This story took place at the Girl’s Teen Rendezvous at the Vermont Art of Mentoring in 2015.

At the beginning of the week, we climbed halfway up a mountain. Now we’re climbing to the top.

This is my favourite kind of day, warm and sunny with a near-constant breeze. I’m at the head of the group with my nose in the wind. The higher we get, the drier the ground is, leaves crackling like popcorn under my feet. My shoes are back down at our campsite. It’s far too gorgeous outside to bring them along. I’ve already seen three trees bent in ways I’ve never seen trees bent before, and there’s a smile that won’t stop pulling at the corners of my mouth.

The wind’s whipped my hair up into some kind of mess and I keep turning to the left, looking out over the mountains and hunting for a cloud in the sky. There’s a forecast for thunderstorms this afternoon, and up on top of the mountain I’m positive there’ll be near to no shelter. Behind me, the rest of our eightfold group has three backpacks among us, none of which hold anything more protective than a plastic tortilla bag.

Nevertheless, I only walk faster whenever the wind picks up.

The sun is warm on my back, and when I glance back over my shoulder and take in how far we’ve come up the mountain I’m surprised at how much energy is still flooding out in the length of my steps. Right now, my back’s bare, but I’m sure I’ll get a turn when our packs trade hands again.

The path isn’t all that steep, but every once in a while it dips sharply down and then back up again. It feels a bit like we’re not climbing at all, but we definitely are. It’s when we come out on a tiny flat clearing that this finally clicks, and I take someone’s backpack for myself and fall to the back of the group.

We turn right with the path, which has suddenly narrowed from the width of a one-lane road to a sidewalk. It winds up a nearly vertical hill for six feet and suddenly flattens out, and I pause at the top of the slope and look around.

Apparently, there’s supposed to be a clearing with knee-high trees and a stunning view on top of this mountain. Right now, it just kind of looks like a dry, yellow-brown forest.

“Are we here yet?” someone asks, and there’s a mumble of noncommittal mild confusion from the rest of the group. We keep walking, and come out on a real clearing this time. The forest is mostly deciduous and surprisingly leafless, studded with the occasional stunted cedar. It’s not particularly exceptional, and then the wind kicks up again and sweeps my hair out of my face, and I drop my bag and step to the edge of the clearing.

At my toes is a slope straight down through thick, progressively greener forest, and sprawling out before me are the Green Mountains. The smile is tugging at the corners of my mouth again. I breathe in the view and kick off from the ground, half-dashing farther along the ridge.

This is, indeed, the top of the mountain. We sit in a circle in the clearing, on a crackly carpet of early autumn leaves and surrounded by sweeps of warm, breathtaking wind, and go around, giving thanks before passing around the food we’ve carried with us.

Lunch is actually delicious, all talking and laughing and enjoying the sun, tossing food back and forth to each other across the circle as requested. When it’s done and packed away, two backpacks get dumped in the middle of our little group. A pile of lightweight cedar blocks, myriad sizes but none bigger than the length of my forearm, clatter to the ground. Spoon blanks―flat pieces of wood ready to be carved.

We pick our favourites from the heap and are handed a variety of tools, ranging from hook knives to things resembling scalpels to sandpaper. I’ve made spoons before, coal-burning and carving my way to a usable utensil, but we haven’t carried a single way to make fire with us up the mountain. The only option is to use a blade.

It’s tough on my hands, leaving them tender and indented with the shape of the blunt edge of the hook knife I’ve chosen. Being left-handed amidst a group of right-handed people with right-handed tools isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but the extra challenge isn’t unwelcome and I figure it out.

There’s a lot of talk. We all, especially the natives of the East Coast, have been playing word games their entire lives during lunch and craft time, and even as teenagers the old riddles haven’t left the times when we can let our mouths run as much as we want.

Eventually, though, the talking-talking-talking without cease gets old and Monique, our instructor, stops us. “Let’s have five minutes of silence,” she says. We agree. I’m reluctant, I’m having fun, but I don’t fight it. I learned a long time ago that when Monique says something concerning the group’s behavior, it’s got solid reasoning and years of experience behind it. Usually, it’ll do us nothing but good.

That request of silence? It stretches into a period closer in length to forty-five minutes, and it doesn’t feel any longer than the first five. It’s gorgeously temperate, and I’ve long since stopped brushing my hair out of my face, and my spoon is finished by the time someone speaks up again.

Clouds are rolling in. Turns out those thunderstorms hadn’t actually decided to leave. They were just a little late. Before we leave the mountaintop, we take a moment to admire each other’s work. My spoon’s final result is clumsy and asymmetrical and far from finished perfectly, but I’m ridiculously proud. This kind of hard work, the kind that passes easy and contentedly, is my favourite.

Our packs are on our back. The wind is picking up again, and it’s chilly. I can taste the oncoming rain, but instead of getting started on our trek down the mountain, we stand in a line on the edge of the drop-off, overlooking the entirety of the mountainside, and sing.

The constant wind whips our voices away, but we sing louder, shouting almost, and we clap until my hands are stinging, and when the song thunders to a close we let out a coyote howl. This year, coyote howls are our battle-cry.

We get half of the way to our campsite, which itself is halfway up the entire mountain, and someone suggests that we run. I’m a bit worn out and it’s starting to drizzle and I don’t have any shoes, but I pass my pack to a girl who doesn’t want to sprint and catch up with the rest of the group. At some point we galumph down a rocky hill and I stub my toe viciously enough to make it bleed, but I keep running. It’s worth it, tearing through the fog and barely-there rain and gulping in great lungfuls of mountain air and

“Stop!” someone whisper-yells and I slam into the back of the apparently stopped group. Our little huddle, five of the six teenaged girls, are staring off into the distance, frozen like deer in a massive headlight.

There’s a blue tarp just in sight down the hill, and now that I’m still, the sounds of people swarming through the woods―about fifty feet from our shelter, out of all the places on an entire mountain range―collecting firewood and generally being exceedingly loud.

We exchange a set of looks. Scared. Excited. Apprehensive. Nervous. Angry.

“Well, this is convenient,” someone whispers finally, and someone else replies with “I guess today isn’t over yet.”



This story took place at the Girl’s Teen Rendezvous at the Vermont Art of Mentoring in 2015. The above picture was taken at the same program in 2014.

It’s nighttime and raining in earnest by now, our foraged food eaten and our fire dying down. I’m fruitlessly sheltering my stack of yellow sticky-notes from the wetness with my body, and I’m just starting to get a little desperate when someone suggests we go inside the cabin.

We shoot to our feet, all for abandoning the feeble warmth of the fire for a few minutes of dryness. We clean up our meal’s debris with a sped hitherto undemonstrated by our group where cleaning up is involved, and rush through the process of stashing our bags under the cabin before rushing into the shelter of the aforementioned receptacle.

Once inside, our new challenge presents itself in the form of Monique, telling us to come up with awareness-related questions and write them down, one per sticky note. We invent them as a group, feeding of each others’ inspiration and jotting down everything from “What is the diameter of bear scat?” to “What are you grateful for today?” We end each note with our collective signature, “―GTR.” Girl’s Teen Rendezvous.

When we all have a sizable stack of questions, restlessness starts to invade our limbs again and Moniqe sends us out into the pouring rain in two groups of three, with the seemingly simple objective of posting them everywhere and anywhere we can―in the midst of the still-crowded village.

Lucia, Kathrynn and I, all still relatively dry(ish) and sticking to the shadows, travel single-file up the hill to the dining hall, more closely crowded cabins, and, most important of all―the compost toilets. In the past thirty minutes, it’s become a mini-contest between our two scout teams to see who can reach the potties first.

My little group melts from the gravel driveway into the woods, where we surround the elders’ cabin and nail it good, plastering notes on the siding and windows. We have to dive under the porch when a figure with a light bobs up the driveway, but they pass us by and we can move on after a minute or two.

We cross the road and head for the basement of the dining hall next, opening the door of the head cook’s car and slapping one on the inside of the driver-side window. Lucia darts cat-footed up the stairs and sticks one note to the phone resting on a mattress on the landing (luckily, we know who it belongs to, and that makes the accomplishment only sweeter) and then, up and around the second landing where the actual kitchen is, dangerously in earshot of the staff still chatting in the dry, brightly lit warmth of the building, she sticks one to the pantry door and to the lid of the soap detergent re-fill bottle. When she finally comes down, her face is glowing and she ushers us out the door, only one word on her lips; “Kybos!”

The kybo, of course, is the toilet. We pause along our way to see if the front porch is even the remotest of possibilities, which it’s not; there are people everywhere. So we adopt a walking pace that is less “I’m sneaking along in the rain, I don’t care if I get wet, and I’m really, really hoping you don’t see me” and more “I’m trudging along in the rain and all I really want to see right now is a toilet and then bed” and begin the treacherous endeavor of crossing the road.

We make it.

Once inside the open-faced toilet building, Lucia shoos Kathrynn and I out again to keep watch and rushes through the task of one note on the outside of each of the three doors and one note on the inside. And then, of course, someone actually has to go to the bathroom.

Luckily, Lucia’s a relatively experienced scout and a quick thinker. She tugs her coat’s hood up and over her head, far enough so that only her mouth and nose are visible, shoves her hands into her pockets, and squeezes past the woman currently headed towards a toilet. It takes a worryingly long amount of time, but Lucia manages to circle back without being seen and meets up with us again, pushing us farther along the trail in the direction of the cabins.

Our next two missions are as tense as a tightened guitar string; tiptoeing around sleeping people on the floor to plaster questions all over their cabins. After that, it’s the next set of kybos, up the hill instead of down. Somewhere in the muddle of this mission, we do the elders’ building beside the dining hall, the Jungle Jill (the village’s playground) and at the very end, the hearth; a fire that’s kept burning the entire week under an umbrella and surrounded by chairs, nestled in the corner of the grassy expanse between the dining hall and the forest.

It’s not long after that when we meet up with the remaining six members of our group, and it feels like years but is probably only around an hour or two before our instructors finally emerge from the kitchen and we start back up the mountain. It’s a long, wet, exhausting hike, and I’m soaked from the waist down and the neck up. It’s pitch black, and by all means, I could understandably be as grumpy as all get out, but I’m not. I can’t stop thinking about all the moments of “yes, we did it, we got away with it” that struck me tonight, and even though it doesn’t make the hike seem any shorter, it is a lot more enjoyable.

When we get up to our shelter we’re faced with our gear, dry and under a tarp, and the lean-to’s complete failure at keeping anything under it even remotely dry. It takes some wrangling, but we manage to get the tarp up and over the lean to without our stuff getting completely soaked, and after the usual twenty-minute whirlwind of changing and final bathroom trips and last drinks of water and trying to find your own headlamp, we’re all finally packed in like sardines, crammed up against one another, and I’m tired enough to drop off within the first minutes of laying my head down.

I do fall asleep almost instantly, but not before at least attempting to recognize that I’m wet but warm, tired but happy, and that tonight was nothing but a success.


Art-of-mentoringThis story took place at the Girl’s Teen Rendezvous at the Vermont Art of Mentoring in 2015. The above picture was taken at the same program during a previous year.

It’s Thursday morning and I’m tired, but still just waking up. There’s the slightest chill in the air but early-rising Sage has been up since nearly the break of dawn, tending the fire we’re sitting around now.

“You guys up for challenge?” Monique says, glancing around at us. It’s a trick often used by a coyote-mentor, asking if we’re up for a challenge without telling us what it could be.

We answer yes, and discover that what we’ve just agreed to is forgoing our kitchen-made lunch and dinner for meals we hunt and gather ourselves. Of course, we agree. The task of finding our own food begins just after our late breakfast when we head down to the pond to wash our dishes.

Lucia’s got her cup halfway in the water when she drops it on the bank with a gasp and sinks into a half-crouch, stalking through the water towards what looks like just another patch of algae.

“What—?” someone says, and she shushes them vehemently with a whisper-shouted explanation of one word: “Frog!”

Immediately, Grace darts forward to help her and before a minute’s passed the frog is trapped, wriggling, in Lucia’s hands. Someone runs forward with an airtight tupperware half-full of pond water and she drops her prey into its new confines.

The morning evolves into hours of stalking around the pond; gathering goldenrod, mint, and red clover; finding a freshly dead fish; and, most of all, catching more frogs. When we finally converge on the dam, there are nine prime specimens safe inside the plastic container, ranging from as big as a grown man’s palm to as small as a baby’s hand.

There’s still more to be found; on the dam, we catch thirty-odd grasshoppers and even happen upon a hornworm as long as my index finger. We shake down a backpack-full of bite-sized green apples from the tree up the hill from our campsite, collect a coral mushroom that we just happen to stumble upon, and start on our way down the mountain, bags on our backs full of water bottles, dishes, and, most importantly, our gathered food.

There’s a tense moment when, trying to get down a hill past several cabins and even more people in broad daylight, a woman decides to have a relaxing sit in the woods about twenty feet away from us. Somehow, though, we manage to stalk past her, and find a place to have a fire behind the remotest cabin we can find.

The frogs are still in the container; we’ve been cracking the lid to let them breathe fresh air about every twenty minutes. Now, in the slowly waning daylight, it’s time to take the lives of these creatures we’ve carried down from the mountain with us.

Lucia grips the first frog around the middle and holds it with its throat pressed against a rock, cold and sandy. It’s eye is bright gold swirled over silky, inky black, and it swallows against the stone, blinking once as if resigned to its fate. It’s beautiful, and my throat closes in sympathy along with it. I know what we have to do; I just don’t want to do it.

Monique breaks the silence with a word of thanks for the frogs that live in and alongside the ponds, the lakes, the rivers, the waters of our world. Lucia marvels at their ability to literally freeze themselves solid to survive through harsh winters. Mackayla gives thanks to the joy they bring to children who delight in capturing them and letting them go.

There’s a pause. I try desperately not to let my eyes fill with tears, and someone asks who’ll do it.

It’s Monique who takes the task on when none of the girls volunteer. It’s a clean kill, the frog’s head smashed between two rocks, and the sense of shock mixed with finality quickly melts into sorrow.

We try to be clean. Not all of our kills are a hit and win; many of us have to try several times and it physically hurts to be taking the lives of these creatures and not even honoring them with a quick death. But we take them all, and skin them, and roast their legs over the fires, and are grateful.

Grace guts and cleans the fish and Francesca and Sage chop up our multitudes of apples. We’ve just put the apples and coral mushrooms into a tinfoil container with salt and butter when Monique leaves to fetch out guests.

Minutes later, two elders from the village arrive and we welcome them, making them tea and trading off telling stories. It’s not long before we’re adding copious amounts of honey to every new batch of apples we cook as the elders ask us questions and we answer them as best we can. When they leave, all of us are smiling, and I feel as if I’ve learned a great deal even from the scant hour we spent with our guests.

Not long after, we drop the grasshoppers and the caterpillar one by one into a boiling cup of water. It’s not such a ceremony as the frogs were, but the circle of gratitude we hold while we harvest them has just as much meaning, to us and to them.

The glassy-green and -brown insects turn bright red the moment they hit the water, and the hornworm goes stiff and pale. We dip the bugs in honey-butter sauce and squeeze out the insides of the caterpillar; there’s a chorus of happily grossed-out noises, but everyone has a taste and no one really hates it.

It’s fully dark and starting to properly rain by the time Monique starts us off on the next activity. She passes around three stacks of sticky notes and asks us if we’re ready to move on.

I look around at my group; happy, warm despite the rain, well-fed. We managed to complete our hunter-gatherer day, and we succeeded, and now we can go on, knowing that we’ve given thanks and used the animals we harvested. We’ve respected the earth and her people as they are due, and now? Well, now it’s time to take on another challenge.



This story took place at the Girl’s Teen Rendezvous at the Vermont Art of Mentoring in 2015. The above picture was found on this website. Other resources for creating your own bow drill kit can be found here and here.

“There’s a tradition that the Girl’s Rendezvous has done on their first night, ever since they first started wandering these lands.”

I’m still just a little out of breath. Figures, I just hiked up a mountain with enough gear for a wandering week in the woods on my back.

“There are two parts you’ll have to accomplish, though.”

I stretch out my back. The joints cracks, three in a row. I let out a long breath of satisfaction and refocus on Monique, the Teen Rendezvous’ lead instructor for the week.

“To unlock the second level, you’re going to have to pass the first.” She pauses and looks around at us, meeting all of our eyes in turn. It’s a trick of Monique’s when she’s talking, pulling every member of the group in, making sure each person is equally included. “You guys ready for the first challenge?”

I look around at our group in the light of our headlamps; Grace and Lucia and I, who have all been here before, and Kathrynn, Sage, and Francesca, who are all new. The six of our faces are a mixture of determined, apprehensive, and raring to go.

There’s a rather sparse chorus of nods and quiet “yeah”s. Despite our apparent lack of enthusiasm, there’s a determined glow in every pair of eyes; all six of us want this. Three of us know what we’re unlocking and three of us don’t, and every single one of is ready to do whatever Monique suggests to get to part two.

“We need a fire.”

There’s a single, silent pause before we all jump into action. Despite half our group being completely new we work together like a new machine; there’s a hitch or two but we learn what kind of oil we need to keep our gears turning smooth and before five minutes have passed in the darkness we have four people gathering firewood, one person making tinder and building a fire structure, and two working on the bow drill.

What’s a bow drill, you say?

There was a time before matches, believe it or not, and yet fire was still present in our ancient cultures. When I was a little kid, I thought Native Americans conjured flame out of the magical rubbing of two sticks together; my friends and I would play endless games of pretend and those two fire sticks had a leading role in many of them. My assumption was very wrong.

Bow drill takes the same principles; rubbing two sticks together, although it’s far more complex than just a couple twigs and a pair of hands. Instead it uses an arm’s-length contraption rather like a bow (of the kind that would normally go along with arrows) giving the kit its name. A long piece of soft wood, usually the same diameter as a grown man’s thumb, is wrapped in the bowstring and secured with its bottom end in a fire board of the same soft wood and its top in a handhold of the hardest wood you can find. I’ve even seen handholds made of stone. The bow is, well, “bowed” back and forth as pressure is applied to the handhold from above and if you’re strong and persistent you’ll get a coal.

To get that coal you need to produce 700 to 800 degree Fahrenheit dust, which then clumps together and lights. From there on out it’s a matter of transferring the coal into a bundle of dry, fluffy inner bark of a tree and blowing it into flame. It’s a delicate procedure, but all six of us have been part of it before.

Grace and I stay back at the fire pit and I unpack my bow drill. I’ve been honing this kit since I was eleven and, although I’m still perfecting it, I’ve lit many fires with it already. It’s a collection of red cedar, white pine, basswood, aspen and maple, all carved into the pieces their wood is best suited for, all collected from the forest. We get ourselves into position and before a minute’s past we’re getting smoke, but when we pause to take a look there’s no coal.

This procedure then repeats itself over about six times. It is frustrating.

At least two of us had matches in our packs; easy flame. We knew it was there, we knew it was a possibility, and yet we persevered. We forced tired arms to keep working, we kept conjuring smoke and dust from four pieces of dry, precious wood, we trade out hands and equipment and finally, finally, there’s the tiniest red glow and the faintest plume of smoke in the midst of a mountaintop night.

We have two tinder ingredients we’ve carried with us and one we’ve collected off the land. Alone, none of them can carry that coal into flame, but together, they just might get us a fire. We wrap cattail fluff in paper birch bark before nestling it in the driest pine needles we can salvage from the pine forest we’re camped in. Everyone speaks in whispers; everyone tries to help. Right now we’re standing barely balanced on the center of a set of scales; too much or too little action will tip them the wrong way. We need to keep everything poised and perfect. Right now is a moment we can’t mess up.

When I first began blowing coals into flame, I thought it was purely a solo activity. Oh yes, you could collaborate on making a kit, you could work together to get the coal, but once that coal was in the tinder, the life and death of the fire was in the hands of whoever held it. As I’ve grown older, worked more with fire-by-friction, and been in more and more survival situations, I’ve learned that a fire is not a solo endeavour unless you make it so. When there is a team working towards flame, that team works on every step together.

Grace cradles the coal, nested in the best tinder bundle we can create, and blows. It flares, dies down, and flares, the smoke feathering from it growing thicker and more copious until it’s flooding from between the needles and Grace has to turn aside to cough it out of her lungs. “Someone else, now!” she chokes out, and Lucia jumps in, carrying that light on her breath until Grace can return to the task.

It flares up into flame after a desperately long, heart-pounding minute. It’s dropped clumsily into the center of our fire structure and Francesca cradles the tepee shape in her hands while Lucia and I coax the birch bark into flame, trading off breaths until the sticks are snapping with heat.

We sit back and there’s a soft, quiet moment. All eight of us, six teenagers plus two instructors, reflect on the fire burning before us and I don’t know about the other seven, but in that heartbeat I was so quietly grateful for everything around me that it felt as if my heart would just about burst. I know, I know, attractive imagery, but the power of the thanks I felt in those three seconds is too much to put into words.

And then we’re whooping, yelling, and high-fiving, celebrating the light we’ve just brought to life. There’s a smile on every face as we settle down and our gazes gravitate towards Monique, waiting to be told what new level we’ve just unlocked.

She’s smiling too as she looks around at us. “That was freaking awesome!” she tells us, and there’s a brief circle of realization. She tells us exactly what we’ve done and we silently marvel at ourselves; someone mentions how it didn’t even cross her mind to use the matches she had in her pack and we marvel at that. And then, one by one, we all ask what part two could possibly be.

There’s a devious grin on our mentor’s face as she tells us part two of our challenge will take a pond, and the stars, and a whole lot of laughter to accomplish. “You guys in?”

This time, our chorus of “Yes!” couldn’t be stronger.


aomThis story took place during Art of Mentoring at the Teen Rendezvous in 2014. The above picture was taken at the same program during the same year, after the teenagers had returned from their adventures and rejoined the main village.

As I write these words it’s nearly 6:30 pm, meaning I’ve been in the car for about six hours, driving up to Plymouth, Vermont to take part for the second time in the Art of Mentoring program, founded by Jon Young. Last year, I traveled up north with two friends and a friends’ mother. This year, I’m taking my own mother and brother and friend along with me.

My previous time here was a myriad medley of every kind of emotion; fear, excitement, happiness, serenity, gratitude, joy, laughter, exhaustion, regret, love. There are a million stories I could tell from one singular week at this incredible experience. This time it was easy to choose. In the future, it won’t be such a breeze to pick one memory to write from.

The story I’m telling now took place on the second day of a five-day program. Our little group of eight total, led by Monique Philpot, has already hiked up a mountain, had an encounter with no less than three beautiful specimens of wildlife, and finally found a campsite. We’ve split up into four groups of two and are just now adding leaves to our shelters, which we’ll sleep in for the remainder of the program.

The leaf-collecting portion of shelter-building is always a new experience for each different shelter I construct; every time, I (or we) try to find the most efficient way of collecting as much leaves as we can in as short an amount of time as possible. We’ve tried bundling leaves up in coats, jackets, and wool blankets, even once attempting to compress them into a cooking pot; today, it’s trash bags.

My shelter-mate and I are a little more than halfway down a ravine wall to the creek that flows down from the mountain-top lake we camped by last night. I’m holding the mouth of our hungry leaf-bag open as my companion piles leaves inside the plastic confines. My current job is not the kind that requires a lot of brainwork; in fact, I’m in such a stupor that it takes me a few seconds to realize my friend’s leaf-gathering has ceased.

“What’s up?” I say, only to be shushed vigorously. My friend is staring with the intensity of a bird of prey across and down the stream, not moving in the least.

“What is it?” I whisper. She’s got a smile spreading across her face.

“Do you see that?” she says, pointing. I look. I don’t see anything.

“No, what—” I cut myself off as she gasps, lurching sharply back. Her eyes travel up, up a little farther, before coming back down to earth with a gleam in them.

“What was that?” I demand, rocking forward onto my hands and peering through the deciduous foliage and conifer branches in the direction she was staring so intently.

“It was some kind of bird,” she tells me. “Hawk probably.”

Excitement flares in the pit of my stomach. “Did you get a good look?”

“I think it was a goshawk,” she says, meeting my eyes briefly. “It landed on that root over there.” She points. I look and I think I see the perch, but there’s no more bird in sight.

“It landed like this,” she tells me, flaring her arms out in an imitation of the bird’s motions. I can practically see the feathers fanning out along her fingertips, so hawklike is the arch of her neck and angle of her shoulders. “It turned like this and groomed itself for a second,” she adds as she rolls her neck to the side, running her cheek along her shoulder in a semblance of preening, “and then it took off again.” Her arms spread wide again and she lifts a little in her crouch, rocking onto the balls of her feet and tossing her head upwards for a second.

“That’s incredible,” I tell her, grinning, looking around in the slightest chance that the goshawk is still hanging around. My eyes follow the line of the creek upstream, then split off to follow a trickle feeding into the stream, and—is that really what I think it is?”

“Grace,” I say, reaching out a hand to nudge my companion on the shoulder, “is that a spring?”

We bolt to our feet and dart over to the base of the sheer incline. Retreating into darkness underground is a cave, and out of the cave is running the coldest, clearest water I’ve ever seen or felt. I want to taste it so bad I can feel the ache in the back of my throat.

“I think it is,” my friend says, and I clench my fists in excitement, my heart leaping in my chest. We leave the garbage bag of leaves lying lonely and half-full against a hemlock and run uphill until we find Monique and her co-counselor, Katie. She comes down to look, and she agrees with us; this is a water straight from the earth. When I scoop it up in my double-cupped hands and tip it into my mouth, the chill runs straight down my spine and the taste of cold and fresh, the taste of rocks and moonlight eclipsing everything for a moment. This is the purest water I’ve ever held.

Just yesterday, Katie loaded all of our water bottles into a pack, carted them down the mountain (a trek of twenty to thirty minutes) and then back up, eight bottles full of water, a walk of more than half an hour. Today, we fill our containers with spring water, a spring I found and I couldn’t be prouder to have done so.

During this week, the amount of stunning animal and nature encounters we had was mind boggling. There were so many that, even with eight people out on the land, every single one of us collected a second name from our experiences, and some of us even had two. My name: Zoë Two-Squirrels Spring. That water I discovered, the water that lasted us and our many guests throughout the week, is maybe the thing I’m most proud of doing at the Teen Rendezvous, even today. I still have a jar of Vermont spring water in my room back in the Great Lakes states. It’s been through four whole seasons and it’s dusty and sits alone atop my abandoned birthday cards from years past, but it still holds multitudes of meaning.

Last night, in the car on the road to Art of Mentoring, I began writing this recollection. Now, as I finish it, I’m sitting in our destination, a place full of memories and excitement to come. It’s cold, the air snippy with a Vermont-in-September morning chill, and for the first time in four months I’m wearing long pants and a sweater. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

As I write these words it’s nearly 10:00 am. We drove for thirteen hours total last night, and landed here at 2:15 am. People are bound to start arriving in fifteen minutes, and butterflies of anticipation are raging rampant in my chest, banging left and right against the walls of my ribcage and quite possibly doing the samba on the side. I know some of the people I’ll be seeing for the next week, but others I’ve never met, and I couldn’t be more excited to get to know them.

Today is like a wave, surging and gathering until it’s barely holding itself back, straining against itself on the edge of a sheer drop, a precipice. It just needs one thing to trigger it, to cause its release, and I think we’re all waiting, on tenterhooks whether we know it or not, for the ball to drop.

My hands are out and ready, still full of the memory of spring water in the past and anticipation of spring water to come. My hands are out. Today, my grip is strong. I’m ready and waiting to catch that ball.



This story took place at the Wild Nature Project’s Oldenburg Youth Programs of Autumn 2014. The above picture was gleaned from this lovely website, which, if you scroll down a little, gives more detailed instructions on how to build the shelter I talk about in the story you’re about to read.

Cold. Wet. Brown. In a nutshell, autumn in Indiana. Delightful.

But today, one of those rare days, it’s really, truly beautiful. A brisk wind blows through the trees crowned with lemon yellow and deep gold, interspersed with sunset orange and blood scarlet. The dappled rug of the forest floor is outspread alongside creeks and old logging trails in these older woods, crisp leaves crunching under booted feet.

Our little group of roughly eight people trundles through the autumn, up a ravine wall. In these classes, distances that regular people would traverse in five minutes take roughly twenty, due entirely to the amount of times we stop and ogle some kind of new mystery. This class used to only get a chance to come out here once a month; we learned to make the most of it.

Today there’s only the usual amount of about several hundred stops to contemplate tracks and scat alongside a creek, perhaps a plant we’ve never seen before, the husk of a crawdad that once lived under the rocks we’re crossing right now. This land is chock-full of things none of us has ever seen before, even Kevin and Monique, who have been walking the woods for years.

And when we finally make it to the top of the ravine where all our previous meals out here have taken place, we’re informed that today we’re building a shelter.

Shelters in these classes are different than anything else I’d ever known. For years, I have been told in these classes that the only things I need are shelter, fire, water and food to survive and thrive in the wild places of our planet, and now I’m learning how to use these four building blocks of surthrival alongside the beginnings of the way of the scout.

The children of the village are observed from birth, and the ones to become scouts are selected for training at the young age of seven or eight years – the age when I started learning. A scout’s early training is far more rigorous than creek wanders and circle games, however, and by the time they become a full scout they are the eyes and ears of the tribe, able to move undetected even in broad daylight.

And what would a scout sleep in? Why, a perfectly camouflaged lean-to that can disappear in a span of five minutes, of course. Thus the myriad of debris shelters that I’ve learned how to build; sometimes alone, sometimes with others. I’ve used them on survival trips, on solos, at workshops, at home; some built to last only a day, some intended to last throughout all four seasons and then some. All returned to the earth once their purpose has been fulfilled.

Today, we’re building a debrispee.

Yes, I laughed the first time I heard it. I still giggle inside, but this tepee built with forest debris – leaves, branches, logs, everything – has long since proved its steadfast effectiveness to me. Building one here, I know, will make it feel much more like our place, rather than a happened-upon clearing surrounded by fallen trees.

The first step of building this shelter takes us across a ridge on a hunt for a set of at least three perfect split-ended poles, each with an end in the shape of a Y that can interlock with the other two. Next, the easier-to-find poles, sans Y-shape, that really make the tepee shape look like a tepee when they’re leaned up against the interlocking peak of the structure.

A good chunk of our time is taken up by finding the logs that we stack in a circle, overlapping the ends so they stay steady and create a backrest all around the firepit in the center of our shelter. Not only serving as a chair, this knee-high log-cabin arrangement will, once stuffed with leaves, reflect heat in the wintertime, creating a very effective bubble of warmth.

I’ve heard stories of groups building one of these eagles’ nests (as they are known) and stripping slowly down to their tee-shirts until realizing that oh no, it’s still fifteen degrees outside and far from gathering firewood, they’re still gathering their shed layers from around the fire.

Step four consists of gathering the rather obtusely named “lattice”, also known as any and every outrageously twiggy branch you can get your paws on. These go atop the actual tepee structure, hitherto constructed of nothing but long, relatively straight poles. On top of these go leaves. And after that, more leaves. Think you have enough leaves to withstand a thunderstorm? Think again. Add more leaves.

That day, we ate lunch under a roof we built ourselves. Not finished by any means, but it was ours, and we were happy with it.

This shelter first came into being nearly an entire year ago. As far as I know, it’s still standing. It’s still waiting for us to come back this fall, to light a new fire in that firepit and share our gratitude and our stories inside its walls.

Want to join us?

Stalking Frogs

me and toad

This story took place at the Wild Nature Project’s 3-day Earth Skills Class in Illinois, where I was an assistant instructor. Photo credit to Monique Philpot, of the same institution. Finally, the above picture is of an American Toad, not the frog I was stalking.

It’s raining, and I’m stalking down frogs.

It’s hard to tell when exactly the sun goes down when the weather’s this gloomy. This is my third night out here and every single time a day has ended it’s been drizzling, imposing clouds curtaining out the direct sunlight.

My feet are bare and my back is sore from being hunched halfway over for—I don’t even know how long I’ve been out here. There’s a sense of duty niggling at the back of my mind—you’re an instructor, Zoë, get back to the others and INSTRUCT—but like a nice responsible stubborn person I ignore it. The tug to solve this mystery is too strong.

I take another step and my bare foot slides from the broken slab of concrete, straight into the chilly May pond-side mud. About three sudden movements catch my eye, and I drop into a crouch, staring so intensely my vision blurs at the edges, straining to find one of the tiny little amphibious culprits of curiosity in the dusk.

Nope, they’re gone.

From the shelter-house to the edge of the shoreline I’ve chosen to stalk along, it’s roughly thirty meters. I’ve already traced those thirty meters back and forth about three times, and the panic of wondering if I won’t be able to identify these creatures in the two days, one night I have left is starting to well up in the pit of my stomach.

I straighten up, impatient and stiff. I crack my neck, pop my spine. Look around. A family of geese is grazing not twelve feet away from me, on the grassy path atop the man-made dam that hems the pond. On the other side of that green berm lies acres of grassland, a state preserve prairie that’s done nothing but give up scores of natural mysteries the more we explore.

But it’s dark now, and as I glance over at the shelter house and the picnic tables beside it I can see shapes moving in the brightly lit windows. I allow myself another stretch, shift my permanently damp raincoat, and start on my way back.

It’s just me and one of my mentors, Kevin Glenn, earlier that very same day. Together we make up half of this workshop’s staff, and we’re standing beside the shelter house looking out at the pond. We’ve already seen so much wildlife here, egrets and a great blue heron and geese and on the first day, a tiny thirteen-lined ground squirrel.

The sound of clicking marbles, the mystery frog call, is rising and falling in aural waves along the banks of the pond, the springtime precursor of summertime cicadas.

“Do you know what those are?” I ask. My hands are in my pocket, and my face is turned to the chilly wind. This is my favorite weather.

“The frogs? I have an idea or two,” Kevin says, grinning. I turn to him, a smile starting on my face.

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Do you want my answer, or the Tom Brown answer?” he asks. I deliberate, briefly, but we both know what my answer is going to be.

“The Tom Brown answer,” I reply.

“Now do you want me to tell you, or do you really want to know?”

I raise an eyebrow; what kind of question is that? Of course “I really want to know,” I say.

There’s a moment of silence. I wait. Kevin grins. “That’s the answer. You really want to know, you find out yourself.”

“Of course that’s it,” I say, theatrical, but inside I’m ridiculously excited.

It’s dusk again, and like yesterday my toes are dug deep in cool spring mud, my gaze fixed on the tiny enticing movements. What are these things?

I’ve been stalking, slow and careful, eyes peeled, for at least fifteen minutes. In another five, I’ll be at the end of this side of the pond, at the border between rocks and weeds and the sandy beach where geese and swimmers make themselves known. To be completely honest, I’m starting to lose hope as I pause, looking around before turning back.

And I see one.

It hops, from grass thicket to water to a perfectly situated flat concrete slab, its patterns just visible in the dusk. Barely moving, barely thinking, I crouch, bringing my face as slow and close as I can to this precious, precious little specimen.

My eyes take in every centimeter of it, still not sure. Gray brown-stripes with a pale hourglass shape on its back, it’s roughly the size of the circle I can make with my index finger and thumb. I wait, watching it like my eyes are glued to it.

And then, and then, it makes the noise. Little sides pulsing, throat ballooning out and deflating in, the sound of clicking pebbles emerges from its body, joining the chorus undulating around me. I watch, spellbound, for a long, long time. I found it. Finally, I found them.

And then reality kicks back in and I’m running as fast as I can, back to the shelter house along the grassy goose-y path, my feet kicking up sprays of rainwater. I’m so happy and nervous that I could burst.

Inside the shelter house, the workshop is settled around a U-shape of plastic folding tables, busy with moccasins and baskets. I dart over to the nature table, laden with bones and feathers and field guides, pausing only to shoot Kevin the most perfunctory of tentative smiles and a thumbs-up.

My hands fly to the closest reptile and amphibian book, and I flip through, almost frantic. It takes a minute, but I find a picture, and my heart does a double backflip in my chest. The same gray-brown stripes, the hourglass marking, and, when I flip to the more detailed description, the “marble-clicking call” tops it off. Southern Cricket Frog, at last.

I look out of the window, grinning so widely my face might just split in half, and clutch the book to my chest, my heart beating like a fiend against the inside of my ribs.

It’s raining, and I found the frogs.