Ever dreamed of learning to make fire? Or quieting your thoughts so that you can see your surroundings in a whole new way? Or, say, murdering stuffed puppets with a throwing stick?
My dear friend and I learned to do all this (and more) by participating in the Primitive Outdoor Skills Program held twice a year at Tucson, Arizona’s famed spa and wellness resort, Canyon Ranch.
From here on in, the wilderness better watch out.
My friend Kara and I are both fans of adventures that involve water, hiking, resorts and spas (we’ve traveled together to Caribbean hotspots like Belize and Jamaica, around her home state of Colorado, and to the relaxing The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain) but strangely enough, had never thought to sharpen our knife-making skills.
So when Canyon Ranch invited us to join two guys (hi there, Matt and Rob) to dig deep and find our inner survivalists, we jumped at the chance. I pictured hoisting a pack on my back, trudging off into the brush and proving my mettle as a strong, capable adult. (Or at least not hurting myself in a spectacular manner.)
The Primitive Outdoor Skills Program teaches four major lessons, and participants are tested on all of them:
- making a hoko knife using obsidian and yucca
- creating fire using a handmade bow and a wad of fluff
- tapping into our instinctive (but usually neglected) sense of native awareness
- and honing our tracking and hunting skills
I imagined that these particular skills were based on one of two theories of the future: 1) the zombie apocalypse could one day break loose or 2) our banking system will really collapse; in either case, we’ll all have to head for the proverbial hills. However, just as I was beginning to feel anxious about these prospects, Canyon Ranch said I could book spa treatments and a watercolor class, making the whole enterprise feel more manageable. (There will be more on Canyon Ranch in a future post.)
These are some things about the Primitive Skills Outdoor Program I hadn’t imagined:
It doesn’t involve wandering off much of anywhere. Canyon Ranch is snuggled into a suburban residential community about a half-hour from Tucson’s main airport (TUS), and you’re really never far from a paved driveway or a luggage-toting golf cart. Most of the program’s lessons take place surrounded by cacti, shrubs and the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, but also beside the resort’s pebbly peace labyrinth or semi-daunting High Ropes Challenge Course.
The instructor, Randy Kinkade, takes his work very seriously – while also laughing. A former National Park Service Ranger, Randy has been teaching survivalist skills since 1990, and created the Primitive Skills Outdoor Program, with, well, his own two hands. Also the Outdoor Sports Manager at the Ranch, he knows his way all around the Catalinas and all around a good pun. With a winning combination of patience, geekery and a healthy dose of snark, Randy’s a guy you’d want to have along when stalking off into the wilds — or in our case, 10 minutes away from the front desk.
A desert canyon in the morning is colder than you think it’s going to be. Also? If you actually remember to pack your fleece hoodie and your gloves, you might want to actually put them on before you head outdoors for two hours in a shady spot. (And by “you,” of course, I mean “me.”) Take my word for it, it’s not easy to braid skinny plant fibers when you’re violet-blue and shivering.
And one must braid skinny plant fibers in order to make a proper hoko knife. Based on an archeological find at a 2,500-year-old fishing camp beside Washington State’s Hoko River, creating this weapon requires finding, selecting, and striking a piece of obsidian in order to create a perfectly pointed rock flake; finding yucca leaves, pounding them with a rock until they separate into stringy pieces, and braiding these pieces together to make green twine; and splitting a dry husk of yucca root, inserting the obsidian flake, and binding the yucca root halves with the twine to hold the flake in place.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, sure — after all, in the program, you get all the materials you need plus safety glasses and thick work gloves, ensuring that you won’t strike your obsidian just so and take out an eye or sever a finger. Ignoring the fact that one could easily do both in the actual wilds, it’s safe to enjoy the accomplishment of making a bonafide knife with your own hands. I sure did.
Making fire was the real rush of this program, though. Using a few pieces of yucca root, a thick string, a slightly curved piece of wood, a knife and a little bar of hotel soap, I made a bow, hollowed out a hole in my base, and whittled a curved-edge spindle. I then inserted the spindle securely into my bow, and set the base on the ground on a bed of fluff, which is either decomposed brownish/gray grass, a wad of fiber from the bark of a dead cottonwood tree, or in this case, the inner bark of a jute tree.
From there, I set the spindle firmly into the base, held the base down with my foot, and sawed my bow like my life depended on it. The goal here was to spark a coal, shelter it in my wad of fluff, blow on it like nobody’s business and get a flame going. When I made a ball of fire on my first try, I felt like high-fiving the whole world. (I settled for high-fiving our group.)
The next challenge was to channel our native awareness. Rather than a political statement, this is a form of open-eyed meditation, encouraging you to widen your field of vision and be more mindful of your surroundings while outdoors. It involves being steady and methodical both in motion and at rest, honing in on details and then “soft focusing” on the scene before you. We practiced seeing the world from different perspectives: heading off by ourselves to stand still and zoom in on a one-foot-square spot of ground, then crouching down to see how our experience of this spot would change. It was simultaneously calming and fascinating to experience the world as both a medium-sized human being and a tiny insect.
The main goals of channeling your native awareness are to notice more details around you, feel surefooted as you walk without having to keep your eyes on the ground, and more secure as you sit without having to worry that something is going to sneak up on you. I’ve since practiced slowing my breath and widening my field of vision while walking around my neighborhood, using more of my senses to take in my environment. It’s a lovely break from a typical workday at my computer, and is especially effective when I’m trying to find something on a crowded shelf at Trader Joe’s.
The most complex part of the program was learning about animal tracking, silent movement and the primitive hunt. Randy began by gathering us beside a tracking box, which is essentially a long, flat, rectangular and wood-rimmed sandbox. He raked it smooth and then moved across it in different ways — walking, running, twisting, hopping and even dropping to one knee — in order to teach us how to read footprints and determine the size and physical/emotional state of an animal, as well as the direction in which it’s moving. Footprints are apparently a form of language, helping a hungry person find their way to some protein.
Of course, you can’t kill what you can’t surprise – so Randy tried to teach us to walk in utter silence in order to ambush unsuspecting animals. This may sound easy, but the dry twig crunch got us almost every time. We fared even less well at a game designed to sharpen our listening skills: each of us took a turn blindfolded and sitting on the ground with rope balled up in our hands, trying to tell when and from where someone was creeping up on us. If you heard someone, you were supposed to throw the rope in that person’s direction in an attempt to tag them. This challenge proved really hard for all of us, and probably would have required each of us a day or two of practice in order to reliably succeed. In the meantime, if this had been the actual wilderness, we would probably have starved to death, never hearing an animal in the right spot.
Unless, of course, that animal was stuffed and mounted on a post. The pièce de résistance of the program was the primitive hunt, where we learned how to stand our ground and violently fling throwing sticks at plush puppets. Please trust me when I tell you that this looks as insane as it sounds. In real life, the goal would be to take down something like a rabbit, but at Canyon Ranch, the goal is to murder Lamb Chop with a high-velocity hurl. The good news? As long as wildlife remains immobile and my upper arm strength remains steady, I will always be able to dine in the desert.
Our final test was exciting, frustrating, hilarious, and ultimately really fun. One of our group had fallen terribly sick with a cold, so we were a motley crew of three, and did our best to run hither and yon, gathering natural materials and keeping our eye on the survival prize. We made passable knives, we sort of made fire, we semi-correctly read footprints, and we killed a stuffed animal or two. There was a lot of laughing and scrambling and cursing, and no one seemed aware of zombies or financial disaster just around the corner.
I loved doing the Primitive Outdoor Skills Program, and would recommend it to anyone who feels like they haven’t been outside their office or calmly inside their own head in quite some time. Some form of the program exists each week at Canyon Ranch, and Randy will happily welcome any guest into his lessons. If you’d rather immerse yourself in a survivalist experience, however, check out the intensive programs offered twice a year, in May and October.
Either way, be sure to try a cactus fruit while you’re out there…just in case it’s the only food you can catch.
A great big thank you to Canyon Ranch for inviting me to participate in their Primitive Outdoors Skills program, providing complimentary airfare, lodging, meals, spa treatments and more. And a special thank you to Randy Kinkade, who would be my personal choice for wilderness survival leader in the event of a worldwide disaster.