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Sustaining the Wild 

by Amy Silbernagel McCaffree & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & magine wandering off into the North Idaho wilderness without sleeping bags, pots and pans, or even a backpack. How long do you think you'd last? If you'd like to increase your odds of survival, then Dr. Ken Fischman and his wife, Lanie Johnson, might be able to help. They are the organizers of this weekend's "Back to the Future" Wilderness Skills Course in Clark Fork, Idaho (25 miles east of Sandpoint), where attendees will gather for lectures, interactive presentations and hands-on instruction, as well as storytelling and games, all meant to teach and apply hunter-gatherer principles.


"It's not a course in which people have to survive but learn 'how-to-survive' skills," Fischman says. "We want it to be an enjoyable experience."


Some of these skills include: how to make fire by friction (an experience Fischman compares to magic), building survival shelters and foraging for wild edible plants. Participants stay in tepees, tent sites and dorms, and range from age 12 to those in their 70s; younger children may participate with their families.


Fischman and Johnson founded Ancient Pathways to a Sustainable Future last summer "to help create enduring cultures that are able to live in harmony with the rest of the community of life." The couple participated in their first survival course more than 20 years ago as students of Tom Brown, Jr., a legendary wilderness survival expert. "Lanie had read an article in Reader's Digest about this strange man and his marvelous adventures," Fischman explains. "We lived in New York City at the time, but we were people who loved the outdoors ... We found it really intriguing, this idea of going out in the woods with as little as possible. Tom Brown is one of the most charismatic teachers I have ever come across ... He can walk into the woods with nothing but a knife."


The couple also attended the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, taught at the Tom Brown Family Camps, and started leading their own workshops in New York in the early '90s. Fischman says the goals for the workshop are "to reconnect people with the Earth by relearning these [hunter-gatherer] skills and obtain some confidence with yourself in the woods. If people are closer to the Earth, we think they will be less likely to damage it ... damage to the earth doesn't have to do with who we are, but with cultural beliefs."


Fischman cites one cultural myth that he calls "The Cornucopia" -- "That's the idea that our natural resources are infinite, [and] the belief that no matter what goes wrong, we'll find a technological fix for it." He says a major example is America's oil crisis. "There are some biological limitations that even humans can't violate."


Participants will also learn how environmental principles from ancient hunter-gatherer cultures can be applied to modern-day living. "We talk about wants versus needs," Johnson says. "If we focus on our needs, we can live in harmony, but wants are never-ending because people continue creating them. We think living simply is easier on us, as well as easier on the earth."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & arried since 1989, Fischman and Johnson enjoy hiking and canoeing together and are public land advocates. Fischman, age 72, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a Ph.D. in genetics, and worked for 27 years at Columbia University Medical School as a research associate. Johnson, originally from Princeton, N.J., holds a master's degree in art therapy, has worked as a freelance artist and once owned an environmental business.


"We had friends who would rather cut off their arm than leave New York City -- the arts, culture, Broadway, the night life. Although we enjoyed those things, it wasn't what turned us on. We got out of the city nearly every weekend if we could," Fischman says, adding that he had to drive at least 100 miles in order to access a river for kayaking.


"I retired and gave up my rent-controlled apartment, and that was a significant gesture to everyone I knew," he says. "We left New York City in 1995 in a truck camper. We thought we would tour around for about a year and choose a town to live in and settle. Six years later, we were still in that truck camper."


In 1998, they discovered Sandpoint when they came to work as interpretive assistants for the U.S. Forest Service in Bonners Ferry. They moved to Durango, Colo., the next year but came back in 2001 to settle permanently. Their Sandpoint house is the first they've ever owned.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n making the transition to simplified backcountry camping, Johnson says, "It was so exhilarating to learn skills we could never imagine and to feel so free ... to just go and not worry about carrying your whole house on your back." One early experience was especially life-changing. "In one of our first classes with Brown, we built a shelter and ... at the end of the week, we had to turn in our sleeping bag." The shelter, as Johnson describes, was essentially a debris hut -- a framework of branches covered with natural insulating materials like bark, leaves and dried fern. "The first night, I noticed that all the leaves crashed to the floor. I hadn't put enough in, but I was determined to not go and ask for my sleeping bag," Johnson says. So she held the foliage close to her body and survived the below-freezing temperatures.


However, she did have one other challenge to overcome in the beginning: her fear of being alone in the woods at night. So she went on an overnight solo trek. "I didn't take a tent or food -- just a sleeping bag, day pack, water purifier and a cup for boiling water." Using the skills she learned from Brown, she built a semi-shelter with leaves, a tarp made of plant fiber, and drank self-prepared pine needle tea.


As an expert in edible wild plants, Johnson -- who turns 68 on June 9 -- applies outdoor survival skills to her daily life. "When you're out there, you eat what you find," she says, and similar creative cooking skills can be used in the home kitchen by improvising. She also says the "spiritual skills of attitude and awareness" are equally important: "Our survival experiences have helped us to be more in touch with the natural world. Tom Brown showed us that nature provides everything we need to survive, as long as we obey her laws. This has given us a new perspective on understanding our culture and how it is apart from nature instead of being a part of nature ... The purpose of our classes is to help people experience their deep connection with nature and so to inspire us all to live more sustainably."





The Back to the Future Wilderness Skills course runs Fri-Sun June 9-11 at the Clark Fork Field Campus, Clark Fork, Idaho. Cost is $95, including meals. Call (208) 265-8580 to register or inquire about future workshops.
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