By ERIC HAYASHI, Special to the Rafu
Tehachapi.–After dating for a couple of years, Gwen Muranaka (English editor of The Rafu Shimpo), bought me a weekend survival course from Survival Training School of California. I think she was tired of hearing me say “I could do that,” after watching a Discovery channel episode of “Survivor Man,” “Man Versus Wild” or “Dual Survival.”
Now after being married, I was able to finally use the gift she bought.
My love of the outdoors started while in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts with the camping, backpacking and summer camps. After earning my wilderness survival merit badge in the Boy Scouts during summer camp, I thought to myself I would be able to survive until I was found or would walk out on my own. Now was the time to test what I had learned in theory and learn even more.
Early Friday morning, I left early for Tehachapi and stopped at McDonald’s for a quick breakfast and picked up a sandwich for lunch and I had a bento for dinner. I figured if I was going to survive the rest of the weekend, at least I would be full of fat and carbohydrates the day before I was to go “survive.”
In the Tehachapi Mountains, there were 15 of us, including our survival instructor, Thomas Coyne. The group ranged from a 14-year-old boy to a man in his 60s, with all walks of life; a former Marine to a solar installer to me, a real estate appraiser. The one thing we all had in common was the love for the outdoors and wanting to know how to survive if we were to get lost or ran out of food.
I believe I was lucky that the group that came out was well versed in camping and backpacking. Most of the guys had solo backpacked to several destinations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and were talking about trails or lakes like they were towns.
Friday consisted of us learning about hiking and backpacking safety, signaling someone for rescue, some plant identification for sustenance, shelter building and learning to make a fire with a bow and drill. We started with talking about safety and what do to if we see a bear, mountain lion or other wild animal. As well as knife safety, since we were all to bring knives to use during the course. Then we started on learning to start a friction fire.
It may not sound like much, but we were trying to start a fire for about three hours, from learning to choose the correct materials to building a “teepee” for the fire. I spent over two hours trying to start a fire without success.
One guy, Frank Saputo, stated this was his first course on becoming a survival instructor and he had spent the prior six months practicing to make a fire and did not get it started until this class. That information definitely made me and a few others in the class feel better.
After my failed attempt at making fire, it was time for lunch. Thirty minutes later, we were told it was time for a hike. It was not too strenuous of a hike; however, I had eaten too much for lunch and mixed with the altitude the hike was not as enjoyable.
During the hike, we learn to identify and sample miner’s lettuce, scorpion weed, wild onion, and a few others. One cool fact I found was that the Jeffrey pine has a unique smell and grows starting at 5,000 feet. Also, sage makes an excellent mouthwash if you make a tea of it. However, do not drink the tea as it will cause liver damage.
We would need to know this information for the next couple of days so we would have something to eat.
After the hike and plant identification, we learned to build an “A” frame shelter. We broke off into teams of two and began the process of making the shelter. It took about two hours to gather enough branches and pine needles for our shelter. Once completed, Thomas told us it was time to call it a day and head back to our base camp. However, if people wanted, they could stay in the shelters that night.
I chose to sleep in my truck, since there was already snow on the ground and we were not allowed fires. The guy I made the shelter with, Zeb Wallace, decided to sleep in the shelter that night.
Since I had my bento, I was ready for dinner. Everyone else had chili, garlic bread and canned greens. We had to get another fire started to put all the cans onto the fire and warm everything up, so that was a challenge. I was exhausted and went to bed around 8, and slept pretty soundly until the next morning.
Saturday, the challenge really started. Everyone was eating and drinking as much as they could before we left. We drove to an entrance of the Pacific Crest Trail and started hiking around 9 a.m. It was definitely a different way than I would normally start a hike. I had a knife, about six feet of parachute cord, a small backpack, an empty metal water bottle, a flashlight, and some clothes.
The hike was to be about three miles; however, it felt like five or six. The elevation climb was over a thousand feet and we scrambled over rocks beside a dry waterfall, hiked in dry riverbeds and bushwhacked through willows and reeds to our campsite.
During the hike up to the campsite, we were following obvious game trails as there was bear scat all the way up the three miles. We were told some of the areas we could most likely locate water and found a small stream. There we all filled up our water bottles around noon, but were told not to drink because of the possibility of parasites. We would have to build a fire to boil the water before we could drink it.
We reached our campsite around 1 p.m. and were told to start building our shelters and find firewood so that we could boil our water. I ended up with Frank Saputo, Matt Foust, and Zeb Wallace to build our shelters. We were in a ravine with bear scat within 20 feet of our makeshift shelters.
In order to find firewood, we had to hike up a side of a mountain and try to break dead branches of the juniper pine trees. Once broken, we pretty much let gravity do its thing and watched the branches go down the mountainside to collect at the bottom of the ravine. We quickly gathered the wood and Frank made a fire with the bow drill so that we could boil our water.
While the water was starting to boil, we started to gather rocks to make our shelter. The rocks were to be walls for windbreaks and reflector walls for our fires. We tried to use the natural surroundings, so we had to do the least amount of work; bushes on one side, ravine on the other, so we only needed to make two walls, about five feet long and four feet high. Only the problem was trying to locate enough rocks for our walls.
When trying to bring back rocks, I knew I had altitude sickness and then the dehydration started with the headaches. The guys were good enough to know not to let me push myself too much as I was trying to keep up with them. They had me sit in the shade for a full ten minutes before I was able to do anything and kept an eye on me.
Once the shelter was built and the water was boiled, we still could not drink the water because it was so hot. Wanting to make the water cool faster, we buried the water bottles in the ground. We had to keep ourselves busy with gathering bedding materials so that we could let the water cool.
We found another water source by the bedding materials, so once the water was cool enough, we all drank. We filled up our water bottles again and this time I was to make the fire.
Luckily, it only took about 20 minutes to get an ember to start the fire. With the second filled water bottles being boiled, our instructor came over and taught us how to make cordage with the yucca plant. We were also told the yucca leaves will lather and will make a great soap and it can also be used as a toothbrush. I can say that the yucca definitely took a lot of the dirt and grime away from my hands after making the cordage with the washing of water.
Around 7 p.m. we were all asked to gather near Thomas and watch a couple demonstrations of what else most hikers could do if they were lost. For example, there was a demonstration on how to boil water in a plastic water bottle, how to make a signaling device in the area where we were located, and what other edible plants are in the area.
After about 15 minutes, the mace wore off enough for us to hike back to our camp. Frank was saying that was much worse than the mace the police use and kept singing “My face is on fire” to the tune of Alicia Keys. Matt, who partially blocked the mace from me, was saying his eyes were still burning, and my eyes were burning as well as my lips.
Once our group discussion was over, we were told that our camp location was most likely to have a bear encounter. Thomas had me pull the bear mace out of his pack, luckily pointing it away from us, to demonstrate how to use it. Unfortunately, the safety on the bear mace wasn’t on properly and the wind was blowing toward us. Frank, Matt and I took the mace in the face.
I think the burning sensation from my eyes and lips took about an hour before it began to feel better.
Around 8 p.m. I looked at our wood pile and told the guys I did not think we had enough to last us the night. They agreed and up the mountainside we went again to find more wood for the night. The weather was clear, but was to get down to around freezing.
Once we thought we had enough wood, we had a couple nice fires going and were talking and joking about the mace and yucca. Every couple of hours we would pile on more wood to keep the fire going and keep us warm so we could sleep.
I knew I slept for a little bit because the stars would be in different places every time I woke up. I found out the temperature got down to 30 degrees, but we were all relatively warm.
Around 6 a.m. we were all up and were going to drink our water, boil more, then meet up with everyone else. However, those plans changed once we found out we had lost an hour and it was really 7 a.m.
We were told that we were heading out and to make sure the fires were out before we left and break camp to “leave no trace.”
On our way out, we stopped and learned to make the Paiute dead fall, a type of trap fo small game. It was a very good lesson and now another skill I have to practice. Then back to our cars and home.
I cannot wait to get back out to the wilderness, now knowing I am able to do more with less and survive — and perhaps self-rescue if necessary.