In a comfortable world, survivalist challenges students to think outside the box
The sounds of shifting metal chairs and friendly chatter enveloped the Community Center of the recently reopened REI off of 28th Street and Canyon Boulevard in Boulder.
Outdoorsman Ford Church was there for one reason — to teach the group how to survive. The projector he used glowed as a reminder to the audience of the modern technology that has flooded society and made basic survival skills obsolete for many people.
Church set up a scenario: A couple of friends decided to go on an eight-mile hike in the Rocky Mountain National Forest — nothing too strenuous. However, as the daylight began to dwindle, the group lost the trail, and before long, all sense of placement. It was the end of October, and there was a definite chill in the air. The hike was originally supposed to be an easy, nonchalant day hike – no one had matches, reserved water or even heavy jackets. As the urgency of the situation became more apparent, the individuals in the group struggled to find potential in their environment and prioritize their needs.
“All right, everyone’s getting mildly hypothermic, so let’s wrap it up,” Church said calling everyone’s attention back to the front of the room.
Church asked the clinic’s participants to reveal what their individual groups came up with in regard to the proposed scenario. What would they do to survive?
In 2004, Church started the Cottonwood Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring “students to change the world through an exciting blend of adventure, wilderness survival and environmental service,” according to its Web site. Originally an idea represented in his Master’s thesis, Church morphed it into reality. He said he hoped to involve high school students in the community in areas students say they felt were out of their reach, specifically regarding environmental issues. To do this, he taught them how to survive.
A group of young Boy Scouts in the crowd, already versed in basic survival techniques, outlined their plan. They would first find or construct a shelter, then they would make a fire – possibly using a camera battery to create sparks – seek a water source and lastly search out food.
Another group chose a similar plan: survey the landscape, create a shelter and pile together to share their body heat.
Church said he enjoys hearing what such group interaction will produce – mostly because he expects someone will insist that finding food should be the first priority. In actuality, obtaining food is the last consideration. The human body can survive up to three weeks without a substantial meal.
Church said he teaches survival technique so a person can get out and tell a group of random people what they’ve learned.
While he’s willing to work with nearly every age demographic, Church is more inclined towards high school students. Church said it was at that age when he first felt a pull towards the outdoors.
After eighth grade, he went on a weeklong camping trip. While some of his peers declared afterwards that they never wanted to relive such an experience, Church couldn’t wait to get out there again.
Beyond his natural pull to the wilderness, Church said he believes high school students can be empowered to make a difference if only given the confidence and means to do so. The goal of the Cottonwood Institute, Church says, is to provide such empowerment.
Kneeling on the carpeted floor of the Community Center, the clinic’s 50 or so attendees crowded around Church. With two pieces of wood and a bow similar to that used to shoot an arrow, he quickly drilled a stake violently into a notch in the wood. Within seconds, smoke trailed upward with the scent of a campfire filling the room.
“This really isn’t a good inside activity,” Church said, stopping before creating a flame.
An REI employee glanced nervously about the room and up at the ceiling, seemingly wondering if the smoke alarm would go off. The crowd was mesmerized by the possibility of lighting the floor on fire.
“I’ve practiced that for four or five months and still can’t do it,” said one of the Boy Scouts watching Church’s demonstration.
But Church said it takes time.
“You can’t read a book or attend one lecture and just know these skills,” Church says. “You need to practice.”
Contact freelance writer Anya Semenoff at Anya.Semenoff@Colorado.EDU