DON’T JUST SURVIVE, THRIVE
When the Lycoming engine of Marcus Jacobson’s 1960s-era Super Cub sputtered to a wheezing halt at 4,000 feet, just 100 miles northeast of the small airstrip in the Gwich’in tribal village of Venetie in Alaska, Jacobson immediately looked for a place to set down, knowing his day was about to change for the worse. Below him surged and swelled the unforgiving nature of northern Alaska, one of the few remaining places in North America that does not suffer for the faint of heart. In the unnerving din of the wind rushing around the plane, he made contact with the tower in Venetie and reported his situation and rough position.
Coarse landings were nothing new to Jacobson. As an Alaskan pilot for 13 years, he had landed the orange-striped Piper PA-18 in more precarious places than a relatively flat tundra dotted with clumps of Alpine Bluegrass, although the initial touchdown on the uneven ground was nothing but jarring. The Piper needed only about 300 feet to come to a stop, and Jacobson rolled it just to the edge of a small creek that sliced through the northern corner. Tall stands of birch and spruce ringed the open field.
Jacobson would spend two frigid nights in that field waiting for rescue; an electrical issue shorted out all electronics and he spent most of his idle time working on the plane. Jacobson isn’t what you’d call a survivor; he’s not a prepper, and his ordeal happened long before the term Bushcraft came into vogue. However, Jacobson, a Swedish native from the small idyllic town of Arvidsjaur on the banks of the Byskealven river, where he learned to hunt hazel grouse and elk, fish for brown trout and perch, and fly his father’s airplane. Jacobson, with a lifetime of knowledge of the outdoors, was no stranger to self-sufficiency.
Opening the door of his downed Piper he immediately assessed the situation. There was water close by, which meant food too. It was early June and still quite cold, but he knew spruce is a soft and dry wood that burns easily. In the back of the plane, he kept a small bag containing a few items essential in a situation like this: a good knife, flashlight, some rope and a set of small tools. Though he had never been in this exact situation before, he was confident rescue would be imminent and he had the knowledge necessary to carry him through the tribulation. Jacobson was a Bushcrafter long before he ever heard the word spoken.
WHAT IS BUSHCRAFT?
In the realm of what is often referred to as “survival skills” there are a number of specialized skill sets, each containing enough information and different techniques to require a lifetime of study and practice to fully master. One of these specialized skill sets involves a collection of wilderness skills and all around woodsmanship that has come to be known as Bushcraft. It is more of a mental state of preparedness than a physical set of achievements. Anyone can read in a book about 10 different ways of starting a fire with an old rag and a fifth of scotch, but until you actually do it, the knowledge is academic. Bushcrafters learn by doing and practice by accomplishing the task to survive for another day.
Though a couple of hundred years old (one of the first mentions of the term is found in Ernest Favenc’s 1888 book, The History of Australian Exploration from 1788 to 1888), the modern Bushcraft movement began with Richard Harry Graves, who founded the Australian Jungle Rescue Detachment during World War II, and afterwards taught a Bushcraft school and wrote a book titled Australian Bushcraft: A Guide to Survival and Camping. Since then, at least in the English-speaking countries besides America, the Bushcraft movement began to flourish, becoming popular thanks to the recent onslaught of survival-based “reality” shows.
One of the premiere Bushcrafters is “The Bush Tucker Man,” Major Leslie James Hiddins (ret.) of the Australian Army. After a very successful career he was tapped to steer the direction of the Australian Army Survival policy for Special Forces. In 1982, he began the Army Combat Survival Project based at Lavarack Barracks, and he is the principal author of the Army’s Combat Survival Manual, which was published in 1987. Retiring two years later, Hiddins spent most of his life trekking the unforgiving Australian outback in search of “bush tucker,” a down-under term for food made by the aboriginals. He teaches classes and seminars on the skills needed to be successful in the outdoors, a concept termed Bushcraft.
Bushcraft consists of taking wilderness immersion to the next level by using what nature provides along with a few modern tools to craft the necessities and even luxuries one may desire while spending time in the wilderness. With a good understanding and practice of these techniques, one can truly carve out a home in the wilderness and even begin to thrive over time. The more a person relies on their well-honed skills, the less equipment they will feel the need to take into the woods, as they will be capable of producing most everything they desire straight from their environment. With Bushcraft, the possibilities are seemingly endless, as the wilderness becomes a canvas for the woodsman to create virtually any structure he can dream up, for the hunter to choose from a variety food sources, and for the survivor to outlast and overcome the dangers imposed by nature. To those that have embraced the lifestyle and gained the knowledge, this is an ultimate freedom…this is Bushcraft.
Before saying goodbye to society and tromping off into the woods to live a Thoreau-ian life of solitude with nature and declaring yourself a Bushcrafter, you must first spent a little time — say, a few years at least — dipping your toes into the pool first before you jump headlong.
Though there is much information about the various skills needed to learn in order to label yourself a Bushcrafter, there is no one all-encompassing list that is universally accepted. It depends on a lot of factors, but mostly the area you live and/or travel to. Skills needed in the desert will be different from those needed in the forest or on a mountain versus being stuck in the Arctic. However, there are the basics.
Shelter: This is probably one of the easiest skills to master.
The basic concept is to build a shelter to keep out the weather, be it from the blistering sun in the desert or a drenched rainforest. The difficulty lies in anticipating the changing weather, finding suitable materials and locating a place to build.
For a Bushcrafter, the goal is to build something that will last for years rather than simply surviving a couple days. Choices to consider include thatched huts made from reeds, grasses and palm fronds, lean-to huts from sticks, logs and moss, as well as elevated platforms needed in swampy areas. To provide a permanent shelter from the elements, a host of skills are needed to use the materials at hand.
Fire: An essential skill is the ability to make fire no matter where you are, what you have in your possession and what the weather is like. Fire is protection from the elements. Fire provides warmth, a signal, mental stability and a place to cook meat and boil polluted water. Building and maintaining a fire should be one of the first skills a Bushcrafter stamps into his memory. This involves not just lighting the fire (by match, flint, bow, friction, etc.), but finding adequate wood for the type of fire you need (small dry sticks for a smokeless fire, large green branches for a signal fire, dry wood for a hot fire and hardwood for a long fire), as well as knowing how to direct the heat and light of the fire in a particular direction (a woodshed will keep the fire dry if in a storm, while a series of tall rocks will reflect the fire’s heat toward your camp).
Food and Water: Nothing survives without food and water and doesn’t even consider thriving without an excellent source of food and water. A mule deer won’t just drop dead in front of you, and without knowledge of hunting, flora gathering, water purification, meat storage, dressing and cooking, your Bushcrafting days are numbered. In most wild areas of the world, food and water can be found in sufficient quantities, but people’s largest fear when pressed into a hunger situation is that the plants are poisonous, the animals full of parasites, and the water contaminated. A Bushcrafter knows which is what and how to prepare it to consume without worry.
“WITH A GOOD UNDERSTANDING AND PRACTICE OF THESE TECHNIQUES, ONE CAN TRULY CARVE OUT A HOME IN THE WILDERNESS AND EVEN BEGIN TO THRIVE OVER TIME.”
Tracks: Reading and knowing what animal tracks have been left is merely a trick of memorization. A rabbit’s tracks look one way when it is walking and another when it is running, while a deer’s tracks are entirely different, of course. If it has a “thumb” it climbs trees; if it has prominent center toes, it digs burrows; if it has claws, it eats meat, and if it has hooves, it eats grass.
The difficult part is knowing where to look for these tracks. Learning to observe the landscape first is as paramount as discovering what kind of animal left the tracks you are seeing. A bird that doesn’t live on the ground, like a Mourning Dove or an American Goldfinch, hops instead of walks, whereas most ducks and geese spend a considerable amount of time on the ground, therefore their tracks show a similar gait as a human (one foot in front of the other, sort of).
Tracks indicate habits, and animals are definitely creatures of habit. A Bushcrafter knows their habits.
Snares and Traps: Observing the signs of animals — and maybe the animals themselves — is one thing, but converting them to dinner is entirely different.
“IT PUTS HIM IN TOUCH WITH HIS FOREFATHERS, WHO CARVED OUT A PLACE FOR THEMSELVES, NOT WITH THE HELP OF A SMARTPHONE OR $300 BOOTS, BUT WITH TENACITY, INTEGRITY AND A FORTITUDE ONLY FOUND IN THOSE THAT HAVE FACED ADVERSITY AND TRIUMPHED IN SPITE OF IT.”
Ropes and Knots: If you have plans to build a quality shelter with any kind of permanency or strength, you’ll need to know a host of knots and how to make rope from what’s found in nature. Almost any naturally fibrous plants (grass, palm bark, vines, reeds, etc.), as long as it is pliable and has a rough texture, can be made into adequate rope and anything over a foot long can be braided into a continuous strand. Know which braids will work best with which plants. For example, the three and four plait and lariat plait work well if made from rounded vines, while the broad plait or flat plait should be made from flat reeds.
Though there are hundreds of knots, a Bushcrafter need know only a half dozen or so to be successful. The sheet bend is good for joining rope. The bowline or slip knot are good knots if loops are needed. Any of the hitches (clove, rolling, boat) are good when items need fastening down (most knots fall under this category). Whereas there are a host of specialized knots geared for specific tasks, like lashing, making rope ladders, or for “pointing” a rope.
Navigation and Time: Where are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? And how long will it take? These are questions best answered with the aid of a map, compass, and watch, but sometimes you won’t have those items, especially if your survival skills are called upon suddenly and without time preparation. Knowing how to read the land, tell time from the sun/moon, and to navigate in a desired direction are essential. This requires a broad spectrum of skills, from knowing the constellations to understanding how mountains are formed and where rivers go.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
People have to endure many years of school to call themselves a doctor and even then, they refer to it as practice. Teachers need four extra years to learn how to teach children elementary skills. This is no different if you want to join the ranks of the Bushcrafters. If you do, you’ll discover it is more than just a movement; it is an achievement, a mindset one obtains that gives him the confidence to know he will survive. Bushcraft shapes a person’s character, his soul, his inner-monologue about how he sees the world and the events that transpire around him. It puts him in touch with his forefathers, who carved out a place for themselves, not with the help of a smartphone or $300 boots, but with tenacity, integrity and a fortitude only found in those that have faced adversity and triumphed in spite of it.
Remember, Nobel Prize-winning German playwright Elias Canetti said: “Our forefathers did without sugar until the 13th century, without coal fires until the 14th, without buttered bread until the 16th, without tea or soup until the 17th, without gas, matches or electricity until the 20th.” However, they survived. Imagine what you can do.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.