As the first coal appears beneath the spindle, a chorus of cheers echoes through the forest. The instructor gathers the smoking embers in a bed of tinder, exhales and – poof – a magical burst of flame dances between his hands. The children stare, rapt, like an ancient tribe witnessing the birth of some enchanting spirit.
This is the essence of Primitive Pursuits, the region’s premier youth wilderness survival program. Its mission – to steward the health of our community by fostering lifelong relationships with the natural world – is cultivated through the mastery of survival skills, including tracking, shelter building, camouflage, fire making and edible botany. The program, which is offered in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension, serves more than 1,000 individuals each year.
“Primitive Pursuits speaks to an instinctual part inside all of us,” says Dave Hall, who, along with Beth Bannister, Tim Drake and Jed Jordan, founded the program. “It’s a transformative process.”
Elias Stuhr, 13, has his own take on the program’s success. “It’s like the Choose Your Own Adventure books,” he says. “I get to make my own decisions.”
Another day at the office
It’s a mild and breezy afternoon at Stewart Park on the southern rim of Cayuga Lake. In the shade of a towering willow, program coordinator Heidi Bardy gathers the Primitive Pursuits team for a discussion of the upcoming week’s activities. But this is no ordinary staff meeting. Eschewing formal attire, everyone is adorned in the telltale signs of hours spent in the woods: faces caked in mud, scratched legs and bare feet.
The group congregates in a circle near the shore. Over the lapping rhythm of water, a song begins. Its refrain, “teach me patience,” stays in the mind long after the team has moved on to more practical matters.
Staff break into smaller groups, rosters are distributed and everyone maps out their curriculum. Although little is left to chance, the team welcomes unexpected challenges.
“The Finger Lakes Region provides ever-changing weather conditions,” says Hall. “The beauty of the program is that sometimes the instructors are learning at the same time as the participants.” No one embodies this process more than field instructor Benjamin George-Hinnant.
As a youth who came of age through the program, George-Hinnant graduated from participant to apprentice to instructor. He now leads his own group.
“Jed showed me how to make my first coal,” he says, “and I was hooked.”
To build a fire
George-Hinnant ushers a dozen youth through the undergrowth of 4-H Acres on the outskirts of Ithaca. This is home base for Primitive Pursuits, where the bulk of their programming takes place.
He gathers his team in a circle to establish some ground rules and expectations. It’s clear some of the children aren’t listening. As he continues, their attention wanes.
Without warning, instructor Eleni Regas tumbles from the brush near their feet. She’s been there all along, but no one noticed. Amidst the scattered, nervous laughter, the message is clear: in the forest, awareness is everything.
Regas grew up in the organization’s home school program. “The people I’ve met here are amazing,” she says.
She and George-Hinnant use a friction kit comprising a maple handhold, cedar spindle and basswood baseboard to build a fire. The children quickly gather kindling to ignite the coal, and in no time the group is enjoying lunch over a modest flame.
“I love the community of it all,” says Sean Norman, 10. “I feel at home.”
After extinguishing the fire, the team moves on to an open meadow before descending the banks of Fall Creek to ward off the heat of the afternoon sun.
Origin of a program
“Primitive Pursuits is a reflection of my interests,” Hall says. “It’s been amazing to see it grow over time.”
A native of western New York, Hall was active in Boy Scouts as a child. He led an outdoor club in college and later became a guide for Adirondack Treks. But even this did not satisfy his curiosity.
“After a while, I realized I was too gear-dependent,” Hall says. “I began asking ‘what if’ questions. You know, what if I didn’t have this, what if I didn’t have that.”
This led him to study with Tom Brown’s renowned Tracker School. “One day I was walking through the woods and realized I knew the names of all the plants around me. It was an epiphany,” he says. “I realized, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
He began the program in 1998 in the Town of Dryden. Under the stewardship of fellow cofounders Drake and Jordan, the program’s scope has ballooned in the time since. Jordan, who honed his skills in the forests of New Hampshire, and Drake, whose mother was a trapper, met at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine more than a decade ago.
“I’m so proud of what Tim and Jed have done with the program,” Hall muses. “They’re incredibly dedicated.”
Slings and arrows
In the program’s infancy, Drake and Jordan noticed that participants were hungry for more than basic primitive skills. Specialized groups were introduced, including Wild Crafting and Scouting. Of all the advanced programs in the Primitive Pursuits canon, few are as captivating as Forest Archer.
The children watch as instructor Sean Cornell attaches fletching to an arrow shaft using pine pitch. He warms the pitch in the fire and runs it along the spine of a trio of goose feathers. Then, he secures the feathers in place with a length of thread.
As Cornell puts the finishing touches on another arrow, Justin Sutera leads a separate group in a skinning demonstration of a groundhog. Utilizing a process known as knapping, he flakes apart pieces of obsidian to create stone carving tools. In fewer than twenty minutes Sutera has removed the animal’s pelt.
“There’s no substitute for experiential learning,” says Cornell.
It’s time to put the skills they’ve learned into practice. Using bows made from white ash – some of which the children have fashioned themselves – the group embarks on a stealth challenge.
Two blindfolded instructors stand at opposite ends of a meadow as each child creeps up behind them. If they make it to the instructor without being heard, they take aim at a stationary target ten yards away. Not everyone is successful.
“It’s important for each of us to learn from and accept failure,” says Bardy. “I love the moments when I see children testing the bounds of their comfort. It’s exciting and empowering.”
One youth, who had earlier shown frustration at missing the target, logs a direct hit. He smiles and pumps his fist in quiet celebration before retrieving his arrow.
Back to the future
Tim Drake arrives for our interview on the back of a motorcycle, his bucolic appearance underscoring the contrast of the primordial with the technological. “As a people, we practiced these skills for generations. It’s this,” he says, gesturing toward the buildings, automobiles and power lines, “that we’ve had to adapt to.”
When asked what he envisions for the program in the coming years, his eyes light up. “I’d love to see us reach younger children as well as adults,” he says. To that end, he and Jordan now lead a course at Ithaca College titled Environmental Sentinels. It is a requirement for anyone pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies and Sciences. They have also spearheaded a Wilderness Skills Instructor Certification course, and are offering a Forest Preschool this spring.
“Primitive skills are a birthright,” Drake says. “We all benefit from having a personal and direct relationship with the earth.”
607.272.2292, ext. 195
by Jon Ulrich