To follow-up from where I left off - I had a really Great time at Tracker School. As we were eventually informed, they usually have 14 volunteers for the Standard Class. Seven of those cancelled at the last minute so the rest of us were left to make up the difference. And we did, much to the appreciation of the camp staff. However, it also meant we did not have as much time to interact with students, review courses, etc., which was kind of a bummer. I guess, I'm just going to have to go back and volunteer again!
One of the other volunteers, Joey Yazer, acted as "camp photographer" and he's given me permission to share several of his photos here. Joey hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia where he works as a veterinarian and a sea kayak guide. Who knows, maybe a little sea kayaking tour is in my future...after I get that new car, of course!
So for the story of my week-long stay at Tom Brown, Jr's Tracker School...
Day One: Getting Lost!
Yep! That's right! I Got Lost the first day of Tracker School!
It started out innocently enough. I just followed a trail behind the kitchen into the woods to find a nice quiet spot where I could "sit" for a while, snack on some food I'd brought with me, and do a little journaling. I started heading back, and somehow got off on another trail that took me out to one of the many (many!) logging roads that crisscross through the Pine Barrens. I saw lots of tire tracks and I immediately assumed they belonged to the vans that had been busy shuttling us from the office in town to the camp. I actually had my topo maps in hand during that trip, though it was difficult to keep track of all of the minor trails we crossed on the way in. And, even though I left the maps back at my campsite, I was confident that I would see the turn-out for camp "just around the next corner" to my right, so I headed that way at a good pace.
Unfortunately, the turn-off did not reveal what I expected. So I back-tracked, but then I couldn't find where I had exited onto the road in the first place, etc., etc. I had taken a heading with my compass when I set up my tent, so I was sure the door was facing east, and I kind of new I was west of that when I went off behind the kitchen. Unfortunately, even though I had my compass in the pocket of the nylon riding vest I was wearing, I didn't remember I'd put it there until - oh, a couple of hours of wandering around in the woods! At that point, I tried to set out on a heading that I thought would take me back to camp, but I missed a critical reference point and got way past camp before I realized it.
Now, granted, I was never actually anxious or scared. Why? Well, I knew I knew how to build a debris shelter and I was at TRACKER SCHOOL, so if I was finally missed, someone was going to be able to find me! And just as it was starting to get really dark, about three hours later, I saw the lights of a vehicle approaching and smiled and waved and laughed a bit as Dan, one of the camp staffers, pulled up beside me. He had seen my tracks (which I was making purposefully obvious on the sandy road) and knew there was no reason for someone to be out that far on foot. I was definitely relieved to see him and happy to accompany him back to town where he was to pick-up one last student.
Lessons Learned: Many! There are so many things I did wrong in this scenario. A) Forgetting I had my compass on me. B) Not taking the topo maps I had with me in the first place. C) Not sure it would have been useful, but I didn't have my phone on me either, nor did I have a flashlight. D) I "sped" away from my original location without taking a few minutes to really get my bearings. Granted, there might have been a small part of me that kind of wanted to get lost! I knew I was relatively safe here and that I was at TRACKER SCHOOL...so, again, I figured someone would find me if I did not find my way back on my own.
I'm glad I did not have to build a shelter, but I think I would have managed okay if I actually had to, and under any other circumstance I would have probably started doing that much sooner rather than waiting until after the sun went down. I did have some food and water so that was good. And the whole experience certainly impressed on me the fact that...just like that...especially in an area where there are many trails/old logging roads, etc., a person can get lost. (By the way, those tire tracks...mostly belonged to ATV riders!) So learning basic survival skills really is a good idea for anyone who spends any time in the woods!
Sleep: Not much. Although my body felt kind of warm inside my sleeping bag, I woke up shivering uncontrollably! Got to thinking I might have actually been better off in a debris shelter!
Day Two: Garlic Prep - Solar Still
I was assigned to lead the Kitchen Clean-up crews for the week. Every student has to sign-up to help in some capacity through the week, so crews for each job change each day, while the volunteers provide for leadership and continuity between shifts. It's a pretty cool system and it helps people appreciate each other's efforts. As there was a little work left over from "chop crew" I took on the task of preparing the garlic. As I explained to those who asked, I decided to remove the center stem sections from each piece before chopping it up. As I learned from a friend of mine who had attended culinary school, that little bit of plant stem in the middle of the garlic is what causes it to leave more of a lingering garlic taste in your mouth...the kind that lasts long after you're finished eating it. As I am not a big fan of that effect, I wanted to do this job at least as much for myself as everyone else. Very tedious, and a bit daunting when you have as much as a pound or so of garlic cloves to work through, but I persevered!
That same perseverance was required as we gathered sphagnum moss from the bog and blueberry leaves from the many wild blueberries growing all over the camp property for the Solar Still demo. Granted, I was much more conscientious about where I wandered during this collection process, given my previous experience getting lost in the woods! This is also when I finally got the chance to strike up more conversation with Joey Yazer. We found a lot in common when it came to our thinking about camp activities.
In addition to the above, I tried to make a Figure Four trap for the lecture the next day. Glad no one was depending on it from me, because traps and snares are definitely not my specialty. Something I need to work on a little more here in the near future! But there were others provided by volunteers Alex and Jenn, to make up for my lack of skill.
Sleep: I had a bit of a debate with Joey about sleeping with or without clothing. I was leaning towards the without part, as I understood the more skin-to-skin contact the more heat generated. His reasoning was that more layers, meant more insulation from the surrounding cold air. I added my wool blanket around my sleeping bag rather than just layered under it for night two, started without much clothing, continuing the argument with Joey in my head...until, finally, he "won" and I added some silk long-johns and pant layers back on. Still shivered a good part of the night, though!
Day Three: Pine Pollen and Acorn Day
Bright and early I headed out to collect Pine Pollen for the cammo demonstration. Again, I was much more careful about where I wandered, paying more attention to my surroundings, what the roads looked like from both directions. I came to an exit/entrance to camp where several vehicles were parked. There was also a big blue dumpster there. I recognized this as a place that I had passed at least once if not twice as I was wandering around the first night.
I had a large plastic Ziploc bag with me and I would enclose it around low hanging pine buds, tap them vigorously, forcing them to disperse their pollen, watching it spill into the bag. I soon began to appreciate the different stages of the buds, and the color that indicated a better chance of pollen - a pale yellow-green, as opposed to darker green (not mature) and light tan (too old). I also couldn't help but think that I was collecting "tree sperm" (!) and getting it all over my clothing in the process! As it was definitely "that time of year" for the pine trees, it didn't take me too long to get a tablespoon or so accumulated in the bottom of the bag.
The next task was shelling and peeling acorns for the bison acorn stew that was one of the items on the food demo menu. Master Ethnobotonist, Karen Sherwood, brought two, gallon-sized Ziploc bags full of acorns for us to process. She assumed, since they had been frozen, and the one's she had already shelled seemed to have fairly loose skins, that the rest would also peel easily. Leaving us to the work, Jenn, one of the other volunteers, and I combined our efforts and, once again, in spite of the tediousness of the task, gave our full attention to it...for most of the rest of the day!
Karen had made the point that removing the inner skin of the acorn was considered "the polite thing to do" to show respect for the people who would eventually be eating them. It also helped to avoid any bitterness from the tannin in the skins. However, most of the acorns were not as "loose skinned" as Karen had assumed, and when we brought that fact to her attention later in the day, she decided she could probably boil them off more easily than we could peel them. Nevertheless, it took a full-crew of maybe eight of us, gathered around the dimly lit central kitchen counter, shelling and breaking the acorns into pieces, late into the night, in order to complete the task! It was fun though, as we eventually passed the time sharing stories and telling jokes...probably not that much differently from the Native Americans who would have processed acorns like this centuries ago!
Sleep: Dan graciously retrieved my second wool blanket from the car during one of his trips back to the office, so I added that to the layers of sleeping bag, liner, and other wool blanket. I slept somewhat better, although my back and neck were definitely aching from all of the focused acorn processing we'd done during the day.
Day Four: Jerky Drying, Pine Needle Gathering, Full Moon Camp Fire
The major demonstrations for the day included building a Debris Shelter and learning camouflage techniques. I helped to clean-up the debris shelter area, but was not really that enthusiastic about getting painted in mud, ash, and leaves. I was, however, more than happy to tend the fire for drying the beef jerky! Which I did...diligently...all day long...mostly by myself!
Another great learning opportunity: Although we thought we had wood that had cured for a year, its dampness told us otherwise. So that made the task a little more challenging. I struggled at first to get the low flame Karen requested. Joey gently guided me with some instruction and, eventually, by gathering strips of cedar bark from the brush piles near the demo area, I found a way to maintain and feed the fire to keep it "just right" for drying, but not cooking the meat. My method evolved to include two or three larger "parent" sticks, which I gradually edged into the fire from a starburst pattern. In addition to these, I placed several strips of much lighter "child" wood/bark that I could add or remove as necessary to keep the flame low, but still going. It was definitely a kind of meditation/service that I was happy to provide and the final product was much appreciated by staff and students alike!
At the end of the day, Jenn, Rocco and I went off to gather some pine needles in the moonlight, to make "pine needle tea" for the meal the next day. Then I joined Joey, Alex, and several other students for a campfire sing-along. I wanted to sing my "Full Moon" song, but didn't get the chance. I finally went off to my tent, in much need of rest, especially since my back had taken another beating with all the fire feeding!
Day Five: More Pollen, Wild Food Feast
I started the day gathering more pollen for Karen's wild food lecture and demonstration. Rocco, Alex, Joey, Jenn, Vince and Conrad prepped the cooking area which included a rock-boiling station for cooking muscles, a long trench fire pit for spit cooking chickens and an adjacent trench for demonstrating direct coal and hot rock cooking of pork chops. There was also a large steam cooking pit into which whole cabbages, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and leafy greens, including the juicy bottoms of cattail fronds and lily pads were placed over a bed of hot rocks then covered with plywood, plastic tarps, and sand. Coals and hot rocks were fed from a central fire.
|Vince and Karen having a laugh.|
|Alex tending the central fire.|
|Conrad using clay to secure the sandy edge of the steam pit.|
|Karen demonstrating rock boiling.|
|Chicken on the spit.|
|Pork frying on the hot rocks.|
|Rocco basting the chickens.|
|Karen about to "reveal" the many foods "hidden" in the steam pit.|
|Getting ready to serve the Wild Food Feast!|
|Me with my Ash Cake for dessert.|
After a busy day of feasting, we gathered again around the camp fire. Thanks to Joey's encouragement, I got to sing my "Full Moon" song and then, student Mana Raven shared a beautiful story and song from Australia:
When the wind blows,
see how the leaves go, Trees
bend your branches down.
Listen very closely you can hear the sound of
roots, spreading deep below...
I found her song to be such a gift. One that I'm sure I will carry with me for the rest of my life!
Sleep: Much better than the previous nights. Back still hurting though.
Day 6: Track and Plant Identification, Fish Fry, Sweat Lodge Ceremony
This day started with more food prep help in the kitchen. Followed by the track identification portion of the course. Each volunteer and then each student takes turns recognizing a track along surrounding trails and then identifying it for the others who follow-behind them. It is clear that there is a real skill to seeing the often faint signs.
In addition to track identification, I volunteered to help keep track of time for Karen as she presented the plant identification part of the course. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to listen-in to the discussion for both of student groups she led. I really appreciate Karen's extensive knowledge and hope that I will be able to attend her Ethnobotony course at some point in the not too distant future.
|Taking a closer look at a Colt's Foot Leaf.|
For the evening meal, Frank Sherwood taught the students how to clean fish and wrap them with salt, spices, and lemon, then cook them on the coals. I observed at the fire pit, and tried to help everyone keep track of their time. A few particularly creative students found some scraps of wood/bark that they fashioned into "fish plates" to carry their hot fish back to the lecture area. Another woman, who did not really want her fish, offered it to me instead. It was much appreciated as I had not had a chance to prepare my own or eat much of anything else that day!
After the fish fry, I had a little time to shop in the camp store. Tom's wife, Celeste, was there, tending the cash-box. As I made my purchase, she started to recognize me from when we had met when I was a student several years before. She called Tom over, and re-introduced me to him, reminding him of our meeting, and my intentions to ride my bicycle cross-country. I told them both a little more about how all of that had worked out. It was good to make that connection with them again.
We ended the evening with a Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Vince again assisted with building the fire pit in the designated area next to the lodge. As part of the ceremony, students bring their bow-drill fire-making kits and the first person to ignite their tinder bundle has the honor of starting the main fire, first from the eastern corner, and with each student after that working their way around to the corner facing south. Everyone continues to add their fire, their "energy" to the main fire as they succeed with their kits and tinder bundles. I remember this from my experience as a student, and just as then, there were a few students who managed to get their fires started for the first time, followed by a dramatic outpouring of emotion, including many tears. I will offer that starting a fire this way, from "scratch", was one of the most empowering experiences of my life, so I can understand why it has this impact on others as well!
As the sun went down the fire continued to burn, heating up the rocks inside it until they were glowing red. In the dark of night, with the moon rising above, the students were led into the lodge. Vince and Karen provided prayer and ceremonial "smudging" with green cedar bundles, before we began removing the rocks and transferring them to the lodge as a coordinated team. My job was using another cedar "brush" to remove any bits of ember that might have clung to the rocks as they were removed with pitch forks and transferred to metal wheel barrows. The rocks sparkled with bits of ash and stone as they came out of the fire and as I brushed them off. It was like stars from the heavens were in those rocks, and soon to be placed in the dark "womb" of the lodge.
When all the rocks had been transferred, we joined the students...all 70+ of them along with other staff members and Karen's husband, Frank, who led the ceremony. It seemed somewhat shorter than what I remember from the first time. I was glad for the extra time allowed for the volunteers after the student's left, but I could have stayed much longer, especially since I never really broke a sweat!
After coming out of the lodge, we stood around the remaining embers of the feeder fire for a while, just quietly taking everything in and appreciating all that we had experienced through the week, and the new relationships formed with warmhearted and like-minded people.
Sleep: Went well...until early morning...when the rain started to fall!
Day 7: Striking Camp - Saying Farewell to New Friends
I woke to the sound of rain on my tent. Not a good thing on the day you're supposed to be packing! I re-positioned my extra fly, to block more of the rain, as well as the tent fly itself, which I had failed to stake down at the sides. This helped prevent any more seepage into the tent itself, protecting its contents. Consequently, I was able to get most of my gear packed dry, everything but the tent and fly. They went into their respective bags completely soaked!
It was my understanding that it had rained just before the students arrived for this class, and I had this feeling that the rain was kind of "cleansing" the ground, removing tracks, etc., preparing the way for the new students who would be attending the following Advanced Tracking and Awareness course.
At the kitchen, the camp staffers were cooking up a big breakfast, with all the fixings, including eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Dan demonstrated his considerable talent at the grill, ambidextrously flipping hash browns like a true professional!
The rain continued as the students, now with their raincoats on and wet gear in tow, gathered in the "Taj" for one more lecture from Tom. I sat to his far left where Rocco soon came and joined me. Tom talked about his true awakening in Grandfather's company, a few years into his training, when he realized he hadn't really fully grasped the depth of Grandfather's teaching, his deep connection with and respect for all living things. He encouraged us to not make the same mistake he did; to not waste any time in learning and feeling into that Depth of Awareness ourselves.
Then it was time to start loading the trailers and vans and shuttling people back to the office. My pants had soaked through while sitting on the bench and I tried to dry out a little by the wood stove while Joey played his small guitar, singing and leading others in song, the women young and old dancing around him. I wish I'd taken a picture of that, but my camera was buried deep in my over-stuffed back-pack!
As the morning stretched long, and people, including myself got hungry for "lunch", peanut butter and jelly sandwiches appeared. I went back to the kitchen, but the bread was gone before I got to fix a sandwich for myself. To compensate, I opened my can of Pilot Crackers, fixed a couple of cracker sandwiches, and then left the rest behind for everyone else to enjoy along with the remainder of peanut butter and jelly.
Joey and I shared the ride to the office. Crammed in the van with several other students. All of us wet and steamy! The rain continued to pour as we unloaded. My dad's Cadillac sat at a corner of the parking lot where the water was several inches deep. I decided to move it to higher ground before loading my gear. Joey and I hugged, and said our "Good-byes."...at least for a while....
Overall, it was a week in the woods, very well spent! Definitely a blue-green square on my "Life Calendar"!
Next Stop: Millville, PA and a visit with friends, Tom Anderson and his mother, Melanie!