Living in the wilderness for 11 months offers many rewards. But as with many things worth having, it takes some work and dedication to reap the benefits of living wild. Those who enter the Wilderness Guide Program are asked to prepare in advance by weaning themselves off of caffeine, starch, sugars, and processed foods. This helps them avoid having to acclimate to living in the wild while going through withdrawal from sugar or other substances, which is not a pleasant experience. By the time the seekers arrive at Teaching Drum, they are expected to have fully embraced a Paleo based diet. The following post was written by Sunny Fox regarding his experience with this new diet and way of living.
Back in Germany, I always thought that I was a very healthy person. I never broke a bone and only became sick maybe 2-3 times in a year. Living immersed in the forest has taught me some surprising things about my health. I knew that participating in the Wilderness Guide Program would include a diet without sugar, milk, and almost no starch, so I was very worried that my body would lose too much energy and that I would get sick or have other problems.
It’s been over a few months since the start of the program and I feel even healthier than before. My skin has cleared, my digestion is better than before, and my sleep is more restful. My energy level is completely different. I no longer feel like a “civilized zombie” who needs to keep myself alive and awake by giving my body sugar, starch, or one caffeine shock after another. Now, whenever I’m working on a project, I have all this energy and I can complete my tasks without any problem.
After the Seekers finished their week-long trial on May 10, they made the 5-hour trek from Mashkodens (Ojibwe for Little Prairie), to Nishnajida (Ojibwe for Camp Where the Old Ways Return), which is located deep in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. They carried everything they will use while living immersed in the wilds on pack frames that were crafted from sturdy forked branches found in the nearby forest.
Gear includes a tent, sleeping bag, matches, tomahawk, knife, a bowl for eating, as well as three changes of clothing and personal care items. Matches will eventually be replaced by a wooden friction fire making kit, their bowls will be exchanged with those they learn to make by burning out a split section of a log, and they will abandon their tents for wigwams they build from the saplings, bark, and roots gathered from the surrounding woods.
To help the Seekers stay grounded in the present moment, common words for time, distance and direction have been replaced with terms that reflect their immediate environment. For example, time is now measured by how long it takes to cook an egg on the fire or paddle across the lake. A year is now a full turn of the seasons, a day is a sun, a yard could be an arm’s length, and the left side may be called the heart side. This blog will be using these terms as well. To prevent reader confusion, we created a handy page for your reference. You can visit the Glossary of Terms page here.
Before arriving, the Seekers are encouraged to come to this experience as an empty bowl, with curiosity, so they can embrace all the teachings and gifts the forest has to offer. To immerse oneself in the wild with new people and new experiences is a gift, one that offers them an opportunity to let go of the labels and assumptions they’ve been carrying. It is in this space that the Seekers will have an opportunity to see themselves differently, to uncover the gifts and talents that have always been part of them, waiting to be discovered.
To fully embrace this path of discovery, the Seekers drop their given names and receive another from their clan mates, a name that represents a new beginning and a fresh perspective regarding who they currently are within the clan. These names often include physical characteristics or personality traits and strengths. As they get to know themselves and one other better, these names will likely change to reflect their evolving role within their circle.
We would like to invite you to accompany Blooming Flower, Sky Lilly, Sunny Fox, Silent Wolf, and Woodpecker on their adventures in the wild as they grow in the ways of honor, respect, and Balance with the Elder Relations (furred, leafed, winged…) of the Northern Woodlands.
The 2017/18 Wilderness Guide Program (WGP) began May 1st with 6 participants (Seekers) arriving for their trial week. Acceptance into the WGP is a carefully deliberated process. To be accepted, both the Seeker and the wilderness guides must agree that the program would be a good fit for them. To help determine this, those who are considering participating must live fully immersed in an ongoing program for seven full days (a trial week), in order to determine whether the experience is for them. However, given the expense, especially for those who are coming from overseas, not everyone is able to do this.
This particular year, all 6 Seekers still needed to complete their trial week. After they were fitted for gear, they walked out to a transitional wilderness camp for their one-week trial where they were also introduced to functional tarp shelter set-up, pack-frame remodeling, wilderness first aid, tool safety, lost proofing, weather forecasting, wilderness hygiene, and fire tending.
We are happy to announce that all 6 of the Seekers successfully completed their trial week and are now officially enrolled in Unit One of the program, which lasts until October 15th. Successful completion of Unit One qualifies them to participate in Unit Two, the second half of the Wilderness Guide Program.
Five days ago, full of curiosity, excitement, and energy, they set off on the morning-long trek to their remote green season camp. They are poised to learn from the Ancient Voices of the Elder Trees, Rocks, Furred, Feathered, Finned, and all in the great Circle of Life, who have lived in balance for time immemorial.
Stay tuned to hear stories of their adventures in the wild!
Choosing to live immersed in nature when you’ve spent your entire life living in the modern world can be an adventure in and of itself. Never mind the howling wolves at night or the potential for a bear encounter in the woods; it is often the lack of distraction modern technology provides that makes living in the wild difficult for those who are just beginning their nature immersion experience. Without a smart phone at their fingertips and familial and cultural expectations crowding their mind, a person has no choice but to deal with their unresolved emotions and fears. Couple this with the discomfort that comes from giving up modern day conveniences, and what often results is a human scarier than any bear you’d meet in the wild. This response is so common that we’ve given it a name, the Four Thresholds to Wilderness Attunement. You can read more about this in a prior blog post here .
Given all of the above, why would anyone choose to live immersed in the wild? Of course, the love of nature itself is a big reason. Beyond this, some come because the frenzied pace our culture has left them yearning for a more balanced and Eco-friendly way of life. They are drawn toward having a deeper relationship with nature, believing it will transform their lives for the better. Others feel called to live close to the Earth as their ancestors once did, and are passionate about learning primitive skills. Still others choose to come because they want to see if they can rise to the challenge of living for 11 months in the Northwoods wilderness, where the mosquitoes are your most faithful companions throughout the green season and the winters are cold enough to freeze spit before it hits the ground. For some, it’s some combination or all of the above, and for all, a desire to know themselves more deeply.
The Nature Immersion Experience
Take a moment to imagine that for 11 months, you are awakened by the dawn instead of an alarm clock. Then imagine not living with a clock at all. When time is a factor, it is told according to how long it takes to crack nuts or cook an egg near the coals of a fire. There are no weekends in the wild, just days without a name, which are referred to as suns. Months are called moons to reflect the Earth’s natural cycle. The calendar is no longer a blueprint for the seasons. Experience is now your guide, revealing time through the stars, moon cycles, the coolness of the air, the turning of the leaves, the snowshoe hares and ermines’ fur changing color to match the onset of the white season.
Instead of following your boss’s or family’s to-do lists, your days are filled with tasks that need to get done in order to eat, live and sleep more comfortably, and prepare for the upcoming change of seasons. Everyday, you gather firewood, visit the lakes for water, fish and forage for food, among other things. To stay dry, you learn to read the weather by paying attention to cloud cover, wind direction, and speed. To know what to do if someone gets injured, you learn which plants can heal and prevent infection. Knowing that you have the skills to make fire by friction builds confidence, so you build a relationship with fire by learning how to coax the Power of the Sun with your bow drill. Living with other program participants (Seekers) as a clan helps you face your personal fears in relationships and in speaking your truth. You learn what it means to depend on others for survival and to have others depend on you.
Imagine having time to watch the sun set, relaxing during moments in between gathering wood and water, no longer having the urge to reach for your smart phone. Imagine the peace of wild things, hearing the echo of Loons in the distance, feeling astonished by seeing an Eagle looking down from the upper branch of a White Pine, discovering wolf tracks in the mud, and watching Dragonflies zip across a still lake which holds the perfect mirror reflection of the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen, even though you were sure yesterday’s sunset was unbeatable.
Now imagine that it’s the last day of the 11 month immersion. You say goodbye to the land you’ve come to know so intimately and may never see again. Then you hike back with the other Seekers to Nadmadiwining, the School’s support camp.
Reintegration Back Into Society
Upon learning that the last moon is upon them, many Seekers report feeling a combination of excitement at seeing their friends and families again, a deep sadness over what they’ll be leaving behind, and apprehension regarding how to integrate what they’ve learned into their lives. To help with this, the wilderness guides start the reintegration process during the last moon; first, by closing the camp to visitors so that all energy is devoted to reintegration preparation. Second, by gathering a list of topics that are important to the Seekers. This past year, the Seekers chose to discuss how to simplify their lifestyle in order to maintain a pace in life that would allow them to pursue their interests and build upon what they’ve learned in the wild. They also wanted to find ways to continue building their relationship and their skills with fire.
During their last moon in the wild, the guides met often with the Seekers to share how they could find support once they were back home. In addition to having the guides as a resource, Teaching Drum offers an e-group support forum that is available to all graduates of our programs where past graduates can help new ones as they acclimate to their return to modern culture. The guides reminded them to not forget that they will continue to be their best support resource for one another since they spent the last 11 months together. Lastly, the guides emphasized the importance of having a Welcome Home Ceremony put on by their family and friends. This would serve as a welcoming back and also a time for them to share stories and to ask for the kind of support they feel they will need.
As the months progress, we’ll be checking in with last year’s Seekers to see how their transition is going.
The Seekers’ 11-month immersion adventure in the Northern Wisconsin wilderness ended just two weeks ago. Despite the Equinox informing us that it was spring, the ground remained frozen with snow and the Seekers’ need for fire persisted until the very last sun. Berry Love wrote about her relationship with fire while she was still at Snow Camp, sharing the lessons she learned that she planned to take with her when she returned home.
Written by Berry Love:
Before coming to do the Wilderness Guide Program, I never thought about what fire needs in order to burn well. If fire doesn’t have enough heat, the wood starts smoking. With more air, it can burn hotter and the smoking stops. Ultimately, I learned that whether the wood smokes is about heat and not air. I learned to place the wood closest to where the heat is.
We learned from the wilderness guides that fire needs to burn efficiently, using air, fuel, and heat.
When the fire pit is elevated, it gives the fire the air it needs. In the beginning, I didn’t believe this would make much difference until we were introduced to the elevated fireplace. We had less smoke than usual. I’ve learned that the size and dryness of the wood are the factors I have to look at so the fire can burn efficiently.
Berry Love with one of her bow drill kits. The seekers were challenged to create a new kit after three successful fires with that kit.
To start a fire, I have to give energy to the fuel (the wood), to enliven the first coal. In my relationship with fire, I am the one to make the fire visible, to draw out the fire that is in the wood.
To make the fire with a bow and drill constantly challenges me. I’ve learned that it is essential to carefully choose the materials for my fire kit. Every new kit is a new challenge. Before I arrived in this program, I had been able to make a coal. But it took me several weeks of practice until I made my first coal here.
I had to be patient with myself and overcome many moments of frustration. Even now, it is difficult to produce a coal every time.
Unlike with electricity where I can rely on the convenience of a switch, fire requires a constant awareness. The fire provides us with warmth, cooks ourfood, dries our clothes, and gives us light, all in one. In civilization, these tasks are performed by different machines. Fire making teaches me to be aware of everything I am doing. And the teaching continues even after the fire is burning. To be the most comfortable living outdoors, constant awareness is needed because the fire is constantly changing. Nothing in life stays the same shape. If I want the fire to constantly be burning, I have to constantly take care of the needs of fire.
When I burn the wood, the energy is released again and will take form in another place and another time. I like the idea that I play a role in the creation of new things just by burning wood; I am part of the endless circle of life and I give what I can give.
Up Next: In the next post we’ll take an in depth look at how the guides help prepare the Seekers to transition from living in the wild back to modern culture.
The following post was written by Shkode’e, a participant of the 2016/17 Wilderness Guide Program.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
What is it like to live out in the forest, in communion with and surrounded by all of nature? It differs in so many ways from life in modern society that it seems to be another world. In our modern way of living, whether we go to work or stay at home, there are doors, windows, and walls; everything closes us in. Our modern cities and villages are like human-created islands, standing isolated in the middle of this huge ocean of nature. But out here in the natural realm, we are learning what it is to be a part of the greater community covering the rest of our planet. Since the start of the Wilderness Guide Program last May, we have been walking this path, practicing following the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
The experience of living immersed in nature has affected us all. There is a sense of belonging. One easily feels cared for and connected. We understand that we are joining a web of relations, already existing for millions of years. They welcome us with open arms. We are accepted and respected as we are. The lake gives us water to drink and to wash. Plants, animals and minerals give food and medicine, clothing, tools, and shelter. We learn to coax the fire (sunlight) out of the wood and we have warmth and something to cook our food with. There is nothing missing. All is taken care of. Our Mother provided for us everything we need to survive; we can feel safe.
The wind touches my face, the cold freezes my breath, and the sun warms my back. The voice of the chickadees and squirrels rings in my ears, the cedar tree spreads her scent and I taste the freshly caught fish. Night and day provide the rhythm of light and dark, and the seasons offer me a different perspective and tasks to focus on in order to live well. All of my senses and actions are connected with the natural surroundings. With this greater community constantly speaking, I don’t need to feel alone. All of this affects us deeply, influencing our ability to live in peace with both ourselves and each other. Trust in life emerges.
Living in the wild requires us to be curious in order to understand what is needed to take care of our needs. Being aware and spontaneous helps us to adapt to living with the continuous changes that arise with nature and the turn of the seasons. Out here, it is easy to live with an awareness of the Hoop of Life, the feeling of interconnection to the diversity of life in our area. At camp I find myself living the way of giving and receiving. It is obvious that everything is connected. I cannot help but appreciate our greater circle!
Shkode’e at Winter Camp
The other side of this is that in order to function and survive, one must learn to flow with the Hoop of Life. Where I place my feet and how I act are determined by what is going on in my surroundings. This is not the same in modern society where I can decide freely what I want to do and when. In the city I can just take care of myself. But out in the wild, I need my clan and I need to know how to be in relationship with all things.
Right now I’m sitting on a fallen tree at the north shore of Woodbury Lake. I like to sit here and listen to the sounds of the trees. Caretaker is a little bit further west from me. Caretaker and I are out finding firewood to bring back home (Camp). Berry Love stayed back to prepare her bow drill so she can make a fire.
It is the hottest sun in a long time and there are no clouds. I don’t even need mittens for writing.
On my way here, I saw some interesting deer tracks on the frozen lake. The tracks made many circles, then back and forth, and jumps further than one body length. I also saw four spots where the deer were lying down. Last sun, I saw something similar, but I haven’t figured out yet what they were doing. I want to show this to my camp mates and maybe the guides to hear their opinions. My interest in tracking was pretty low when I first came here, but now my interest is growing.
And now it’s time to get some firewood and ramble back to Camp.