A simple lesson learned — Sarah Moore’s wilderness sojourn

May 1, 2013

By Kevin Meagher

Canoes filled with marsh grass that will be used to cover wigwams. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Canoes filled with marsh grass that will be used to cover wigwams. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Imagine the reality TV show Survivor without the staged competition, backstabbing, petty drama, and exotic locales.

Imagine instead a group of people who choose to immerse themselves in the wilderness of Northern Wisconsin for 11 months where they learn to survive using old native ways. They learn to build shelters with plant materials, to hunt and fish and forage, to find water, to make clothing from animal skins, to cook over a fire with no pots or pans, to identify and use herbs to dress wounds or cure cramps, and to stay clean and healthy living outdoors through four seasons.

Those who enroll in the Teaching Drum School’s Wilderness Guide Program learn to live off the land and survive in the wilderness. They also learn to communicate and cooperate and to navigate the social dynamics of group-living in extreme conditions.

The Teaching Drum Outdoor School is located in Three Lakes, Wis. and was founded in 1987 by Tamarack Song. The school began as a summer-only program, offering classes in edible and medicinal plants, week-long canoe trips, and birch-bark canoe building.

The program expanded over the past three decades and the school now offers an 11-month wilderness immersion course on the its 80-acre preserve adjacent to the Headwaters Wilderness in the Nicolet National Forest. The site of the program is named Nishnajida, which is Ojibwe for “camp where the old way returns.” It is located on a small lake seven miles from the main campus.

Despite a curriculum that teaches the ancient way, the school operates as a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation and charges a very 21st century $10,200 tuition fee for the program.

7 Village life 2013 P1110222

Aerial view of the encampment. A deer skin is stretched on a frame on the right near a birch bark covered wigwam. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Being there

The program gives participants the opportunity to experience living almost entirely off the resources of the land. They are guided through the processes of building their own shelters, building fires, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Modern technology is left behind, although once a month the participants may elect to walk back to the main campus to use phones, the internet, and to pick-up mail, but beyond that, the sun and moon are their clocks, arms and fingers are measuring sticks, and the social network is confined to the members of the group.

This simple lifestyle is what attracted Riverwest resident Sarah Moore to the program. (Moore attended Bay View High School in ninth grade.)

“I was never really big into camping. I was never the one to say, let’s go hiking or camping.,” Moore said.

Moore brought her two children, 5-year-old Gio and 12-year-old Andre with her when she began the program on May 1, 2012. After the first two months, only Gio was still with her. It was not because Andre was voted out of the group or because he couldn’t pull his own weight, but because he needed more structure than the program offered. He chose to return to the city and his father.

Program participants are not thrown to the wolves, though. The immersion process is a gradual one. Moore and her 42 fellow participants were provided tents and tarps for the first few months and given food via daily drops from the main camp.

Marsh grass is attached to the wigwam frame. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Marsh grass is attached to the wigwam frame. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Birch bark is being applied to the wigwam.  —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Birch bark is being applied to the wigwam. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

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Birch bark provides more insulation to the wigwam and is used during the colder months. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

In the late summer months, the group learned to make wigwams with grass and birch bark. When they completed these structures, they abandoned the tents and tarps and lived strictly within their natural shelters for the rest of the program. The shelters grew progressively more complex as the group moved through the fall and winter. The wigwams were given more layers and fitted with primitive indoor heating.

“The winter lodges were [built on] the same frame as the summer ones, with maple poles, then bark over that, then peat over that. Then there is a hole in the middle [of the roof] and a hearth that goes down in a cone shape [that connects to] a tunnel that goes outside the lodge so that fresh air is drawn in and feeds the fire, and smoke escapes out of the top,” Moore said.

In the deep winter, the members of the group built and moved into snow lodges, which are no more than a mound of snow that accommodates a sleeping chamber. To construct the snow lodge, the participants piled a huge mound of snow in the shade of trees, then put branches over the pile, then put another layer of snow over the branches, and finally carved out the core for a sleeping chamber. Moore said she was able to sleep in one of these shelters with her son for most of the winter.

Gio and his mother Sarah Moore stand in front of their snow lodge which was their winter sleeping chamber. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Gio and his mother Sarah Moore stand in front of their snow lodge which was their winter sleeping chamber. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

“These were generally warmer than the bark lodges, because you could block the door at the bottom, but leave a little air hole at the top. What I actually had to worry about was that the lodge would get over 32 degrees and melt,” she said.

Fortunately Moore’s snow lodge didn’t melt. In the winter she slept in a thick sleeping bag with lambskin and wool blankets. Sometimes she stashed all the clothing she needed for the next day inside her sleeping bag so it would be warm in the morning and she could get dressed without leaving the coziness of the sleeping bag. After dressing, she said she hoped she would find that someone had already built a campfire; if not she ran to stay warm or gathered firewood.

A bow-drill expert demonstrates the technique used to start a fire by producing enough friction to create a glowing coal.  —courtesy Teaching Drum School

A bow-drill expert demonstrates the technique used to start a fire by producing enough friction to create a glowing coal. —courtesy Teaching Drum School

Even simple conveniences like matches were off limits to members of the group. To make a morning fire they would either use coals from the previous night’s fire or start a new one, practicing their bow-drill skills.

Matches were not the only things the group was denied. The learning-by-deprivation method was encouraged in other areas of the program as well. The group learned to do all their cooking over a fire after weaning themselves off of pots and pans early on. And while they did received daily food drops, the instructors controlled the nature of the food they provided.

For example, the instructors cut back on specific types of food for weeks at a time. When they cut back on fruit, Moore and the group foraged and ate wild berries. When cut back on greens, they ate milkweed and linden leaf, and when cut back on protein, the group went fishing.

At times, they were forced to get creative with their food supply. “We learned a lot about eating. I ate bugs and frogs. I ate mice, squirrel, and rabbit… One of my favorites was ants. You would take a leaf and put it on the ant’s hill, and they would crawl all over it, and you would try to mush the ants, and try to get as many in your mouth [as possible] before they nipped you,” said Moore.

Gio was equally as experimental with food, sampling frog and ants. Participants’ weight and body fat were monitored every month to ensure they were eating enough. Moore dropped a significant amount of weight and was instructed not to rely solely on foraged food, but to supplement it each day with the dropped food.

As a precaution, all food was kept outside of the wigwams to prevent animals from wandering in. The group did not encounter predatory animals so were never on the wrong side of the food chain. Moore said that they never saw wolf or bear tracks near the camp, but they occasionally saw bobcat tracks.

Predators aside, the group faced its share of danger. “We did have someone fall out of a tree and then they wouldn’t let us climb trees for a long time… For me, I battled a lot in the early winter with cold toes and frostbite and had to be really conscious of keeping my feet warm,” said Moore.

Sarah Moore back home in Riverwest. —photo Jennifer Kresse

Sarah Moore back home in Riverwest. —photo Jennifer Kresse

A deeper philosophy

One of the goals Moore set out to accomplish during her experience was learning about conflict resolution. While the group got along fairly well throughout the year, there was tension at times, she said. At one point in winter, the group was looking for a new site to build a snow lodge. They initially found a site that near the current camp, which Moore favored because she had been having knee problems.

Later other group members decided to move to a site that was an hour’s walk away. Moore had no choice but to go with the group’s decision.

Moore said her initial response was feeling victimized when she had been unable to convince the group not to move to the distant site.

Yet she needed the safety of the group and had to learn to respond to her disappointment differently. “I realized the real gift is to say ‘Okay, that’s what I got and accept it.’”

Reflecting on the decision to move the site of the snow lodge, Moore said, “I ended up having a great time and part of the reason was my son. I saw him helping out, and having a good time, and [getting] ready to go, and I knew I just needed to switch gears and go for it.”

Observing her son’s willingness to help move to the new site and his enjoyment of the activity inspired Moore, she said. She learned to accept things for what they were—a simple lesson, profound and easily overlooked. After she returned to Milwaukee and began to digest her experience, Moore found herself applying this lesson to modern life.

“I think most of us, including myself, struggle with trusting that the world will take care of us and the future will be okay,” said Moore. “There’s so much fear… I think I gained a lot more trust in the circle of life. After coming back I felt more accepting about whatever is going to happen with the future of humanity.”

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