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February 16, 2014: Survival Class: Gimme Shelter

I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for a Mat-Sar three day survival school class, taught by SERE specialist Jeremy Lilly. I got a sense of this on the Friday evening before, when Jeremy gave those attending a very lengthy presentation on winter survival skills. Lilly is a large, middle-aged fellow with a round face and mustache, which likens him to a walrus. The consensus was then, after, that “he knows his stuff.” I finally gathered that the following morning we’d go to Chickaloon, build shelters, start fires, and set up some squirrel snares. Fine, I thought, I could handle this.

It turned out to be a rigorous two remaining days. The following is an overview of Saturday. I carpooled to Chickaloon with Dolly LeFerve, who is a REAL mountaineer. Slight, maybe in her late 60s, has short cropped gray hair – dresses like a mountaineer. And ahem, she has climbed Everest twice, and as

The Man Cave

well the tallest seven peaks in the world. All after age 40.

I become tongue tied around such people, for I am not in any way in their league. In fact, I’m not even in their ballpark. I’m out in the parking lot, trying to find my vehicle. So I asked her very basic, simple questions, in an attempt to hold up my weak end of the conversation. We mainly did a values exchange about Everest etiquette – and talked some about search and rescue – a commonality, we both own border collies in training.

Once in camp, we immediately set to the tasks at hand, setting up the warming hut (a large maroon dome tent) and building our own shelters. We got into groups of two, and with the group as a whole, we selected our site. I learned that the best areas for shelter building in this particular area were those areas that contained downed trees that were on a diagonal.

It worked like this. After selecting our site, Stacey R and I located strong branches and laid them in a rib-like fashion lengthwise across the log. We next put spruce boughs on the logs, and then we tarped it. Then we put snow blocks up the sides, this before chinking it. Then there was the front to contend with. We had to partially close in the front area, in order to conserve heat. We later did this using my extra sleeping bag.

The sixteen or so of us finished building our shelters at about the same time. It was then that our fearless leader took us on a neighborhood tour, one in which the builders explained what they did and why. I have to say that I was rather blown away by the high level of shelter building craftsmanship – one grouping, two large guys – built what I called the man cave – a large, super sturdy structure with a cross beam. And another, two women, built what I called the Talkeetna Townhouse – a double-insulated A-Frame that would serve them well for several days. (I called it this because one of the two was a Talkeetna Ambulance driver.)

As for Stacey and I – we built what I called Little Stegosaurus, an inconspicuous hump like structure that, being small (we thought), would hold body heat.

After, we got a demonstration on how to build a fire using one long dead spruce tree. I never before knew that one might start a fire using petroleum products such as shoe goo, a band aid, Vaseline, and of course a magnesium striker. Pitch wood, that is the wood that’s found in the center of downed conifers, is also good to have on hand. Then Stacey and I built our own fire – locating it in front of our shelter.

Later, after sunset, we climbed into our dwelling and went to sleep. Beforehand, I mentioned to Stacey that I was rather awed by those like Dolly, who not only climb mountains, but for days on end live outside, in adverse conditions. Stacey’s response to this was “I don’t get it,” meaning, she would not be inclined to live outside for days on end.

I didn’t say what I was thinking – that at heart, I’m a mountaineer. My physical attributes are that I am strong for my size, and I have plenty of endurance; also, I exceptional circulation in my fingers and toes. However, I lack the mental attributes, which is the kind of mind that’s needed for this kind of thing. That is, I’m not focused, can’t think linearly, and find it difficult to stay on task.

For example, I who was assigned to gather spruce boughs, did this, but at the same time I began waxing metaphorically. The shelters became (in my mind) a quasi-housing project that had been named (of course) Chickaloon Way. There was no zoning, no code compliance, no septic system. However, there was a emergent road system, which was being created by those who knew how to put their snow shoes on.

Yep, I again (as I have in the past) foresaw that my mental limitations precluded my ever staying out for more than a few nights in the wilderness. It’s a good thing to be reminded of this, which was why I did it. But hey, I who knew that I am adept at telling a good story knew I had one here. It would begin, “You know, I recently took a survival class – and guess what? I slept under a log!

Next: 48. 2/16/14: Survival School, Part II: What’s a Nice Girl Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?