And just like that, a flame the size of a cat’s tongue flicks out of the bundle of scrunched up bark in my hands.
I’ve made fire, and suddenly I feel powerful and confident, like I could pull my weight on the Lewis and Clark expedition or give Katniss Everdeen a run for her money in the latest episode of the "Hunger Games" saga, which opens in theaters this week.
And that’s not all. Before my the day at Earth Native Wilderness School ends, I’ve snuggled into a cozy twig and leaf shelter and snacked on acorns that hint of butterscotch as well as the apple-flavored berries of a plant called Turk’s Cap.
Dave Scott, 34, opened Earth Native Wilderness School about 3 1/2 years ago. The school offers classes in survival skills, wildlife tracking, animal processing, edible plants, camping and more.
Scott isn’t an end-of-the-worlder, stockpiling goods and preparing for the apocalypse. Rather, he wants people to enjoy spending time outdoors and feel confident doing it. That, he says, takes two things — the knowledge to meet your needs and adjusting your idea of what’s comfortable.
"I like to take it down to the most basic levels — body temperature, hydration and fuel," he says.
I’ve met him here at the school’s 25-acre outdoor campus near Bastrop for a few lessons, most importantly how to make fire, one of my New Year’s goals. Scott tells me the bow method is the easiest way to do that and demonstrates, whipping up a blaze in about 3 minutes. (Where’s that sack of marshmallows and graham crackers when you need it?!)
"It’s really easy for me because I’ve practiced it a lot," he says, then walks me through the process.
First I prepare a softball-sized nest of juniper bark, pulling apart the fibers to create a fluffy wad. Scott shows me how to carve a chocolate chip-sized divot near the edge of a length of trumpet vine wood, then cut a notch that connects that divot to the edge. That’s our fireboard. We sharpen a ruler-sized stick at both ends to make a spindle, then fasten a cord to a curved juniper bough to serve as a bow. Finally we set aside a credit card-sized block of wood to use as a handhold.
Scott helps me load the spindle into the bow, place it on the fireboard and brace it against my body. I clamp down with the handhold, then start to move the bow. The first few strokes are wobbly, but pretty soon I’m doing a decent job of playing my homemade violin. As I saw away, a fine dust begins to fill the notch in the fireboard. The heat created by friction carbonizes that dust, and after 6 or 7 minutes of muscle work, a tiny puff of smoke rises. Scott cheers me on, and soon I’ve birthed a tiny ember, which I tap onto a leaf below my board, then transfer into my wad of fluffed-up bark. I cup my hands around it and blow gently.
Voila, fire. And it only took 20 minutes.
"Fire really needs the same things we need," Scott says. "Warm temperatures, oxygen and fuel. It’s easy to build when it’s 105 degrees and dry; it’s different when it’s 30 degrees and raining."
Scott should know. He grew up in South Austin but spent a lot of time in Colorado, where he got involved in search and rescue. After six years in the U.S. Army, he earned a degree in business administration. He loves the outdoors and has attended and taught at several wilderness schools.
"We live in a world where we’re very reliant on a web of grocery stores and electricity," he says. "People get complacent. We think the water is always going to come on and the heat is always going to work."
I sometimes have trouble starting a fire even with a match, so he shares some tips. Gather kindling of all sizes, from pencil-lead thin to wrist thick. Hard wood stays drier than soft wood or bark, and flat or angled sticks burn better than round ones. Tree sap makes a fine accelerant. When you strike a match, protect the flame from the wind, and remember that fire burns up, so light from the bottom. Ignite the smallest twigs first, and use them to light larger ones.
Pretty soon I have a cozy little blaze. Now it’s time to find water, food and shelter.
Livestock carry diseases that can contaminate water, so it’s best to find a spring. Look for water coming out of rock above the natural runoff line — or catch rainwater in a leaf-lined depression or hole in a rock. Boiling is a good way to purify it, if you have a container and fire. If that’s not an option, filter water through layers of a T-shirt, then put it in a clear plastic or glass container and set it in the sun for at least six hours (two days if it’s cloudy).
There are no guarantees, but if your options are death by dehydration or questionable water, go with the water.
We’re lucky in Texas when it comes to scavenging for food. If you can’t catch a critter, you may be able to find enough edible plants to tide you over. Acorns are high in protein and calories but should be soaked in water to leach out the tannins. (Save the water and use it as an antiseptic to clean wounds.) Other options? Pecans, mesquite beans, elm seeds, prickly pear fruit or pads, and hackberries.
Shelter’s next. Scott shows me a twig structure made from a log, an armful of branches and a thick layer of leaves. Don’t lie directly on the ground, he advises; better to bed down on a layer of boughs to preserve body heat. Stuffing your clothes with leaves can keep you warm, too.
Above all, don’t panic. "Keeping your cool is so important. If we panic, we lose our cognitive function," Scott says.
Even better, plan ahead. Scott carries a water-filtering straw, a steel bottle, a knife and a compass when he heads out. "We get so reliant on technology to me it feels dangerous," he says. "Sometimes going back to the basics is the most safe way. And it’s nice to have good skills that supplement gear so you don’t have to pack tons and tons of stuff."
Paul Spencer, 36, an electronic assembler who lives in Hutto, attended a recent survival class at Earth Native Wilderness School. The skills he learned at the class, which his wife gave him as a birthday gift, gave him a jolt of confidence.
"I’d be able to survive a little longer if I was in a bad situation," he says.
Me too. I’m even tempted to sign up for one of those reality television programs where they drop you in the woods, without any gear. I’m ready to show off my survival skills.