When my sister told me that her two of my nephews wanted to come with me on a survival challenge, so many thoughts and emotions hit me at once. I was excited that they wanted to learn survival skills from me, but scared to death about the safety aspect. I had so many thoughts about how I would adapt the experience for children, or how everything might fall apart. In the end, I had to approach everything as if I was taking my own son Andrew out into the wilderness. When I really thought about it, I could not recall a single instance of children being brought on a real survival challenge in all of my time in the survival community. This was going to be a real challenge.
I planned for this challenge like I plan for most, but with more of a focus on teaching skills to the boys. Jay is 11 years old and Dre is 10. They are both incredibly intelligent and picked up all of the information quickly. I gave them homework assignments weeks in advance such as studying the symptoms of heat stroke and how to identify venomous snakes. We drove to my parent’s house for a home base before heading out into the wilderness. The night before our challenge, I sat down with the boys and my sister to discuss all of our gear and a plan for the day. I asked them to think about some fairly complicated survival concepts such as gear redundancy and the four pillars of survival. They were on top of all of it. I was now confident in my two new partners for the chaos soon to come.
We ate a large breakfast and headed out at dawn. Our first priority was to find a suitable area for a camp. The bush was thick, and we had to pay attention to every step we took. As we scaled the steep terrain, we watched for copperhead snakes and poison ivy. There were a few relatively flat spots, but they had a great deal of ground vegetation. Then we found a few spots that were more open, but they did not have many downed trees for building materials. Finally, we found the perfect spot under a cedar glade about 50 yards from a small pond. The temperature was already headed towards 90F, so we immediately collected some water and added an iodine tablet to start the purification process. We also added weights and floats to a gill net and cast it out from the shore with the hope of catching some fish.
Now it was time to get our shelter built. I had a tapered A-frame design in mind with an opening at the top. I planned to put a small fire inside the shelter, so the opening would allow the smoke to escape. However, to make it large enough for all three of us we would need about 70 poles. Thankfully the boys were full of energy, and the forest provided us with plenty of downed cedar poles. Cedar is strong, light, and naturally keeps mosquitoes away. The downside is that does not break easily and must be cut with a saw. Jay and Dre brought all of the poles over to me as I cut them to length. I rested two long ridge poles on either side of two larger cedar trees. The poles rested on branches so no cordage was needed to hold them in place. Then additional poles were leaned against the ridge poles at 45 degrees on both sides. The ridge poles were at a slight angle, so it was easier to get in and out of the shelter. The entire construction was held together by gravity, and no cordage was needed.
I did not expect any rain this time of year, so we were able to move on to other projects. One was collecting firewood. The boys kept asking if we had enough, but I reminded them that cedar burns very quickly because of the flammable sap inside. I explained the old adage that you should always collect however much firewood you think you need, and then double it to ensure you have enough to last the night. We stacked the firewood in a ‘U’ shape around our camp so it would double as a barrier for coyotes or any other animals we may encounter. Next, we pulled smaller sticks out of the pile so there would be plenty of kindling. We planned to start two separate fires, so we would need a good amount. They boys also scraped the stringy bark off of cedar trees so we could make two good sized tinder bundles. Our fire preparation was finished.
It was time to think about food. We checked our gill net and found a small bass tangled within its fibers. I showed the boys how to stringer a fish through the bottom lip, and threw it back into the water to keep it fresh for later. We also stumbled upon a small turtle that we would save for later. Our group sat down at our camp for a break, and I pulled out my copper wire. I showed Jay and Dre how to make a snare trap, and then we attached them all to squirrel poles. With all of these projects, the boys pushed each other to excel. When one of them would struggle, the other would help him along. We headed out into the woods to find trees for our squirrel poles.
I wanted to give us as many food options as possible, so we did not stop there. I taught the boys how to safely use a folding blade knife and had them fashion spears. They would be able to use these for defense against predators as well as spear fishing. Unfortunately, the pond was muddy and never cleared enough to see the fish. We pulled the .22 out of its case, and I showed them how to shoot in case we ran across any squirrels or rabbits. I had brought along homemade deer jerky, hard tack, pemmican, and granola. These are all preserved foods providing protein and carbohydrates that can keep a survivalist going in the toughest circumstances. As dinner time approached, we headed out to check our traps. It had only been a few hours, and the traps were empty. Thankfully we still had plenty of food.
Back at camp, I used a ferro rod to get a fire going outside of our shelter. As it got larger and burned down to coals, we put some rice and beans in a pot to cook. We also put our fish and turtle in the fire to sear the meat. Jay and Dre devoured the small fish, but were a little more wary of the turtle. They ate a little, and I finished the rest. We also snacked on the preserved foods for a fairly large meal. I even had them eating ants to show them that the large black ones taste like Sweet Tarts. The outside fire burned down, so we moved inside the shelter. Shortly after dark, the temperatures plummeted, and we got another fire going. There was little sleeping done that night as we discussed random conversation topics such as Batman versus Superman and why women like gold chains on men. Thankfully, it made the time go by faster.
After completing the challenge, I gave Jay and Dre their own Scrade folding blade knives. These would be their first knives, and because of our experiences, they now knew how to use them. I was about that age when my father gave me my first pocket knife, and I still use that knife to this day. I was greatly impressed with the dedication and work ethic of my nephews. Prior to the challenge, I had doubts about how much work would be done and how orderly our camp would be. Honestly, I would take these boys in a survival situation over many of the adults that I know. They followed orders, completed back breaking work, leapt outside of their comfort zones, and made me thankful to be an uncle. We are already planning our next challenge, and I absolutely cannot wait.