Winter Survival Weekend at Natural Bridge State Resort Park

On the morning of Friday, February 19th, 2016 a group of brave and hearty souls gathered at the Woodland Center of Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade, Kentucky for the park's inaugural Winter Survival Weekend. As anyone who spends time outdoors is well aware, you need to be prepared for the extremes of weather, especially in the winter! In this case, though, the "extreme" was about as un-winter like as you could imagine for February. Friday and Saturday saw sunny skies with daytime temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime lows in the 40s. Sunday, however, we were awakened by the constant drumbeat of rain on our tents and loud rumbles of thunder from a storm passing through. Fortunately, the lightning was short lived and we were still able to gather safely outdoors for some closing day lessons, despite the pouring rain. If nothing else, the beautiful weather on Friday and Saturday offered a relaxed atmosphere that made it much easier to focus on the lessons at hand.

Survival expert John Rose and park naturalist Drew Stevens. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Survival expert John Rose and park naturalist Drew Stevens. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

The event was organized by park naturalist Drew Stevens with instruction provided by survival expert John Rose. John has vast experience in wilderness and urban survival, bushcraft, wild edible and medicinal plants, and much more. He has worked as a wilderness advisor for a movie that was filmed in Red River Gorge and on the Discovery Channel’s “Man, Woman, Wild.” You can read more about John on his Kentucky Bushcraft website. John is very personable and down to earth teacher, he is approachable, and happy to share his wealth of knowledge with those around him.

Morning survival instruction around the fire pit in the group camp area above the Middle Fork Campground. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Morning survival instruction around the fire pit in the group camp area above the Middle Fork Campground. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

John began his instruction stressing the importance of staying aware of your surroundings while in the outdoors and keeping a positive attitude if you ever find yourself lost or in a survival situation. The lessons of the weekend focused on the top priorities for survival including shelter, fire, water, and food. These priorities are based on the well-known survival adage of the “rule of threes,” three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

Course participants pile on leaves during the construction of a debris hut. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Course participants pile on leaves during the construction of a debris hut. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

John emphasized the importance of selecting a proper location before constructing your shelter including factors such as access to water and availability of construction materials, among several others. He went so far as to suggest you take as much time scouting to find the best possible location for your shelter as you actually do constructing it. While it certainly would have been nice to have enough snow to build a snow shelter---after all this was a winter survival weekend---the type of shelter John taught us to build was a debris hut which can be constructed any time of year, as long as the ground is not completely snow covered.

As John demonstrates in this photo, the debris hut shelter requires a significant depth of leaves in order to provide adequate insulation and rainproof qualities. Photo by Todd Nystrom

As John demonstrates in this photo, the debris hut shelter requires a significant depth of leaves in order to provide adequate insulation and rainproof qualities. Photo by Todd Nystrom

.After shelter construction, John next focused on fire building skills. He talked about the best naturally available materials to use and also demonstrated two primitive fire starting methods, a hand drill and a bow drill. Being able to build a fire in any conditions is important for providing heat, of course, but it is also a means of purifying water and cooking food. John demonstrated a method of boiling water using a shallow pit dug in the ground, a plastic grocery bag, and rocks heated in the fire. Use extreme caution with this process, though, as wet rocks placed in a hot fire can, and do, explode! Sunday morning's rain also provided a great opportunity for John to demonstrate fire building under extreme, wet conditions, which he was able to do quite successfully.

A demonstration of fire starting using a hand drill as John is assisted by a young winter survival weekend participant. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

A demonstration of fire starting using a hand drill as John is assisted by a young winter survival weekend participant. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

John demonstrates “coal burning,” a technique for making bowls, spoons, and other implements that make survival easier, as well as passing time around the campfire. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

John demonstrates “coal burning,” a technique for making bowls, spoons, and other implements that make survival easier, as well as passing time around the campfire. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

On Saturday the group took a field trip to the nearby Ashland Wildlife Management Area, managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources. While there, John used the more rugged surroundings to better illustrate some of the factors to consider in selecting a shelter location and demonstrated the construction and setting of a simple wire snare that can be used to capture small animals such as squirrels and rabbits to provide food in a survival situation. He was also able to find and share a few wild edibles and medicinal plants with us, though winter is not the best season for this, as one might expect.

Setting a wire snare and demonstrating its effectiveness. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Setting a wire snare and demonstrating its effectiveness. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Eastern hemlock, in the pine family, can be eaten or steeped in hot water to make a tea that is high in vitamin C and other nutrients. This is not to be confused with water hemlock which is an extremely poisonous plant commonly found along roadsides throughout North America. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Eastern hemlock, in the pine family, can be eaten or steeped in hot water to make a tea that is high in vitamin C and other nutrients. This is not to be confused with water hemlock which is an extremely poisonous plant commonly found along roadsides throughout North America. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

In addition to John's instruction, park naturalist Drew Stevens joined in by teaching some principles of land navigation using a map and compass. Drew is also very knowledgeable in many subjects and was eager to share his knowledge and experiences, including some very valuable and practical lessons from the many search and rescue missions in which he has participated around the area.

Park naturalist Drew Stevens teaching EKI Board Member Austin Yates compass navigation skills. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Park naturalist Drew Stevens teaching EKI Board Member Austin Yates compass navigation skills. Photo by Todd Nystrom.

Two major highlights of the weekend were the incredible wild game dinners prepared by the kitchen staff at Natural Bridge State Resort Park’s, Sandstone Arches Restaurant. Friday evening’s feast was bison chili and cornbread, while Saturday’s was venison burgoo, green beans, and biscuits. Both meals were served banquet style, under the stars, and were thoroughly enjoyed by everyone as we warmed ourselves around the campfire, the perfect setting for any good “survival” meal!

Enjoying a hearty “survival” meal of venison burgoo, green beans, and biscuits around the campfire.

Enjoying a hearty “survival” meal of venison burgoo, green beans, and biscuits around the campfire.

This is just an overview of the many topics covered during the two-and-a-half-day class. As an inaugural event it went quite well, and should provide a great foundation upon which they can build similar future events. When offered again, I would certainly recommend this to anyone interested in learning basic survival skills. Knowledge and experience are keys to confidence in the outdoors, especially if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.