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Outdoor Survival Skills
By Larry Dean Olsen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1997 Larry Dean Olsen
All rights reserved.
Old Badger and me.
As a boy I was filled with desert things. Beyond the green of hay fields, in a land of sand and sage, I sifted artifacts of clay and bone and stone and ancient ways, filling my imaginings with adventures, digging secrets from rock shelters and caves. I recovered the cry and mighty thrill of the chase and the taste of broiling meat. I found the chill of winter and starving and the blast of summer's alkali wind. It was all mine, the Anasazi Way — a new way to "the making of a being." I was hearing a new voice from the dust.
The tones of flaking flint and the crumbling metate humbling seeds into small ashcakes stirred up desire in me to survive, to master some skills of the Ancient Ones. I stepped far from bicycles and baseball into the making of a long walking.
After many years, I sat on a rock and wrote the first edition of this book. I gathered about me many Walkers wanting to make a living off the land and wanting to use Stone Age tools for making it. Awakenings happened that transformed me. They came in events of discovery: the blinding whiteness of sunbaked eyelids; the sight of perfect growing edibles; the arching curve of my sleek rabbitstick; the flickering heart of my precious prey; the darkened dust of countless cooking hearths; generations of stone, bone, and fiber; the satisfaction and warmth of fire.
The book flew through many good editions. Now this thirtieth-year publication celebrates some early events and feelings and shares a few tales of how I learned the Anasazi Way and the making of these survival skills.
The badgerstone changed my life forever. It all began when I was twelve years old.
In the Beginning
Miss Romain wanted my eyes on the blackboard, but out the window and westward across the desert lay the cave, and my eyes saw only the treasure in its deep floor. On Tuesday, I started making a new pair of high-topped moccasins from an old pair of field boots. I cut off the soles, turned the boots inside out, and started sewing on soles of cowhide leather.
On Wednesday I rolled up a blanket pack, sharpened my pocketknife and a small hunting knife, and made a long possibles bag from the leg of an old pair of Levi's. I filled it with survival supplies: fishhooks and line, bandages, matches, notebook, pencils, two muskrat traps, a roll of waxed linen string, three apples, one large onion, three potatoes, three carrots, a poke of salt, a small canteen of water, three dry biscuits, and one Hershey bar (in case of emergency).
By midnight I had the soles stitched on my moccasins and a long piece of clothesline rope tied onto my blanket roll. I was ready.
My mother had watched my preparations carefully and had suggested enough additional gear to fill a covered wagon. I told her I wasn't going clear to Oregon. "Besides," I said confidently, "you're lucky I'm even taking this stuff. If I really went whole-hog Paiute, I'd have to go naked, 'cept for my moccasins, 'cause they're the only things I have that's real Indian."
Actually, field-boot moccasins were only part Indian; the part where I did the stitchings myself. Momma sort of nodded a vague understanding of my plans. She understood my need to go. Skipping school for important projects like this one wasn't against her personal plans for my success in life. Daddy wasn't too concerned about my schooling either, but he had plenty to say about me going into the desert alone. After two days of stern warnings on everything from mosquitoes to rattlesnakes, he ran out of advice. On Thursday morning he drove me to the west desert and left me there. I later learned that he followed me for the first mile just to see if I was really serious.
My trail led down a steep gully for the first two miles. From that point I climbed up a long side canyon to the bluff above. The desert stretched flat to the horizon. In the distance there appeared a thin dark line that I took to be No Name Creek Canyon. I headed for it with a sure expectation of a powerful adventure. This was my first solo expedition. I had absorbed a great deal of interesting facts about Paiutes, Anasazi, and the flora and fauna of the great plateau deserts of Idaho. As yet this potful of facts had been tested only in my mind, aided by the breezes. I was counting on my instincts to bring me success. My father did not know just how far I planned to hike. Actually, I hadn't realized it myself, and I wondered right off if I could get there and back to the drop-point by Saturday evening.
I had previously spent parts of days alone working on Uncle Bill's farm and several one-night camp outs in the desert by myself. As I hiked along the flat, three days seemed like quite a big chunk of time in this unknown, roadless place. But the land felt good under my new moccasin soles, and each step brought me more and more in touch with the breezes. I walked and tossed between a tiny grip of fear and a peaceful blending with the desert.
Sage grew skimpy and short. Scattered on the flats were countless red-ant mounds, each surrounded by circles of bare earth where the ants had stripped the ground around their little pyramids. As I walked along observing each ant mound, a general pattern began to emerge. The ants had constructed their rounded mounds with one side a bit steeper than the others. This steep slope was almost always facing south, southeast. At the base of the steep side was their entrance hole. I noted in my journal that the few exceptions were due to some natural obstruction on the south side of a mound, like a tall bush or rock that shaded it. From this observation I concluded that the ants depended on the sun to warm their lives each day, especially in the winter when the sun swung low along the southern horizon and the ants were deep below the frost line. The steep exposure sucked up heat, which reduced the grip of winter cold on the mound. I knew that ants remained active all winter. They stored food all summer long in anticipation of the cold times. Now I had discovered they also built heat-efficient housing. I wondered what else these little tribes of desert dwellers could teach me. I thought about the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, and I thought about my parents and our grocery store and the prophet who taught Mormons to store food and fuel for two years ahead.
Somehow, I couldn't relate the ants to Miss Romain's class at school. I wondered whether ants found it necessary to hold classes of instruction for all upcoming antlets in order to maintain their organized and busy mound-building society. Red ants seemed ever ready for a fierce fight, though, so maybe they did have a school of some sort after all.
Finally it struck me that the ants could serve as well as teach me. No longer were those little creatures mere teachers of philosophy, social organization, and architecture. They could also be my professional guides as I hiked. It was so very simple. At any time of the year, whether cloudy or in blizzard, the little mounds, averaged together, faced south. I knew then that I would never lose my way in the land of red ants.
Red ants were also troublesome. The flat stretched on and on and despite my many new thoughts and discoveries, the desert heat began to press down upon me. I had to move faster toward the still-thin rim of No Name Canyon.
The stitching broke slowly at first. Then, stubbing against a rock, the whole right-toe end tore loose and started flopping. My once-pleasant walking on the new soles of my moccasins suddenly became agony as my right foot scooped up sand and stickers and worst of all, red ants. I hobbled on, fighting back the new urge that came strong upon me with each step. Then the big toe on my left foot poked through and I tripped along in double-plop in the middle of nowhere. My feet were fairly tough and the sand didn't bother me too much, but the stickers and red ants soon found the tender spots between my toes. Finally I stopped, sat on my blanket roll, and pondered my dirty feet with little red pricks and bites all over them. They looked wholly unsuited for this terrain. In just four miles of hiking, my Paiute stitching had failed me. Now I was totally un-Paiute and miserable. The canyon rim looked even farther away and I wondered if I had been walking backward or something. I drank some of my water and slumped in the dirt on the big flat in the miserable west desert.
Going back seemed the only way for me. The treasure was far away and the vision was fading. I drowsed in the pungent shade of a sagebrush for a few minutes, and as I lay there, all my thoughts disappeared. The vision was gone. The sky was white in the heat and alkali dirt parched my lips and tongue. The quiet settled in all around me. I could feel the thump of my heart as it performed its duty without any effort or desire on my part.
Slowly, I felt thumpings coming through the ground under me. In time with my heartbeat filtered a rhythmic pounding in the soil. I felt it in the ground around me, but I could hear nothing. In the stillness there came a sense that I wasn't alone out there after all. Was it someone walking? Indians could hear the cavalry coming every time they put their ears to the ground. I just lay there, straining.
In a few minutes, I heard a muffled growl and a spitting noise. It was really close! I sat up and turned toward the sound. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. There was a small mound of sand just behind my shade bush. The bush was blocking my view, so I carefully crawled about three feet and peered over. Less than five feet away was a large hole dug in the ground. It was almost big enough for a boy my size to crawl into. Sloping upward away from the hole was a ramp of dirt tailings that peaked sharply at its top, clearly testifying to the enormous amount of earth moving that had taken place there.
The muffled growls and hissing were coming from the hole. Then a furry rump emerged. It was a badger, a big one, coming out of the den backward!
My curiosity faded as fear swept over me. I was too close. Every boy in southern Idaho knew that badgers didn't back down from a fight. They chased worse than cactus. I was barefoot; no chance to outrun this monster. Right then I wanted someone to appear and rescue me. I almost cried out, "Momma!"
The badger was growling fiercely and hissing. I could hear my heart right between my ears.
Old Badger came out of the earth and backed up the long dirt ramp. He held in his front claws a fist-sized stone, dragging and rolling it along up the ramp. His flat body topped the ramp and pitched awkwardly down the other side. This brought the stone to the top of the mound, but it slipped from his grip and went rolling back down the ramp and into the hole. Old Badger seemed to realize the failure of his attempt to remove the pesky stone. He let out a low growl and thrashed a bush near his nose, where I lay low. Old Badger finally lumbered back into the ground grumbling and hissing with typical badger temperament. I had my chance to slip on my broken moccasins and get out of that place, but I didn't. Old Badger hadn't seen or smelled me on his first trip out of the hole. Maybe I could watch for awhile. I could hear him deep underground almost beneath me, spitting and struggling.
Presently Old Badger's rump emerged and once again he backed up the dirt ramp, pulling the stone along. Once again he backed his flat body over the crest and lost his grip on the stone. It rolled back down the hole. Old Badger spat out a whole string of unique sounds and followed the path of the stone back into the ground.
The badger and the stone repeated the same dance over and over again until I became weary of watching. His situation seemed hopeless, with the ready-made ramp and track for that stone to roll back on. His only hope was to keep a hold on the stone. This he seemed unable to do once his body tipped over the crest of the dirt mound. I wanted to crawl over and give him a hand.
Then, on about the fourteenth attempt, Old Badger held onto the stone and pulled it over the crest. It tumbled down the back side away from the hole. Old Badger just sat there and rested for awhile. The growling and hissing stopped. He seemed really pleased for a moment.
Then I got nervous. So taken was I by the drama of the badger and the stone that I forgot how dangerous badgers were and how very, very close my nose was to his. The sudden tension I felt must have caused a movement or a vibration that reached the senses of Old Badger. He rose up and our eyes met. His nose sniffed me out, but he didn't bristle. I almost fainted. If he chased me, he would catch me. I knew it. We stared at each other for a long moment. Old Badger made the first move. Without any show of anger or bluff he gave me a nod, a last blink, and slipped smoothly down the ramp into his new den. I could feel him digging new ground below me. Then I realized that my heart had stopped pounding and I felt warm, at ease, and somehow very privileged.
I slipped on my torn moccasins, picked up my gear, and started to leave. I glanced back at the hole and noticed the stone the badger had struggled with so long. It was cleaner and smoother than the rough native lava of the area. I stepped quickly over to the dirt mound, picked up the stone, and walked quickly away from the badger's den. To my surprise it turned out to be a broken half of a well-crafted Indian mano, or handstone. I could smell Old Badger on it. I held it in my hand for a long time before slipping it reverently into my possibles bag. I spit right into the breeze and pointed my tattered toes westward toward the ever thickening black line of No Name Canyon. I plopped along for almost a mile before realizing that my despair and give-up-itis was completely gone. My feet still suffered from the loose stitchings in my moccasins, but not unbearably as before. What had happened? What had Old Badger done to make such a change in the way I felt in this harsh and endless desert? Had I been taught by an animal? Truly this had happened, and a surge of genuine toughness flowed through my whole body. I was Badger Clan.CHAPTER 2
The Finest Wickiup
It took all day to cut the willows, haul bundles of long dry grass to the site, and carefully and with much love ply the grass in neat layers to form our first wickiup. Bob Burnham and I had completed the finest grass-thatched shelter ever made by fourteen-year-olds! The moment demanded a celebration. Bob jumped on his horse and sped away to retrieve two ducks from our river camp. We would eat a feast in the new shelter.
Inside the wickiup, I tended a small fire and slowly built it up so a hot bed of cooking coals would be ready when Bob returned. We had placed all our gear inside and there was still plenty of room for two to stretch out on each side of the firepit. Outside, patches of snow cooled the breezes, but none of it reached through the thick grass matting of the structure. I felt secure and safe. I stretched, placed a few more sticks on the fire, closed my eyes — and dozed.
A brisk crackling in my ears woke me and immediately burning bits of grass fell all over me. Our beautiful wickiup burst into brilliant light. I was lying at the back and the doorway was aflame as well as the whole front slope clear to the top. My heart jumped and I plunged headfirst right through the side of our carefully and lovingly laid wickiup wall. I rolled into a snow patch, slapping and yelling at burning bits of my clothes and hair.
It only took seconds for the wickiup to reach a peak of flame and heat enough to ruin most of our survival gear. My bow and quiver of arrows were toast. Our blankets and extra clothes were singed through. In the distance I saw Bob riding hard, with the ducks flopping from his belt. I stood helpless as he pulled up, breathless and wide-eyed. "Still want to celebrate?" I asked lamely.
One of the first outdoor skills a person must learn is how to construct an adequate shelter. He must know what type of shelter is most appropriate for a given situation and understand that the techniques used for building it depend upon need and time. Most shelters should be built according to a few basic specifications; however, special circumstances such as rain or snowstorms or extremely cold weather may dictate any kind of makeshift protection that can be built in a hurry. Nevertheless, after a degree of protection has been achieved, a semipermanent shelter should be constructed to assure safety in the event that conditions get worse.
Building for survival requires more than a minimum of effort and calls for sound planning. Most essential to this planning is the selection of a campsite. A good campsite provides the following necessities: Protection from wind and storms.
* Protection from flash floods, rock falls, high tide.
* Freedom from poisonous plants, insect pests (ants, mosquitoes, fleas), and harmful animals.
* Level ground for a bed and fireplace.
* Access to materials for making a shelter and a bed.
* Adequate firewood.
* Access to food sources and drinking water.
Excerpted from Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen. Copyright © 1997 Larry Dean Olsen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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