I was 14 years old and reading Walden. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I said to my parents:
This high school thing isn’t working for me, I need to do something different. I’m going to explore the wilderness.
They offered no argument and zero debate. Instead, they went about helping me figure out how to make it happen. My mother and father saw that I was suffering during my Freshman year. I found prescriptive education stifling, evidenced by my (possibly pretentious) interest in 19th-century transcendentalism. The strict compartmentalization of conventional classrooms felt painful. Moreover, I was consistently bullied and struggled socially.
But in nature, there was no edict limiting what I could explore and who I could learn from. There were no fluorescent lights pushing my face into a desk. And no one to tease me when I didn’t know the latest band or wasn’t a star Sportsball player.
Eventually, I discovered Forest Craft. My goal: learn the skills that bring me closer to the Wild. My family couldn’t afford to send me to a class across the country or buy books on the subject. Yet what they lacked in financial resources they more than made up for in love and encouragement.
Because Forest Craft is both so deep and so broad, it can be a challenge to learn without teachers. There were no outdoor homeschool programs that I knew of. This was long before bushcraft videos on YouTube. All I had was my bike and a library card.
That process of self-education often proved more profound than answers from a ready-made curriculum. Eventually, I helped assemble a growing community of like-minded folks who shared an appreciation for the natural world. Some also left high school with the same vision. We made primitive shelters, surviving the elements with no modern gear. We foraged through seasons of wild foods. We tracked the local bears, getting to know them like they were part of our own village. Together we learned challenging and epic lessons from the wilderness.
Conventional education failed to provide me with healthy social connections, wilder freedom, and deeper roots. My journey may have started out inspired by Thoreau’s solitary rantings by Walden Pond, but with the support of my big Italian Family, we evolved into a village. And, at some point along the way, we started to call it Trackers. Twenty-eight years later, I feel privileged to be part of that community with our staff and the families we serve.
I know there is a better way for children to grow and learn than the prescriptive education forced upon us. My own children learn through their connection to nature and the freedom it brings. Their “home school days” are often spent wandering the forest, sometimes without an adult. They talk about plants and animals in those woods like they are old friends. And they’re surrounded by more than just teachers, they have mentors who I consider their extended family.
That’s the goal of all our year-round programs, from our Homeschool Outdoor Program to our Weekend Apprenticeships: Give every kid a connection that goes beyond school. Help them find a vision that empowers many generations beyond their own adventures in learning.
See you in the woods,
Trackers Earth, Founder
Humans can be a healthy part of the natural world in ways that increase biodiversity for wildlife. While the proper practices of Bushcraft often caretake for the land, Leave No Trace is meant to lessen our impact, it is not meant to steward it.
Of course, varying levels of leaving no trace prove vital for certain areas that see dramatic human impact and recreation—such as many of our national and public parks. Yet, depending on the area, living with the land through seasonal rounds and thoughtful harvest can be beneficial for local flora and fauna.
A true Bushcraft practitioner does not act solely for their own survival. Every act of harvesting and crafting must also tend to the wild and more-than-human-world. For example, burning small diameter, wild harvested firewood (for camp and cooking fires) can decrease fuel loads and fuel ladders in specific areas. This in turn significantly decreases wildfire danger. Properly harvesting/coppicing willow shoots for basketry increases density for bird habitat. And harvesting invasive species for food, such as purple varnish clams, carp, and Japanese knotweed, reopens territory for native species.
When visiting areas where varying degrees of leave no trace is essential, such as heavily used recreation and public areas, awareness-based Bushcraft skills from tracking and bird language (the art of identifying animal movements based on the mapped sequence of multiple bird calls and alarms), are also beneficial in truly getting to know such places. Also, Bushcraft of Stewardship teaches us to travel through the land as softly as possible. You learn to walk in a way where you leave barely any tracks. Silence and deliberate movement is a strategy of survival and Bushcraft, especially minimizing the disturbance of songbirds to not interrupt their feeding and baseline routines. As you become less of a disruption to the immediate avian environment, you are seen as less of a foreign invader by all wildlife (they often adjust their movements based on bird alarms). As a result, you see more animals wherever you go.
Finally, there is even greater outdoor educational value with truly hands-on wilderness skills. When we are profoundly dependent on what is often viewed as “wild” for our shelter, water, fire, and food, this fosters communal, social, and even familial relationships with the more-than-human world. Such humbling connections can prove difficult to replicate when we only perceive nature as a recreational luxury and privilege. Putting nature ONLY in parks is what possibly leads to the blithe social indifference towards the wilderness, an attitude so pervasive in the modern world where every convenience can be ordered online.
Through our everyday teaching at Trackers Earth, while educating thousands of children and adults each year, we observe the stewardship and educational value of Bushcraft. Bringing what is wild back into our everyday lives helps us remember the following: we must preserve the wilderness we have left, but we also must make what has once been domesticated, wild once again.
At Trackers Earth, all weather is good weather. We believe encouraging resiliency in all kinds of weather teaches kids how to face challenges throughout their lives.
Trackers takes to the water! Our Mariners Apprentices float the river. Fishing, campfire cooking, and overnighting on islands and shores.
Ever wonder what Trackers Archery Camps are like? Josh, our Archery Coordinator, shares his story with kids, the forest, and bows and arrows.
As a primitive skills instructor, I spend a lot of time around fire. I like to think I have a special relationship with fire. I know for a fact I have spent more time in front of fires than in front of a television. Many times I have watched people try, yet fail, to build an adequate fire. In my opinion, building, lighting, and maintaining a fire should be taught in every elementary school. Like math.
Fire is a necessity for wilderness survival and primitive living. Yet of all the outdoor skills, building a proper fire structure is one of the most overlooked. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you learn for making fire–whether you’re using bow-drill, flint and steel, fire piston or a Bic lighter–if you don’t have a proper fire structure to ignite, you will probably end up cold, wet, and miserable.
Fire needs three things to exist: heat, oxygen, and fuel. If you remove any of these from the equation, fire will cease. A fire that is burning properly will be warm, provide good light, and be nearly smokeless.
In fire building, material selection is everything. As with any primitive skill, if you take the time to select ideal materials you will be rewarded by saving energy during the crafting process.
Here are a few tips on gathering wood:
Dry wood is key. Whenever possible, I gather wood that is not on the ground. When wood lays on the ground it absorbs moisture and is harder to get burning. I choose dead branches off live trees or dead saplings, and I also collect branches that have fallen off trees and gotten hung up in the forest understory. Remember to keep it dead and dry.
You don’t just want to gather wood willy-nilly, however. There is a method to collecting that trumps all others.
Fire ring. If you have a fire ring available, use it. If not, you need to construct a fire ring to contain your fire. A ring of large rocks will do the trick. If rocks aren’t available and local laws allow, dig a small depression in the ground about two feet wide and six inches deep. Build the fire in the depression to keep it contained.
Clear the space. It’s very important to clear away any and all debris near your fire ring that your fire might catch on for about 10 feet around. Our goal is to make a small fire, not burn the woods down! There’s an ancient saying: ”You can build a man a fire and he will be warm for a little while, or you can light a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life!”
Teepee Structure. One of the most basic and functional ways to start your fire is to build a teepee structure. In this shape, each layer of the fire is responsible for igniting the layer on top of it. When built well, it will even shed water! If the outer layer gets rained on, it will protect and keep dry the core of the structure.
Personally, I try and keep my fires as small as possible. Smaller fires are easier to manage and eat less wood.
Now that you know the nuts and bolts of building a proper fire structure, it’s time to put it into practice. Like any new skill, it is important that you practice, and a great way to practice is the “one-match fire challenge”. The challenge is exactly what it sounds like: build a fire structure that you can light with one match. If you’ve done everything right, from tinder collection all the way through construction of the fire structure, you should have no problem getting it to light!
You will get the most dynamic practice by building and lighting fires in every season and all weather conditions.
Want to give yourself an even bigger challenge? Gather, construct, build, and light a fire in 5 minutes or less.
This is one of those skills that can truly save your life one day. Practice it, perfect it and pass it on.
Editor’s Note The Evil Dr. Dice is the arch-nemesis of our Secret Agent Academy camp and Lead Counselor of our Evil Secret Agent Academy camp. Though he bears a striking resemblance to our founder, Tony Deis, he is in no way the same person or even an evil doppelgänger created by a transporter accident on the Starship Potemkin.
Greetings from The Evil Dr. Dice. As a yearly tradition in the TrackersVerse, they are contractually obligated to let me write a blog reviewing their Winter Break Camps. I laugh maniacally at the lengths Trackers will go to maintain my A-List star power. Let’s get started…
First off, Trackers Winter Break Camp is a terrible idea unto itself. Most of their programs take place out-of-doors, forcing parents to dress their kids for the cold weather. Which sounds like a lot of work. I recommend choosing something indoors, such as leaving them at the mall unattended.
Aside from the loathsome fact that outdoor skills camps show children how to survive the future apocalyptic landscape where I rule, learning “wilderness survival” also innately teaches the youths that we humans are dependent on Nature—a thoroughly horrible prospect for any parent. We can’t have kids questioning the cozy, lulling four walls of school, or wondering why we screwed up the planet’s biodiversity. Don’t complicate your modern familial domestic bliss with an anthropological discourse through the lens of evolutionary biology and ecology. Instead, get them an Xbox.
Many camps provide holiday cheer through handcrafted decor, scrumptious campfire cooked foods, and even neighborhood singing and goodwill*. Unfortunately, such creative adventures detract from global corporate consumerism and consumption. And let’s face it, that’s bad for the economy. Do you want to be responsible for a new recession (even though you’re not a hedge fund manager)? Well, you will be if you let your kid hand-make that holiday wreath.
I once heard that reading Harry Potter or playing Dungeons & Dragons can make children super evil. I got really excited about this prospect, but then I learned it was only a debunked theory made-up by 1980s fundamentalist groups who were probably jealous because their fictional universe was less cool than that of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Unfortunately, role-playing camps build character (literally and figuratively). So adventures of imagination with Troll Markets and Solstice Celebrations help children practice skills of emotional resiliency, making them less compliant for my impending world domination (or the 2020 elections). Thumbs down.
I have mixed emotions about this one. Teaching kids how to use projectile weapons (excuse me, hunting tools), that’s awesome! Teaching them how to use those same tools responsibly, well, that just makes them less likely to follow orders in my minion army. The same goes for Paintball Camp.
Finally, every Winter Break, it’s become a yearly tradition that I make some sort of super freeze ray to ice over something important: the city, the Clinton Street Bike Boulevard, Pip’s Donuts. And every time I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and their hippie-dippy instructors at the Trackers Secret Agent Academy. Consequently, I have some feelings.
So this year, after talking with my therapist, I’ve decided not to focus on an external freeze. Instead, I’m searching my soul for an intrinsic chilling of my heart. My plan? Using evil science, I shall mutate myself into a snow villain called The Evil Dr. ICE. A persona through which I can process my own grief for so many failed attempts at world domination. Plus, I’ll get cool ice ray powers.
Criminy, you got me monologuing about my plans! Just like my therapist. Anyways, forget everything I just wrote… unless you want a visit from the wooly mammoth riding minions of the Evil Dr. Ice.
The Evil Dr. Dice
Dictator of Small Bavarian City State
Cat Stevens Superfan