It’s clear to anyone who reads this blog that I love pushing myself. Open water distance? Yup. Running long distances? Yup.
My son has loved pushing himself too, but his interest in extremes has always been directed at survival and outdoor adventures. (He was the only preschooler who insisted on wearing his rock climbing harness to school every day, with his ski helmet.) He’s also been a huge fan of Bear Grylls and learns from his books, shows, and online presence. He has a Bear Grylls jacket, knife, backpack, multi-tool, flint and steel, books, and longs for the BG sleeping bag. Yeah, um, he’s into the guy.
My son also likes to tell me that I’m not “Hardcore.” And I like to try to prove him wrong. This time, I think I’ve succeeded.
To say he was excited is an understatement of epic proportions. And this past weekend, the time for our adventure had finally arrived!
(First, before you read this, be aware that there are some animal photos in here that you might not like if you’re squeamish.)
On Saturday morning, he and I got on the car early and headed to the Catskill Mountains where the first USA course was being held. 3 hours later, we had arrived at the Frost Valley YMCA camp for check-in and an hour later, packs on, we were headed into the woods with our group of fellow participants and our 3 intrepid guides. (Thank you Jeff, Josh, and Sam!)
After a short hike, we’d crawled through a culvert, eaten some wood sorrel, and arrived at the site chosen for us to set up our overnight shelters and where our guides taught us what we would need to do.
Then, the rain began.
Our catch phrase for the weekend was definitely “What Would Bear Grylls Do?” and with that in mind, we started building the shelter we would sleep in for the night.
In the Rain.
And very little food.
It was terribly exciting.
There’s an art to shelter building, and our guides taught us well.
First, we chose our location, making sure that water would not pool or pond under us. Then, we put up our main frame, and then started to weave in the pine bows and sticks that would provide a skeleton for the leaves and ferns and bark that would act like shingles on the outside of our shelter. On our shelter, we included birch bark on the roof line with the hope that the water wouldn’t drip in at our roof seam.
Let’s be clear—shelter building is not fast. It’s slow. And laborious. And completely satisfying as you see it come together.
Not only was ours well camouflaged, it was actually kind of spacious. In the way that something you can’t sit up in can be.
We were pretty proud of ourselves.
After that, it was time for fires, no small feat considering the downpour we’d been building in all afternoon.
First, our trusted guides showed us how to use our flint and steel, something my son has been doing for years but that many of the other participants were doing for the first time. At the same time, we set up the structure we’d be cooking on – after foraging for food, of course.
Fire started, it was time to find dinner. And yes, at this point, I’d already had a special snack. An earthworm. And some ants. And some berries that were more seed than anything else.
Strangely, nothing was as gross as I had expected. The ants had a lemony flavor that surprised me and with the earthworms, it was more of a texture issue than a taste one. It reminded me of the sea urchin I had in Korea many years ago.
But neither earthworms nor ants were going to get us through the night so we started building snares. Wire snares with the goal of trapping our dinner.
(Again, slightly gross part coming up here!)
With a little help from the guides, our “dinner” miraculously appeared in our trap.
Rabbit. Which had to be skinned, gutted, and cooked over the open flame.
There is definitely an art to doing this as cleanly and precisely as possible, while making sure not to contaminate the meat by cutting into any of the organs.
Was it gross to watch? Kind of. But also a reminder as a meat eater that our food comes from an actual animal, and that we must remember and be respectful of that reality. And I confess that I did not actually participate in the skinning part. Another parent did that, and I was happy to let them.
And to be honest? Rabbit cooked over an open flame was pretty tasty—even when the only thing to wash it down was river water purified with iodine. (A nice Cabernet would have been lovely.)
We even ate the “nasty bits” like the liver and heart, and since it cooks unevenly over the flame, parts that needed a bit more cooking were put into our soup pot to make for a rabbit soup.
After dinner, a lesson on water purification and then, it was time for bed. Dark, drizzly, and with a busy day ahead of us, it was important that we get some rest in our spacious abodes.
We got ready for bed by changing our soaking wet socks. No teeth brushing, no face wash, and mostly, just crawling into our bags and bedding down.
That’s when we noticed our visitors.
These cuties crawled all over our shelter, and yup, right where we laid our heads for the night. Given the quality of our building skills, we’re pretty sure they were just trying to stay dry.
At night, it got chilly. Mummy bags were key, and we snuggled together to stay warm.
Amazingly, we all slept, and slept fairly well.
Okay, my neck felt like I had been in a car accident, but given that we’d slept on the ground all night, been wet all day, and had eaten a lot less than we were accustomed too, that was unsurprising.
Also, during the night, it had rained but we didn’t find out until the morning since our roof didn’t leak. Did I mention we were pretty proud of our shelter building skills?
What a perfect wake-up for Mother’s Day! In the woods with my wonderful child, who had just happened to pack a gift in his bag.
A new Buck Knife for the rest of our adventures! How awesome is this kid?
Then, it was time for breakfast.
These are the same worms I feed my hedgehog and so I’m accustomed to handling them. Not so accustomed, however, to chowing down on them.
But, like troopers, we all ate up. And some more Wood Sorrel too. And they were definitely preferable to the earthworms. A little crunch, no slime, and then, a lot of jokes about “You’ve got a little worm stuck in your teeth.”
After breakfast, it was, sadly, time to take down our shelter. Faster than putting it up, and much less satisfying, it was an important part of returning the surroundings to as close to how we had found them as possible.
Then it was time for the physical challenges.
Hiking down the river bed.
My child was extremely serious about the entire endeavor, soaking in as much information as he could, carefully watching the guides at all times and barely speaking because he was so concerned with absorbing.
There were more river crossings – of all sorts.
We were exhausted, but also having a fantastic time. And did I mention that the kids were all between 10 and 14-years-old? What an incredible bunch! (There was one other woman, an girl on the trip with her father. And she and I represented the ladies with panache!)
One of our favorites was learning how to rappel without a harness, or Abseiling. Using only a rope wound around a tree and then laced around our bodies, we backed our way down a small cliff using just our body weight and packs to counterbalance us.
So. Much. Fun!
At the end of our 24 hours we had the most physically demanding challenge – the Commando Crawl over a single rope.
Yes. A rope. Crawling over it. When you have had very little food and are exhausted. It is exhilarating indeed!
The toughest part was attempting a recovery as if you had fallen off of the rope.
It requires an athleticism and gracefulness that I couldn’t quite master with a pack on my back. But my attempt left a heck of bruise/badge of honor on my leg.
Then, it was time for group photos and thank yous and that feeling of satisfaction you get from something like this.
And our certificates of achievement, which I’m going to say we earned. Big time.
This particular weekend was the first ever Bear Grylls course to run in the USA, and we’re pretty proud to have been some of the first to attend. (One request to the Bear Grylls folks–we love our badges and they’re already on our packs. A Survival Camp t-shirt would have been AWESOME too. Because, you know, we want another way to show off to our friends and loved ones!)
Tired, happy, and ready for a shower, we headed home.
Thank you again to our wonderful guides, Jeff, Josh, and Sam. We learned a ton, had a fantastic time, and my child is already wanting to do the 5-day course!
For me, it’s back to the water. Or, you know, my comfort zone because I’m not hardcore.