Jason and I spent last weekend surviving in the woods of the Superior National Forest. Not as harrowing as it sounds; we were in a group for a Bushcrafting survival skills course through North House Folk School in Grand Marais. I kept calling it bush whacking and you’ll see why.
We’re both outdoorsy, me with my love for hiking and being in nature, Jason for hunting and camping, we thought this would be a fun, worthwhile course and helpful if we ever got turned around on an adventure in the wilderness.
The week leading up to the survival camping trip I was contemplating staying home because our springer, Barney, came down with vestibular disease and really needed his mom. He lost his appetite and wobbled around but we had somebody stay at the house and take good care of him. To ease my anxiety of leaving him we drove twice a day to cell service to check in on him. That eased my mind; although, not very bushcrafty of us.
Our group was led by Lindy, our outdoor survival expert. There was a couple, Mark and Mary from Grand Marais, two guys Keef and John in their late 20s from Minneapolis who didn’t know each other before the course, and a cool old hippie, Dave. A very eclectic group but not a bad group to be stuck in the woods with as everyone had specialties, knowledge and experience that would be helpful in a survival situation.
Three full days in the woods and camping at night, we started by learning different types of shelters to build. This was also helpful because it rained every day, multiple times a day. Lindy had also set up an old military parachute high up to help keep the rain off us.
One of the shelters in particular is called a Super Shelter. Very impractical and elaborate we all thought, since in a survival situation you’d need to have two tarps or big piece of plastic, paracord, and reflective blankets. And of course a knife, a required piece of equipment, as well as a bendable saw blade. It consists of an elevated bed made from fir or spruce trees and then create a canopy out of the same trees then covered with the plastic and reflective blankets. The idea is to light fire a couple feet next to the shelter and it retains the heat. This type of shelter would be most practical for bush plane survival situations since they’d likely have some of this material. I thought the bed was pretty comfy and Keef slept in it both nights without blankets. He warned us it might be a Naked and Afraid situation going on under in there.
Here are a couple other cool shelters we made. Two from tarps (don’t ask me to remember the names, we were in a survival scenario and didn’t carry pen and paper), and another was a primitive shelter. The primitive shelter was much more realistic in a survival situation since it’s made just from trees and bark. I didn’t take a picture because it started storming and we didn’t finish the shelter. We had our tarp shelters and parachute to protect us.
Cheating on our bushcraft experience
The first night of our survival experience I wanted to check in on Barney. It was convenient because the entire group decided to participate in the community pizza experience hosted by North House, so we all drove the 20 minutes back to Grand Marais. It was nice to get out of the rain because it was pouring buckets.
North House hosts pizza night on Saturdays and everyone brings a topping to share, like a potluck. The dough is provided. We roll out our doughs, assemble our pizzas and they bake them in the wood fire oven they have on campus. Our group made a unanimous decision that since we’re in town and cheating on our experience anyway, why not have a beer at Voyager Brewing and listen to some live music. Eventually the rain subsided and we drove back to camp. Back at camp around the fire, Dave pulled out his Drambuie to pass around while Keef played some harmonica for us and John whittled a spoon under his headlamp before we all hit the sack.
I wasn’t going to admit this to you all but since we had done some cheating on the survival experience anyway and everything was way too damp and wet for my liking (tolerance), I slept in the back seat of the truck. Both nights. It was cozy and dry but uncomfortable. Jason was fine sleeping in the tent. In survival situations we take advantage of what we have available to us, right?!
The next day we made buck saws from the knives we’d be carrying in a survival situation as well as paracord and a flexible saw. We made the saws using a fir or spruce tree. They came in handy for cutting down dead red pines later on for fire wood.
I really enjoyed the foraging. Lindy knew a lot about the wild plants in the woods but Keef dabbled in medicinal botany and knew a lot about the health benefits of the plants. We made a tea from raspberry leaves, strawberry leaves, white pine and sarsaparilla which had a lot of healthy benefits going on in it, like female reproductive health, vitamin A, and anti-inflamatory. Another we made from wild mint and Labrador, good for tummy issues and chest ailments.
Keef got a wasp sting so he chewed up plantain and put it on the sting to take away the pain. It worked!
Keef was also familiar with wild mushrooms. At dinner that night he picked chicken of the woods and we fried it with the yellow squash I brought. Delish! He helped me identify lobster mushrooms and we both picked a bunch to take home. I also picked a bunch of sarsaparilla root to bring home to dry.
Fire and Navigation
We also worked on different ways to start fires and create fire starters – another useful reason to have a knife. Dave offered his grey, greasy long hair as fire starter which was very generous of him. Here are fire sticks opted for instead.
We spent time learning navigating in the woods using a compass as well as a way if you don’t have a compass by using the knife on a cloudy day to determine where the sun is to figure out North, South, East, and West. This was really cool. You point your trusty knife, remember it’s a survival requirement, onto a light colored object like a piece of birch bark. Turn the knife slowly and you will notice edges of a faint shadow that point to the direction of the sun.
Since the class took place in canoe country, we ended the weekend building an emergency canoe out of a tarp, paracord, and the good ol’ fir or spruce trees. Jason really got into this since one of his highlights of the weekend was paddling in the birch bark canoe Lindy brought. The canoe took a couple hours to build but seemed realistic if stranded in the BWCA if your canoe floated away. Lindy tested the canoe, with no other willing participants, and we’re not sure if he would have been able to safely cross to the other side of the lake without tipping or taking on water. He tipped it a few times but a funny ending to the survival weekend.
We had a really fun time in the woods despite the rain. The shelters made the rain tolerable. We learned a lot of good skills. Lindy said the most often rescued people in the woods are day hikers because we’re not prepared if getting lost. For me, I can see how it would be easy to get lost while hiking by taking a wild animal trail or spur trail and losing track of where I am. My take away is to always bring a knife, compass, fire starter (other than Dave’s hair), and clothes to keep body at 98.6. With these things people can create shelters, fire, and keep warm to survive until found. And always tell somebody where you’re going.
Barney was a little less wobbly and got his appetite back by the time we got home. He missed us but was in good hands.