Primitive/wilderness skills · Survival

A dirty tale of a dirty weekend, part one

I really hate prickly pears.

I used to just dislike them. But after last weekend, I can safely say I hate them.

patch of prickly pear cactus
Prickly Pear

The weekend started innocently enough. As I documented in my previous post, I got to learn about wild plants, hang out with a baby fawn, and milk a goat.

Saturday and Sunday were a beast of a whole different color. It marked the first of three weekends in my Hunter-Gatherer class offered by The Human Path and taught by Sam Coffman.

Like the Primitive Core Basic class I completed a few weeks ago, this class was designed to teach basic outdoors/primitive survival skills. Just to give you an idea, over the course of three weekends, these are some of the skills we will have learned (and ideally, mastered):

  • Advanced Shelter – Wickiups, Working debris and primitive huts (indoor and doorway fire pits)
  • Advanced Fire – Hand drill variations, fire saw, fire plow, bow-drill variations and other woods, making char-cloth, activated charcoal, other field-expedient fire methods
  • Small Game (and fish) Skinning, Preparation & Cooking – One source of food for us for the weekends
  • Primitive Fishing I – Primitive Fishing traps, nets and variations
  • Primitive Fishing II – Primitive Fishing spears and hooks
  • Primitive Hunting I – Primitive Bow and arrow making, bowstrings (pre-made cordage) and fletching, intuitive archery
  • Advanced Snares – Several new and different snares: Various bird and small game snares and traps, advanced variations of snares you learned in the core basic and more
  • Stone Tools I – Basic (non-knapped, percussion only) stone tools
  • Food Gathering I – Gathering, preparing & cooking wild, edible plants in the region
  • Water Purification – From start to finish, several methods.  We’ll be using only what we purify. Easy to talk about.  Not as easy to actually do it correctly and have to depend on it.

Unlike my core basic class, however, the gloves were off for this, the first of my three weekends. We didn’t get to bring our sleeping bags, tents, or flashlights. The only clothing we were allowed was what was on our body on Saturday morning. And worst of all, perhaps, was that we were not allowed to bring any food whatsoever.

listening to the tasks ahead of us
It was destined to be a long day. (photo by Osakwe Rikondja)

The day started off reasonably easy. We did a tour of the property and then were sent off to find a place to set up camp and procure wood and other materials for firemaking.

Wait, did I say easy? Scratch that.

You’d think finding a spot to make camp, especially on a 100° day with little to no chance of rain, would be easy. No need to break the wind or protect myself from the cold or rain. So with so little to do, I quickly spread my tarp on the ground and staked it down with sticks.

All was well until the pair of curious heifers decided to pay my camp a visit… and one of them chomped down and tore a hole in the center of the tarp. Back to the drawing board…

One task failed.

Okay, so after I stowed my tarp and other gear away from bovine mandibles, finding materials for the firemaking was next. How hard could that be? Just need some wood to split for a fireboard, another piece to carve for a spindle, and a curved piece for a bow. Oh and a small piece of wood or stone for a capstone. Yet even that task proved more difficult than it seemed, because the heat, desire for lunch, random thoughts running through my brain, and worst of all, a lack of caffeine, made it difficult to concentrate.

Eventually I collected all the pieces and returned to start a fire. This was critical because in a real survival situation you’d need fire to purify your water, and Sam had ruled that we could not drink the bottled water until the group had fire.

After proudly mastering the technique of a bow drill fire using sotal (a plant similar to yucca) at my core basic class, the new techniques didn’t seem too difficult… until I tried them. Using a hand-drill to make a fire, or using harder woods than sotal for a bow-drill, posed an insurmountable challenge to most of us. A few people got smoke (not me), and a couple lucky dogs got embers (fortunately, otherwise we would have died of thirst!). But for me, the best I could do was heat up a yucca stalk a bit from the friction. Not even a whisp of smoke.

texas bull nettle
This could have been dinner... (photo by Osakwe Rikondja)

From there I decided to turn to food gathering. I remembered that the Bull Nettle had an edible tuber, so I dashed off to dig one up. If you’ve never dug out a deep tap root in hard, dry soil with nothing but a sharpened stick and a knife, you really should try it once. Proudly I carried my hard-earned bounty back to camp… only to find out that the crown (the part I had dug up) was inedible.

prickly pear cooking
Prickly pear - it looked like it would taste a lot better than it did (photo by Osakwe Rikondja)

Next food source: prickly pear. That’s edible, right? People eat nopalitos all the time, right? We gathered up a bunch of pads and worked to remove the spines with our knives and flat rocks. By the time we were done I felt like a porcupine from all the tiny spines in my fingers, but damn we had a lot of food. Some of it we cut up and put into our small pots/cups over our fire. As an alternate methonds, my friend Russ decided to roast a pad on a stick over the fire, and feeling pretty hungry by that point in the afternoon, I decided to give it a shot as well.

It’s remarkable how, when you haven’t eaten all day, something you usually dislike can become rather tasty. In fact, as much as I hated prickly pear I eagerly ate the gooey inside of a couple of the pads.

Grasshoppers roasting over an open fire... (photo by Osakwe Rikondja)

Then came the grasshoppers. Hard as hell to catch, we only had six to roast over the fire. I’m proud to say I was the first one to try one… and to those who are wondering, it was like flavorless popcorn.

It had been a hard day in the heat, and a hungry one, but all in all it wasn’t a bad day. Or so I thought….

Continue on to part two…

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