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Stone Age Immersion
With Lynx Vilden's Four Season's Prehistoric Projects
August 1 - 23rd, 2009
By Thomas J. Elpel

Thomas Elpel in buckskins.

      My bow drew smoothly back; the arrow seemed remarkably straight and neatly fletched as I sighted along it towards the golden-mantled ground squirrel. Somehow, everything felt just right. I let the arrow fly; it hit the ground squirrel in the head, killing it instantly.

     Only a few days before I was still doing the math-how many days were we out? How many were left? The first two weeks dragged on and on. I was restless and ready to move on and explore new country. I questioned Lynx's decision to stay in one place for so long. But then I realized I was no longer counting down to the end. This wilderness was now my home, and I felt comfortable here.

     On my way down from the mountain meadow, I took off my buckskin pants and shirt and tied them around my waist. I was otherwise barefoot and naked, but felt completely at ease, carrying my bow and wandering slowly back towards camp, picking huckleberries and enjoying the traces of sunlight streaming down through the dense spruce forest. I felt much like the natives that are depicted in pictures wandering through the jungle, naked except for their bow and arrows. I felt like one of them. I felt like I belonged, like "one of the Real People" as Lynx would say.

     The focus of Lynx Vilden's Four Seasons Prehistoric Projects, in Twisp Washington, is not so much about primitive survival skills as Stone Age living skills. Over the span of several months, Lynx systematically takes her students back in time, teaching them how to butcher animals with stone tools, make jerky, render the fat, tan the hides, and make clothing. Students learn how to collect suitable clay, make pottery, and cook in it. They gather and dry all kinds of edible wild plants, roots, and berries, as well as medicinal herbs. Lynx teaches them how make primitive traps for rodents. They also make primitive fishing gear, using hooks made from bone and thorn, with horsehair fishing line. Students also make a carrying basket and stone tools.

Lynx Stone Age Immersion group.       The skills Lynx teaches are not limited to a particular culture or region. More than 95% of human history was lived in the Stone Age, and she incorporates skills from all over the world. For example, she uses gourds for containers and canteens, which were native to the southwest. She also teaches her students to felt clothing and blankets from wool, a skill that originated in Mongolia thousands of years ago. By the end of her programs, Lynx's students have outfitted themselves from head to toe with Stone Age gear and tools for anything they may need to do.

      Graduates from Four Seasons, as well as friends or applicants with sufficient gear and skills, are invited on a free extended Stone Age living project into the wilderness to fully immerse into the lifestyle of our ancestors. The 2009 project spanned the entire month of August, and I joined as a guest, excited about the adventure and eager to advance my skills to the next level. The gear I was required to bring included:

  • 10 lbs dried wild harvested foods (including plant and animal foods and one pint of rendered fat)
  • bow and 6+ arrows OR
  • fishing line and 4+ bone hooks and 4+ snare and deadfall trigger systems
  • pack basket or hide backpack
  • medium-sized clay cooking pot
  • full set of buckskin clothing, including long-sleeved over garment
  • moccasins
  • buffalo robe, fur blanket, or felt blanket
  • basic primitive tool kit, including a stone knife, bone awl, pitch glue, sinew, quick blades or chert/obsidian core

     Fortunately, I had most of the gear on hand already. Preparation included making a whole deer into jerky (approx 6.5 lbs), plus collecting onion tops for spice and rendering bear fat. I was especially excited to improve my archery skills, so I fine-tuned my bow, and made a new quiver. In my exuberance to go hunting, I made a batch of fifty willow arrows.

Lynx with fish caught on bone hook. WEEK ONE: TRIAL PERIOD
     Our tribe began with eight people: Kambria (20), Nate (32), Rebecca (31), Xavier (32), Katie (25), Andrew (27), Lynx (43), and myself (41). In the predawn darkness on August 1st we all shouldered fifty pound packs and quietly disappeared into the wilderness on the east slope of the Cascades, thirty miles south of the Canadian border. We made camp in the shadow of an otherwise unnamed peak that Lynx has dubbed "Mystic Mountain."

     The first week of the project is a trial period to ease the transition into full wilderness living. We were allowed to bring metal knives, needles, and other modern gear to finish projects and assist with the transition to full Stone Age living. We were also allowed to bring some non-primitive foods such as whole grains, meats, and fat to aid the transition from refined carbohydrates to a "Paleo diet" of wild meat, fat, greens, and berries. It was also a chance for each person to confirm their commitment before the fully stone-age portion began.

     For me, the transition to wilderness living is never easy. Between family and business, my life at home is a blur of activity, commitments, e-mails, and phone calls.

     It is like stepping off a train traveling at ninety miles an hour. That first step is a jolt and I struggle to even imagine being able to survive in the wilderness until I am actually doing it. This trip seemed especially daunting, due to the extended duration and the Stone Age emphasis.

Primitive fishhooks, bone and thorne.       My usual survival trips are typically fairly short; we go out with regular clothes and some basic gear. We hike from point A to point B, building shelters, foraging, and trying not to freeze or starve. My skills are best described as "post-industrial aboriginal." I like using a metal knife and saw. My favorite footwear consists of moccasins combined with sandals made from truck tires, and I recycle frayed baling twine into cordage. This post-industrial survival is my comfort zone and I have never attempted anything on this scale before, casting aside all things modern for a month of Stone Age living.

     Arriving at our destination, we built a small village in the woods. I found a natural hollow and put a debris-covered roof over it to make a "bear cave" shelter. The rest of the group made lean-to's or debris-hut style frames covered with fir boughs and debris to keep out the rain and wind. Warmth was not a primary concern, however, since we all had felt blankets or buffalo robes to sleep in. From my perspective it was pretty cushy, like deluxe wilderness survival.

     In spite of my initial concerns, I quickly fell into my comfort zone, tramping around in my tire sandals through woodlands similar to those at home. We foraged familiar plants, fished a similar stream, and used metal knives, saws, scissors, and glover's needles for projects. I wore out the soles of my moccasins in a matter of days and sewed on another layer. I used tools to make a bark berry basket to collect huckleberries.

Thomas Elpel in buckskins at primitive shelter.      I speculated that Lynx might let me keep some of my neo-primitive gear, such as my tire sandals and a few arrows with nail points. But Lynx demands a high standard; if it isn't Stone Age, it has to go. Only cameras, journals, and prescribed eyeglasses or medicines are allowed. This is what makes her such an incredible teacher. It encourages her students to toil away for months making the necessary gear. As we cached our non-primitive gear at the end of trial week I felt myself stepping beyond my comfort zone and recognized that Lynx was truly taking us back into the Stone Age.

     For this phase of the journey, Lynx prefers to cut off all contact with the outside world. Anyone who is unsure about their commitment to the remainder of the project is asked to leave during trial week, rather than disrupt the group by leaving during the Stone Age portion.

     Most of the group lived and worked together for three months prior to the trip. Katie participated on a previous project and joined this group with her partner Andrew two weeks before this project started. I was the latecomer, arriving a day and a half before it began, yet felt like part of the tribe after a week of working, cooking, talking, and singing together. We were all saddened when Katie and Andrew opted out of the trip due to conflicting obligations. We acknowledged the hard choices, wished them well and then we were a tribe of six.

     Although I have used stone tools frequently, I never before depended on them to this extent. Andrew gave me a nice stone blade before he left. I wrapped it in buffalo hide to cushion my hand while using it. With the stone knife, I peeled a strip of spruce bark off a tree to make strap-on soles to protect my worn moccasins. I was pleased with how well the blade worked, and my confidence began to grow. The spruce bark soles lasted only two or three miles per pair, but gave me great traction and saved my moccasins from sharp sticks and rocks. Most importantly, the bark soles protected my moccasins from the damp ground, which would have rapidly disintegrated them.

      I walked barefoot as much as I could, gaining confidence along the way, until I was comfortable going barefoot for miles every day. Although my range was not as great as before, I quickly felt like I was in my comfort zone again. Sleeping in a buffalo robe and living off pre-harvested foods made the experience seem a little too easy. This wasn't survival; it was Stone Age living.

Campfire cooking in clay pots.      We were on our own for breakfast and lunch, but dinner was a group meal. Two people worked together each evening to prepare a stew for the whole tribe, cooking in clay pots on hot coals. The cooks contributed goodies from their private stashes, such as deer or buffalo jerky, wild onions, bitterroots, spring beauty roots, morel mushrooms, puffball mushrooms, dried cattails, seaweed, wild rice, wild salt, and lots of bear, deer, or buffalo fat. We also picked wild greens for salads, stir-fried mushrooms on a hot rock, and caught numerous fish with bone hooks.

Cooking in the pottery required copious amounts of firewood. Open flame can heat the pottery too quickly, cracking it, so we kept a large fire going to make hot coals, then nestled the pots into the coals to do the cooking.

     I especially enjoyed the challenge of coming up with interesting new menu items from the local available foods. One of my favorite recipes was "Rubus Wraps." It consisted of coral mushrooms and thistle leaves stir-fried on a rock and wrapped in a thimbleberry leaf (Rubus parviflorus), tied shut with grass and fried again. Huckleberry juice cooked with animal fat made a great salad dressing. Trout stuffed with wild onions and cooked on the coals was delicious. Kambria cooked grasshoppers for everyone, which were surprisingly good.

Grasshopper food on a stick.      I brought less food with me than other members of the group to begin with, and in trying to conserve it, I ate more wild foods (especially huckleberries) and ate less overall than everyone else. I transitioned from my normal 5,000 calorie, non-stop grazing diet at home to approximately 1,000 calories a day for the first two weeks of the project. I ate huckleberries or jerky whenever I felt weak, really hungry, or before I engaged in physical activities. I enjoyed getting by on survival rations, felt surprisingly energetic, and was delighted for the opportunity to lose a few pounds.

Fresh water waterfall.      On the down side, we spent most of two weeks camped in a dark hole deep in the woods at the bottom of a ravine. We were ready to move out and explore the area when the weather changed. A storm front moved in, bringing clouds and intermittent, drizzling rain that lasted for days. In desperation, we finally hoisted our packs during a lull in the storm and climbed the mountain, hoping for a view of the surrounding area. We made camp under a giant spruce tree just as the clouds settled back in to rain for the night. By dawn, the rain turned to snow, although it didn't stick. We retreated to our camp in the ravine to dry our gear and wait out the storm.

     Although our situation was cushy by survival standards, there are nevertheless, stresses that are difficult to handle on extended trips, including persistent biting flies, nights that are almost warm enough, foods that are good but really unfamiliar, lack of contact with family and friends, lethargy, restlessness, and in this case, too much time camped in the same dark hole without enough stimulation each day. On day 15, Kambria packed up her gear and walked out. Lynx struggles with these disruptions and feared that the whole tribe might disband. "It doesn't matter whether it is a two-week trip or a three-month trip, the tribe almost always disbands halfway through." Lynx said. She is always trying new approaches to build group unity through the preparation classes to get a group that will stick together until the end. I understood Kambria's need to walk out. That happens a lot on these kinds of trips. We wished her well and then we were a tribe of five.

Meditating on campfire. WEEK THREE: STONE AGE VACATION
     My biggest concerns about the Stone Age experience were initially survival-oriented. In addition to worrying about my feet and moccasins, I assumed we would all run out of food before the end of the trip. I operated with a survival mindset, rationing my food and foraging every day to make the food supply last as long as possible. But, Katie, Andrew, and Kambria each contributed some of their remaining food and fat to the group when they departed, leaving us with more rations and fewer mouths to feed. After eating very little during the first two weeks, I finally increased my daily rations. I also continued foraging every day.

     I have been on survival trips where we had little or no food, with the reasoning that hunger should be a good motivator to go hunting and foraging, but the reality is that it is hard to do anything constructive when you are too emaciated to stand up. I have also been on trips with ample food supplies, with the reasoning that we would practice our hunting and foraging skills more if we had the energy to do so. But the reality is that there is little incentive to hunt or forage for anything wild when there is a backpack full of modern food to be used up. Too me, the ideal combination is to bring about one-third of the food supply, hunt and forage for about one-third of the food supply, and if necessary, go hungry for the other third. That is sustainable, at least for a while. The fact that our rations consisted entirely of dried, wild foods made foraging that much more appealing. We had the necessary calories to go foraging, along with the incentive to find some fresh food and diversity.

Ground sunflower seeds.      I have known for at least ten years that tree ear mushrooms (Auricularia auricula) are edible, but this was the first time I ever tried them. I also experimented with harvesting and processing thistle seeds and sunflower seeds. I even cooked up a bunch of willow-leaf insect galls. Mostly, I liked stir-frying various combinations of greens and coral mushrooms.

     The singular disappointment was that I had hoped to spend most of every day out hunting rabbits and ground squirrels with my bow and arrows, but there was astonishingly little wildlife in the spruce forest and there were not many meadows. Instead, I spent a lot of time writing.

     This was definitely not a survival trip in any conventional sense, and Lynx often referred to it as "Stone Age vacation." We were fully prepared with the tools and gear and most of the food we needed to live comfortably. Being on vacation turned out to be the greatest challenge of the trip. I am a very active person; I know of no greater torture than lying around doing nothing.

Nate in buckskins.      Like a tourist, I felt like we had been there and done that. We came, we explored the area, sampled the local cuisine, and it was time to move on to see what lay over the horizon. It wasn't until day sixteen that I stopped doing the math. By day eighteen I felt completely immersed in the Stone Age experience. I was no longer a tourist. The spruce forest had become my home. Unfortunately, the feeling didn't last long.

     The biggest challenge for Lynx on these projects is to hold the tribe together. It is very difficult to make the mental transition, walking away from family and commitments to do an extended trip. Nate was very concerned about his dying grandmother, and with the group's consent, hiked out to make a phone call when Kambria left. He returned the following day. Then Rebecca fell sick with severe diarrhea, unable to keep anything in her for the next four days. We tried curing her with concoctions of wormwood, osha, and Oregon grape root, but found no magic bullet. We decided to take her out before she became too weak to walk safely, and I volunteered to be her escort. Fortunately, Rebecca was clearly recovering by the time we reached Lynx's place, but still needed time to rebuild her strength. And then we were a tribe of four.

Bark basket full of huckelberries.      Naturally, I tried calling home while in civilization. It is difficult for me to walk away from my wife and kids and businesses to disappear off the map for a month, and it seemed sensible to check in while I had the opportunity.

     I don't know if it would have been better or worse if I had actually reached someone, but I tried six phone numbers and got nobody. Returning to camp, I was restless with thoughts about family and work and unable to re-engage in the experience. It took me two weeks to make the mental transition into Stone Age living, and only one day to bring me back to the modern world. Lynx and I hiked up to nearby Mystic Lake a couple days later for an overnight fishing trip, but I was uninspired.

Handing stick basket.      On the positive side, I ate at least four gallons of huckleberries during the trip and lost about fifteen pounds. I wrote a list of all the new skills and tips that I learned, filling an entire page in my notebook. But now it felt like time to go. Besides, we had already eaten most of the huckleberries for miles around, and we could not ethically catch any more fish out of the local streams.

     Even Lynx is not immune to the outside world. She suddenly felt needed by her partner, Rico, and ran the eight miles back to her house to make sure everything was okay. Along the way, she crossed paths with Rebecca, who felt good enough to return to the group. Shoe tracks appeared in our camp the following day, and I assumed that Rico hiked in to get us, due to some kind of emergency. By the time Lynx walked back into camp, I was all packed up and ready to leave. The tracks, she said, were actually left by bear hunters who were checking out the area and stumbled into our private sanctuary. I hiked out on day twenty-three, followed by everyone else over the next couple days.

      Lynx has a dream of one day doing a Stone Age Year, and she hopes someone will offer her a couple thousand acres of land suitable for a long-term project. Lynx is one of only a few people in this country with the necessary skills to lead such an endeavor. However, the greatest challenge she faces will not be subsistence or survival skills, but merely to hold the tribe together against the disruptions and pull of the outside world. In the meantime, she plans to lead the 2010 Stone Age Living Project during archery season, so that the group will be able to hunt deer. She is especially seeking people with archery experience to participate in the project. For more information about upcoming classes and Stone Age living projects, please visit Four Seasons Prehistoric Projects

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of Participating in Nature and producer of the Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Video Series.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
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