This past week I had the opportunity to join a small group of my classmates on a voluntary, 3-day walkabout. A walkabout is a semi-survival situation in which the group is traveling, hopefully towards rescue, as opposed to setting up camp in one location and waiting for rescue to come to you.
While this wasn’t meant to be a full survival situation, is was set up as more of a day hike gone wrong kind of scenario. We were told to bring only a day pack, with no sleeping gear, and a maximum 1 liter container of food. We would attempt to eat off the land as much as possible.
It all began on Tuesday morning, when our group of 12 (3 instructors and 9 students) were driven about an hour away from the school and dropped at the end of a forest service road.
As we walked, the instructors would point out different wild edible plants, which we would pick and either eat on the spot or put in our “gathering bags” for a communal dinner later that evening. We soon left the trail and headed off into the heavy brush, bushwalking our way across the landscape. After a few hours of the hairiest hiking I’d ever encountered we made it to a beautiful canyon with a small river. We took a break there to gather some more food, nap, and a few of us tried our hand at fishing with just a line and a lure.
We spent the rest of the afternoon bushwalking across creeks, over fallen trees, through Devil’s Club, Blackberry, and Salmonberry with intermittent rain. We continued learning about and picking wild greens, and were treated to animal sign like a River Otter scent mind by a creek, deer bed sites, a Bear cambium feeding site, and fresh Mountain Lion tracks! We finally made camp near a bog and its outflowing creek in late afternoon as a wet, exhausted and sore bunch.
We chose to build a group shelter for all of us, rather than individually. The bed was made up of layers of hemlock branches, moss and sword fern fronds. The roof was a patchwork of small tarps we brought, and used paracord to string them up to nearby trees. We were lucky to have a large fallen tree which we could use as a windbreak, and attached the low side of our tarp roof to it.
As we built the shelter other students worked on getting a fire going, and stringing some tarps over so we could enjoy it without being rained on. We all emptied our gather bags of edible greens into a pot, added some yummy dressing, salt and pepper and feasted on the bounty of the abundant land we had crossed. The salad included yummy greens like Stinging Nettle, Daisy greens, Dandelion greens and flowers, Salmonberry flowers, Siberian Miner’s Lettuce, Plantain, Fiddle heads of Lady Fern, Dock, and Weavers. We also made up a broth of Nettle to give us something to warm our bellies for bed.
We slept that night in a relatively dry manner. Some of us colder than others depending on how much we decided to push ourselves. A few students even foregoing the acceptable wool blanket we were aloud to bring. I was warm and dry enough, but the bed was lumpy and uncomfortable, so I didn’t sleep much.
The morning brought us together again around the fire, enjoying a break in the weather and some sunshine, sharing stories of our night, which apparently included one student’s account of watching a large Mountain Lion stalk through our camp, not 7 feet from him!
While enjoying the warmth of the morning fire, our instructor’s let us know we would stay at this camp another night, and that we could spend the day doing whatever called to us, whether that be improving on our shelter, gather edible plants, fishing in the bog, or catching up on some sleep. I chose to try my hand at fishing, eager to provide and enjoy some meat with my little tribe.
We hiked over to the bog, which was absolutely spectacular! Made up of vegetation that seemingly floats over the top of the water, with a large area of surface water in the middle, it was quite a marvel to walk about its squishy shore. A few of us broke out our fishing line and lures and practiced the finer points of hand line fishing, eager to catch a Trout. A couple of the instructors were with us and gave great instruction and coaching to help us improve and increase our success rate. After some frustrating attempts, I finally started to find my groove and actually caught a fish! I cast a few more times and caught a few more fish, 4 in total! I hadn’t caught a fish since I was a kid, and here I am, in a semi-survival situation, and I discover I can actually harvest meat for my tribe!
I then collected all of the fish our group had caught and headed back to camp to clean and prepare them for dinner. After settling down by the fire with a flat rock to process the fish on, I was joined by Leah, a fellow student, who had spent the day collecting a ton of Cattails. We worked side by side, each preparing our offering for the evening’s meal.
Once done with food prep, I joined a group of students in upgrading our shelter and bed. Personally, I added more hemlock boughs and armloads of moss to the uneven spots of our bed, giving it more spring and a nice flat place to lay our weary bodies. We also chose to build a small fire near the opening of our shelter, and built a heat reflector (wall of branches) to reflect as much of the heat as possible into our shelter.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky we filled a pot with water, fish, cattails, and some greens to create a delicious and filling stew, which we all enjoyed around the fire as we told our stories.
Telling stories around the fire has always been one of my favorite ways to spend my evenings, and these opportunities on this trip where no different. I loved getting to know my small tribe better, and sharing myself in ways I hadn’t previously. We laughed quite a bit, enjoying the boost of energy and spirits a full belly of stew gave us.
I went to bed considerably warmer than the previous night, with the toasty fire keeping my feet and legs heated. My bed was flat, and had a little cushion to it. It wasn’t plush, but it wasn’t far from it. The rain returned early in the morning, still a few hours before dawn. Our group kept the fire going through the night, and kept it from being drowned out by the rain.
I awoke just after the first glimpse of light peeked into the sky, and the birds were singing their new day song. Taking my place by the fire to keep it fed and putting out heat for my slumbering compatriots.
After we were all awake, our instructors asked us to break down camp and scout our beds and fires, so no one would know we had been there. We packed our things, said goodbye to this wonderful place that had held us for a time, and were hiking across the bog within 30 minutes. The instructors had prepared us that this day would involve a lot of hiking. We had a long way to go to get back to the school land.
We alternated between forest roads, hiking trails, and bushwhacking, for hours upon hours. Around midday we stopped for rest at Cherry Falls, a stunningly beautiful waterfall that many locals enjoy hiking to. Some of us explored the area, others just sat and took in the beauty of the falls, and many of us took an opportunity to nap in the sunshine. Finally, our instructors called us back and we set off for the final leg of our journey. The literal home stretch.
After another couple hours winding through the thick forest and its underbrush, we finally made it back to the school and a warm reception from the rest of our class. They had even gone as far to cook a feast for us to welcome us home. We sat around eating delicious, calorie rich food we didn’t have to harvest ourselves, and told our stories of the week.
Looking back on the experience, I feel like I’ve deepened my connection to the land further. I’ve gone into the woods, asking to be sustained by its literal fruits, and found myself in a beautiful flow-like experience. I felt closer to my ancestors and how they lived. Basically, I just felt closer, to the land, to my fellow tribespeople, and to myself. I learned a ton about edible plants. Amazing how much information you can retain when your dinner relies on it! One of the main reasons I went on this trip was to push my limits a bit, and get uncomfortable for awhile, so I can expand that comfort zone. I was successful, and that expanded level of comfort has brought me a new level of intimacy with the world.