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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 School.
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 learned.
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 survival courses.
"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 it."
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 school.
"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."


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