GUILFORD — Cooking a meal over a campfire in the forest can be idyllic, but it’s not as simple as striking a match and an hour later having a gourmet meal.
“I am an educator and a guide,” said Christopher Russell, director of the School of the Forest, in Guilford. “If you can’t feed people well, the experience is going to be bad.”
Russell has been taking people into the woods for almost a decade, teaching them rudimentary skills such as how to handle a knife or an axe, how to start a fire with a bow drill, and how to build a shelter that will protect you from the rain.
“I had a student who brought a whole lamb and we cooked it Argentinian style,” he said. “I’ve done soufflés and attempted other crazy baking things over the fire. I’ve learned how to cook everything from biscuits, to fish to chicken tacos.”
At School Of The Forest, young people and adults learn bushcraft and survival skills while learning about ecology, edible wild plants, tracks and signs, reading the weather, and the stars and night sky.
“We’re not doomsday preppers,” said Kyle LaPointe, of Townshend, who’s spending a week in the woods with his 7-year-old daughter, Norah, at School of the Forest at the end of Melendy Hill Road. “We believe in living simply with less.”
Norah is homeschooled and her parents practice a variety of homesteading, with pigs and chickens.
“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible,” said LaPointe. “This adds to a whole deck of cards of a skill set you can pull from.”
LaPointe said he hopes to travel to Maine sometime to learn even more skills.
“I’ve always been interested in living more in tune with the natural world, rather than against it,” said LaPointe.
“Everything I teach, 100 years ago everybody knew how to do by the time they were 10 years old,” said Russell. “I grew up with a rural background, but I still didn’t know a lot of this stuff until later in life. If you learn these things early, it not only builds confidence, it also instills a sense of curiosity in the natural world and curiosity fosters caring about the natural world because you are connected to it.”
This is the second year for School of the Forest in Guilford. It’s affiliated with the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Masardis, Maine, on the Aroostook River near the border with Canada.
“The point of this school is to bring some of the skills that are offered in Maine to a much wider audience here in the greater Brattleboro area,” said Russell. “We wanted to make these kinds of skills more readily available to more people, but travel costs for a weekend program aren’t feasible for a lot of people. Here you can enjoy the outdoors without a ton of gear. All you need is a simple set of skills and you are set to go.”
In addition to weeklong outings, such as the one being attended by the LaPointes and five other people, School of the Forest also offers the Friluftsliv Forest Program, a professional training program consisting of one weekend a month for nine months in Guilford and two weeks at Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, some of that time in a canoe.
Jack Mountain offers a nine-week immersive course, but not everyone can take off from their lives for that long, said Russell.
Doug Dickens attended a nine-week course and returned to Guilford with his two daughters Alexandra and Marion. He doesn’t consider himself a doomsday prepper or a survivalist, but he does believe in being prepared.
“I wouldn’t equate these to third-world skills,” said Dickens, who hails from southern Maine. “These are just basic life skills we need to understand and know in the eventuality something does happen.”
In his neck of the woods, hurricanes are common and disruptions from them can last one to two weeks, he said.
“If you have this bag of skills, you have a little bit of a head start, an opportunity to take care of yourself and your family,” said Dickens.
On this day, it was 90 degrees in Brattleboro, but a comfortable 80 degrees in the shade of School of the Forest.
Kyle McCracken, 16, whittled a piece of wood with his father, Eric, sitting nearby.
“I’ve been doing this since I was little,” said Kyle, who lives in Middleboro, Mass.
“This was the way I was raised,” said Eric McCracken. “When I was 8 years old I used to leave the house with a Buck Knife and a can of tuna fish and be gone the whole day in the woods.”
Dickens said he’s been to Jack Mountain for about a half-dozen courses.
“We did bushcraft in Maine when he was 14 and he’s now 16. We had such a great time and he’s been talking about it ever since,” said McCracken, who said the drive to southern Vermont was much easier than to northern Maine.
“You don’t need to go to a remote place to experience the natural world, you can do it in your own backyard by actively participating in the natural world,” said Russell. “It doesn’t require high adrenaline activities or top-of-the-line gear. The only things required are spending time in the natural world, and a desire to learn about the ecosystem you’re participating in.”
“Instead of trying to defeat nature, you coexist with it,” said Eric McCracken
Eventually, Russell hopes to add some hunting and field dressing courses and maybe even some homesteading courses.
“That’s an important part of living in the natural world,” he said. “A lot of people eat meat, but they have no idea how it’s processed or where it comes from.”
Russell said he is booked solid for the summer but will have fall and winter weekend programs available.
“This is a spot where there’s a lot of woods but it’s not hard to get to,” said Russell. “It doesn’t take much to get lost in the hills.”