Stoked on Nature

Adventure Out wilderness survival instructor Jack Harrison teaches connection with nature and humankind's ancient ways.

Story by Kelsey Farabee | Photos by Chip Scheuer

April 24, 2014—The confirmation email I received after signing up for Adventure Out’s wilderness survival class warned that refunds would not be issued for people who “get lost” on their way to class. Uh oh. As someone who “gets lost” often, I was proud that I successfully navigated from San Francisco to the Santa Cruz Mountains, to what seemed to be the correct camp parking lot, but now I can’t find the group and am worried. Is this the first test? I didn’t bring my compass. I bet you fail survival school if you can’t even find the location...

After a few frenzied minutes, I spot a rugged-looking fellow wearing a blue fleece with an Adventure Out logo. Aha! With a smile he checks my name off on his clipboard and directs me off into the woods.

The trail he points toward meanders along a trickling creek and up into a redwood grove, where several people are already gathered around a few picnic tables and a campfire circle. Knees in the dirt and jaw clenched with focus, Adventure Out’s Program Coordinator and lead survival instructor Jack Harrison is concentrated on the small ball of tinder he holds a few inches in front of his face.

As our small crowd watches, Harrison blows gently on the tinder ball until the spark bursts into a tentative flame and smoke rises in tendrils. He makees it look easy, and folks ooh and aah.

Even with his confidence and experience, he warns us about the fickle nature of fire. “Sometimes I still get humbled,” he says earnestly, stepping back and acknowledging his audience.

Wilderness survival classes have become increasingly trendy in recent years, whether due to “apocalypse” scares or people’s desire to escape their day jobs spent staring at a screen. Participants in these outdoor programs are typically between 20 and 40 years old (although adventurers both older and younger can enjoy the classes too) and usually already have a strong connection with nature. Backpackers, hikers and outdoorsmen come to increase their comfort level and learn new skills. But trendy is not a word that describes Harrison, who’s been teaching survival classes since he was 18.

Relearning Ancient Skills

We quickly go around the circle sharing our names and hometowns, but there is no time to waste. So much to learn in just a few hours—millions of years of human evolution, in fact.

Adventure Out was founded in 2005 by Cliff Hodges, an entrepreneurial MIT grad and outdoor enthusiast. Hodges and Harrison first met 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 the Adventure Out staff, letting Harrison develop new survival class curriculums and expanding the company’s offerings to include advanced topics like traps and snares, hunting preparation and stone tools.
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While Harrison’s youth—he turns 26 this year—might raise eyebrows at first, talking with him for a few minutes makes it clear just how knowledgeable and passionate he is about the subject matter.

“Working with Cliff is great,” Harrison says. “I’ve been able to reach a ton of people and test out a lot of ideas.”

My class, held in early April, is Adventure Out’s first big program of the spring, and everyone is eager to work the kinks out of their hiking legs and shake the dirt out of backpacks and tents in preparation for summer trips.

The class is structured around a human’s core biological needs: air, shelter, water, fire and food, in order of decreasing urgency, and teaches students how to draw all of these things from the wild spaces that surround them.

“We came from the earth and we can still depend on it,” Harrison says.

When he talks about the wilderness and indigenous skills like flint-knapping (the art of making stone tools) and fire-starting, his tone alternates between harsh honesty and reflective eloquence. In this moment, he’s poetic: “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.

“There aren’t any do-overs in the wild,” he reminds the group. “In a survival scenario every move should be intentional.”

From Tracker School to Ishi

Harrison’s own path to this camp clearing was a wandering one. 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. While it may not be your top priority in an actual dangerous survival scenario, in an educational setting the “caretaking” aspect of the human relationship to the earth is vital—getting what you need from nature while positively affecting the ecosystem.

How to Start A Fire Without A Match

After discussing the dangers of exposure (it’s the primary cause of death in outdoor adventure situations), and the role of insulation for warmth, we work in groups to construct debris shelters by heaping dirt, leaves and pine needles atop a frame of sticks and a hollow log. We are introduced to some clever water purification tactics, and discover that starting a friction fire with a bow drill is actually quite challenging. While Harrison’s motions with the spindle and fire board are fluid and smooth, I'm hunched over a few pieces of wood, sweating and chuckling to myself as I yank the bow back and forth roughly.

Harrison and Mark Maitland, his co-instructor, walk around offering guidance and demonstrating proper form, and after 45 minutes or so, several people have successfully produced fire. (My efforts only resulted in a bit of smoke and heat.)

Maitland talks to us about the concept of “wide angle vision,” which involves using your peripheral eyesight to increase your awareness as you move slowly through the forest, taking care to not make noise or startle wildlife.

The day wraps up with a lesson on wilderness edibles. “It’s probably a good idea to make a quick list of all the plants in your area that could kill you,” Harrison says. “And then avoid those plants.” Mushrooms are too risky, grubs are great and cattails can be found in huge quantities along the Northern California coast.

Other highlights include discourse on the many merits of a good stick, which can be used for hunting, digging, throwing, walking, etc., and a lesson on why “hot rocks are cool.” (Hint: you can use them to boil and purify water and to warm your shelter.)

“Those guys are the best!” says one of the adolescent-age students as he walks down the trail with his buddies after class concludes. “They told us to play with fire, throw sticks and roll around in debris!”

Adventure Out offers outdoor adventure courses in Santa Cruz and Marin counties, ranging from single-day introductory survival courses to full-immersion overnights, as well as surfing, backpacking and rock climbing programs. To learn more, visit Adventure Out online.