Wilderness Training

You simply couldn’t count the number of times a mom thinks about dropping off her teen son in the wilderness to fend for himself. But I did it. And he loved it.

Jeffrey Skyler, my eldest mancub, now 14, chose Wilderness Survival as his eighth grade project. He’s learned how to tie eight different kinds of knots, make smoke from the firebow he handmade, pick and eat prickly pear and several edible greens and build a lean-to shelter.

In Jeff’s own words:

“By the time I complete this project, I hope to grow as a person. I hope I can better tolerate not having constant stimulation and be able to handle being alone. I also hope to become mentally stronger and understand the psychology of survival. Once I have completed all these goals, I believe I will be prepared to achieve my ultimate goal: being dropped off (location to be determined) and picked up the next day 5 miles away.”

To build know-how and confidence toward this goal, Jeff and I met Jeep at Joshua Tree for his first solitary overnight and wilderness lesson with Jeep. It was slightly sprinkling and an hour before sunset when Jeff shouldered a backpack and walked a mile through the desert from Belle campground to a large split rock. Creosote vegetation smelled pungent and distinct from the recent rain as I drove to the White Tank campground.

We met Jeff at a pile of rocks and proceeded east toward another grouping of rocks. Then Jeep instructed Jeff to use his compass and a point on the horizon to chart our course to the parking lot. Careful to avoid spiky plants grabbing at my clothes I followed by son as darkness descended.  Jeff led us to the first pile of rocks, but Jeep wouldn’t let him simply trust his memory and instead asked him to find my footprints in the soft sand and follow the line I had walked in consultation with Jeff’s dead reckoning and the compass. My boy found the road, about 15-20 degrees away from the parking lot… not perfect, but not too bad for a first try.

We drove out to BLM land and found a spot for Jeep and I to camp, then drove down the dirt road another mile for Jeff’s campsite. He set up his tent by his headlamp while I watched; he wanted to do it alone.  Then I hugged my baby and left him alone in the wilderness, happy as a clam.

As for myself, I was tickled, proud and nervous about my son’s attempts at fledging.

Next morning, Jeff rose as the sunlight tinged the clouds. He ate trail mix and hiked a hill where he watched two coyote meet another two coyote then together trot off.  After a bit, he packed his gear and walked to our tent. We had another compass and hiking lesson and this time he nailed it.

Wilderness training is a process of developing skills and deepening humility. Still, I can’t help be proud of the man my son aims to be.

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