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I Tend to Wander

This blog chronicles oddly-themed travel and food adventure in the Americas and Europe

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A K-Bar Fixed Blade is a Girl's Best Friend: Survival Training in Virginia's Blue Ridge

You wouldn't know to look at me: Female. 43. Eyes: kind enough, but squinting to a wince, wearied by reading in bad light, cheap mascara, and bi-focal contact lenses. They are green originally, my eyes, but hazed pink like a cheap Chablis or the liquid in a packet of raw chicken; permanent laugh lines, and a once-fit figure, now sedately spreading like chocolate chip cookie dough on a warm cookie sheet. No, you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I can do several amazing things because of a week-end I spent in the woods.

The Trip: The Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School

Where? The George Washington National Forest, just west of Amherst, Virginia

Who? Liz and dashing husband, Brian, 43, who, despite his rugged good looks and ability to find crawfish under unassuming rocks like an otter, doesn't mind spending the night in the woods for the romance of it, but prefers to curl up beneath down and flannel with his cat (and wife, presumably) at home.

We joined the vigorous Reggie Bennet, surprisingly youthful and cherub-cheeked for someone who has spent a significant part of his life instructing military types (including Navy SEALS) in survival, evasion, resistance, and escape techniques, and who himself had survived really harrowing wilderness scenarios from polar ice cap crash-landing/freezing to death/being eaten by bears situations, to bobbing in badly supplied life-raft on open sea and catching birds with fish hooks, to roasting in a hole in the Gobi nursing the half cup of spit-hot water collected from the condensation pit, emerging in the cool of the night to recon by the stars and dig more wells.

It could be however, that Reggie Bennet is buoyant not in spite of, but because of these very experiences. Dropped into the rather pleasant temperate wilderness condition of Virginia's Blue Ridge with anything resembling a sturdy knife and some string, he can erect a snug shelter, light a fire, strangle and roast a rabbit, smoke extra meat to tasty hickory smoked jerky, sanitize water, rig a sauna for a pleasant sluice, and floss his teeth. In the evening, he can either signal for rescue, or melt into the woods.

Why Go? To flex our self-sufficiency muscles, sleep under the really lovely stars, learn how to tie some useful knots, make a fire in the rain, roast foil packets of potatoes, rosemary, and onions in capably-tended campfire coals, generally ratchet-up our "Confidence in the Woods" scores nearly snuffing out for good our (Liz's) long smoldering Fear of The Dark in general and werewolves in particular.

How long? a January week-end: 60 degrees and sunny on Saturday, 42 degrees and steady, soaking rain on Sunday.

Favorite Forest Food: Ghiradelli 60% cocoa bittersweet bakery chocolate by the chunk, and pecans and dried cranberries by the fistful in camp while learning really basic orienteering. Coffee in the morning.

I would have like to have roamed around a lot more. In longer classes (4 day) they break camp and move using their new orienteering skills. The landscape is steep and forested. It takes two hours to go three miles.

Thing I wish I'd brought: a pilfered airline pillow or the smarts to stuff my jacket into my sleeping bag sack to fashion a quite serviceable pillow. A $29 Black Diamond headlamp with a retractable elastic string to hold it on your head that is, all together, the size of a Nilla Vanilla wafer.

Cheapest Thrill: Stomping through the woods, in a long, cold, steady rain to rip apart, using a K-Bar fixed blade knife, the stump of a lightning-blasted pine tree for its dry and pitch-packed wood, then whittling with cold hands a fluffy mound of the impressively flammable pitch resin onto my fire platform, grating the knife down the flint, and having the the little shavings burst into flame, which I fed with larger whittlings into a fire big enough to warm up my hands.


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