Terra’s Experience In The Winter Skills Five Day Class

Hello, my name is Terra. I started out as just a regular hiker and camper who happened to be a voracious reader. This reading led me to new ways to experience nature on a deeper level. I started to read about edible plants, then medicinal herbs. That soon led me to bushcraft. I began finding knowledgeable people on youtube who shared their knowledge about these subjects.

Gradually I weaved primitive skills into my modern camping outings. Modern camping with the flashy gear and protein bars is great and all, but I’ve discovered that integrating some techniques of our ancestors is more enriching because it allows me to connect with them better and my hiking pack is much lighter when I strive for minimalism. The more knowledge I gain, the deeper I want to understand. But there is only so much reading you can do before you need to put these skills to technical use.

Which is why I decided to attend Maine Primitive Skills School.

I attended the Winter Skills Five Day course. Unfortunately due to work I missed one day. Despite that, Michael Douglas, the instructor, made time in his busy schedule to come and pick me up at the bus station so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi.

I arrived at a cozy classroom containing a wood stove and a student dormitory above. Seven people had come to this five day course. Feeling anxious and socially awkward, I hung back at first and observed. However my curiosity about these people were peaked. Typically most humans tend to talk about other people. That’s just the way it is. However my new fellow classmates were passionately discussing concepts such as herbalism, birds, shelter building strategies and even how earthworms aren’t native to America. It’s not hard relating to people with similar interests and I was soon discussing trees with my new classmates.

It was the second day for them, and the first day for me. On that day, the class was about strap drill friction fire technique. I enjoyed the bow drill and I was curious about the madness with a strap drill. I watched as Michael demonstrated for us and noticed the strange shape of the fire boards. They were rectangular blocks with a lip jutting out and I assumed he was just recycling old, misshapen wood.

The fire board is pinched between the knees, as a mouthpiece placed between your teeth holds a spindle in place. Flexing your neck and jaw muscles, you apply pressure downward on the mouthpiece, while your hands work a rope to spin the spindle to generate an ember. It looked uncomfortable and I wondered why a person would subject the harsh sensation of a block of wood vibrating between the teeth when theres a perfectly good technique with the bow drill.

It turns out there’s a method to the madness. He explained that this was a technique developed by the Inuit. What I assumed was scrap wood being recycled as fire boards was actually a well thought out design. By pinching the board between the knees, the Inuit kept it off the snow, preventing moisture from killing any chance of getting an ember. The little shelf that was carved in the fire board caught the ember and prevented it from falling into the snow. The Inuit are a brilliant and resourceful people.

After some practice of the motions and figuring out the right amount of pressure to bare down on the spindle I managed to create a couple of embers. Now I love the strap drill even more than the bow drill.

That night, I unrolled my sleeping bag and slept on the floor in the upstairs dormitory. There were bunk beds but since I was the late comer I wasn’t going to make anyone give up their bed especially since one of my mutant super powers is the ability to sleep comfortably on any surface. I know, I should sign up and join the X-men with that super power. But it does come in handy with all the camping I do.

How many of you love your alarm clocks? I don’t know about you, but I loathe being jolted out of bed in a dazed panic and smacking the snooze button. It’s not exactly an ideal start to the day, that slight sense of urgency. I like waking up gradually and peacefully with enough time to contemplate your new day. It’s as if Michael read my mind! The next morning, Professor Xavier here, woke us by singing jubilantly. What an interesting difference that makes. We all woke up smiling and laughing. Starting the day with some lovely music carries that positivity throughout the day very well.

This brings me to the first aspect about the Maine Primitive Skills School, which is the atmosphere and community. I do my best not to generalize as I understand that life isn’t black and white. You’re experience is unique and could be different from mine. People have minds of their own and there might be a bad egg or two in your experience. But I have a feeling that if you already have an interest in some aspect of nature, whether it be flora, fauna, minerals or the universe, you’ll find a comrade or two. The individuals I met are are some amazing people. For the sake of their privacy I won’t use real names but golly gee I just have to share their actions.

My knots and wrapping skills are still in their infancy and so I struggled to keep up at times. A couple, I’ll call them Mr. D and Mrs. B took some of their precious time to come to my aid. Brimming with enthusiasm, they taught me most important three knots needed for bushcraft. I know they will both become amazing teachers, they’re patience is beautiful and their zest for learning is contagious.

And it didn’t end with just those two lovely individuals, but the others students would come together to help bring me up to speed by showing me some great technique’s or by simply giving some wonderful advice. They were all so generous in sharing knowledge. Thank you all so much for enlivening my experience and helping me. Someday I will be able to help new students too, and I hope I do so with the same welcoming generosity and patience as you all showed me.

Naturally, this school attracts nature nerds. And these nature nerds come from varying backgrounds. Some are what you’d expect. The earth loving hippies, herbalists, the everyday campers and hunters, nurses. And few hardened military men. With some of these personalities being total opposites, one might assume cliques to develop and perhaps some opposing egos to clash. Amazingly, the ideal opposite happened. Not only were my fellow classmates mature, they valued each other’s different point of views and respected different beliefs. This community is mighty. They realized that both logical, creative and spiritual minds are needed and we were able to come together as a focused, laughing, effective and delightful group who accomplished many tasks.

Michael Douglas consciously nurtures an environment that creates positivity and allows for a growth spurt in learning. A rule is in place that asks those who argue or want to discuss politics take it outside to the end of the driveway. That way it’s not distracting to those focused on learning and it doesn’t infect others with heated emotions. We’re social animals, we psychologically pick up on anger or sadness from other people. It’s a breath of fresh air not to listen to politics and to just focus on how our ancestors lived with the land.

Within the classroom itself are items to help stir curiosity in an active mind. There are pamphlets about upcoming classes and events, naturalist posters about wildlife in Maine, and my favorite, an extensive library upstairs where a curious student can find out more about botany, wildlife, insects, weather, tracking, primitive skills, diseases and the human body works, etc. Information can be gleaned from Michael and his students or from books in your downtime. Even the epic composting outhouses have facts about birds hung up next to giant bottles of hand sanitizer.  

There are also barrels containing crafting materials such as wood waiting to be carved, saplings, strips of inner bark to make cordage with. There’s a gorgeous carving of a heron in cattail reeds carved by his son and baskets made from tree bark. There is so much to learn and to make. And as long as you’re respectful, students are encouraged to venture out onto his forested property to learn about the environment directly. I’m most interested in the trees which he has a great diversity of. Other students managed to meet a grouse or a porcupine. For the curious mind, Maine Primitive Skills School is a wonderland of learning and crafting.

Which leads me to aspect two about Maine Primitive Skills School. The head instructor and heart of the school itself, Michael Douglas.

My one and only complaint is that there’s not enough hours in a day! Mr. Douglas holds a wealth of knowledge and there’s only so much time. And yet he’s still humble in he admits that he doesn’t know everything and he has a lot to learn from his students too. There are good teachers. And then there are legendary teachers. I’m pretty sure Michael fits in legendary teacher status. Like Gandolf or Yoda. He patiently guides and instructs and knows when it is time to move on. He teaches what is in the curriculum, but then he takes it one step further and teaches why, when and how to apply that knowledge.

Mr. Douglas practices what he preaches in teaching his students. He has the awareness to know when he is needed, and when experience is needed. We can all listen to Mr. Douglas’s instruction for hours, and many of us will have gained a cornucopia of knowledge. But as humans, living the actual experience can leave longer lasting impacts and teach us more thoroughly. Michael understands this and he seems to know when its a good time to step away and let us learn through experience.

 One of the students, I’ll call him Mr. P, decided to teach a class on pruning and taking care of cultivated fruit trees. Michael stepped back and allowed Mr. P to make this class his very own. By doing so, Mr. P learned how to establish a flow of instruction, and he learned how to guide and interact with us when it was our turn to put his theory to practice. I enjoyed Mr. P’s class and I can definitely see Mr. P reaching legendary teacher status soon too.

The third aspect I want to talk about is the curriculum itself, The Winter Skills Five Day Course. As Michael says, winter survival is a different personality from summer. It is much tougher, and your priorities are reconstructed. The order of your needs in summer is as follows. Fire, so you can boil your water to drink safely. Water. Shelter. Food.

In winter your first priorities are preparedness, and if you weren’t able to prepare then mental attitude. The preparedness in that you have enough of the right clothing and footwear with you and you have previously learned the skills needed to work through the winter. Your first task is your shelter from the wind and precipitation. Next is your fire, and then water and food. The Winter Five Day is set up in much of the same way.

The first classes were about shelter. Building a snow quinzhee and then setting up tarp shelters. While I had missed the first day, I did get to see their quinzhee snow shelters. Mounds of piled snow with a sleeping chamber dug out and fir boughs nested inside to insulate against the cold. I was able to join in on the second day of tarp set up and pointers to finding ideal locations in the woods to construct your camp and then the strap drill fire exercise.

The third day we went over trees and their winter uses. Elm is the best tree to make snowshoes with thanks to its flexibility and durability. Spruce is the best tree to use to insulate you from the icy ground thanks to its overall round shape which produces its loft. Ash has a high BTU and will even burn well while green. The tannins in oak create a great antimicrobial wash and can be used on windburned and sun burned skin. Gosh I love trees so much! Unlike most plants, trees are still available to use in winter.

After taking notes in class, we went outside to visit some cedar trees. We tasted cedar’s medicine, thujone and compared it to the taste of juniper. Then, those who had the rubber footwear braved crossing ankle deep icy waters to harvest some willow saplings for our snowshoes.

Creating snowshoes is part of the preparedness. Constructing improvised snowshoes opens you up to traveling and gathering resources. Without them, you are sinking through snow wasting precious energy. Mr. Douglas thoroughly went over which sapling species are best to use and the steps in constructing the snowshoes. Since I struggled at the beginning I wasn’t able to finish mine in time. But I did learn valuable wrapping techniques and tricks with using my knife to shape wood. These techniques I will carry with me for the rest of my life and will use again soon.

The last on the winter hierarchy of list is food. The remaining couple of days Michael went over tracking and traps. The first hour was a lecture and note taking in the class and then we went outside to have some fun. We were split into groups of three. Two of us would wait for two minutes while a third person set off into the woods to create a story. The two waiting people would then follow the tracks and try to figure out the story.

Mr. T was the first of our three person group to go. We gave him two minutes and then I gave a loon call to let him know that his time was up. We followed his tracks through the hardened snow, trying to figure out what was going on with his story. We came across a spot where we noticed he had planted his feet side by side, and wondered if perhaps he had spied something through the trees. Peering through the forest we saw nothing of interest. Instead we noticed a fresh hemlock branch had been broken off and was laying on the ground near where his feet had been. Other dried yet dead branches had been broken off and there was a trail of these broken branches following his tracks. His story was simple. Mr. T was just a person out gathering kindling to start a fire with. With this being my first time tracking, I greatly appreciated the simplicity.

I was up next. I hurried into the woods, pretending to wander and gathering dead sticks. When I had enough, I bent down and arranged the sticks in the snow so that they shaped a unicorn head. I arranged it so the horn pointed in the direction I went. While I was hiding, I overheard my team members declare “look, this is intentional. Here’s some hand prints, this is where she fell. She must be panicked and lost.” They did an awesome job figuring out the state of the character I played.

Mr. P went last. His character was a fugitive and he was a challenge to track. Mr. P walked along bare logs and would leap to another log to not leave any tracks. When he had to move on the ground, he made sure to jump and place a foot beneath some foliage to help camouflage his tracks. I wish he was caught on camera doing this, because at one point the tracks stopped for a longer than usual span. Somehow he placed his tracks right against the base on the other side of a tree and took another flying step to again, land his foot under some low hanging branches. Impressive, considering the cat like contortions he had to do to achieve this trick. Then again who knows? With his X-man powers, maybe he can just move through trees like a ghost. We searched that spot for what must have been five minutes; only when we shifted our perspective did the track become visible again thanks the altered lighting. We finally found Mr. P relaxing in a chair with a grin on his face.

This fun game taught me to not walk in the footprints in case I need go back and review clues. It taught me that tracks aren’t the only clues, and to look for other signs such as freshly snapped branches or bark scrapings. It taught me to try to get into the mindset of the person or animal I’m trailing such as taking the path of least resistance. I learned to ask what would I do if I was trying to avoid being tracked and analyze the environment. Playing outside can be a very educational tool for adults too.

I really enjoy how his classes are constructed. The classroom gives us a place where we can listen and write down notes as a basis. Then Michael leads us outside so that we can expand upon that knowledge and discover how to do these skills ourselves. Afterwards we come back inside to go over what worked and how we could do better. It is a simple yet effected method of learning.

Our last night of Winter Skills Five Day course had arrived and we decided to do something special. Mr. Douglas had us set up a winter camp which we could spend the night in if we chose to. We were under a ticking time crunch and had to complete this assessment before darkness set in. We spaced out our group and searched the forest for an ideal spot. After checking overhead for dangerous widow makers, we found a flat area where the trees gave us enough space to set up two sleeping platforms with a fireplace. Everyone got to work. Some were gathering kindling, and some were working on setting up the shelter.

I wanted to help everyone with everything. And somehow I managed to. First I made some trips in gathering kindling and tinder. Then I skipped over to the shelter builders for some additional learning in using toggles to use in setting up the tarps. I followed along in tightening some lines, then made a clove hitch on a stick and buried it to tighten the backside of a tarp corner. By doing that, it connects the back of the tarp to the ground and prevents wind from blowing under.

Because I am still a little awkward in working with knots, I realized that if this had been a real survival event, it would have been best to leave the shelter set up to those with quick fingers. But I could contribute to this community by quickly getting some chores done. Again if this had been a real scenario I would be using an axe to process firewood. But since we were on Michael’s property we were allowed to use his already chopped firewood.

Feeling energetic, I took one of the sleds and jogged up to the wood shed for a load of firewood. I made a handful of trips to bring the firewood to camp while others stacked it and set up more tarps to block the wind. A request was made to block the wind from entering the sides of our tarps. Yes! Bring it on! I jumped in with a shovel and began piling up snow to insulate the sides. I noticed a very cool lady using a ferro rod to start the fire and I brought her some cattail fluff and dried oak leaves. Time was ticking and the goal was we needed to establish a camp and have water boiled by the time Michael came back. I had my gear hanging from a nearby tree limb and offered my pot so that another person could get water boiling. Thanks to many people working together, by the time Michael came back everything was set up and our water had been boiling with time to spare. Cowabunga dude!

I am so happy I was able to take part in a little bit of everything. However I can see that if I start to lose focus, that could slow down my team. Next time I will have to be more strict in prioritizing my tasks, choosing ones I am most efficient in.

Before this, the latest I had camped in the season was in November. This was a whole new and wonderful experience. Kneeling onto the boughs of balsam fir, I thought back to my bed back at home: and how it never smells as amazing as this! That comforting scent of balsam fir invigorates and yet at the same time soothes. Our campfire was ablaze and we all gathered around. Michael’s son thoughtfully played guitar for us and a few harvested coals from the fire to burn into wood to make bowls and spoons. To get to know one another better, we took turns asking and answering questions. The questions were usually dynamic and thought provoking and every ones answers were just as meaningful. It was a very special moment, getting to know these people on a deeper level, and I realized I was going to miss them. Yes, I know. I’m such a sap.

Six of us decided to brave the dropping temperatures and sleep outside that night. In order to do so safely, the fire needed to be continuously fueled, so we took fire shifts. Four of us slept while two tended to the fire. I settled down into my 0 degree sleeping bag atop of the fir boughs and felt comforted knowing that we would be taken care of by those on first fire duty. They did a good job keeping the fire healthy because when I was awakened for my turn, I was at a comfortable temperature within my sleeping bag. It had gone down to 13 degrees when Mrs. L and I tended the fire from midnight until 3am. Our faces and hands were warmed by the campfire’s glow and we occasionally we heard a coyote howl in the distance.

The last day of the class was figure 4 deadfall traps, a recap of everything we learned, and closing comments. We recycled what remained of the willow saplings from snowshoe making and delicately put the pieces together. Many of these traps caught human hands. I apologize to other Mr. P for accidentally setting off his trap not once, but twice by shifting too close. That was just me testing it to make sure it worked. We know for certain now!

A lot can happen in five days. It was my first time doing so many things such as sleeping outside in winter, crafting snowshoes, tracking, new knots, and using a strap drill friction fire. I met new friends and gained inspiration. I learned some more about my strengths and weaknesses and I generated some great ideas on how I can improve. For example, I need to be practicing my knots every week. We came together to set up a temporary overnight camp and we all learned a bit about one another and what brought us here. 
Reading is great. But in order to push your skills forward you need to actually get out and practice because at the end of the day, reading can only do so much for you. I’m so grateful for that experience and I am excited about the journeys I will take with these skills. Prepare first, then get out there and learn, so you can safely create your own adventures.