Challenge Brings Opportunity

For now my name is Medicine Woman, but only because I carry the first-aid bag most of the time. I’m happy to be here…it’s challenging, but with every challenge there is also an opportunity, and that is a great chance for change.

We all bring ourselves wherever we gomedicinewoman, and here ourselves are recognized, and then there is the question: “Does myself, or whatever I bring work in this particular situation? What needs to be done or changed to adjust to the situation so everybody is comfortable?” Comfort is a big point out here. For example, I don’t live in a small house anymore, but in a very big one, at least as big as a castle. The kitchen is huge! I can even watch frogs while I’m doing the dishes.

I watch the sun set over the lake while I’m brushing my teeth. For my toilet, I chose a very beautiful part of the woods so I really enjoy going there, even if it takes some time to go there. Everyone has more space here. On the other hand, individuals move closer together. Privacy is getting less and less as we open ourselves more and more to each other. We don’t have a mirror to look at and see our own faces. We really need the others as a mirror. We get to know ourselves much better if we share with the others.

Arriving in the Wild

P1170089 One moon* ago, the Seekers walked the path to Nishnajida (Ojibwe for Camp Where the Old Ways Return), located deep in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. They brought only the bare essentials for what would be needed to begin their 11-month wilderness immersion experience: a tent, matches, tomahawk, craft/wood knife, a bowl for eating as well as changes of clothing and personal care items. Eventually, the matches will be replaced by the bow drill once they learn to make a bow drill fire, their bowls will be exchanged for those they learn to make from the wood in the forest, and their tents will be traded for wigwams that they will be constructing from wood, bark, and cordage gathered from the surrounding forest.

The Seekers are three women and two men. In addition to learning about wilderness survival skills, the Seekers are also choosing to leave behind their old identities during the time they are out in the wilds. This process allows them to learn more about who they truly are apart from the labels they learned to carry back home. It also challenges limiting beliefs they may hold about their potential. To assist with this, the Seekers’ names will change over time, depending on how their fellow Seekers see them, either by their physical characteristics, or their personality traits. When they first began, their names were Braided Woman, Young One, Nut Cracker, Tall One, and Medicine Woman. Medicine Woman is the overseer of the first aid kit. Braided Woman has since become Brave Woman. Young One is now Squirrel, Nut Cracker became Caretaker, and Tall One is now Knowledge Keeper.

The five Seekers are learning about the Three Thresholds to Wilderness Attunement. Oftentimes people associate being in nature as relaxing, as a place to get away and unwind. And it can be. But relaxing and relating to nature can be difficult when we are used to modern day distractions such as email, social media, streaming videos and music, and even background noise. Without these distractions, people encounter the first threshold, the Psychological Threshold. Here, they learn to relate to themselves and others without the buffer of distractions and fast pace of modern living. The second is the Tolerance Threshold, which looms when the discomforts of life in the wilds begin to eat away at their dispositions. Here the rain can seem to go on forever, the ground may be too hard, and the mosquitoes outrank the Seeker’s patience. Once they work through the first two thresholds, they are greeted by the Gifting Threshold. Here they begin to realize the ebb and flow of living in the natural realm: that rain, mosquitoes, and biting flies come and go, that hunger is eventually sated. Tired muscles get rested, low spirits are lifted, and at some point, someone successfully builds a fire.

Discovering Tamarack tree buds

Discovering Tamarack tree buds


Every sun* brings new opportunities for the Seekers to learn how to live comfortably and effectively in the wilds. They are learning how to tell time by the placement of the sun and moon, primitive cooking, wilderness first aid, lostproofing (learning to tell direction without a compass or GPS), edible plants, solo canoeing, just to name a few. One of the biggest lessons is learning to foster a relationship with the land, the trees, plants, water, animals, and insects. Like many of us, the Seekers grew up in a culture where water comes from the tap, heat from a furnace, and food from the grocery store. Getting their drinking water from the lakes, warmth from a wood fire, and food from plants and wild animals puts them in direct relationship with the sources of what sustains them.

First canoe lesson

First canoe lesson

First canoe lesson

First canoe lesson

Stay tuned for updates on their adventures.

*one moon is one month

*one sun is one day



The Beginning of a Family Wilderness Adventure

Written in 2012 by one of the participants of the 2012/13 Family Wilderness Guide Program:

The lake wears a new face each morning.dscn8102

Neon pink and lavender kissing the mist rising from the water, or the bowl of the lake capped by a rippling, iron gray sky, ten thousand cloudscapes. I used to take hundreds of pictures of the sky, trying to preserve each stunning, sensual instant, and I was so busy taking pictures I had no time to see. The the lines of the overhanging branches of a cedar, a pine, and a wave-worn log frame the swim area, for all the world like a landscaped natural picture window.

I will never see this face of the lake again, and I treasure the gift as I treasure the loss.

“High definition reality,” Marcus calls it.

“I’m stealing that,” I tell him.

The camp is waking up.

We’re crazy.

Twenty-five adults, seventeen kids, three generations, four languages, and all our different beliefs, opinions, biases, experiences, triggers, wounds, living in the woods together for eleven moons. There is only one explanation: We’re all insane.

It’s amazing and fantastic and terP1080054rifying and uncomfortable.

We sit around the fire cracking nuts and roasting eggs. A mother translates her delicate toddler’s exuberant outbursts, like closed captioning for the Swedish impaired. Her little girl plays chase with one of the boys and she scrambles over mom, screaming in one part hysteria, one part triumph.

A few of the boys are playing something they call “Dungeons and Dragons,” and I have no idea if it means the same thing to them as it does to me. We have no dice, no books, and not much paper. I smile to myself as I overhear a five-year-old from my tent, “And I told him I was a god and he didn’t want to fight me anymore.”

In our ranks we boast three people who know Thai massage, three who know myofascial release, a smattering of energy workers, and a lot of people who just know how to give with their hands. Almost every sun there’s one or two peofyl4ple in the quiet, sunny spots by the wigwams giving and receiving some kind of massage.

Everyone is basking in novelty and gratitude as the whole camp comes together to help
level ground and erect tents and tarps. This is the honeymoon phase, when everyone loves each other and I wonder what it will be like when all our idiosyncrasies and habits start to snag each other like thorns.

But this is the Now. I decide to enjoy it while I can.

Teaching Drum Outdoor School is currently accepting applications for the 2016/2017 Family Wilderness Guide Program and the Guardian Way. Both programs are 11 month immersion experiences living in the wilds of the Northwoods and promise to be  a life changing adventure for anyone willing to take on the challenge of living close to earth in a balanced way with others. Everyone is welcome.  Both program begin May 1st, 2016. There is an online forum for prospective participants to learn more about these programs and what they entail. This e-group is free and open to anyone who is interested in the Family Wilderness Guide Program or the Guardian Way. To learn more, check out the links in the sidebar, or email

8 Days in the Wild

Julia Creek

Everyone who signed up for the Wilderness Canoe Immersion did so to deepen their knowledge of wilderness survival skills. But for most of us, it seemed we were there for other reasons as well. Some of us came to prove something to ourselves and some to those back home. Regardless of our differing reasons, we all had one thing in common—we knew very little about what we were about to learn:

  • Basic and advanced canoe maneuvering techniques
  • Efficient paddling methods
  • Stealth canoeing
  • Scouting for the best campsites
  • Making fire by friction and advanced fire tending
  • Navigating the wilderness without the help of a compass or GPS (lostproofing)
  • Predicting the weather without instruments
  • Primitive cooking (without the help of pots, pans, or utensils)
  • Setting up a cordless tarp for shelter
  • Wildlife tracking

Canoe Basics with Abel

This wasn’t going to be a normal camping trip with well-worn hiking trails, tents with poles, bonfires, and smores. This experience was meant to take us to our edge, to teach us how to survive in the wilds with very little. Our gear list included nothing more than a solo canoe, paddle, tarp, sleeping bag, clothing, towel, knife and sheath, water filter, tooth and hair brushes, and the optional pencil and journal.


Primitive Cooking

The first day was a whirlwind of activity as the wilderness guides taught us the essentials we would need for setting up camp once we were out in the wilds. Our training camp was Mashkodens (Ojibwe for Little Prairie), which is located in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest about a mile’s hike from Teaching Drum. There we learned wilderness first aid and how to set up a tarp without cordage of any kind, which would serve as our tent. Abel, the senior guide for this trip, taught us basic solo canoe maneuvering techniques, so that we would be ready to navigate down Julia Creek into Julia Lake the next day to meet our transport to the Pine River. Later that night, we had our first bow-drill firemaking lesson, and we learned how to cook food primitively—and I mean primitively! We didn’t use any containers or utensils to prepare the whole delicious meal.

The next day, we woke at dawn and shared our dreams from the night. We learned that dream messages can help us to see ourselves and our circumstances in a different light, often helping us navigate through the difficult terrain of life goals and relationships. Sharing dreams helped us deepen our understanding of our own dream messages.

Snapseed (3)

Pine River

Each day began with dream sharing. Then we were off in our canoes down the Pine River, weaving through many Beaver dams and taking in the fall colors of Birch, Aspen, Maple, and Oak while learning more advanced stealth canoe paddling techniques.

When the sun began to set, we’d start scouting for our next campsite. The right spot had to include a good place for a hearth and nearby areas where we could each set up our tarps for the night. This was difficult for all of us at first, as our untrained eyes couldn’t see any feasible places, only a forest thick with trees and underbrush, and the ground covered with lichen-draped logs and squishy moss. The open areas were mostly bog.

Abel needed to guide our attention to potential areas. Oftentimes the hearth was far enough away from our tarps that, since we didn’t have flashlights, it was quite the adventure to find our way back and forth after dark. But the challenge was good, and we learned how to feel our way with our feet.

fall zone2

Kimball Creek

We also learned to navigate without a compass (called lostproofing), as well as how to predict the weather by observing which direction the wind came from, the height and speed of the clouds, and by maintaining an awareness of the changes in temperature and humidity. Wherever we paddled or hiked, we were called upon to remain focused on our surroundings, to maintain an awareness of which direction we were headed, and to be observant for signs of animal tracks.

One particular day, we were hiking in the woods and came upon a big section of leveled forest. Abel explained that once every 10 to 20 years, a severe thunderstorm will create a downdraft that levels nearly everything in its path. Hiking through such a fall zone was both mesmerizing and time consuming, as the tangle of logs and new growth made for many places to get your feet caught.


Gathering around the Hearth

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Indeed, there were no paths on this trip. We created our own, and adventure and a deeper level of self-knowing met us there. We learned to work together through forest thicket, beaver dams, fall zones—and even through interpersonal friction, which occurred a few times. We emerged from the program with new skills for surviving in the wilds on very little, and the knowledge that we had proven something to ourselves and those we cared for.

To read about another participant’s experience on the 8 Day Wilderness canoe Immersion, check out Michael Jason Fox’s blog.

The Future is not Now

This post was written by Diamond, one of the graduates of the Guardian Intensive, about her field experience in the Northwoods this past summer.

P1160520This bend is it.

Of course, it isn’t. This creek meanders like tangle of spaghetti, and every time I think it’s going to open up into the river that is our destination, it doesn’t. It’s like having an incessant five year old in the back of my brain, “Are we there yet?”
“Not yet, honey.”
“Are we there now?
“How about now?”

I’m sitting in a nutshell of a canoe, my pack frame loaded in front of me and a bundle of bear fat insulated with sphagnum moss, wrapped in birch bark and rawhide, behind me. A short canyon of marsh grass stands over my head on either bank. The current ripples the rich tannic water, and brilliant orange and purple and yellow flowers I can’t even name tantalize me with their passing greetings. It’s a lovely, relaxing paddle (after dragging our canoes for two hours through alder thickets), and I’m honestly having the time of my life.

Still my mind reaches for the unattainable: for what’s next, to be now. One more bend, one more beaver dam, then the river, tarp set-up, and sleep. One more cycle of the sun down, one less day I’ll be here in this program. My anxiety is mounting as I calculate the angle of the sun, the time it will take to set up camp, whether there will be time to cook dinner…

The urge to already be doing the next thing comes up in our group so much it’s comical. We over plan our days constantly. Our conversations always drift to what we’ll do after this experience or how we’ll incorporate it into our “real” lives.P1160108

Oh, when I go on that camping trip with my friends next year, how cool will it be to show them my tarp lean-to without string…

But I’m here, right now, living in a tarp lean-to without string, and in my mind I’m there, a year in the future, a future that may not even come to pass. My campmates rave about the recipes they’ll create with skillets and ovens using the ingredients we’ve come to love out here.

Still in the Ocean munches on a fire-roasted half cabbage dripping with bear fat, and laughs at himself. “Here I am, fantasizing about all the fatty cabbage I’m going to make at home, and I’m right here, eating this fatty cabbage!”

Suddenly I see myself as microcosm within macrocosm, a mote in a maelstrom of humanity. I imagine the immensity of human consciousness straining at the bit for anything that isn’t here. That isn’t now. How many of us live for the future?

When I retire everything will be better…
When school is out…
When work is over…
When that person finally leaves…
When my partner finally comes home…
When the weekend comes…
When I get that car/phone/doodad…
When I get that job…
When I am out of the woods away from these three people who are driving me nuts…

Be here, now.

With mindfulness all the rage, the aphorism has become a cliche. It is still my constant reminder when I find myself straining for a future state, some goal, accomplishment, change. Just be here now. Relax into the process. To just exist in the present moment without wishing for it to be different is a herculean task for my hypertrophied intellectual mind.

When I’m in my head fantasizing about some future condition or acquisition, I’m living in a mirage with all the substance of cotton candy. I’m losing the ecstasy of what I’m experiencing right now, like sand through my fingers. I’m not hearing the nuances of the wind in the grass, tracking the changes in the land from tamarack and balsam to red pine and birch. I don’t notice the duck until she’s already flown away in alarm, I miss noticing when the nettles first start to appear on the shore. I’m distracted from the fullness of my own emotions, the richness that comes even with the uncomfortable, so called “negative” ones that I need to experience to be a fully actualized human. When I’m wishing I am with anybody but the people I’m with, I’m missing out on enjoying them for who they are and what they bring to our group.P1160557

One bend at a time. One beaver dam at a time. One paddle stroke. One breath.

If we don’t make it tonight, we’ll be okay. We’ll take care of each other. We’ll get there when we get there.






The Last Sun

P1160525The trainees followed the map to the small wilderness lake, and there they each found a small, solo canoe. The solo canoes are just 10 feet long and weigh only 20 pounds, making it very easy to maneuver and portage. They were then given a canoeing workshop, followed by a map to their next destination: the headwaters of a rambling stream. It would be a difficult hike: they would have to maintain a good sense of direction while following ridges, crossing bogs, and making their way through dense forest.

LP1160354ate last sun the guides found them… Hooray!!! Their navigating skills served them well, as they ended up very close to their intended destination. Yet they were tired and struggling to stay present and engaged in the moment.  They struggled with future projecting and dreaming about the comforts of their far-away homes. A couple of them reflected on how this is a pattern they enact wherever they are. One of them said not a word, having stated a few suns ago that he was just waiting for the program to be over, which he knew was soon.

Because of the accelerated pace of moving to new locations, they were stressed about finding time to take care of themselves. They were putting off bathing and other self-care in favor of finding suitable campsites, making fire, and preparing food. Yet the guides saw the value in the intensified pace, as the trainees were recognizing and owning what keeps them from functioning optimally, rather than blaming each other. In doing so, they were growing in self-awareness and circle consciousness.

The guides then made a stick-and-stone map to their next destination: they were to paddle the stream to where it joins with a river, which would take them an entire sun, maybe more. The guides would meet them there and give further instruction.

Next sun, the guides paddled downriver to the appointed meeting spot: the stream’s junction with the river. The guides howled for them, but received no answering call. It had been a beautiful sun for a canoe trip: cool and sunny, with a few wispy clouds. There was much to see on the way, beaver lodges, islands with giant pines, and tempting side streams to explore. Perhaps they took their time to enjoy the experience.

The following sun the guides returned to the meeting spot and howled in hopes of connecting with them, delivering provisions, and hearing the story of their adventures. Once again, there was no response. The guides knew the trainees carried a GPS device, which they could activate to send their coordinates and a message for help if in dire need. And yet, the guides pondered over what could be delaying them so much. After all, they could have made the journey in one sun, and after two suns there was still no sign of them.

A rule of thumb in search and rescue is to return to the place of last contact, so early the next morning, three of the guides did just that. To their surprise, their howl was returned. Just in the nick of time too. It turned out that the trainees took a side stream to the south, which dead-ended on a road. It had taken them all sun to get there, then another sun to paddle back to their starting point. When the guides found them, they were just about to head downstream to find the spot where they misread the signs.

At this point they had been without food for the last leg of their strenuous journey and were happy to hear there was a food mission to undertake. These provisions would give them the strength to continue on to their next camp. And the next… and the next…

On Friday, August 14th, the trainees did not know that this sun was to be their last in the wilderness.  The guides showed up for a meeting and covered several topics related to re-integrating back into their communities. The trainees had many questions on the topic, as they had been looking forward to exploring it.

At the end of the meeting, a guide laid out a stick map on the ground, to get them to their next camp via a loooong walk. They were then instructed to drop theirP1150995 canoes and most of their gear on the opposite riverbank, then conduct a food mission that would give them the supplies needed for their trek.

The trainees stealthily positioned their scouts up and down river, then fully engaged in the mission, which took them to a vehicle with a trailer ready to take them, their canoes, and all their gear back to Nad’mad’iwining, the School’s support center. At first, the trainees did not compute that this was it–the end…

P1160585The trainees are now back home from their 80-day adventure in the Northcountry wilds. A vital piece on their return to their kin is to be welcomed back, acknowledged for the ordeals they faced, and recognized for the valuable places they hold in their circles. Once they’ve had a chance to reintegrate into their communities, we will be posting their input about what they learned during their time in the Guardian Intensive Training.

All Missions are Possible


One of the key components of the Guardian Intensive Training is service to community. In addition to learning wilderness survival skills, the trainees also take on missions, which can include anything from cleaning up illegal dump sites in the forest to wetland restoration.

In all things, including missions, the trainees learn to move stealthily through the forest, to leave no trail or trace behind them.  This can be especially difficult when cleaning up a public site, as one of the requirements is to not be seen or heard by other people. It’s not so much that the trainees shouldn’t be seen doing good deeds, but more so that remaining invisible challenges them to be far more present and aware than they would otherwise be.

Being stealthy requires that they use their navigation skills to scout the area ahead of time and determine the best entry and exit points, as well as the best place to unload debris so the Forest Service can pick it up later. Having no tools, they must use what they find. In one case, they used a piece of illegally-dumped carpet as a tarp to haul other debris out.

To complete their missions effectiP1160041vely, they must keep track of where they’ve been and where they need to go next. Having no maps, GPS, or compass, they use stones, sticks, and pine cones to craft a map from what they’ve learned by scouting out and familiarizing themselves with their surroundings. When it is time to move to a distant and unfamiliar area, the guides make a similar-type map showing the lay of the land, significant landmarks, directions, and distances. The trainees memorize the map, then scatter the sticks and stones and restore the map site, so as to leave no trace.

Together they will recall the map as they journey to their new destination.

Weather forecasting is another useful skill the trainees have progressed in. Knowing the language of the air, winds, and clouds, enables them tjppic2o know if and when they can move on with their mission/journey, or stay put until the weather is favorable.

Two suns ago they left their last ‘sedentary’ camp where they returned several forest areas to their pristine state. The photos in this post show what they removed in their restoration labor of love. The trainees felt excited about exploring new territory, as they had been in this general area for almost a full moon. At the same time, there was also trepidation and anxiety about coordinating their invisible exit, which was delayed by a day of continuous rain. The four coordinated and completed their restoration missions by staging all of the garbage close to, but invisible from a road. Next they proceeded to load their packs with their belongings and hide them near their exit trail.  Finally they erased any trails or signs of their presence in the area and moved the trash next to the road to be cleaned up by the Forest Service.

They completed that fP1160215inal step before setting out at dawn, and reading the lay of the land, according to the map they memorized, and then traveled to a small wilderness lake. Stay tuned for more of their adventures…

Learn more about the trainees’ experiences in the audio below!