5 Day Survival
Each fall, the MAST program has a course teaching how to survive in the woods if you encounter a worst case scenario and need to shelter for a few days while waiting for rescue. This is a situation no one strives to be in, but it is important to be prepared just in case. This course was taught by a former MAST student named Andrew, who is experienced and trained in the art of bushcraft, which is how to use what you have around you for food, shelter, tools and overall survival. Prior to the MAST program, Andrew undertook a year-long survival and bushcraft course. He started the week by telling us “everything you are about to do I have done in -40 with snow.”
We were given very little information on what to expect from the week so it could be more realistic. We were told that for supplies (food, water, clothing, tools) we could bring what we would have on a day hike. Additionally, we were allowed to bring our sleeping bags. We were not allowed to have our cell phones, cameras, or any luxury items.
There is no way for me to romanticize what we endured during our survival week. It was what we affectionately call “type two fun.” Unconventional and uncanny, yet enjoyable none-the-less. We would leave the week sopping wet and hungry but with the knowledge needed to survive in the woods should we ever need to await rescue. When I say sopping I mean to the bone, the kind of wet you feel not only in your socks but in your soul.
We started the adventure with the instructors dropping us off beside the Elk River and pointing towards a row of uphill power lines that we were to follow for 3.5KM to the trucks. The first few parts of the river crossing were easy, boot deep, and most of us kept dry feet. The last section, which involved crossing the Elk River, was the hardest. To ensure safety we crossed in groups of 3, and Brian was downstream in case a rescue was needed.
When we reached the trucks we jumped straight into learning. Sitting in a circle on stumps, we were taught knife safety and how to make “feather sticks” which is the act of peeling back small pieces of wood to better start a fire in the rain. Unlike us, after a few layers the wood became dry. Afterwards, we were put in groups of two and assigned a shelter to make out of a small tarp. We were relieved to learn we would be sleeping under some sort of plastic. An unexpected bonus was making sleeping pads out of garbage bags stuffed with leaves; these were for comfort as well as trapping heat between us and the ground.
The first morning we woke up to snow, a welcomed surprise after a day of rain. It was cold, but at least it was dry. Around noon the snow turned back into rain as we worked on our fire starting skills. All of the material was wet. Wet trees, wet leaves, wet bark, wet everything. After we learned how to make “tinder bundles” we were able to start a fire with only one match, even with wet material. A tinder bundle is a gathering of sticks from as thin as a match to as thick as a pencil. You bundle them smallest to biggest with birch bark or other thin flammable natural materials in the middle. Brian was kind enough to bring us all some “pitch” that he had found. “Pitch” is solidified resin from the base of a coniferous tree that died naturally and it is an excellent fire starter.
After another night of rain we woke up on day 3 to learn about making shelters out of natural materials. We knew that this was to prepare us for what we thought was going to be one night solo in the woods. However, we were told around noon to take down our tarps, gather our things, and get ready for two nights of solo survival. We were allowed to bring only what we had on our person and 1L of water.
We were assigned a section of forest close to the main road, but far enough from one another that we would not socialize. We quickly set to work building our shelters and gathering firewood to hold us through the night. Before dark, one of the instructors came around to make sure we were set up and had a fire burning. Luckily, it did not rain the first night of our solo survival, or during the next day. Most of us did not collect enough firewood when it was daylight and spent the 12 hours of darkness trying to collect more to keep the fire going.
Day two of solo was spent stockpiling firewood. Through the forest you could hear dead trees being knocked to the ground by students desperate to keep their fire going all night, and into the next morning. Repairs and improvements were made on shelters which were built out of logs and cedar bows. Everyone wanted to ensure that the bows were thick enough to keep out any rain that might fall. This was good preparation as it began raining again at 2am on the second night. With darkness stretching until 7:30am, we had 5 and a half hours to make do in the rain. Comfort was taken in looking through the trees and seeing the fires of classmates in the distance.
The morning of the final day was a joyous one. We all sat and anxiously awaited the instructor to come and help us tear down and spread our shelters back into the forest. Around 9am our wishes came true, and we gathered while drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. By noon we were loading in the vans, stinking of wood fire smoke and literally itching for a shower.
In the end we were left feeling gratitude for the learning opportunities brought by the rain. Had it been warm and sunny we would not have learned how to build a fire with wet wood, or make our shelters fully waterproof. It’s not often a worst case scenario happens in the best weather.