I’m happy to say I’m beginning to know as much about survival in the wilderness as my protagonist, Gaige. Last weekend I hiked the Appalachian Trail to the top of Devil’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs near Catawba, Virginia with nine independent women, our tour guide Nicki Bruckmann of Explorer Chick, and survival expert Dina Bennett of Mountain Shepherd Survival School. I learned that the terrain is rarely flat with gradually rising hills like it is in the Midwest. My calves and thighs got a workout up the steep inclines, and my knees felt it coming back down, though my new hiking boots held up nicely. I doubt seventeen-year-old Gaige would have been so sore, but even the twenty-something women in the group were dragging by the end of the weekend.
Throughout our hikes, I made a point of following behind to take pictures and study the terrain as glancing around was tricky on the rocky, root-strewn paths. Having just left behind the snow in Wisconsin, it was wonderful to see the green fields and wildflowers, plus enjoy my second ever peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the top of Tinker Cliffs.
When we weren’t crossing streams or climbing rocks, we learned about survival training from Dina. I took lots of notes and videos of her tying knots, building shelters, and starting fires. Much of what I thought I knew I had to scrap all together. For instance, don’t bother bringing a hatchet; it’s too heavy and a knife, any knife that you’re comfortable using, is much more versatile. Also, if you’re lost in the woods, your first priority isn’t water, food or shelter.
It’s a positive mental attitude (PMA).
You’ll need it to reign in your fear and stress, deal with the weather, overcome any pain due to injury, work through your thirst, hunger, or fatigue, and overcome boredom, loneliness, and isolation. Poor Gaige will probably go through all of that (it is a novel, after all).
We built shelters out of plastic tarps, started fires using cotton balls and lip balm, learned to disinfect our water with a few drops of Clorox Bleach, and found out that black ants are juicy, lemony-sweet while brown ants taste like dirt.
After two days of hiking and another full day of survival training, I was beat so I stayed at Mountain Shepherd Survival School’s Pub while the rest of the crew tackled McAfee’s Knob at sunset. Over a cold beer, I learned more about Dina’s husband, Reggie Bennett who runs the school with Dina. When I first met Reggie, I told him my dilemma with taking the survival course — my character doesn’t want to be found. So he pulled out the United States Air Force Search and Rescue Survival Training Guide (once a top-secret document, now available on Amazon) and showed me the section on evading the enemy — perfect.
While I hung out at the Pub and skimmed this book, Reggie played host to a group of men. Later in the evening as things settled down, he pulled up a chair and sat with me for quite awhile as I picked his brain.
Of all the survival schools in the country I could have selected, this turned out to be the most serendipitous. You see, Reggie Bennett isn’t merely a survival training teacher, he’s a retired Air Force SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) Instructor. During his years in the Air Force, he trained Navy SEALs! I was picking the brains of one of the top survival experts in the country and he graciously answered all my questions. Both he and Dina have agreed to answer any further inquiries I might have and review my completed manuscript.
Many thanks to Dina and Reggie and especially Nicki for organizing this incredible Explorer Chick Adventure!
Madtown Author Daze, Saturday, May 5, 2018, 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., Madison Museum of Modern Art. During Madison’s famous Farmers’ Market. As one of thirty-two local authors on hand, I’ll discuss my books and sell signed copies. Live music and mimosas. Would love to see you there!
UW-Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake, June 11 – 15, 2018. Heaven on Earth for writers! I’m offering a workshop on setting and will emcee Open Mic for those brave souls who want to share their work. If you’re a writer, be sure to check out this amazing writing retreat.