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.

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.

Animal Tracking Workshop

The Jurica-Suchy Museum at Benedictine University hosted our Animal Tracking Workshop on June 28, 2014. All of the younger tracking enthusiasts brought either their parents or grandparents to the event. And judging by their enthusiasm and their post-class comments both the young and the not-so-young thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

The participants learned how the “Tough Guys of the Woods”–bears, raccoons, and opossums–walked and why their “personalities” made their gaits different from those of the “Quiet Walkers”–wolves, deer, coyotes, foxes, cougars, and bobcats. Because they are prey to almost every wild canine, feline, and raptor the “Ready-To-Runs”–mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels–leave a galloping pattern almost everywhere they go. And the high-energy members of the weasel family bound in a gait similar to the motion of a child’s, toy “Slinky”. As the afternoon progressed, all of those who cared to try were given the opportunity to get down on their hands & knees and mimic the walking-attitudes of each of these critters.

We then returned to the classroom to learn how to identify individual footprints of animals. How many toes? Claws or no claws? What is the general shape of the print? The importance of each of these features was explained and discussed. Plaster casts of grizzly, black bear, wolf, and fox footprints were on display and the students learned about the similarities between the tracks of humans and those of what Ron called the “BROther Animals”–Bear, Raccoon, & Opposum.

The 3-hour session ended with half of the class visiting the fascinating Jurica-Suchy Museum and the other half joining Ron in the field to examine actual footprints of actual animals.

Comments of the Participants:

-“Very interesting. Kids liked it. These are some simple observations that help identify animals.”
-“Very good. It was more detailed than I expected, which was good!”
-“10 thumbs up”
-“Very positive. Absolutely worth my time–we all [2 adults & 2 young people] learned something.”

A “WOW” Weekend!

This first full weekend in June brought together an eclectic group of students who were both interesting and interested.

“Interesting” because they represented a variety of ages, experiences, and abilities. We had 4 parent/child pairs, 3 educators, a medical professional, marketing director, retired nuclear chemist, and more. Ages ranged from 10 to ??? The combined curiosity, knowledge, and experience of the group fostered great questions, great input, and great fun.

“Interested”, each of them, in absorbing as much from the Ancient Skills Workshop and from each other as they possibly could. Fire by friction was a main area of interest for most, but it was by no means the dominant one. Plant and tree identification and their uses fascinated everyone as Nancy described the medicinal properties of plantain (the “weed” that is abhorred in suburban lawns) and David instructed in the many benefits of the white cedar–from tea to bowdrill material. Cork and Ellen handled the “softer” topics, teaching the students vision, listening, and intuitive skills. Tom as usual mesmerized the audience with his knowledge of tracks & tracking, and also with stories of his experiences tracking both animals and humans. And Ron used stories to bring home important lessons through his What 2 Know B4 You Go! wilderness preparedness and safety presentation.

Judging by the comments of all of the students on Sunday afternoon, the weekend had been a huge success for each of them. It certainly was for each of our instructors.

Cub Pack 108–Lisle, Illinois

The scouts of Pack 108 & their families had their family BBQ on Sunday, June 01, 2014. After a late morning of typical “kid fun” at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, the families shared a scrumptious buffet of grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and a plentiful array of fruits, salads, chips, dips, and desserts.

For their afternoon event they elected to have Ron present our What 2 Know B4 You Go! program. The crowd pulsed in size from 20-35 as some families arrived late or left early in order to tend to other kid duties such as baseball practice, graduations, etc. The Scouts and adults alike seemed intent on learning the lessons taught by the 6 true-life stories. And the shelter-building and fire-starting demonstrations were met with great enthusiasm.

An afternoon thunderstorm midway through the program was short-lived but wreaked a little havoc. Luckily for Ron there were plenty of helpful adults very ready, very willing, and very able to move his notes, display items, handouts, and dry erase boards into the shelter of the pavilion. The same group helped him pack up at the end of the day and carried all of the gear to his car. His thanks to all!

At least one “outside” Scout leader was in the audience and she seemed anxious to explore the possibility of presenting the program to her Boy Scout troop sometime in the future.

At the end of the day, Amanda, the delightful young lady who coordinated the event, told Ron that the boys in her pack had never been as attentive to a presentation as they were this one. As well, a number of the parents stuck around after the program to ask Ron questions about fire-starting techniques, both flint & steel and bowdrill; and to listen to two of Ron’s experiences in teaching the skills to a Wampanoag elder and trying to teach them to a 5th grade boy who failed to respect the “gift of fire”. It appeared that Scouts and adults alike had an enjoyable and fruitful experience.

Benedictine University Community Education Program

This past Saturday Benedictine University (Lisle, Illinois) offered our “What 2 Know B4 You Go!”TM workshop to an audience of 35 that included a member of the University’s board, several homeschool moms and their children, a former student of our Ancient Skills Weekend Workshop and his two daughters, and an assortment of other interested and enthused folks. Benedictine was trying to educate community members in the basics of outdoor preparedness and simple survival techniques. And judging from the participation of the audience and their response to the workshop, the university accomplished its goal.

As we have come to expect, everyone in the room paid rapt attention to the true-life stories told by Tim & Ron. And later many participants commented on the effectiveness of the story-telling technique. One mom called it “very informative…[your] stories made it easy to remember course content” and another inquired about doing the program for her son’s Scout group.

The younger folks thoroughly enjoyed building the skeleton of a primitive shelter while parents and university staff snapped photos of the fun. Discussions about water gathering and demonstrations of several types of fire-starting techniques exposed both young and old to the basics of wilderness survival.

A huge rain storm at the end of the day did not dampen the enthusiasm of the departing students.

Here are some of the comments the University received in its follow-up evaluations:

Rate your overall experience:
“Extremely valuable information”
“….Thank you for putting this program together.”

“Met and exceeded expectations. Great use of stories to make their point!”
“Information was relevant and useful, longer than I expected…audience interaction made it more interesting.”
“Good basic information, appropriate for age group.”

“FUN”-draiser Follow-up

Last fall Nature Education Programs donated a “What 2 Know B4 You Go!” workshop to a fundraising auction for SCARCE, a DuPage County, Illinois not-for-profit environmental organization. The high bidder was an enthusiastic middle school teacher named Mike.

Mike had invited nine teaching colleagues, family members, and friends to join him for our presentation on Saturday, April 27th at Lincoln Marsh in Wheaton, Illinois. And the selection of date and location couldn’t have been better. The previous week had seen drenching rains and local flooding in the area, but this day was a gift from the Natural World–blue skies, white clouds, temperatures in the mid-60’s, and a soaring red-tail hawk who returned to air-patrol a nearby field several times during the 3-hour program.

The group listened intently as Ron told the stories of six different folks who made some serious mistakes while enjoying wilderness adventures or encountering wilderness emergencies. After a break the 10 participants scoured the landscape collecting forest debris to fashion the beginnings of a weather-worthy shelter. Of course all of the natural material was returned to the forest when that segment ended.

Water and fire were the next topics of discussion and demonstration. Getting the gift of fire from the bowdrill was not to happen on this occasion; after four attempts with two different woods Ron conceded that it was not to be. (Mike later noted that we had already received the gift of the red-tail hawk, so maybe that was our “quota” for the day.) Mike was then invited to demonstrate fire-starting with a flint & steel, a procedure he and Ron had practiced before the grooup had arrived. When Mike struck steel to flint and threw a spark into the waiting tinder bundle, the bundle burst into flame, much to the delight and amazement of the audience.

The afternoon ended with Ron recommending 6 essential items for a personal survival kit and giving each student two of the items to take home. All of the participants lingered for a while after the program, asking questions of Ron and purchasing some of the other items available for their personal survival kits.

Groupon: An Out-Of-The-Box Lunch & Learn

You’ve got to give credit to the folks at Groupon. They wanted to give their employees an an opportunity to learn “something different”. So they invited us to do a survival skills presentation during a one-hour, afternoon break at their corporate offices in Chicago.

We thought a mini-version of “WHAT 2 KNOW B4 YOU GO!” would accomplish that goal, and we were right. An audience of some 50 folks in Chicago along with another unknown number in Palo Alto and Seattle, to whom the program was streamed, learned some of the Dos and Don’ts of wilderness preparedness and survival. The stories shared with the audience dealt with folks who were unprepared either physicall or mentally to deal with outdoor emergencies. As the stories unfolded, the attendees learned lessons and received hints that would give them the confidence to handle similar situations whether they were stranded in the Canadian wilderness or in a snow storm on on the way to Grandma’s house for Christmas dinner.

Kudos to Groupon for not serving a “boxed” lunch.

Cub Scout Pack 67–What 2 Know B4 You Go! Workshop

We seem to be building a reputation amongst Cub Scout packs in River Forest, Illinois. For the second year in a row a group from that area has invited us to present our “What 2 Know B4 You Go!” workshop to their scouts. As was the case last year the program had to be split between two sessions to accommodate the schedule of the scouts.

Ron did the first presentation of the true-life stories on March 11. The young Scouts were very attentive and well-behaved, due for sure to good leadership in the pack and (as Ron was to learn at the April meeting) due also to obvious interest in the stories being told.

The second part of the program occurred on the 15th of April. When he began with a review of the stories that had been told a month earlier, all Ron could say was, “WOW!” The boys (and one enthusiastic older sister) REMEMBERED not only the stories, but also the lessons that the stories had taught–Be prepared, Don’t panic, Stuff one’s clothing like a scarecrow (You’ll have to see the program to understand that one), and more. They had actually LEARNED the basics necessary to avoid or handle an outdoor emergency.

The remainder of the evening found the group building the skeleton of a survival shelter and talking about finding water in a survival situation. Lack of time prevented us from exploring the lessons of firestarting with both a bowdrill and a flint and steel. So Ron went on to identify 6 essential items for a personal survival kit, 2 of which were given free to everyone present.

Overall, it was a informative and fun experience for everyone involved.