Primitive/wilderness skills · Survival

A dirty tale of a dirty weekend, part two

homemade water purification system made from a bottle
This is how real men and women purify their water. (photo by Osakwe Rikondja)

After hours spent working on the necessities of shelter, fire, food and water (we made water purification systems with plastic bottles, grass, gravel, sand, and charcoal), it was time to break for the night. Several of us took this opportunity to strip off some of the layers of dirty, sweaty clothing we had worn all day and jump into the river at the edge of the property.

As I was swimming around and relaxing, and trying to get my mind off of how hungry I was, I started getting twinges of what I can only describe as heartburn. At first I ignored it, but then I had this sense that I needed to get out of the river.

As the queasiness intensified, I knew something was wrong, and I found Sam. Concerned about my situation, he first offered me food, which I declined, and then gave me some adrenal and gastric tinctures he had for these situations, which was what I had really been looking for anyway. Feeling somewhat fortified, I made it back to my “camp”, where Russ offered me a packet of electrolytes.

One single taste of that tart powder and it hit me… and then seconds later the meager contents of my stomach hit the poor innocent yucca plants a few yards away.

Apparently the prickly pear disagreed with me. Violently. In the span of less than an hour my body decided that the demons that reside inside those cacti were escaping from my body one way or the other, and as it turned out, both ways, with equal force and determination.

So that was how I ended day one of the Hunter-Gatherer class: feeling like a failure for not successfully completing any of our day’s tasks, and sick as a dog, having thrown up and with diarrhea to boot. I really wished at that moment that I could have been home in bed in my air-conditioned apartment, but instead I was laying on a plastic tarp on the ground a good distance away from the single portapotty, and more or less wishing I was dead.

But it wasn’t all bad. Reflecting back, there were two good things about the experience.

First, I was in good hands. Sam and several of my classmates made sure I was okay, and I was with a good friend who I trusted would take me home if I needed to leave. It was reassuring to know that people cared, and that there were people I could rely on.

And second, I endured. I did not take food when offered, and I did not give up and go home. Trust me, I wanted to leave… I was majorly uncomfortable laying on the ground; I was chilled from my wet clothes; and most of all, I feared my body would continue to expel demons in any way possible. Yet I stuck it out and made it through until morning.

And as it usually works out, the night passed and the sun rose in the morning, and things were a bit better. Well, not a lot better… there was no breakfast, no coffee, and another half day of work ahead of us. But it was a new day, and that at least held some promise.

Texas Bluebird
Not the actual bird, but this is what the bluebird looked like (creative commons photo by fveronesi1)

The first task was to go sit somewhere and observe nature. Watch for animals, birds, fish… see if we could find animal tracks or burrows, and get a sense for what food sources might be around us. For about an hour I found myself sitting on a rock in the river watching birds, fish, insects… I heard a woodpecker overhead and at one point was astonished to see a Texas Bluebird fly down very close to me to drink from the river. (I was astonished because I’ve never actually seen a bluebird before.)

And then came the final part of the weekend’s instruction. Fish traps. Sam showed us how to construct a simple fish trap out of a large plastic bottle (you cut off the top and invert it inside the bottle like a funnel, and tie the two pieces together). He also showed us how to catch fish by building a trap with rocks in the river, and how to build a large one using rivercane.

Down in the river again, like everyone else, I set my carefully-constructed plastic bottle trap, weighted with rocks, into the water and went to help build the other trap. When I returned…

I caught four fish!

They were scared to death, of course, and not at all happy to be jostled around in a bottle with puncture holes draining out the water, and with rocks threatening to crush them. And because this was just a demonstration activity, the fish were released to live another day (and warn their comrades to avoid plastic bottles in the future).

The important part was that for once I was actually able to successfully complete a task, and even better, I think I was the only one who caught anything. So maybe I sucked as a gatherer this time around, but I didn’t do so bad with the hunter part. And that made me feel capable and productive for the first time since the weekend had begun. Finally, I had achieved something, and it was enough to give me hope for the future classes.

In the end, the trip was difficult, painful, miserable. I can’t really classify most of it as fun. But sometimes we do things for other reasons than just having a good time. Like Sam had hoped, I learned what it was like to be really hungry for a day, especially while being physically active. I also learned that even when things are rough, you can often push a bit harder and get through them. So once again, it seemed that the most important things I learned weren’t really part of the official curriculum.

Like the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. I think I really did learn that lesson this weekend.



4 thoughts on “A dirty tale of a dirty weekend, part two

  1. Thanks for sharing! I’m curious, did you eat the skin of the prickly pear “leaf” or just the inner gel? I would expect to get sick off the skin (like aloe) is why I’m asking.

    1. Brian, I only ate the inside gel. We tried to cook down some of the pads sliced up, but even after being on the fire forever the outer part never softened up. These of course were larger pads, not baby ones, which might have made the difference.

      Sam thinks I may have just had too much of wild food, something my body wasn’t used to, and that makes sense. Still, even if the cactus was totally innocent in the end, even the thought of eating it makes my stomach uneasy. I doubt I’ll be trying it again any time soon!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I’m curious, did you eat the skin of the prickly pear “leaf” or just the inner gel? I would expect to get sick off the skin (like aloe) is why I’m asking.

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