Though many people would not like to think about it, the possibilities are there that one day you might have to face the wild. Imagine this, you are out in the woods in Virginia in late autumn, far from civilization, and you have lost all of your gear. Worse yet, you might be trekking in the mountains and are met by a sudden snowstorm. There is also the possibility that severe circumstances, such as a hurricane or tornado, might knock out basic infrastructure and you would have to survive with the least available. Such experiences might call for you to tap into some old skills to live, skills that hunting parties of Indians or trappers used when travelling through deep forests for days, maybe weeks at a time. They would have to rely on the land to fulfill basic needs. This is what a recent workshop, sponsored by the Rivanna Conservation Society, took time to cover with a large group of eager participants from all across Central Virginia.
The Primitive Skills workshop took place on Dec. 1 at the Scheier Natural Area in Palmyra, led by Steve Pullinger, a native of Fluvanna County. He does not see himself as an expert in the field of wilderness survival, but this “self-taught” version of the Discovery Channel’s “Man vs. Wild” has decades of practical experience in leading these kinds of workshops and is “passionate about” the techniques for really roughing it. The workshop was created to engage those that participated, from the person who just wants to learn how to just live off the land like the rugged camper or hiker to a person who just wants to have these skills for those just-in-case moments. Pullinger began the large informal session, which had participants from the Earth and Mind Club at The Collegiate School of Richmond, to members of the local Master Naturalists Group such as Ida Swenson, to kids of all ages with this admonishment: do not give up and have a good attitude about the situation. Pullinger then moved toward the list of things you must have to get along in the wild: shelter, fire, water and food. Shelter and fire must come first as you need to prevent exposure and get warm, especially in places where temperatures may dip down to cold lows after dark.
The students were shown how to build a shelter from basically what you can find on the forest floor. Using large dead limbs as the foundation, a shelter was easily constructed by building up layer upon layer of dry leaves and twigs over a simple lean-to type of structure. Pullinger made sure to say that this type of shelter must be low to the ground, with a small opening and have thick layers of dried leaves and other vegetation to ensure body heat would be trapped inside the shelter. Also important, is that the shelter needs to be constructed quickly to prevent further exposure to the elements. A good debris shelter like the one described could keep a person fairly warm and cozy for a good week, if necessary.
Fire is the next major obstacle to work out, as one must find a way to keep warm, especially in colder climates. Pullinger stated that you should always keep a lighter or several dry books of matches on your person at all times just in case you might ever have to make a fire. However, if you are without those luxuries, you can still make a fire with friction methods, techniques that might be very familiar to Powhatan and his people. Using bows and primitive wooden drills, you can create enough friction to heat up sawdust created during the drilling process to set fire to dried grass, which is the fuel for the main camp fire. One of the best woods for creating friction is a tree that grows commonly in Fluvanna called Balm of Gilead, said Pullinger.
Once you have shelter and fire, then water is the next order of business. A human needs water to survive and cannot go long without it. According to Pullinger and Swenson, use common sense when drawing water from places like ponds or streams. Water can be made safe by placing the water in a vessel, such as a found can, and boiling it by dipping hot rocks in it. Water can also be gathered by running a shirt over fallen dew and wringing it out. Also, many plants can be tapped for water such as Maple (only in early spring) and Sycamore (all year around). Above all, you must stay hydrated until rescue by authorities.
Food can be gathered from what is around a person. Many plants are edible, but use caution as many are toxic. Be prepared with knowledge about plants in a location you may be visiting and know which plants are safe to eat. A very edible plant in Fluvanna is Cattails, which grow in wetlands. The roots can be eaten and it is a bit pasty according to many there that have tried it, but it is highly nutritious. In order to survive you may have to hunt for game. Pullinger showed the class how to build simple snares to catch game such as rabbits.
The class ended with a demonstration on how to weave cordage from plant fibers. Securing items with cordage may come in handy. A common plant in Fluvanna that is very suitable for weaving cordage is the fibrous leaves from the Yucca Plant.
Many who stayed for the three-hour course at this historic location left with knowledge that they hoped they would never need to use the information gained at the workshop, but were comforted knowing it was available.