By Todd Swanson
On the first weekend of November, I did something unusual: I woke up early on a Saturday morning. Dave Canterbury’s Survival Weekend would begin in three short hours and I had a two-hour drive ahead of me.
Dave Canterbury hosted the two-day class to raise funds for historic Prickett’s Fort, a reconstructed refuge from Indian attacks, originally built in the pioneer era, just north of Fairmont, WV. When I saw the class announcement on Facebook, I had to seize the opportunity to take a wilderness-skills class so near to my home.
At half the price of the Basic classes held at the Pathfinder School in Ohio, the weekend at Prickett’s Fort provided the perfect chance to ease into a self-reliance education. If, like me, you ever hesitated to take a wilderness-skills class because you didn’t know what to expect, read on and put your anxieties to rest.
What to Expect
In the weeks before the class, friends conjectured that Dave wouldn’t actually be at the class — or that he might introduce the class and trust the rest to his instructors. Dave proved them all wrong, presenting all the lectures and leading all the demonstrations. Meanwhile, Pathfinder instructor Brian Manning lent his expertise to demonstrations and provided insightful instruction during student activities. Check out Brian’s videos on his YouTube channel SnowWalker13.
The Survival Weekend was a solid stepping stone from casual camping to taking the Pathfinder Basic class: Survival Weekend was two days instead of three, with each day of instruction ending around four o’clock. I was a little surprised by the short days; there was nothing in the announcements to hint at it. But on Saturday evening we burnt what daylight remained by setting up camp, and I used the downtime to flesh out my class notes. I admit that I was happy to turn in early; I’d been cramming for class, watching Dave’s videos and doing some projects, and I hadn’t slept much the previous few weeks.
There were twelve students in the class, though there had been room for 25 people. Selfishly, I was glad for the small turnout: We could gather around closer, ask more questions, and get a large share of the fire-making materials. And of course we all got more attention from Dave. But I found that Brian was also a patient and knowledgeable expert, full of advice and open to questions. For the sake of Prickett’s Fort, I hope they sell out next year, because unless I miss my guess, more students would mean more excellent Pathfinder instructors, and the experience would be every bit as educational.
Let’s Learn Together
Nothing I would do that weekend was as daunting as meeting Dave. Would my questions be too naive? Would he chuckle at my inexperience? Would he send me packing? My fears were unfounded, of course. Dave’s slogan, Let’s Learn Together, reflects his humility, his philosophy of lifelong learning, and his dedication to passing on wilderness skills. Dave clearly loves to teach, and he was helpful and courteous to students of all skill levels. When I didn’t know a knot, for example, Dave paused his demo to show it to me.
Dave has been on television, but he’s not a distant television personality. He’s much more like the Dave you get to know through his videos, every bit as candid in person: He was genuine, personable, enthusiastic for woodcraft, self-confident without being conceited, and appreciative of his success.
And though he’s a little embarrassed by people making a fuss over him, he was gracious when asked for autographs and willingly stood for photos. When I asked whether I could bother him to sign his book, he said, “No, you can’t bother me, because it would be a pleasure.”
When I signed up for the class, I was apprehensive about classmates, wondering how many Rambos and Eric Freins and doomsday preppers I’d meet. Would my classmates be greenhorns like me, or would I be outnumbered by paranoid militants?
Happily, they were nothing of the sort. If my classmates were eccentric, they were my kind of eccentrics: friendly, smart, and eager to learn more about the outdoors. I was relieved by the feeling of kinship I soon felt for these guys.
Many of my classmates were 18th-century reenactors, history buffs who walk-the-walk when it comes to their interests. Between sessions, I learned a lot by listening to these guys. Turns out, Dave got his start by 18th-century reenacting.
The rest of us were recreational campers, hunters, and armchair historians. Whether whitewater guides or software developers, everyone learned a great deal, everyone benefitted from some individual instruction, and everyone had a good time.
Gear You Need
While prepping for the Survival Weekend, I watched Dave’s videos about packing gear for the Basic class. The gear list that Prickett’s Fort sent me was the list created for the Basic class, so I made myself crazy budgeting for a lot of equipment I wouldn’t need, like a dry bag and miles of paracord.
The Prickett’s Fort Survival Weekend is not the Basic class. You really only need the essentials: your knife, a ferro rod (the bigger, the better), a notebook, and an air-tight stainless steel container.
You’ll also need a strip of cotton for making char cloth – not three square yards like the Basic list says – and you can probably borrow some from a classmate, if need be. Thicker material has more surface area to catch a spark, and it lasts longer, giving you a longer window for igniting fine tinder: For $6, I bought two square yards of 100% cotton felt or fleece at WalMart – and I didn’t even need to spend that, because Dave told us that old blue jeans and t-shirts make some of the most flammable char cloth.
Your knife is the most important item you’ll need. If you’re on a budget, the Mora Bushcraft Black is just the ticket. A high-carbon blade with sharp 90-degree angles at the spine does nearly everything you need for a Pathfinder class. The only issue is that this Mora doesn’t have a full tang, so your knife could break while batoning it into wood. But as Dave said, at the low price of one Mora, you can buy a backup.
I was fortunate enough to have my Forager, an excellent bushcrafting knife made by Andras at www.WoodBearKnives.com. The Forager’s O-1 tool steel holds a sharp edge and yet is soft enough to sharpen in the field. In class, I used a flint to throw sparks from the Foragers spine, and I found that the thick blade made a large target for my unskilled hands, producing enough sparks to light my char cloth quickly and easily.
In truth, though, I used no gear more than I used my notebook. Luckily, someone once gave me a leather-bound journal, so before class I oiled it to enhance its water-resistance, so I was also able to take notes during the outdoor demos. And because it fit snugly into my back pocket, I could be hands-free as needed. You might want to keep this in mind, because I saw a couple large spiral notebooks got wet with rain and damp grass.
Gear You Might Want
One thing that wasn’t strictly necessary but I was glad to have was a folding saw. Dave recommends the tight teeth of the Bahco Laplander, but if you are careful you might be able to make other folders work. My DeLimbinator worked well, but while making the bow-drill hearth, my partner’s rough-cut saw snapped out too much material. No fault of his, just a matter of having the right tool for the job.
Unless you’re not at all sentimental, you’ll probably want a camera. I have no camera, except on my smartphone. My iPhone 4 was adequate for preserving some memories, but none of those photos are framers. For better quality and greater depth-of-field, carry a small camera that can be tucked away and won’t bog you down.
You can’t go wrong bringing duct tape, and according to Dave, Gorilla brand is best. Tarred mariners line is inexpensive and versatile. But for the Survival Weekend, almost no one needed either of these items, except for stringing a fire-drill bow. Instead, you could just take three to six feet of cordage for your bow string. I had a waxed twine back at home that I suspect would have done the job just fine.
When it comes to gear, Dave is as reasonable as they come, the voice of the common man. If you spend a lot of time in the woods, he advocates investing in better gear as you are able. But he is not a gear snob, and he understands about budgeting for his classes.
Case in point: Having blown my budget on a dry bag, I wasn’t able to get a wide-mouthed 32-ounce stainless steel container like Dave recommends. But I already had a 16-ounce container and a stainless steel jigger. When the time came to char cotton cloth, I dropped the jigger into the mouth of the container, where the jigger stopped at its middle, creating a loose seal. Dave gave this contraption his blessing, and my jury-rigged system worked great. For more thrifty kit ideas, check out Dave’s Bulletproof Bushcraft on a Budget videos on YouTube.
Lectures and Labs
Dave doles out his knowledge in categories, grouping five examples per topic. This handy mnemonic device is applied to tarp configurations, cutting tools, wooden tools, simple machines, fire-making elements, useful trees, and so on. I appreciated this approach: I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how much woodlore there is for the novice to learn, but Dave’s five-item approach makes each lesson less intimidating by breaking down the vast amount of content into manageable chunks.
To illustrate his points, Dave shows examples of the tools, knives, clothes and crafts, all laid out on long tables in front of him. And he made notes on a white board so we could keep up our own notes.
Dave followed up his lectures with hands-on activities to drive that information home, incorporating as much as he could into the brief timeframe. Most student activities were performed individually, with much coaching and support from Dave and Brian. Some exercises were performed in teams. Dave and Brian demonstrated the two-man technique for bow drill, and Dave talked about the physical as well as psychological advantages of having someone else, even a child, to help out during a survival situation.
With Dave and Brian’s instruction, a bit of prior practice at home, and a great deal of luck, I managed to complete all the hands-on challenges: We batoned wood for a “one-stick fire,” charred cloth, ignited it with flint and steel, and blew bird nests into flame. Then my teammate and I started fire with a hot coal of wood dust ground from a friction fire set.
I was one of the last students to complete a figure-four deadfall trap, partly because the group ran out of sticks. I found some deadwood in the verge and was able to catch up eventually.
Pass it On
In some cases, I finished early enough to help out a few classmates. It was rewarding to help some of the people who’d already helped me.
I have a little experience teaching art, lifeguarding, swimming, and technical writing. But teaching woodcraft is a very different skill, and now I have even greater respect for those who do it. Besides tapping a deep wellspring of woodlore, Dave and his instructors face the difficult challenge of explaining the tactile sensations of successful woodcraft: Touch kindling to your cheek to test for dampness; press your fingernail into wood to see whether it’s soft enough for friction fire; touch your knife to smoldering tinder to test whether it has congealed into an ember; lean lightly on the bearing block while you’re making wood dust; push harder when you’re going for heat.
In many ways, the Survival School was more like a seminar or conference. The instructors and most of the students went into town for lunch and dinner, and camping was entirely optional.
When asked if I would go into town for lunch, this exchange from the film Jeremiah Johnson popped into my head:
“Jeremiah, maybe you best go down to a town, get outta these mountains.”
“I’ve been to a town, Del.”
Or in this case, I’ve been to a Cracker Barrel, Del.
There was no fire at lunchtime, so I ate my snack food: granola bars, walnuts, dried apricots — oh, and a few Snickers lifted from my kids’ Halloween baskets. Of the other guys who stayed behind, I envied the ones with the foresight to pack hardy pepperoni rolls, which looked filling and delicious. At supper, my fellow campers built a fire, and I boiled water for oatmeal and hot chocolate while frying up some bacon jerky.
Several students lived locally, and others had family nearby, so about half the attendees left to sleep in beds or hotel rooms. One generous guy went home to bring us cordwood for our campfires. Another went home for supper and a football game, then came back late to sleep in his bivvy. Another got cold in the night and went home until morning.
If I camped as much as I used to, sleeping in my tent might not have been such a treat, but as yet I’ve never passed up a chance to sleep outdoors. After a couple of years of just reading about it, I was finally out on a wilderness weekend again, and taking a survival class, to boot.
The next morning, a tent neighbor shared his stove and boiling water, so I ate a repeat of my supper, except that I boiled the bacon in my oatmeal this time. With a hot meal in my belly, I was ready to take on Day Two.
The weather forecast had been grim – rain turning to sleet – but beyond pulling on a coat, we were little inconvenienced by a rainy drizzle on Saturday afternoon. The skies took a break when we set up camp. Powerful winds lulled me to sleep after sunset. I slept comfortably over my ground blanket, cozy-warm in my fleeces and sleeping bag, despite finding snow and ice around my tent at dawn.
The soggy Sunday morning made the friction fire demo a challenge for our instructors, but we all learned a lot about persistence that day. “I don’t have a lot of quit in me,” Dave said, and he wasn’t lying. For almost two hours, Dave worked the bow drill – a task that would later exhaust me after just ten minutes. Despite the damp conditions, Dave and Brian worked together to make flame. Mercifully, when our turn came, the sun emerged to dry the air and materials, giving us students an easier time of it.
Here are a few things I wish someone had told me in advance:
- Don’t stress over gear. You don’t need much for the Survival Weekend, so don’t over-spend and don’t over-pack.
- Bring a camera.
- Take a buddy (or make a buddy). You can share gear, food, notes, and work. And you’ll be glad you had someone to take pictures for you.
- Pick up some books for reference. I left the class knowing I REALLY need to improve my knowledge in two key areas: tree identification and knots.
- Pack pepperoni rolls.
I had a fantastic weekend. It was the kind of weekend you always hope your weekend will be: Time well-spent. For once, punch that time clock knowing your weekend enriched your life. Instead of waking on Monday with feelings of waste and disappointment, take a Pathfinder class.
Learn these skills, enjoy these successes, and return to the world buoyed by this confidence that comes with being more self-reliant. Take it from me: Conjuring live flame from dead sticks changes the way you see yourself and your place in the world.
And what did Dave ask of us? He asked we learn from each other. He asked that we try until we succeed. And he asked us to pass it on. I look forward to practicing what I’ve learned and sharing it with my friends and family. I look forward to sharing their moments of success and seeing those moments change them forever.
All this I got from one short weekend with the Pathfinder School.