Back to Nature, Girl

SU graduate student Sarah Haase ventures into the wilderness to test her survival skills and reconnect with nature.

An ominous drumbeat echoed through the dark, quiet forest. With five others, I began a trek across an uneven landscape scattered with fallen trees, rotten stumps, muddy knolls, and budding branches – blindfolded. I “fox-walked,” a slow, cautious technique I’d learned on the first night of camp. I wished I’d practiced it more.

The absence of sight heightened the sounds of lively night dwellers. Placing my palms on the wet forest floor provided a much-needed respite from the dizziness I felt. I swept the air around me, searching for growth that would serve as either friend or foe. Firmly grasping a tiny tree trunk, I pulled myself toward it and found myself tangled in a web of forehead-whipping branches.

The drumbeat continued. Four loud bangs followed by rustling I hoped was a person and not something with fur and sharp teeth. I touched some slimy stuff on decaying, fallen tree trunks and walked faster. Then, I fell onto something manmade. Something familiar.  When I rolled into a prickly pine tree that grew beside it, I felt relieved.

New Adventures
I consider myself an adventure junkie at heart who doesn’t shy away from new and risky endeavors. My accident-prone body sometimes holds me back or slows me down. The first time I went skiing, the thrill of whizzing down the hill with the crisp air against my face encouraged me to foolishly forego the bunny slope. In exchange for this daring decision, I won a free snowmobile ride to the first-aid tent with a fractured shoulder. (If only I had learned how to turn.)

The dark forest sounded far better a few weeks ago when I tracked down a primitive survival-skills camp at the Roots School deep in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I read about the course online and saw photos of what I’d be going through: drinking from a freshly dug spring, holding down a fireboard, and plodding through the snow (I didn’t have to worry about that one – it was May). 

My mind whirled with thoughts of being part of a hippie commune, learning to build a fire, and maybe landing some sleeping bag time with a burly guy. Once I arrived, all that dissolved. This made the Girl Scout camp I attended in middle school seem luxurious.

Apparently, the wilderness calls to a lot of women – especially those looking to bolster self-image. A study compiled by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) found that half of all U.S. adults, 98 million people, have taken an adventure trip in the past five years. According to Eva-Maria Gortner, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in relationship counseling in Houston, Texas, creating opportunities involving personal risks and challenges can help someone going through traumatic life events, such as divorce, rebuild trust in herself. 

“Learning to depend on oneself can increase empowerment, self-trust, and self-efficacy – all important aspects of re-creating life after loss and trauma,” Gortner says. She adds that pursuing experiences outside the comfort zone can increase self-empowerment. Learning and mastering new skills creates a feeling of accomplishment and self-confidence. “Allow yourself to experience something completely new when you are ready to do so,” she advises.

Day One: Welcome to the Camp
I arrived in Vermont that first day with more than enough daylight to set up camp. The puzzling jumble of metal stakes, poles, red cord, and nylon that lay on the ground overwhelmed me. I channeled my inner woodswoman and began sticking the poles through the black, plastic connectors fastened around the nylon. My first attempt folded. The poles needed to cross at the center instead of being parallel. 

The campsite allowed privacy but was hardly ideal for roasting marshmallows, telling ghost stories, or singing rounds of “Kumbaya.” That night, alone in my tent, I tried to fend off the possible death scenarios that invaded my weary mind. When that didn’t work, I searched for my flashlight, only to discover that I had left it on my kitchen counter. Great. I faced my first camping challenge, sleep-deprived and scared of the night.

One night after dinner, our instructors dangled a surprise in front of us. I hoped for a water-and-bug-proof roof to sleep under, but instead, we received a bowl of popcorn.

Day Two: Gimme Shelter
The next morning, we learned the importance of establishing shelter for survival. We teamed up and began bonding and building. Our structure made of sticks and twigs needed to be as sturdy and compact as possible. I entered the stick skeleton of the debris hut by shimmying my hips and legs through the triangular opening until my feet touched the rotted stump we used as a wall.

I had flashbacks of being stuck in the brown plastic tubes of a McDonald’s tree house as I tried to reach my 3-year-old nephew, who wanted a slide partner.  Slithering out from the shelter, I pondered the idea of spending the night inside. Next, we added the insulation that would hold our body heat – leaves. Lots of leaves. 

We raked the forest floor, using every ounce of our upper-body strength to create many small mounds of dry leaves and stringy moss. I uncovered black beetles the size of quarters, spiders the size of nickels, centipedes, and mice with tails entirely too long for their tiny bodies. I’ve slept with some pretty scary creatures before (one even had a tattoo of himself “in his prime”), but I had no intentions of sharing my sleeping space with unwanted fangs, pincers, and stinging tails. Jeri Helen – my shelter-building partner – and I decided to take turns sleeping in the hut. The night it was my turn, the temperature dropped to nearly freezing, letting me off the hook.

How could I let Jeri sleep under her tarp while I enjoyed the warmth of the shelter? Not that I didn’t greatly admire what we spent an entire day building. It was strong enough to support the weight of a human – pretty remarkable considering we used no string or bonding adhesive. The idea of creating something with my own two hands that possessed the potential to save my life made me proud. 

Day Three: Fire
The next day, we moved on to survival skill number two: fire. On a table in the “ship,” our classroom and shelter from rain, lay remnants of unwanted cedar wood that had fallen from the back of a lumber truck. I picked up two pieces and a carving knife and began whittling them to resemble a round spindle and a smooth fireboard. As the wood shavings sprinkled onto my pants, a familiar cedar scent filled the air, bringing me back to my childhood, when I visited my grandma in Tampa, Fla.

I loved swimming in her complex’s heated pool. On the morning of the first swimming day, I would follow her to a storage chest and stand beside her as she dug around for a beach towel. When I grew tired of swimming, I would wrap my shivering body in that towel and inhale the subtle scent of a cedar chest. 

But this was no grandma condo. My first attempts to create fire ended in failure. The spindle would fly off the bow and into the leaves, or the bow would reach too high on the spindle, or my arms and hands got too tired from the unnatural motion. I leaned over these tiny pieces of wood that refused to give me what I wanted. One of the instructors said at the beginning of the lesson that you have to let the fire know you truly want it. Although this sounded incredibly hippie-dippie to me, I gave it a shot. 

I took off my shoes and socks, feeling the wood with my toes as I tried to become one with it. The constant motion made my arms grow heavy, but white smoke began to rise from the fireboard. I dragged the bow faster and faster, watching the triumphant white smoke grow denser. A few more pushes and pulls and I created a tiny piece of coal. I transformed that tiny red ember into a dance of flames. Go me!

By nightfall, my bones began to shiver inside me. The constant glow of the campfire provided more light than warmth. But it was day three and I remained well and injury-free. According to my vacation track record, I was due for sickness or injury (or both) to help me escape from this physical discomfort. My socks squished around inside my water-resistant boots, and I could have peeled the skin off my feet in layers. I tried to dry my drenched jeans by keeping my legs close to the fire. I searched for something, anything that could take my mind off my soaked, suffering body. 

One night after dinner, our instructors dangled a surprise in front of us. I hoped for a water-and-bug-proof roof to sleep under, but instead, we received a bowl of popcorn. The real kind – not the convenient, low-fat microwaveable sacks, but real kernels heated to the point of no return in hot oil, the fluffy nuggets cascading into an old wooden bowl. Just for a moment, the dampness evaporated as I thought about making tasty popcorn garlands at Christmas time. The nostalgia continued throughout the week. Climbing through overgrown groves of trees reminded me of looking for the perfect spot for the “outdoor girls club,” which began at age nine but soon took a back seat to the world of Barbie dolls and crushes on boys.

Lessons Learned

On the last night, with the drumbeat still beckoning, I grew relieved as I realized I had stumbled onto my own tent. It was like seeing the giant Mount Gay Rum billboard in Barbados lit up by a single light bulb, a familiar sign that ended my disaster of a road trip with no map. My best friend and I got lost on the small island long before sunset and didn’t find our way back until we could see nothing but stars in the sky.
Once I found my tent, I recognized my surroundings and knew my way back to safety and comfort. I climbed over a few more obstacles and trekked up inclines until I felt the flat ground beneath my feet. I carefully crept forward, sensing a clearing around me, and felt my way to a table, pawing through the objects on top of it: a carving knife still in its sheath, a wooden bowl, and an arrowhead spear. I was in the “ship.” All I needed to do now was put myself on the trail, and in moments I would be at the campfire. I felt around some more, searching for signs that would point me in the right direction. Nothing helped. Panic set in. I felt like I had returned to the wild labyrinth. 

Then my ears reconnected with the drumbeat. I calmed my mind, breath, and footsteps by synching with the drum’s steady rhythm. I moved toward the fire ring and the drumbeat grew louder. The crackle of jumping flames mixed with the smell of burning wood. Almost there. Ducking under and stepping over more branches and stumps, the roar of the fire grew louder. A few more steps and I smiled as my eyes focused for the first time in more than an hour. I saw the orange glow through the black fleece blindfold.
I made it.

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