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Utah's own 'Man vs. Wild' school

By Steven Law, Contributor | Posted - May 2nd, 2013 @ 8:48am

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BOULDER — We are walking through a narrow redrock canyon. The canyon floor is about a Frisbee throw wide. Willows, and the tallest sagebrush I’ve ever seen, which stand about six feet over my head, grow on the canyon floor. We walk past a cliff wall adorned with a tramp stamp of Anasazi petroglyphs across its back.

I am on my third day at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). The survival school teaches its students primitive desert survival skills. I am one of eight students and three leaders on this two-week-long course. The purpose is to teach its students how to survive in the wild with nothing but a knife, and whatever primitive technology they can create with it. The best part about BOSS is that it’s not held in a stuffy classroom, but out in the deserts and mountains outside of Boulder, Utah, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Our trip leader, Mike Ryan, leads us into a dense field of sagebrush, which as we walk through it, continuously snags and tugs at our shorts like a kid with an urgent question. It is impossible to walk through in a straight line. We have to walk around one sagebrush and then change our course to get around the next one. It’s like doing the dosido and every sagebrush for the next mile wants to be my partner.

A short distance farther, the canyon takes a swift curve to the north and the canyon widens and the vegetation opens up, too. Cottonwoods and junipers appear among the sagebrush.

Mike stops amid a stand of juniper trees and takes off his backpack. “Go ahead and take off your fanny packs if you want to,” he says. “We’re going to stop here for a while and I’ll show you how to make bow and drill fire kits.”

We gather around Mike as he further explains what we’ll need. Mike unsheathes a large machete from his backpack and walks out among the sagebrush. We follow him. “One of the best materials for making your spindle and fireboard is sagebrush,” Mike explains. “It will produce an ember much quicker than any other types of wood we have around here. Even if it’s still green. The trick to making a spindle and fireboard out of sagebrush is finding pieces that are straight enough.”

Mike stops before a large sagebrush and with a half-dozen deft strokes from his machete dismembers an arm off the plant. He drops it to the ground and cuts another arm off the same plant. He picks up the pieces and we follow him back to the shade of the junipers. He sits down in a shady spot and invites us to sit around him while he shows us how to fashion the sagebrush twigs into a fireboard and spindle.

We watch Mike for a few minutes, as he narrates what he’s doing and why, as he sculpts the branch into a shape suitable for a fireboard. After watching the process, the students then walk into the sagebrush field to find their own materials. After looking for twenty minutes I have selected some branches that are straight enough and thick enough to be used in my fire-starter kit. I take them back to the shade of the juniper trees, take out my knife and begin whittling the thicker limb into a fireboard.

A choir of birds establishes a new chapel in the junipers above us. Other than them, the only sounds are of metal scraping wood as the students work on their fireboards. A gray spider rappels onto my arm. “Make them well,” Mike tells us. “I’ll use my bow and drill to make tonight’s fire, but after that, if you want a fire you’ll have make it yourself.”

In addition to teaching its students how to make a bow and drill fire-starter the survival school teaches how to find water and what plants in the area are edible or medicinal.

I become so engrossed with my work that I’m not sure how long we sat there carving our fireboards. But finally, Mike stands up and puts on his backpack and starts walking north, out of the little sidecanyon. We students gather our small amount of gear and follow him to the night’s camp.

In addition to teaching its students how to make a bow and drill fire-starter the survival school teaches how to find water and what plants in the area are edible or medicinal. They’ll teach you map and compass usage and orientation, how to build shelter, make cordage from plant fibers, and how to shape and knap flint. And, they don’t just show you how to do it, they make you do it. After you’ve made your bow and drill firestarter you’ll practice with it until you can make a fire with it. They don’t just show you some map and compass basics, they hand you the map and the compass, show you a place on the map that’s about eight miles away and inform you it’s your turn to take the group there.

If you’ve ever wanted to embark on a longer, deeper or more daring outdoor adventure but felt like you lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to do it, BOSS will give you the knowledge, the skill, and with it, the confidence and courage to take that deeper, longer journey into the wilderness. BOSS pulls aside a huge curtain and behind it lays an immense room you’ll now have the skills, knowledge and confidence to explore.

This is exactly what BOSS did for me. Since completing my two-week BOSS field course I have undertaken numerous extended trips into the backcountry, including a six week solo backpacking trip, which changed my life.

But BOSS is so much more than learning desert survival skills. Most days you’ll hike between eight to 10 miles and you’ll pass through some amazing country as you go along, and your appreciation for nature will grow. And at night, you and your fellow students will gather around the campfire to converse and tell stories.

It was wonderful just spending two weeks in a wild, primitive environment. We became, if only for two weeks, a small, wandering tribe that gathered what it needed from its natural surroundings. We were able to live directly in the wind, the rain and the sun and interact with our environment as directly as is possible, just as our primitive ancestors did. And it felt wonderful.

The Boulder Outdoor Survival School is celebrating its 45th anniversary this summer.

BOSS offers one week, two week, three week and four week field courses.

Seven day: $1,450. 14 day: $2,495. 21 day: $3,250. 28 day: $4,175.

Its season runs from mid-May to the early September. It still has openings for the 2013 season.

800-335-7404 or

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