Most people who recreate outdoors, be it hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking or hiking, learned about it through experience. The old “college of hard knocks” has been my biggest education tool, and still is for that matter.
When I was a kid, I wanted to learn everything I good about the outdoors and survival. I figured when I knew enough, I would move into the mountains and live off the land and never be bothered by school or work.
My grandparents no longer hunted or camped by the time I came around. In order to stop my constant complaining about wanting to learn woodcraft, they pawned me off on an old man who was a friend of the family. Mr. Caster was the perfect instructor for my 12-year-old brain.
Mr. Caster hunted, fished and camped whenever he felt like it. He was retired so work never got in the way of his outdoor pursuits. Mr. Caster cussed like a sailor on shore leave, smoked Chesterfield Kings and drank whiskey from a bottle, in other words, a perfect role model.
I eventually learned how to build a fire using a few pieces of kindling, a small pile of tinder, and half a box of strike anywhere kitchen matches. He taught me how to cook over a fire, and eventually eat the stuff I cooked. Mr. Caster taught me about wild animals and tracking. I learned that when you see fresh bear tracks, close by there is probably a fresh bear.
With Mr. Caster, whining was not an option, as he had little tolerance for complainers. If I became injured (which was a regular occurrence Mr. Caster taught me how to mop up the blood and “tough it out.”
Seriously, there is very little, if any, formal training for people who want to learn basic survival and woodcraft skills. People asking for guidance, and learning opportunities ask me regularly where they should turn.
Most of us have turned to outdoor magazines and books. There are literally hundreds of books available on the subject, but reading a book does not carry the same power of live teaching. The computer is a good place to research these skills, and there are a number of classes you can take on-line, but I still prefer live teachers.
Recently I was asked to help out several teachers at Olathe Middle School with an annual program for all middle school kids, called Problem Based Learning or PBL.
PBL places a problem at the feet of the students who work as a group of three.
The group of students then gets to research the subject, both in books and on-line. Then a panel of experts comes to meet with each group and agrees to be interviewed and questioned on the assigned subject, thereby providing insight to the young minds.
There were seven teachers involved in this year’s exercise, including Judy Hauger, Michelle Tracy, Tyler Shaw, Judy Jacobs, Mark Liebenthal, Marc Alton and Paige Ready. The subject for this PBL was survival and it was given to about 40 kids.
Each group of kids was assigned a location where they are stranded and in need of rescue, but must survive. They would need to decide what items they would need to survive, what items they could bring, Each group was given a machete and a pan to hold water. The group was allowed to select one “mystery item” of their choice to bring along.
For several weeks, the kids researched the area they were stranded in. Some were in the rainforest, Rocky Mountain National Park, African Desert and the Tundra near the Arctic Circle. The kids must learn the climate; extreme weather conditions possible, edible plants, poisonous plants, and animals for food source and dangerous animals.
The students were also given a session with local experts in search and rescue. Paul Gottlieb of the posse and David Hardman, hunter-safety instructor, were the panel the kids got to interview. They asked about what equipment was necessary, first aid skills, and how to signal for help, among other things.
Once the kids completed the projects, each group had to make a presentation to a panel of experts and teachers. The panel for the presentations consisted of Hardman, Jim Neigherbauer and me from the posse. When the presentation was complete, the panel asked questions of the kids.
Each group started with a computer screen presentation of their location where they were stranded. The kids described in detail the climate and weather hazards faced. Shelters were to be built and the kids gave detailed accounts of the material to be used and the matter in which it would be water and weather proofed.
Food sources, including plants and animals were also discussed, and the methods they would use to harvest them. Most kids had a different idea on how they would build a fire and find, purify and store water.
After the video presentation, the kids showed off a diorama made by them. The diorama displayed a model of their shelter, water source, fire, and the plants and animals indigenous to their area. The presentation lasted around 10 minutes and the panel asked several questions of each group and made comments.
These kids were absolutely amazing. They had a good answer for every question thrown at them. The presentations made by them were delivered well and thoroughly researched. I congratulate the students and teachers for a job well done.
I doubt these kids are ready to dive into a survival situation of the magnitude presented to them, but they are on a course for success. The concept is to get them thinking and solving problems as they are thrown at them. and they responded well. Each of their scenarios included one of them getting hurt or sick, and they had a plan to deal with it; yes, learning about my old pal Murphy and dealing with him.
I wish more teachers would use a survival-based situation for the PBL program like this bunch from Olathe Middle School. Kids get stranded in the woods just like adults and it is never too early to teach these necessary skills.
Not everyone has a Mr. Caster to teach them about the woods and survival. He passed away when I was around 20 and I have thought about him often. Sometimes I go up in the woods and can still feel his presence, and realize how much I miss him and his surly way of teaching.
Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a Director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the Posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email email@example.com