot enough to spark your dust into a coal (no matter how much pressure that you apply). So before you actively try and use friction to create char/dust, you must dry out the wood by applying little to no pressure until the board begins to smoke, then stop. Repeat this process between 20-40 times and then give it your all at the end (slowly increase the duration of the smoke towards the end – for example on the 30th try, you let it smoke for 10 seconds before stopping whereas you stop as soon as you see smoke on the first try). The dry wood will create dry char and will turn a nice black color before it ignites at between 700-800 degrees Fahrenheit.

When we started bow drilling, we smoked and stopped about 20 times when impatience set in (switching when one of us got tired). We underestimated how wet it was outside and assumed we had a dry board and burned through our first notch. We watched our black char (which is the desired color for your dust in order to ignite) turn brown due to moisture toward the bottom of the notch, which wasn't dried because we didn't do as many repetitions. So we carved a second notch and did 30 repetitions before we burned through another yet another one. It was almost dark and we were looking at carving our third notch and we still didn't have our night’s worth of firewood yet – maybe enough to last us a few hours but that was it. For the third notch we went with 40 reps and we finally got our coal! We were practically out of energy but we had a coal. So we blew it to flame in the bundle, added our pitch on top to extend it's life and placed it in our fire tepee. We were exhausted and decided to drink the rest of our water to rehydrate. We filled up our bottles in the stream and waited for a coal base to develop so that we could boil the water in our canteens. It was pretty dark by this time and we were adjusting our eyes by moving slowly while trying to collect firewood. We boiled and cooled our water and tended the fire throughout the night, rotating our sleep on hourly shifts. It was an interesting first day/night overall.

Now that we had fire, shelter and water out of the way, we focused on further scouting our area for resources and food. Our energy was pretty low, even though we were forcing ourselves to drink large amounts of water. It's amazing how much a long drink revitalizes you when you're tired and depleted of energy. We gathered a large amount of firewood and looked for game trails on which we could set some traps. We were in for a cold night and knew how much wood it took from the night before to keep us warm while the temp dropped into the 20s. With firewood collected, we cut some cambium off a young douglas fir and found some frozen oyster mushrooms off of an alder snag to give us just a little sustenance. We continued to drink lots of water and further fortified our shelter before darkness began to fall on us once again. It was a clear night and we found it warmer laying by the fire itself right outside the shelter so we removed the bedding from inside and placed it outside to keep us off the cold ground. The second night was pretty delightful actually, even though we slightly underestimated our needed wood supply and ran out around 3am. But by this time, all of the wood from our shelter frame was good and dry and supplied us with wood for another 3 hours. We gathered some additional wood nearby to get us through that last hour until sunrise and then broke down camp and headed home, completely exhausted.

I remember Richard telling me in hindsight that even though he had been on some pretty intense survival trips throughout his 4 tours in 8 years of the military as a Ranger, he had never experienced a trip without food before. You'd think that the hunger pangs would be horrendous after a couple of days but it's actually fatigue that gets to you. Moral of the story is: be smart about every step you take. Ask yourself is it really necessary because I'm going to need every ounce of energy that I have to make it for any extended period of time in a survival situation.

Some lessons learned from the trip:

1. Carve your fireboard and spindle early on during the trip and don't wait until it's time to get a coal to do it. We spent all of those hours drying wood that we were carving off anyway. You really can't skip any steps.
2. We should have created an open faced shelter/lean-to with poles resting on the old growth log to the opposite side which we had them to better trap heat in the area.
3. Do the max reps when drying out your wood. The amount of calories burned doing two additional notches is not worth skipping steps.
4. Never underestimate the amount of bedding you'll need in cold weather. If you have a choice between bedding and roof insulation if you have a fire going, take the bedding all day long.
5. Gather your wood from far away in the beginning of your trip so that you aren't spending as much energy later on the in making wood runs.
6. Eagles nest all of your wood, well in advance of using it. By eagles nest I mean surround your fire on all sides with wet wood to dry it out. Almost all of the wood in the understory was wet and while we were drying most of it out, we assumed that the fire was hot enough at times to burn wet wood and it wasn’t.
7. Make sure you can hear your water boiling for 3-5 minutes. Don't assume just because it's been really hot that it's ok to drink. The water needs to heat up to 212 degrees and stay that hot for the above duration of time. We weren’t entirely positive that we heard our first bottle of water come to a boil. This could have been a grave mistake if we were out in an extended situation if there were water born pathogens in the stream.
8. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Did I say calorie conservation? Every movement that you make expends valuable energy. When you use all of your energy on fire and shelter, you have little left to do anything else, including finding food and keeping your firewood supply at levels to get you through the night.

My next trip will be in March once spring has set in and I'll blog about the experience as soon as I return. Until next time.