Dear River Otter Families,
Maybe you noticed the amazing mist hanging low in the valley this morning. I felt I was entering a magically sleepy world as I drove in, until, rounding a curve in the road, the brilliant sun arrived in full glow, illuminating the fog and the trees, many of them radiating fall colors. By midmorning, the mist had lifted at Herb Mountain Farm and we reveled in bright sunshine and warmth for the rest of the day.
After blowing off steam with some rousing morning games, including the teamwork building “Wolves and Caribou,” we enjoyed an unexpected interlude with some wetland birds on the property. Hearing sudden whistling and honking, the group traced the sound and followed it to a hidden pond where sure enough, geese and ducks floated serenely. We explored their wetland sanctuary for a few moments, collected a few feathers from the ground and water, and left them to paddle in peace.
Preparing for fast-approaching colder months, today we focused on one essential element of wilderness survival: shelter. Knowing how to build a shelter that can keep you alive, even warm and comfortable in below freezing temperatures is an important tool. The applied skill of shelter building often increases the level of personal comfort in the woods for both kids and adults. It takes away some of the instinctual fear at the power of nature, knowing you possess the necessary skills to be at home in the woods without modern amenities.
I told a story of Tom Brown Jr., the well-know tracker, who, as a boy learned from an Apache elder mentor, Stalking Wolf. When Tom asked Stalking Wolf how to stay warm overnight without a sleeping bag and tent, Stalking Wolf simply answered, “Go and ask the squirrels.” When Tom and his friend Rick investigated a squirrel’s nest, they found an ingenious bundle of insulation in the form of dry leaves, held together with a framework of sticks and other debris. By recreating the squirrels’ design, albeit on the ground, Tom and Rick were able to enjoy a warm and comfortable night of sleep in weather that would have had them shivering and hypothermic had they been using conventional camping gear.
Inspired by our protagonists’ success in creating a cozy nest for themselves and excited at the prospect of our upcoming Forest Floor overnight campout (Nov 15-16 — Mark your calendars!), we set out to find the perfect place to build a debris shelter of our own. Hiking beyond where the group had ventured thus far, we found a level place (somewhat of a challenge in these beautifully steep hills) and surveyed our surroundings. Upon doing so, we found we were lucky enough to have come to a halt in a grove of sassafras, so we savored a snack of tender green sassafras leaves (delicious!) and dug a few roots to prepare a tea at later date, then got down to the business of gathering sticks and building the framework of our shelter.
Modeling our work after the squirrels’ nests we observed on the way up the mountain, first we assembled a stick skeleton, which we then filled in with smaller sticks, debris and dry leaves. The River Otters worked with diligence and our shelter took form, resembling some sort of fluffy woodland beastie, a cross between a buffalo and a wooly mammoth perhaps, or a giant prehistoric caterpillar.
After the final handful of leaves had been added to our creation, we closed the day with this test: Could each child crawl inside and retrieve a newly-earned regalia bead to add their Forest Floor Medallion necklace without getting wet, while a bucket of water was emptied overtop? Had we sealed it watertight with enough leaves and debris?
Hoorah! Each child proudly slid their regalia bead onto the string of their necklaces, only a drop or two of water spattering the back of their shirts. The beads, added to the “tree-cookie” necklaces bearing each child’s animal name, symbolize the child’s ability to create a shelter and survive overnight, warm and toasty, even in inclement weather.
Many thanks to the squirrels!
Looking forward to next week with our wonderful clan of River Otters!