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!

The Fourth Threshold

P1160002The trainees have now been immersed in the wilderness for 8 weeks. Every day they are utilizing the essential survival skills they have learned, in order to face the challenges that arise. These skills include choosing the most ideal campsite, accumulating comfort points, wilderness navigation, weather forecasting, wilderness first aid, bow-drill fire making, primitive cooking without pots or utensils, empathetic communication, functioning seamlessly as a pack, and much, much more.

As they move from camp to camp, they carry everything they need with them on their pack frames. They are getting better at transforming their difficulties into learning opportunities. When only one trainee was able to produce a coal to start a fire, they created the Fire Challenge, where each one of them took on the responsibility of creating two fires for the clan. If there was no fire, there was no cooked food. This Challenge truly motivated them and brought out their best; everyone can now create a bow drill fire.

Throughout this time, they are meeting the Three Thresholds to Wilderness Attunement head-on. First is the Psychological Threshold, where they come face-to-face with themselves because they don’t have their accustomed distractions to fall back on. Second is the Tolerance Threshold, which looms when the discomforts of nomadic life in the wilds eat away at their dispositions. 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.

These first three thresP1150983holds are personal; each trainee must overcome them individually. The Fourth Threshold is different—it is social and typically looms after two moons (months) or so, when an individual starts truly missing friends and loved ones. Memories can sustain someone for only so long. The trainees successfully embrace the Fourth Threshold when they move out of the I-me-mine way of being and cross over to fully embrace themselves, one another, and the woodland community which hosts them on their journey.

This is no easy task. It requires the willingness and ability to fully accept themselves and others unconditionally. In this sense, it could be considered the first threshold of another level, because crossing over allows them to become a functioning organ within the organism.

The trainees are now in the midst of the Fourth Threshold. Tension surrounds two of the trainees in particular. One of them is efficient and goal oriented, and the other often struggles to keep up with the group. It’s not as much about skill level as it is about the underlying psychological patterns they both learned during childhood that are now taking center stage: super-responsible child who grew up too soon meets the child who was treated as inadequate. The more that Super-Responsible pressures Feeling Inadequate, the slower they go and the more agitated they both get.

In civil society, their conflict may be regarded as nothing more than incompatibility, and they could easily go their separate ways. But in the wild, everyone is needed—there is no choice but to work it out. This is forcing them to look more deeply at themselves and each other, to see why they react the way they do, and to find the gifts the other has to offer. If P1150964they are able to make the journey from their minds to their hearts and meet there, their clan may be able to thrive on the gifts the relationship brings, and together they will find their place within the realm of the Wild Relations.

To hear more about their experiences from the trainees themselves, you can listen to the latest recording below. And of course, stay tuned for more adventures…

Fire and Hearth


When it rains, the trainees stay put wherever they are. It’s far better to catch up on sleep from the mosquito-infested nights than to get themselves and their gear wet, because once wet, they must wait until the weather clears in order to dry their gear. So far, there have only been a few days that required laying low.

The trainees’ comfort is determined by how well they evaluate and set up their campsite.  As a nomadic clan, they are getting a lot of practice assessing and choosing campsites based on comfort points.  These include finding a place with a good hearth area near a water source that is both high and dry, while taking into account sun exposure. When setting up their tarps, they must also assess whether their tarp placement will shield them from prevailing winds during inclement weather.

The effectiveness of setting up a successful camp hinges on consistently following these five steps, which are listed in order of importance:

  1. Scout area thoroughly to determine a location that meets all basic needs.
  2. Set up tarps to secure dry environment for self and gear.
  3. Set up hearth and fire.
  4. Find water access.
  5. Establish food storage.

Part of the training includes building Fire with a bow drill… matches ran out weeks ago. Though everyone has been practicing, no one but Caretaking Woman, formerly known as Long-Haired Woman, P1140341has been able to call upon the gift of Fire. Recently, the trainees decided it was time to step up to the learning opportunity, so they designed a Fire Challenge.  Each person was assigned three days in which to bring forth Fire for the clan. If that person is not successful, then there is no Fire that day.

Playful Child, formerly known as Youngest Man, was the first trainee to step up to the Fire Challenge. The first day, the clan did not have Fire. Not succeeding puts a lot of pressure on the person who is charged with building one. Fire is essential for food preparation, for keeping mosquitos at bay, for drying wet gear, for warmth during cold spells, and serves as a gathering place for the clan at the end of the day.

Playful Child succeeded on the second night! He now goes by the name Embers Inside.

Listen to the latest recording of the Guardian Intensive trainees discussing their experiences in the wild.


Thresholds in the Wild


The trainees have been immersed in the wilds for a little over a month now. Their guts are fully accustomed to drinking lake water, they are no longer dependent on matches for fire, and they have perfected their tarp set ups without the use of cordage.

The Guardian Intensive Training emphasizes a nomadic way of living. To better learn these skills, they broke down camp each day, without leaving any trace. They then packed all their gear on their pack-frames, which they are still modifying.  For many suns, they looked for good nearby spots to set up their tarps, to practice setting up quickly and packing up on a moment’s notice.  They are now skilled enough to venture further into new and unfamiliar territory.

Those who have spent time immersed in the wilderness know that everyone encounters at least three thresholds before finding peace and comfort living in the wild. The PsychoIMG_0318 (1)logical Threshold usually occurs within the first three days.  Without the distractions of modern life, such as commuting to work, music, email, Facebook, Netflix, and socializing, many people find that the emotional and relationship issues that exist in their lives are magnified. They will either make peace with these internal demons or pack up and leave with the intention of resolving them.

Within a week, they’ll encounter the Tolerance Threshold, a slow erosion of their morale due to the accumulating physical discomforts, such as rainy weather, the lack of food choices, being too cold or hot, and of course—bugs.  If they can make peace with these mounting factors, then the Gifting Threshold awaits them. This is also referred to as the Feast-and-Famine Threshold, because when a person is in the wilderness for a longer period of time, they experience the up-and-down cycles of the natural way of things—hot and cold, wet and dry, bounty and scarcity. Despite the discomfort, they begin to understand nature’s cycles. They know that if it is raining for several days, it will eventually stop and the sun will indeed shine again. If their sleeping bag is wet, it will dry. If the fish aren’t biting today, they eventually will, or perhaps they’ll find some clams or a marsh full of cattail roots over the next hP1150881ill.

Those who make it through these three thresholds will enter the Gifting Way, a way of being where they no longer exist apart from nature; they are nature. It is at this point that they can dwell in the wilderness indefinitely. They are now just as comfortable as they would be in their living room, and just as well-fed as at a restaurant. If they choose to leave the wilderness, they can return at any time, knowing they have a place there.

Last week, one of the remaining five trainees hit a threshold that he could not reconcile. Goes His Own Way decided it was best that he return home, and he left camp.

Any time a trainee leaves, it affects the morale of the entire group. To make matters more complicated, Goes His Own Way was the holder of the group tomahawk. Each group has one tomahawk, and the one they had just happened to be owned by Goes His Own Way. When he left, the tomahawk went with him.

With their smaller numbers, the group came together in a new and inspiring way. They realized that with fewer people, each person was going to have to step up and work together as a true organism; everyone became even more essential. They recommitted themselves to one another and to the group as a whole. They also learned that when an organ is ailing—in this case a fellow trainee—it is imperative that measures are taken to help that organ return to balance. In not recognizing the importance of the matter, the clan lost an organ and its vital assets.

To hear more about their experiences from the trainees themselves, you can listen to the latest recording below. And of course, stay tuned for more adventures…



The First Few Suns

To see deep like Owl and stalk silent as Cat fourpic
To swim easy as Otter and run agile as Fox
To move in sync like a pack of Wolves
Silent and swift, with no words… 

Two suns (days) after first arriving at Nadmadiwining (support camp), the six trainees rose at dawn and walked the trail to their first camp to begin their immersion experience in the Wilderness. For the next 80 suns, they will learn to move as one organism, with each member being an integral part of an interdependent whole. They will learn orienteering, to find their own way through the wilderness, without following roads or even trails. Other than with the guides, they will have no other human contact.

The first few suns took some adjuP1150820sting. In addition to getting to know one another in person, they needed to begin the process of learning how to live in the wilds as a clan, with minimal equipment. The guides began their training in wilderness first aid, backcountry hygiene, lost-proofing, making tarp shelters without the aid of cordage, building smokeless fires, and primitive cooking without pots or utensils. Along with that, they are in the process of acclimating to drinking wild water directly from the pristine streams and lakes.

By the end of the first sun, it became clear that, due to a pre-existing medical condition, one pack-mate would not be able to sustain the rigors of the experience. After consulting with the guides and her doctor, she realized that even with a modified experience, it would be too much for her. In the wilderness, the loss of a pack member is always felt deeply by those remaining. Even though they had only been together in the woods for one sun, they had already built relationship through eighty suns together around the virtual hearth. Farewell, Red-Haired One.

Each sun, the trainees rise together at dawn and go on a training run. They are learning intuitive running, where everyone takes a turn leading as they wind through open areas, crawl under fallen branches, and balance over logs. The goal is to move silently through the dense forest, as one organism, without leaving a trace. Intuitive running isn’t just about exercise; it is also about learning to feel one another’s presence, to communicate effectively without words, and to become the Forest. Every early sun (morning) a Zen story is shared to accompany them through their sun (day).

When the trainees entered the wilderness, they released all that was known to them, in order to discover the unseen. They left everything behind but the gear they carried on their backs. They even abandoned their names. Now they are known to each other only by the traits they possess. At first, they referred to one another by their physical characteristics. There was Tall Man, Long-haired Woman, and Blonde Beard. Soon they began to call each other by their more intrinsic qualities, such as Heartvoice, Goes His Way, and Caretaking Woman.  The names will continue to change as they learn more about themselves and each other. Eventually, their names will reflect the gifts they carry for their circle.

To hear more about the Guardian experience from the trainees themselves, we invite you to listen to the audio recording below.

Stay tuned for more adventures…




Solo Canoeing in the Headwaters Wilderness

DSCF0247             It’s been two days since my last meal. Yet I am feeling sharper than ever. I learned from the Native elders that if you want to find something, go without it. Anyone who has been around hunting dogs knows that a hungry dog hunts best. The same is true with humans: hunger sharpens the senses and keeps us alert and attuned. It is primarily for those reasons that I am going hungry, as I have plenty of food back home.
            While I am paddling along and reflecting on such matters, I glance down into the water, and there swimming by is a meal-sized Turtle. She seems oblivious to me hovering over her. My hunch is that to her, I am just another log in the stream, as I am stalk-paddling to create as little disturbance as possible. I move in rhythm with the current and the breeze, and I avoid looking directly at her. My hand dangles in the water like a side branch of the log, with the tips of my fingers sliding over her smooth shell. She swims on, oblivious to my existence.
            The shadow of my canoe passes over a large Suckerfish resting on the sandy stream bottom. I pass my hand over him as though it were a wayward branch drifting in the current, while at the same time imagining how I would lock my thumb and forefinger into his gills if I needed him for food. I drift on by and he doesn’t move.
             Glancing up from the water, I quickly realize that even though I am sculling slowly with only one hand gripping the paddle, I am traveling faster than the situation warrants—that situation being my imminent meeting with the broadside of a Deer. To escape the biting flies, she is standing right in the middle of the stream, where the water is deepest. I consider drawing my knife with my free hand and touching it to her belly, both to count coup and to prove to myself that she would have given her life if I needed her. Instead, I whistle the tew-tew predator alert of the Redwinged Blackbird. The Deer perks up and looks around, with her gaze shooting right over me. She then flits up the bank and stands there with ears perked and tail nervously twitching—typical behavior for Deer who are alerted to danger but don’t know what it is or from where it is coming. They are reluctant to flee, for fear of running directly into whatever is causing the threat.
              As I paddle by, she turns her head and looks down at me over her shoulder. Our eyes meet fleetingly, which is enough for me, as I don’t want to startle her any further. I am content to keep my smile and nod of recognition to myself.

   –  Written by Tamarack Song, founder of Teaching Drum Outdoor School, excerpt from his forthcoming book, Becoming Nature.

              Imagine maneuvering a solo canoe through the Headwaters Wetlands up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where Wolves and Bears scout the shorelines, and Beaver, Muskrat, and Otter fill the waters. Solo canoes are preferred over larger craft because they are short enough for easy maneuvering, light for easy portaging, and small and responsive enough to move easily through rivers, bogs, and other wetland areas. They allow us to go deeper into the wilds, and give us the opportunity to become nature right alongside wild animals. 
              If you are interested in learning more about solo canoeing, check out the free instructional video below which was shot during last summer’s Guarding Intensive Training. If you are interested in learning more about Teaching Drum and the programs that we offer, we invite you to visit our website at