The Survivalist

One year, at Boy Scout camp, I was going for my Wilderness Survival merit badge. You’ll always meet the gnarled old Scouts who tell you that merit badges have been watered down from their day, but earning Wilderness Survival actually required us to survive in the wilderness.

“Wilderness”, in this case, meant about an hour hike into the woods. And in fairness to the imaginary older Scout in my opening paragraph, the “survival” aspect was very much watered down as we were a group of about 15, including the instructor. Surviving in this context meant not giving up due to mild discomfort.

All week, we had been taught how to build temporary structures out of branches and leaves and rocks and stuff. We had been taught how to make rope from vines or fibrous plants. We had been taught how to identify various edible and inedible plants and various ways to catch and eat birds, fish, and small land mammals. And now we were going to, sorta, put these skills to the test.

As I’ve mentioned before, Watts Bar Lake contains alarming levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, a nasty chemical compound that will give you approximately all of the cancer. So although we could theoretically have tried to catch some fish, they were strictly off the menu for actual eating. And as the Boy Scouts are meant to be conservation-minded, it would not be conducive to the ecology if fifteen scouts a week all attempted to hunt or trap local wildlife. Not to mention the fact that it is unlikely most of us could have caught a bird or a squirrel unless our lives truly depended on it, which ours manifestly did not.

So how did we eat, then? Well, a “survival expert” prepared for us a variety of foods that are the sort of foods we would eat were we in a real survival situation. Each of us had to go and point out some edible plants and berries to the instructor (no actual scavenging, since by the third week or so there would be none left) and prove that we could start a fire, and then we would be given our meal (cooked over an actual campfire, though I am pretty sure they were just chicken breasts from the grocery store).

The real challenge, though was that we had to build our own shelter.

In a group this size, there is of course an immediate tactical decision to be made: do you band together with one of your fellow Scouts, or strike out on your own? Performing this sort of sociopolitical calculus was probably the most actually useful part of the whole endeavor, as that decision might wind up being the most life-or-death decision made in an actual survival scenario involving that many people.

None of the rest of my troop had signed up for this badge, but as luck would have it there happened to be a guy named John Paul whom I vaguely knew from my brother’s soccer team there. He and I and one other guy formed a group. Three wound up being a pretty ideal number — it’s not that hard to build a three-person shelter, and three sets of hands are close to the ideal amount of parallelism in a survival scenario: more, and you have dead weight. Fewer, and you risk having more tasks than you have time to complete.

We built a cozy but effective lean-to against the trunk of a large tree. We found a large branch to serve as the central support, with smaller branches forming the ribs. Small pine twigs, still with the needles on them, filled in the gaps between the ribs and provided support for the leaves we piled over the whole thing. A gap between two of the ribs formed the entranceway. I volunteered to sleep closest to the entrance — as the largest, my body would keep a maximum amount of heat inside the structure. And as this was Summer in Tennessee, I was more worried about heat than cold.

A group of about eight Scouts decided they would all band together and build a massive lean-to along a fallen tree. They claimed that by working together and pooling their labor and resources, they would be living in the lap of (relative) luxury. To the three of us, and also to the others who chose not to join in with them, their folly became obvious quite quickly: they weren’t able to gather enough branches, twigs, and leaves (nor did they have enough time) to fully enclose the entire length of the fallen tree. As far as I could tell, the situation devolved into each individual choosing a section of tree and building themselves a little hut. I honestly don’t know if the instructor declared their structure to be adequate (I got the feeling that most people did not fail to get the merit badge they signed up for at this camp), but in an actual survival situation…well, let’s just say they had better hope they’re trying to survive somewhere warm, without dangerous animals.

In any case, the next morning we awoke and were required to do other survival-related things (I think we had to demonstrate that we knew how to make a rope from vines and tell which vines were poison ivy). We also had to disassemble our shelters, so as not to leave too easy a task for the next group of Scouts. I thus got a chance to look at the megashelter in the light of day…and I found myself glad I had found my own, smaller and more competent, crew.

I don’t know if that class taught us what we were supposed to learn. But I do believe important lessons were learned that day.

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