Adventure Out's Jack Harrison

by Kelsey Farabee
Photo by Chip Scheuer

When he talks about the wilderness and indigenous skills like fire-starting and flint-knapping (the art of making stone tools), Jack Harrison’s tone blends harsh honesty and reflective eloquence. “There aren’t any do-overs in the wild,” he says. “In a survival scenario every move should be intentional.

“Practicing these skills is a way of connecting with the earth and our ancestors, of getting a sense of something bigger.”

In today’s digitized world of screens and social media, any activity that gets people outside can help combat the stress and anxiety plaguing society. “Survival skills require you to be fully present,” Harrison says.

Read about Kelsey Farabee's Adventure Out wilderness class with Jack Harrison.

Born in the North Bay, Harrison grew up hiking the Marin Headlands with his grandmother and her friend Elizabeth Terwilliger, a famed local naturalist. He acquired a high level of nature literacy at a young age and took to roaming the woods.

His family moved to Indiana briefly and then to Connecticut, where he continued to explore and discovered the artistry of primitive skills. “Our house in Connecticut backed up to thousands of acres of forest,” he says. “There weren’t many trails, and you could go for days without seeing people.”

This bi-coastal upbringing introduced him to various schools of thought, from attending Tom Brown’s famous Tracker School to researching the legacy of Ishi, the last survivor of California’s Yana people. Harrison studied the flora and fauna of both regions and filled his free time with exploring the wilderness, occasionally getting in trouble at school for eating edible plants during a fire drill or carrying a squirrel carcass in his lunch sack.

While survival skills obviously cannot be perfected by book learning alone, Harrison is also an avid reader. Many of his abilities are self-taught, and he continues to tear through books on survival topics, both dependable and otherwise, to stay abreast of the information that students may have come across. He makes a point to only teach things that he has practiced and would rely on himself.

As passionate people often do, Harrison sometimes finds himself constrained by language itself, where terms like “survival,” “primitive” and “indigenous” carry certain connotations or are laced with condescension and misconceptions. And while he admits it is not the most lucrative career path, he has dedicated his life to honing his own outdoor skills and sharing them with others.

“I just want to get people psyched about nature,” he says.

Harrison returned to California at age 16 and traveled the West Coast for a time, rounding out his skill set with more advanced naturalist training, animal tracking tactics and other specialized knowledge. He taught his first class at age 18 and feels a strong sense of responsibility both to his students and to the environment.

Harrison first met Adventure Out founder Cliff Hodges, an entrepreneurial MIT grad and outdoor enthusiast, when Harrison was in high school, on a weekend camping trip with his school’s environmental studies program.

Hodges was an instructor at the retreat and he was struck by Harrison’s skills and knowledge. When they reconnected a few years later, Hodges quickly pulled him onto his staff, letting Harrison develop new courses and expand Adventure Out's survival and wilderness skills curriculum to include advanced topics like traps and snares, hunting preparation and stone tools.

I spoke with Jack Harrison about his tools, techniques and ideas:

What tools or supplies do you always take with you on a hike or adventure?
Jack Harrison: I always want to have a good, sharp fixed-blade knife, a hand drill kit wrapped in tinder, a method of purifying water, a good book and maybe a wool blanket. With those, I’m set for as long as you can imagine.

If you had to approximate, how many survival classes have you taught?
I’ve been teaching regularly for about six years. Some months of the year I teach five classes a month, some months I teach about six classes a month, and during the busy season I teach around 15 classes a month, so more than 630 classes at this point.

How old were you when you started your first fire by hand and what method did you use?
I was ten or eleven years old when I learned to use a bow drill. I’m still perfecting it and am humbled on a regular basis. If anyone says they have “perfected” fire-starting, they are lying, it’s not possible. My favorite method is using a hand drill or a fire plow. It took me a few weeks of blistered and bloody hands to get comfortable using a hand drill.

What were some of your most memorable learning experiences or instructors, and how do you use those experiences with your students?
I enjoy sharing the times I failed with my students -- I used to make lots of mistakes. One of favorite teachers is a guy by the name of Brad Salon. He really knows his skills and can make 30 varieties of bows and explain what makes each of them shoot the way they do. I’ve known him since I was 13 and am very lucky to call him a mentor.

What is your favorite edible plant found in Northern California and your favorite backcountry meal?
Thimbleberry, and fresh-caught trout with harvested greens.

What personality traits are most valuable in an outdoor survival situation?
JH: This is very dependent upon the situation, so I don’t want to pinpoint a single trait. Survival requires a positive attitude, an extremely creative way of looking at nature and confidence.

What is the most influential survival book that you’ve read, and are there any resources you turn to for new information?
It seems like everyone has written books these days, and while a big part of my job is to maintain current knowledge on the subject, I prefer reading stories written by the original nature lovers like John Muir, Tom Brown, Jon Young and Ingwe.

Follow this link to track down Jack Harrison at Adventure Out.