|Survival skills 101
Father and son attend week-long wilderness school
By Carol South
Herald contributing writer
April 30, 2003
Shelter, water, fire and food: the four sacred
tenets of wilderness survival.
Rick Halbert and his son, Rich, of Colorado Springs, Colo., got an
up close and personal look at surviving away from civilization last
summer when the pair completed a course at Tom Brown's Survival
Carving seven days from their schedule, they decamped to Brown's
farm in New Jersey to learn to live by their wits and off the land.
Taking a course called The Standard, Brown's basic introductory
course, the Halberts and than 73 other students learned to build a
fire using a bow drill and make a shelter from forest debris. The
instructors also taught them to forage for food by tracking, hunting
and snaring animals and identifying and harvesting edible plants.
The students arrived with knife, tent, sleeping bag and an open
mind, camping out and attending a rigorous schedule of classes every
day. The classes combined lecture and practice sessions, where they
would roam the surrounding countryside applying what they had
Rick Halbert took 120 pages of notes during the week and came away
eager to learn more. Both Halberts are taking a correspondence
course offered by a student of Tom Brown's and hope to attend future
"It was very intense," he said. "The skills you learned there you
can use anywhere."
For both father and son, a science teacher and firefighter
respectively, the experience deepened their knowledge of and
appreciation for the natural resources of the earth.
"Too many people today, they've really lost touch with nature," said
Rick Halbert, a science teacher at East Junior High and former
naturalist with the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. "Nature
is not something you can watch on TV, you have to participate in
The survival course is imbued with Brown's philosophy he acquired
from a ten-year mentoring relationship with an elderly Apache
warrior called Stalking Wolf. Known to Brown as Grandfather, the
Native American took a seven-year-old Brown under his wing and
imparted his knowledge and outlook about the natural world. These
are the skills, beliefs and approaches that Brown teaches his
students today, 40 years later, in a variety of courses at his
"Tom's feeling is that the Earth is a Garden of Eden, it will
provide," noted Rick Halbert, who is completing his 30th year of
teaching. "When we go into the wilderness, we take our environment
with us, our food, water an shelter. We are like astronauts going
into outer space or deep-sea divers going into the ocean.
"When you learn to survive it is like growing gills," he noted. "You
are truly independent and will be OK wherever you are."
Rich Halbert, a structural firefighter and a Forest Service
contractor, came home with a new way of looking at the world around
him. One example is that the avid trophy hunter sold his rifle
shortly after coming home, determined only to hunt with a recurve
bow of his own making. He is no longer trophy hunting, either.
"This year on the elk hunt out here in Colorado, I had the
opportunity to take six different bulls and didn't take any of them
because they weren't right," he said. "They were all healthy and
they did not need to be thinned from the heard or harvested, so this
year I went elkless."
This new attitude continues to take root over the months since the
survival course ended
"It was really a shift in my thinking, it's really about resource
management and you know, everything is connected," he noted. "It is
a paradigm shift, you really start to realize what you're living in
versus being on the Earth."
Rich Halbert also has conceived a plan to put his survival skills to
the test: after fire season is over this year, he plans to take a
bus to the beginning of the North Country Trail in North Dakota and
walk more than 1,300 miles to Traverse City. He estimates that this
will take nearly two and a half months of traveling approximately 25
miles a day.
Keeping Grandfather's philosophy in the forefront of his quest, he
plans to travel light.
"I'll walk home with nothing but a knife and my buckskins," he said.
Rick Halbert had his own epiphanies from the survival course. A
longtime naturalist just shy of a doctorate in biology, Halbert had
a thorough intellectual knowledge of plant life. However, his
experiences at Tom Brown's Survival School shifted his thinking into
a more intuitive and intimate plane.
"Basically, what I learned in college was how to identify plants and
their evolution," he said. "Now I'm relearning because they are
useful, I can eat them, build shelters with them, make utensils with
them and build fires with them."
He has also acquiring a more patient stance when out in nature,
taking on a greater awareness of the animals and plants instead of
hiking for the sake of hiking.
"I've learned when I'm out in the woods to slow down and listen and
watch," said Halbert, who is active in the Grand Traverse Hiking
Club. "You have to learn to wait for things to come to you."
"If you're just hiking, everything that is going to happen will
happen either before or after you leave," he said. "You'll be amazed
at what you see and hear."