First off, I survived the survival course.
BOSS, better known as the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, took me and four other guys into the Utah wilderness for four weeks. We had three instructors, so our total group consisted of eight for eighteen days; the remaining ten days were spent more or less by ourselves.
A quick summary for anyone interested in the BOSS 28-day Field Course: this is first and foremost a backcountry hiking trip. With the exception of a three-day gorge fest on a sheep, most of the food rations are small, and participants stand a decent chance of experiencing the initial stages of starvation, while doing the aforementioned hiking which could be anywhere from five to ten miles a day. There is intermittent survival instruction, but only the basics are covered in any given subject.
Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have signed up for this particular course. I enjoyed the minimalist philosophy (see photo of blanket backpack and miscellaneous items on white cloth), but I wanted more instruction and quite frankly a more grueling hiking regimen in preparation for my Texas trek. As a group, we had a lackadaisical attitude and pace toward our daily hiking (truth be told, we had one extra-slow hiker), and as a result, our instructors scheduled several low-mile days for us. The instruction itself was good, but our instructors’ follow-up was close to nonexistent (that is, little was done to make sure we had mastered anything, with the notable exception of fire-making and some plant identification).
That said, there were many moments that were funny, crazy, scary, and wonderful which helped make the four-week course memorable. Here are a few anecdotes that I enjoy recounting:
1) The eight of us fasted during the first three and a half days, instructors and students alike, while hiking approximately ten miles a day and sleeping on the ground at night. During this time, we found out that one of our instructors was an apprentice. Someone asked if he got paid, and he responded that he did not. Then he added, “Well, they do give me room and board.”
2) In the final few days of the course, we were given maps and told to hike to a rendezvous point by ourselves. Two of our group of five were experiencing the onset of starvation. My pre-course body fat had cushioned me quite well to the nutritional rigors of this particular BOSS course, but I felt terrible for my fellow students (one fellow could be found in the evenings digging up cattails and eating the roots in a desperate attempt to feel full).
During this time, I started taking the “fishing” more seriously. This meant getting in the streams and patiently going after the fish with either our bare hands or roughly made spears. One afternoon, I saw a fish dart under a rock, and I snuck up on it. I gently reached under and lightly touched its side. To my surprise, it let me! As the expression goes, I “tickled the fish,” first with one hand, then with two. When I knew the fish’s exact location (where the head and tail were, specifically), I tried to tighten my grip. Sensing the threat, the fish tried to swim away, but I pushed it against the rock and held it there while trying to figure out a good way to get a grip on it. I sank deeper into the stream, wrestling to hold it down.
Then I got it and brought it out! It was a 14” bottom dweller (like a freshwater catfish without whiskers). The other students were ecstatic. We were going to have some decent protein and perhaps stave off hunger for an evening. I was a hero for a day.
3) During this same period of time, we had to traverse a very narrow canyon. It kept getting more and more narrow until finally my shoulders could touch both sides. It really felt crazy. We worked together in a way that hadn’t been seen before. We helped each other with our packs, took the time to make sure everyone had made it through each stretch okay. We perhaps made a mile in an hour and a half, but we came through as a tighter group.
4) One component of the course is called "Big Game Processing." Basically, you slaughter a sheep and in doing so learn the rudimentary skills of processing any small to large game.
During this phase, we used much of the animal, including the stomach with which we made stomach bread. We cleaned the sheep's stomach quite well, going so far as to put it in a nearby stream to get the gunk off. Then I was charged with making the dough (all the dry ingredients were pre-mixed; "just add water"). After I did that, we put it in the stomach and cinched the open end. Then we boiled it for about 75 minutes. What we got was a wonderful slice of heaven.
(SPOILER!!! SKIP THIS NEXT PART IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING THIS BOSS COURSE.)
5) Our final task was a solo night hike. I’ve hiked alone in the dark before, on the Appalachian Trail and elsewhere, but this was something entirely different. We were relieved of our packs, which was nice, and headed out from camp one by one. The timing was such that during the first twenty minutes we could all see an unobstructed moonrise. The sky was clear, the night air crisp, and that moon shone like a spotlight over the land. It set the mood for a lovely ten-mile hike to our final camping destination.
We didn’t know how long our hike would be when we set off, so this gave each of us a long two-and-a-half hour window to think with an open mind of our experiences and lives, unencumbered by a mental endpoint. When we approached a confusing fork in the path, there was a green glow stick indicating the correct direction (sometimes these glow sticks were miles apart!). Everything was quiet. I passed a couple of the others, and we did so more or less silently. We came into the final camp one by one, hugged our instructors, chatted near the fire, and turned in, doing our best to sleep in the cold desert air.
So, yes, I survived. On August 8th, 2009, we were all readmitted to civilization, happier, skinnier, and ready for a series of big fat meals. Our first order of business: hitting up the Boulder grocery store. Two fellows bought miscellaneous junk food. Another bought bread, a jar of peanut butter, and jelly. The last guy and I split the price of a half-gallon of peanut-caramel ice cream and pretty much devoured the entire thing while sitting on the grocery porch (I heard a little girl ask the owner, “What are those guys doing out there?” and the owner responded, “Those men just came from the wilderness and haven’t seen peanut butter or ice cream in a long time.”). It was a glorious pig out.
In fact, I haven’t stopped pigging out. I estimated that I weighed somewhere in the 130s at the end of the program. I weighed myself today, and that means I have put on over twenty pounds in ten days. Yes! I’ll lose most of it in the months to come, but I am resting better knowing that I will once again have a fat buffer between me and my hiking trials.
My return to civilization also had a peculiar twist: both my legs swelled up from my knees to my feet. This has never happened before. It was a little unnerving to see a stranger’s legs on my body. I saw a doctor today, and as best she could figure, I had a spike in my salt intake after the course followed by prolonged inactivity in the car which probably caused my temporary bilateral swelling. I took a few tests to confirm that nothing was wrong, and they all came back negative. So it’s just a matter of a few more days to get completely back to normal.
In these last few days, I have started baking a ton of bread and treats for the family, a nod to my time in Helena at Sweetgrass Bakery. I’ve made brioche, croissants, bagels, butter cookies, rolls, challah, and cream cheese danish. Together with my nephew Will, we made fresh pasta and raviolis (my nieces Caroline and Grace helped with the final molding of the raviolis). Everything has been a hit, so much so that you’d think my family had been on the survival course with me.
I have settled on an August 28th start date. I will distribute my first article a few days before that, do some final preparation, then take off. I do not anticipate any fanfare, though my friend Darren has committed to walking the first leg with me. Little does he know it’s 40 miles.
I’m excited and amazed that this moment is finally upon me. I’ll save final pre-trip words for a later post.
If you are along the route and would like to meet or share interesting historical and/or personal anecdotes, please drop me a line well in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t promise to meet everybody, but I will try to do my best. If you are an organization or school and would like a lecture or presentation, I would suggest contacting me a minimum of six to eight weeks in advance. All queries representing people within fifty miles of the perimeter will be seriously considered. Let’s make this trip happen together!
Until next time, wanderers…