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Learning Survival Skills with My Side of the Mountain

Last fall we learned survival skills in our Making and Exploring Program. For the class, we read My Side of the Mountain. In the book, Sam Gribley, a 12 year old boy, runs away from NYC to live in the Catskill Mountains. He had many adventures learning how to survive in the woods on his own: building shelter, feeding and clothing himself, learning from the animals, and catching and training a peregrine falcon. Our group had so much fun with reading this book, the story inspired many adventures and projects.

The first week we sewed bags for foraging supplies. foraging bagSam made himself clothes and bags for gathering from deerskin that he tanned. We made ours from fabric, hand sewn, so we could go out and collect acorns and other things on our walks. Early in the fall, we went for a foraging walk around Awbury Arboretum, identifying some of the plants Sam used in the book, sassafras for tea, cattails for flour. I showed them how to identify poison ivy, and also jewelweed, which can be rubbed on skin that has been exposed to poison ivy and stinging nettles. And most important of all, we collected acorns to make the pancakes. This became an obsession with our group, each week they would say “when can we make acorn pancakes like the ones Sam ate in the book?”.

Then began the very long process of prepping the acorns to make flour to make the pancakes. First, the acorns had to be cracked open. They did it with hammers and mallets and rocks. All those acorns we had collected didn’t look like as much when we just had the nut meat. Various days through the fall they worked on cracking open the nuts, just that was a lot of work. I did some research and read that if you boil and rinse the acorns several times, it takes some of the tannin out and makes them less bitter. I did this at home, we just don’t have enough time during our days to do all this prep. We had talked about the tannin and the flavor of the acorns, and that the consistency of Sam’s pancakes would be more like a tortilla than the fluffy pancakes we are used to. None of this lessened their enthusiasm about making pancakes. Also, I told them I would bring some modern pancake batter and we would have both. Finally, in November, it was pancake day. First, we had to grind the nut meat into flour. We did it between rocks like Sam did in the book.  The pictures show the tiny bits of acorn dust they were getting from grinding, and then the two little pancakes we made.  No worries, no one liked them anyway and we had plenty of present day pancakes to eat.

Three different weeks during the fall we worked on lighting a fire with a flint and steel. One survival skill I learned was that having the right tinder is very important. In my trial run before doing it with the young people, I just lucked into finding great tinder, so I assumed if we just picked some dry grass at Awbury it would work. But when we collected tinder at Talking Stick, everyone struggled the first time to get it to keep burning, the dried grass we found just didn’t light as easily. But even with the struggle, it was fun figuring out how to get a spark, then a little flame. The second and third time I brought dryer lint for them to use as tinder, definitely cheating, Sam didn’t have lint out in the woods. But with the lint we all succeeded lighting fires, by the third time out everyone could light a small fire.

One thing that really helped Sam survive was that he caught a young peregrine falcon, named her Frightful, trained her and taught her to catch meat for him. In class, we talked about raptors and watched videos of them in flight and hunting. I planned a field trip to go to Militia Hill to their Hawk Watch to see hawks migrating and learn about raptors from their volunteers. Unknown to me, one of their volunteers is a licensed falconer and has a pet peregrine falcon that he would bring for us all to see. That field trip was a great day, we had beautiful weather. It was the very end of the migration season, so we didn’t see a lot of raptors, but the volunteers told us a lot and answered our questions. Getting to see Cleo the falcon up close was so exciting.

Tom told us all about her, her story, what is involved in training and taking care of a falcon.

My Side of the Mountain has always been a favorite book of mine, I read it several times when I was young and then again to our children. It was great to take it to another level, to actually learning some of the survival skills that Sam used with the young people at Talking Stick. It certainly made an impression on me, the amount of work that goes into each thing he did, making his own clothes from deer hide, making acorn pancakes, lighting fires, training a falcon. I loved their enthusiasm for both the book and the projects, each week they would come running in saying, ”what are we doing today?”.