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.