Finding joy while learning to survive in Mother Nature

Survival school worth the effort

Since leaving camp this morning, the sun had traveled about three hand spans (about three hours) above the east cliff wall. Its light moved slowly down the west cliff wall like a bronze guillotine.   
We were in a slot canyon about 400 feet deep and as wide as a two-lane byway. The canyon had no path, so we slowly pushed and meandered our way through river birch, white oak, willow,  ferns, sagebrush and July dandelions whose yellow flowers have turned to gray afros.
I was one of eight students and three instructors on our third day at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), a primitive survival school held in the deserts and mountains outside of Boulder, Utah and inside the beautiful boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. During our two weeks at BOSS, we learned overland navigation, how to build a fire using a bow and drill, how to build a proper shelter and several other useful outdoor skills. The Boulder Outdoor Survival School, though a school, does not take place in a classroom but outside with lots of hiking to find water, food and other raw materials with which we made our survival supplies.
We slowly percolated our way through the dense trees and bushes, ducking, weaving and in some places crawling through the vegetation. In some places, the sagebrush stood as tall as the juniper trees, and the ferns were even taller than the sagebrush. I’d never seen anything like it. Shorter stalks of sagebrush continuously caught and tugged at my shorts like kids with urgent questions. It was impossible to walk through the thick sagebrush in a straight line. We had to walk around every sagebrush and then change our course to get around the next one. It was like doing the dosido and every sagebrush for the next mile was my partner. The silhouettes of the fern leaves against the sky looked like fingerprints.
The sun poured through the willows, ferns and cottonwoods in dowels and shims, but a half hour later it came through in planks and beams as the vegetation began to thin. And then the narrow canyon we’d been walking through merged with a larger canyon, this one had a sandstone floor, as wide as the space between Jeep tracks and was devoid of vegetation. For the first time in two hours, we were able to stand up straight.
We followed one our instructor Mike Ryan as he led us down the new canyon. We didn’t follow the sandstone boulevard far before it ended at a 20-foot pour over. We all walked to its edge and looked off. We peered over and watched the water splash on the sandstone floor below us.
“Anyone want to take a shower,” Mike asked.
 After two and a half days of trekking through the desert, we all looked a little beat up. Our shins and arms were covered in scratches from battling through numerous thickets. Our dirty legs, arms and faces were streaked with sweat. Our necks were sunburned, our faces covered with mosquito bites. And we were all pretty stinky. Yes, we all wanted to take a shower.
A trail ran from the top of the pour over to the canyon below via a trail on the left side of the canyon and we made our way down to the base of the waterfall. The men stripped down to their cargo shorts and the women stripped down to cargo shorts and sports bras. The water fell in a long, bead curtain. It was wide enough to accommodate three people at a time. The water, I was surprised to learn when it was my turn, was actually warm. Under the most direct flow, the water leaned into you heavily giving you a massage on shoulders and back. I left the waterfall and lied down on some flats rocks while the others took their turn in the waterfall.
Our instructor Mike was one of the last ones in the waterfall and as soon as he had showered himself clean he walked over to a clay mud bank and covered himself head to toe in the warm mud.
“It feels really good,” he said.
We all jumped up from sunning ourselves on the rocks and began covering ourselves and our friends’ backs with the hot clay. We then laid back down on the warm rocks until the clay dried and cracked, after which we got back under the waterfall and washed it off.
When Mike put on his socks and shoes, we knew it was time to go. Wordlessly we sat up and began doing the same. Mike hupped on his backpack, we buckled on our fanny packs and followed him.
We followed Mike less than a mile before he stopped amid a stand of juniper trees and took off his backpack.
“Go ahead and take off your fanny packs if you want to,” he said. “We’re going to stop here for a while, while I show you how to make bow and drill fire kits.”
We followed Mike as  he unsheathed a machete from his backpack and waded out into a patch of sagebrush.
“One of the best materials for making your spindle and fireboard is sagebrush,” Mike explained. “It will produce an ember much quicker than any other types of wood we have around here. Even if it’s still green. The challenge to making a quality spindle and fireboard out of sagebrush is finding pieces that are straight.”
He selected a good-sized sagebrush and with a half-dozen deft strokes from his machete dismembered an arm off the plant. He dropped it to the ground and cut another arm off the same plant, this one as thick as a walking staff.
“This piece I’ll use for my spindle.”
He picked up the first piece and we walked back to the shade of the junipers where he showed us how to fashion the pieces into fireboard and spindle.
The group then walked into the sagebrush field with our knives and cut off some sagebrush limbs of our own. I carried my two sagebrush limbs to a nice bed of corduroy grass and sat down with the others in a half-circle in front of Mike and Beata who guided us through the process of turning raw sagebrush into flat fireboards and straight spindles.
A choir of birds established a new chapel in the junipers above us. Other than that, the only sounds were of metal scraping wood. A gray spider rappelled onto my arm. With legs splayed out it looked like a gravel-crack in a windshield.
We sat in the shade and worked on our fireboards for about an hour. When Mike stood up and strapped on his backpack the rest of us stood up and strapped on our fanny packs and followed him farther down the canyon. After a half hour of walking, this canyon merged with an even larger canyon, this one about a Frisbee throw wide. The small stream, which we had been following all day, merged with a stream in new canyon. Where the two canyons merged, we dipped in our Sierra cups and drank deep from the cold, clear water.
Mike then turned up the canyon rather than continuing down canyon as we had been doing all day. If we continued going up canyon, we’d once again find ourselves in the mountains.
On our left, the pine trees next to the creek looked like girls lifting their skirts as they prepared to wade into the stream. On our right, the long canyon wall resembled a loaf of bread. Its sides went straight up and they were smooth, then at the top it puffed out in a small, doughy lip. Dark streaks of patina ran down its face like mascara after crying.
We walked up the canyon a mile, and another mile until it was late afternoon and time to start looking for a place to camp. But it was such a completely gorgeous day, I hoped Mike wouldn’t stop any time soon. The day was so beautiful and there was so much to see and I was feeling so good I just wanted to keep on walking. I had a belly full of water and, though I hadn’t eaten anything beyond a few berries and ant larvae in the last three days, I was no longer hungry. I felt remarkably clear-headed, full of energy, full of life. Maybe going those two days without eating anything but a few berries had finally burned out all the sugar, caffeine and toxins that had been building up in me.
My legs felt strong and full of energy. My curious heart propelled me forward to see what was ahead. I wanted to walk late into the night, until my legs and my curious heart had finally had their fill.
I was full of joy. I was at ease, in harmony. I felt like I was sitting on the right hand of contentment. Sitting in the inner circle of harmony, hugged by it, welcomed into its tribe. I felt much closer to understanding how the butterfly felt upon first emerging from its cocoon to find it was no longer a mere caterpillar but had been transformed into a demigod. I too felt transformed. As if every pore on my body was a mouth shouting Hallelujah! Like I was a humble branch that had been grafted into the Tree of Life. The sunset-saturated cliff walls glowed no brighter than I did. I felt like the sky was my mirror and the radiant, happy sun was but a reflection of myself.