Ancient Skills for Today's World

  • 13Would you like to experience the excitement that comes from starting a fire using nothing but sticks?
  • Are you intrigued by the possibility of reading stories in the tracks that animals leave upon the face of the earth?
  • If you knew which plants were edible and which could heal a bee sting, would you feel more comfortable on your next nature outing?
  • Would you like to learn to quiet yourself and to become more aware of wildlife around you?
  • Could your outdoor confidence use a boost by knowing that you could find fire, water, shelter and food in almost any environment?
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These are some of the things that MEDICINE HAWK teaches in our weekend workshops - these skills and an overriding respect for the earth as our teacher.

Our programs are risk-free, informative, beneficial, and fun. Our faculty consists of women and men who truly enjoy and respect the natural world, who continually hone their skills, and who are very able and willing to share their knowledge with all who are interested. Though you will learn skills that can save your life, we are not a "survival school." All meals and snacks are provided. You will not eat bugs nor sleep in trees. But you will learn to reconnect to the natural world.

If you are interested in the natural world and your relationship to it, we invite you to join us. No matter what your decision, may all your trails be smooth and your adventures exciting.

What skills do you need to become a tracker?

For two hours on a sunny Wednesday morning in October eleven second-graders from The Children’s School in Berwyn, Illinois whetted their appetites for animal tracking.

They learned that first steps in becoming a tracker required the perfection of two different skills: Awareness, in order to first find the tracks; then Clear Print Identification, in order to know who made the track.

The Awareness portion included instruction in splatter vision, a technique that enhances one’s ability to see more in a natural setting.   This newly learned seeing skill was tested with viewings first of the artwork of Bev Doolittle and then of photos of camouflaged critters in the Natural World.  Fox-walking was next on the agenda, and under Ron’s guidance the students (and teachers) explored the technique of walking more quietly.

The Clear Print Identification portion of the class made use of a coincidental relation between the name of their school and the identifying traits of a footprint.  Referencing the initials of the school–TCS–the children were urged to remember Toes, Claws, and Shape as important identifying features of a clear footprint.  With that foundation they then learned to identify members of the deer, cat, dog, weasel, and rodent families.  Bear, raccoon, and opossum were placed in a separate “brother” category because they each bore some human-like characteristics.

The morning ended with the class fox-walking to the location of a subtle game trail in the forest preserve.  Though there was a covering of leaves, the students, using splatter vision, were eventually able to recognize the outline of the hidden trail.

As a final test students were asked to carefully remove the overlying plant material from the trail and to look for footprints beneath.  If something were found, the student would mark it with a stake flag for Ron’s review.  It was a measure of the success of the class that Ron was able to confirm that most of these apprentice trackers had indeed found and correctly identified tracks underneath the leaves.

After a full morning of instruction, the children were happy to sit down to lunch and then have a chance to run and play.

A Survival Skills Primer

For the fifth consecutive year, Benedictine University hosted Nature Education Programs’ What 2 Know B4 You Go! wilderness preparedness workshop on its campus in Lisle, Illinois.

The audience was varied, consisting of adults, college students, and the girls and leaders of Girl Scout Troop 51507.  The Scouts were particularly involved, enthusiastically asking and answering questions and sharing their personal experiences.

Using six true-life stories, Ron was able to emphasize six critical lessons applicable to any type of outdoor endeavor, whether it be a wilderness canoe or backpacking trip or driving to Indianapolis for a high school reunion.  In addition to the six main lessons, a bunch of practical, potentially life-saving tips were dispensed: How long can you go without food or water in a survival situation?  At what temperature is hypothermia most likely to occur?  How could a squirrel’s nest help to save your life?  And more….

It was obvious that the audience enjoyed and benefited from the experience.

Thanks to Benedictine University and its Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum for offering this program to the community.

Ancient Skills Weekend Workshop

Animal tracking.  Shelter building.  Safe sources of drinking water.  Fire made with a primitive bowdrill.  These were but some of the skills learned at our Ancient Skills Workshop this past weekend in southern Wisconsin.

The students were indeed an eclectic group.  Ages ranged from 8 years old to 72 years young.  Outdoor experience levels ran the gamut from “pretty much” to “some” to “none at all”.  But the students mixed well, supported each other, and had a great time.

The rain came and went but dampened no spirits.  We simply varied the schedule and the topics to follow the rhythms of the Natural World.  When we couldn’t work outdoors, we switched to indoor activities focusing on preparedness and awareness.  “Symbols on the Floor” was a big hit, as were David’s presentation on animal skulls–ranging from grizzly (tagged from Alaska) to muskrat–and Ellen’s 3D, stare-e-o  exercises.  Our What 2 Know B4 You Go!  presentation taught valuable lessons while the rain fell outside.

Sunday’s sun found the students continuing work on their bowdrills, making primitive bowls and spoons, and learning where to find safe drinking water.  Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was the non-competitive event wherein student-teams competed [they couldn't help themselves] to see who could bag the most game with throwing sticks.  [Please note: No animals were injured during this event, as target-logs were substituted for any small mammals that would have been suitable for dinner!]

We instructors were thrilled with the enthusiasm, flexibility, and camaraderie of the students and felt that all went home with valuable lessons learned.


Animal Tracking–a private class

The weather was cold and rainy, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the 17 students who turned out to learn about Clear Print Identification and Gaits at a private event in Aurora, Illinois.

Before class began the students had a chance to view all manner of animal sign and aids that were on display indoors.  From feathers & fur to field guides & footprints–plaster casts of fox and coyote, wolf and bear.  There was even a tracking box (a 2′ x 5′ sand box) set up outdoors that captured the ramblings of a raccoon who had wandered through the night before.

The students learned how to identify a clear print by counting toes, looking for claw marks, and categorizing the overall shape of the track.  Everyone was encouraged to classify the shape according to her or his own definition; the hope being that by personally naming the shape each student would then remember her/his personal descriptor for each family of animals.  The obvious “heart-shaped”, “round”, and “oval” descriptions were expanded with creative suggestions such as ”ice cream cone”, “sunrise”, and more.

The second half of the class focused on gaits, the way in which animals walk.  With a perfect demonstration by young Cooper the class was able to visualize the diagonal gait of the “Quiet Walkers”.  They move opposite front and hind feet at the same time, i.e. left front & right hind, then right front & left hind.  Becca was then called upon to show us that humans walk in the same way, pretending of course that her arms were her front legs.  We next studied the “Tough Guys of the Woods”, those animals who face few if any threats from other critters.  Mike helped Ron demonstrate how humans at times use the tough-guy gait to impose a feeling of threat or dread in an opponent.

The class then learned that most of the weasel family moves with a bounding gait, similar to the motion of a toy “Slinky” and that the “Ready-to-Run” animals move in a way that reflects the fact that they are prey to all manner of predators.

Before they left, the class asked Ron to relate his story of  “The Skunk in the Trunk”, which brought not only laughter, but also a realization of the tenacity of the odor of  the animal.

The rain outside had continued throughout the morning.  But as they left with new-found knowledge, most of the students took the opportunity to see what effect the weather was having on the raccoon tracks in the sand box.  Whether they realized it or not, they were already advancing their tracking skills.  They had learned the  ABCs of print identification.  By studying the tracks in the wet sand they were now trying to read the story.

Boy Scout Troop 46–Survival Skills Workshop

Approximately 30 Scouts and 8-10 adult leaders enjoyed a campout this past weekend on the grounds of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee, Illinois.

The day could not have been better for our Gifts of the Earth–Shelter, Water, Fire workshop.  The weather was perfect.  And this group of Scouts was enthusiastic, interested, and knowledgeable, repeatedly throwing out correct answers to questions about hypothermia, the Rule of 3′s, safe sources of drinking water and more.

Among the highlights of the day were the building of the skeleton of a debris hut and the success of five selected Scouts (one from each patrol) starting fires with a flint & steel.

It appeared that the boys were pleased with the presentation.  And a number of the scout leaders lingered to ask questions about other programs we offer.

Gifts of the Earth–Shelter, Fire, Water

It was a perfect fall day for the Round Lake Area Public Library to host a  workshop dedicated to three of the most basic survival skills–shelter, fire, and water.

To start the afternoon, the audience was given a hypothetical survival situation which replicated the weather conditions of this October day, but at a time thousands of years earlier.  In that wilderness setting the students hypothetically found themselves swimming ashore from an overturned canoe with all of their gear lost downstream.  They were then asked.  What will you do?  When will you do it?  And why will you do it in that order?

The answers set the backdrop for the 90-minute session that included building the skeleton of a primitive shelter, watching a demonstration of fire made with a primitive bowdrill, and a discussion of the safe and not so safe sources of drinking water.

Apparently the majority of the guests were pleased as is evidenced by some of the comments on their evaluation forms:


  • Good basic skills.  Informative & entertaining.
  • Fantastic class.  Great info.  Bring Mr. Nosek back for more classes.
  • Great! Very Informative!  Would attend more like it!
  • I learned a lot that I didn’t know and the content gave me a lot to think about.


  • …very interesting.
  • …very knowledgeable & kept the audience engaged.
  • Friendly & easy to listen to.  Knows the material and gave plenty of examples from personal experience.
  • Very knowledgeable on [the] subject.

Wilderness Preparedness and Safety Class at Benedictine University

For the fourth consecutive year, Benedictine University hosted Nature Education Programs’ What 2 Know B4 You Go! wilderness preparedness workshop on its campus in Lisle, Illinois.

The class is designed to give outdoor enthusiasts, both experienced and inexperienced, some very practical knowledge on how to prepare for an outdoor adventure and what to do if things don’t go as planned.

The students heard six true-life stories.  Each had a lesson that would apply equally to travels in the wilds of Canada or to an out-of-state trip to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving.  Rules that apply to getting lost backpacking in Montana are no different than rules that apply to getting lost in your local mega-mall.

When would you stuff your clothes like a scarecrow?  What is the Rule of Threes?  Why is cotton a poor clothing choice in certain conditions?  Can I drink water from a mountain lake?  These are just some of the questions that were answered during the 3-hour workshop, while Iris filled the white board with a list of potentially life-saving hints.

A mid-afternoon break saw the participants on the university lawn collecting (pre-planted) materials that they used to build the skeleton of a primitive shelter.  In spite of some serious wind Ron was able to demonstrate the technique of getting fire by use of a primitive bowdrill.  While Simon convinced the audience that using a flint and steel firestarter was a bit easier and more reliable.  Safe sources of drinking water was the next topic of discussion, with one young person helping to demonstrate how to benefit from the phenomenon of transpiration; the natural discharge of water from your local oak tree.

As always, the audience received suggestions for the six items that Nature Education Programs considers critical to a personal survival kit.  And Iris and Simon passed out two of those items free to every student.

The afternoon ended with Ron telling a seventh story; this one about Rodney, the hunter who got caught in a South Dakota blizzard.  Unlike the other stories, this one ended without any issue because Rodney was properly prepared and knew what to do.

Judging by the post-class comments and questions, all who attended found the workshop very worthwhile.


Survival Skills Class at The Morton Arboretum

On Saturday, September 26th, The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois hosted a workshop entitled “Survival Skills–Plants”.  It was attended by 16 enthusiastic participants, predominantly families.  Ron received valuable assistance from three very able Arboretum staff and volunteers–Caitlin, Linda, and Dave.

With Dave’s patient efforts the class was able to learn the process of making a bowl using nothing but a piece of wood, a hot coal from the fire, and a sharp stone.  Unfortunately, Dave got a little carried away and the hole in the bowl “expanded” beyond its desired dimensions!  But the class learned a very practical skill..

Caitlin worked tirelessly at breaking down the fibers of cattail leaves so that the students could use those as well as milkweed and dogbane fibers to make cordage, simple twine from plant material.

Linda worked at a number of tasks: pruning sticks to be used in the shelter-building exercise; assisting Caitlin with the cordage exercise; and serving as Ron’s “poster girl” by displaying at just the right moment the sign that asked the question “What Will Save My Feeble Suburban Tush?”*

Young and old alike took delight in collecting thumb-thick sticks to position along a 9-foot pole raised at one end to the height of 30″.  The resulting “skeleton” would have served nicely as the base for a primitive debris hut to be covered with leaves.  Unfortunately it was a few weeks too early for the trees to have given up their bounty.

Next, Ron demonstrated fire by friction using first a primitive bowdrill and then a flint & steel fire starter.

And the final treat of the day…all who wanted to were given the opportunity to try their hand at striking steel to flint to send a spark into a bundle of tinder made of plant material.  There was a 90% success rate for these first-time fire starters.

Our thanks to the Arboretum, its staff, and its volunteers for hosting and helping with the event.


*”What Will Save My Feeble Suburban Tush?” is a clue that we use to remind our students of the six items we believe are essential elements of a personal survival kit.  They are light-weight, inexpensive, and easy to carry.  All but one would fit into a fanny pack.  To find out what they are you’ll have to attend one of our “What 2 Know B4 You Go!” workshops.

Starved Rock State Park–Animal Tracking

On Sunday, August 23rd, a group of folks between the ages of 8 and “over-80″ participated  in our “Animal Tracks–Clear Print Identification” workshop at Starved Rock Lodge in Utica, Illinois.  Though the crowd was relatively small, the interest and enthusiasm of the audience was high.  There were good answers to our questions, good questions for us to answer, and a lot of good humor from all participants.

The audience learned how to identify animal families by counting toes, looking for claw marks, and identifying the shapes of footprints.  They also learned why we at Medicine Hawk call bear, raccoon, and opossum our brother animals.  Most were fascinated by the casts that were on display, showing the footprints of fox, coyote, wolf, black & grizzly bear.

From our perspective everyone left the program a little more knowledgeable and anxious to do some tracking on his or her own.

Two-Day, Animal Tracking & Awareness Training

During eight hours of instruction on the past two Thursdays Ron & Noah shared their knowledge of animal tracking and awareness skills with the already competent educational staffs of The Conservation Foundation and the Resiliency Institute, both of Naperville, Illinois .

On day one the participants learned how to identify footprints made by deer, canines, felines, rodents, and members of the weasel family; counting toes, looking for claw marks, and identifying the general shape of the prints.  We then studied the ways in which animals walk and how those gaits reflect the “personalities” of the critters.  Deer are “quiet walkers”, as are coyotes and bobcats.   Bears and raccoons are the “tough guys” of the woods, so their walking style reflects confidence and lack of fear.  The “ready-to-runs” are those prey animals whose gaits reflect living constantly on the edge between life and death.  After Noah demonstrated all of these walking patterns (as best as they could be done by a human), all of the students tried their hands (and knees) at recreating the personalities of each class of animals.

The themes of the second Thursday were more esoteric, dealing not with measurable traits of animals but rather with subtleties that indicate their presence none-the-less.  Answering questions such as: Who lives in that hole?  Has that plant been chewed by a deer or a rabbit?  Who’s scat is that and why is there so much in one place?

On a more personal level the participants practiced techniques designed to help them observe more wildlife, to walk quietly, to see better, and to hear more.  For twenty quiet minutes they immersed themselves in an exercise that taught the principle of Concentric Rings, learning the concept that everything affects everything else.  And they then had fun accepting the challenge of the Awareness Walk, using all of their newly learned skills to observe out-of-place artifacts in a natural setting.

Day two ended with a presentation on animal skulls.  The names of the animals were not important.  The emphasis was on how much could be learned simply by observing the teeth, the shape of the head, the location of the eyes, and more.

During each class the students were engaged and enthusiastic.  They asked good questions, shared much of their own extensive knowledge, and good-heartedly participated in all of the exercises.  They were indeed a pleasure to work with.