The kids’ hands were getting sore and the wood was getting warm.
“Wow! It is hot!” 9-year-old Gregory Aronica of Jefferson Township said, daring to touch the little rectangle of wood against which he and his buddy 12-year-old John Paul Sirotnak of Green Ridge had been pressing down and twisting a thin mullein branch.
“We can SMELL smoke,” camp counselor Kati Vanetten remarked.
Ah, but smelling wasn’t enough for the youngsters who attended Wilderness Survival Camp last week at Lackawanna College’s Environmental Education Center in Covington Township.
They wanted to SEE smoke, just like the graceful tendrils their instructor Mike Dennis had coaxed from plain wood without benefit of a match. For the experienced outdoorsman, it seemed to take just a moment of spinning a thin branch, which your friendly neighborhood scout troop might also call a spindle or a drill.
To city folks who swear by Bic lighters, fire by friction looks like a magic trick. But indigenous people kept themselves warm and cooked food this way for thousands of years.
“We’re using soft wood. You can tell it’s soft because you can gouge it with your fingernail,” Dennis told a dozen boys and girls who were among some 30 children enrolled in the environmental-education program.
“You’ve gotta press inward and you’ve gotta press downward,” Dennis said, starting at the top of the branch and rotating it between his hands until he worked his way to the base.
“Two people can do this together,” he said. “When one person’s hands get to the bottom the other person’s hands start at the top. Then you don’t get so tired.”
Finally, after what seemed like a long, grueling effort, Tyler Sparrow of Jefferson Township and Conor Mann of Moscow saw a bit of smoke curling from the particles of wood dust at the base of their spindle. The two 9-year-olds seemed happy, but a little too tired to cheer. “I think it took 10 minutes,” Tyler said. “It was really hard,” Conor added.
Eventually Dennis, the teacher, got the smoke going for three or four other sets of young campers. But when someone asked for a repeat, he shook his head, “My hands have had about all they can take.”
But, no worries. Fire building was only one session at the camp. Soon it was time for the children to practice the primitive hunting technique of throwing sticks at your prey. Naturally, they didn’t hurl missiles at real animals, but at small logs that stood in for “rabbits.”
Earlier, the children had built lean-to shelters using sticks, rocks, logs and straws. “We had a sidewalk leading up to ours,” said Maria Parola, 10, of Moscow, speaking on behalf of her group.
They also searched for animal tracks, learned how native peoples heated water by putting hot stones into it and practiced the skill of throwing a spear-like dart with help from a wooden device called an atlatl.
When you use an atlatl to launch a dart, Dennis, said, “it’s as if your arm is 18 inches longer. If you can imagine a baseball player with a very pitching arm, that would be an advantage for him.”
“Tens of thousands of years ago, before bows and arrows, people would hunt this way. We’re talking woolly mammoth,” Dennis said. “Indigenous people everywhere used them (atlatls). Eskimos looking for seal in their kayaks used them. The Lenape used them until the 1600s.”
The campers took turns hurling the darts and were careful not to run and pick them up until Dennis gave the signal: “Clear!”
“I definitely want to throw again,” an enthusiastic youngster said, getting to the back of the line.
So, after learning these old-fashioned survival skills during five sessions of day camp, did the children feel confident they could survive alone in the woods if they had to?
Nine year-old Gregory Aronica said yes, and explained his plan: “I would hunt deer and purify water.”