A Glimpse of Survival Class at Camp Oty’Okwa

by Emily Federici

Darting away, our trail group sets off in a mad dash to keep up with their new trail leader for the afternoon. The task at hand is a three-hour class on survival. Being a part of a three-day/two-night venture with Camp, some kids have never been away from home for this long, let alone had to learn to survive the Appalachian wilderness. Starting the class, everyone gets to know each other a little better by doing a name-game activity. Your name, an animal and a silly gesture around a circle gets the group acquainted with each other and their new outdoor guru and trail leader, Kit.

After we know everyone’s names, a trail in the Hocking Hills starts issuing beneath our feet, before coming to a stop. “Do you want to get close to a wild animal?”, Kit asks to grab the groups attention. In an exercise on walking through the forest with acute awareness, we learn to “fox walk”. By widening your vision in an effort to see everything in your sight all at once, the class is learning to be as an animal in the woods. Not letting one falling leaf out of their perception, this is a constant survival tool. While you have activated your eyes properly in a state of heightened awareness, now you must learn to walk without looking at the ground. We are mindful not to make noise, as a predator could likely to be on the trail and hear us. Kit pretends to be a deer eating alone in the woods, as the kids “fox walk” towards him. Jerking his head up at the crunch of a leaf or a movement too sudden, our abilities are tested. The first to successfully tap his shoulder, without being sent to the back, by a neglectful infringement of the fox walk, wins.

As the hike carries on, the kids’ next task is to build a shelter from debris on the forest floor. They learn the essentials of making a “lean-to”; a simple and effective wilderness survival shelter made with a sturdy spine, and a roof topped thick with leaves for insulation. After a quick demo, suddenly everyone is dispersed on a hunt for leaves, twigs and sticks. A group of boys does exceptionally well, with a perfect lean-to that wouldn’t be a bad spot to rest if the situation called for it. Before we leave, everyone scatters the materials in an effort to leave no trace we were there. This pairs with our urging to pick up every piece of litter spotted, as little as it may be.

Next, a survival essential that excites me no matter how may times I see it done, awaits. The “bow-and-drill” method of fire starting is an old approach that is effective and quick, using a wooden spindle that is wrapped once around a bow’s string. A handhold presses on the top of the spindle, which is quickly spun using the bow, this then creates friction in the notch carved into the underlying fireboard, resulting in an ember. Kit makes a few attempts and the kids wait with gripping anticipation building as smoke starts emerging from the fireboard. The newly formed ember is placed in a tinder bundle, and everyone takes turns giving a breath. After we have all made our contribution, with a big exhale from Kit, a fire emerges. The satisfaction is felt all around as everyone gazes at this creation necessary to sustain life, started without the use of a lighter or match.

We stomp out the tiny fire to move on to our final stop. Already a couple hours have passed learning how to survive and act as an animal in the wilderness, but now is time to explore. The kids get a safety talk as we approach the most popular site at camp, Split Rocks. The sandstone boulders we climb on and under were deposited over three hundred million years ago, one hundred million years before dinosaurs roamed, in the Mississippian period of the Paleozoic era. The many rocks offer the structure of a labyrinth, making for many paths to go in, around, and over these ancient remnants while exploring.

Not before long the three hours comes to a close and the group goes through a debriefing of the class. Raising hands, one at a time they share sentiments of their favorite part of the day, many citing Split Rocks as the highlight. For the kids this is a day they will probably remember as they grow older, which makes it ever more special for Kit and I as their group leaders. Another amazing hike commences to fill the hearts and minds of everyone involved, a typical occurrence in this amazing part of Appalachia we call Camp Oty’okwa.