A father and son teamed up for a course and left with an unforgettable wilderness experience.

My name is Jeff Carlson. My son Jack and I embarked on an amazing wilderness experience this month with the Gray Bearded Green Beret, in Embden, Maine for the GB2 Winter Skills course. What we learned about each other was more valuable than we expected.

This is our story:

Having gone through basic, intermediate, and advanced survival offerings with the Pathfinder School had me looking for the next conquest and being familiar with Josh’s style meant signing up for his cold weather survival course was a no-brainer. This one would be particularly special as my birthday fell in the middle of it, but more importantly my 15-year-old son, Jack, would be doing it with me.

We arrived at the meetup site at 8am, which is the main house on the property. We would be parking here and hiking into the sixty-eight acres. After a gear dump for inspection we repacked, were issued our USGI snowshoes and all sixteen of us headed into the woods toward the base camp.

We arrived at the clearing where a military parachute was set up as a tent over a dug-out section in the snow. This would serve as our classroom. We quickly sawed some trees up to create an “upside down” fire in the center of the pit. We heard about the usefulness of this style and then gathered around for a knife safety speech and demonstration.

We then all chose a willow section brought to class from Arizona and were taught how to make a “try stick”. This is an exercise in notch carving which has you creating several different notches on the stick. It would later prove its usefulness as a pot hanger/grabber.

Next up was a resource walk. Everyone strapped on their snowshoes using lamp wick material provided to us and we set out for a couple of hours around the property, with Josh explaining which trees and fungi was available and accessible above the snow base for us to use. He showed us how to construct a birch bark cone and gave us a tour of the whole property including boundary lines and we had several stops to chat about things and techniques.

Once back in camp we were all instructed to partner up with someone and choose a spot to create our individual camps against the wood line in the clearing. Jack and I were already a team, so we picked a spot in the southwestern portion. The entire property was covered in snow ranging 18-24” so we had to dig out our pits. We roughly measured out a 10’ x 10’ square and dug down to the frozen soil below, shaping the walls to be vertical and packed in. We were allowed to take down young white pines to delimb boughs from and use them as bedding. We needed quite a bit to achieve the recommended 4” when compressed.

On top of the boughs, I placed my wool twin blanket, folded in half and would be using the wool queen wrapped around me above that. Jack had the same set up except his sleeping bag would be on the boughs with the queen above all of that. We were asked to make upside down fires as we would be sleeping open air that first night. A slow burning fire was of the essence and it would be dropping to +12°F with a wind chill of around -3°F with high winds.

We set out to get firewood squared away and took our time creating the fire lay with a good amount of kindling and lots of birch bark for tinder. There were no requirements to use primitive methods to start our fires, so a Bic lighter was the answer.

The instructor cadre then issued our calories for the rest of the course. Jack and I brought no other food at all. Each student was given a 2lb. beef roast, 1 lb. of bacon 1lb. of salt pork and 1lb. of beef suet. We all rendered our suet down in the bush pot into tallow and this would become our go to for cooking. We skimmed the solids from the tallow and cooked one of our pounds of bacon in the fat. Carved pine sticks served as cooking and eating utensils. This was the close of day one and Jack and I went to “sleep” around 9pm. It was cold. Really cold.

We had just enough insulation to keep us alive, but certainly not comfortable. Sleep seemed to happen in 15-minute increments. The fire helped some, but nothing close to comfort. I called out to Jack every so often to make sure he was coherent. Before long, the sun was peeking over the horizon, and we were up and at it. We learned that we were down to fifteen students now as one had called it quits early that morning.

We all met under the chute to discuss some camp food such as bannock, hard tack, ash cakes and johnny cakes. All of these were made with wheat flour, cornmeal, and baking powder with added water. All of these ingredients are easily carried in the field with an exceptionally long shelf life. Water was provided to us in carboys that were being filled by the cadre. This proved to be an issue after dark as they would freeze during the night. We fixed up our own batches of bannock, some becoming ash cakes by necessity and moved over to the tables and chairs for a land navigation lesson.

We went over basic terminology and features found on maps, protractor and compass use and learned about pace count. We all ran a course to determine our pace counts with snowshoes and without. All teams of partners were given five eight-digit grid coordinates to locate on the property where checkpoint punches would be found. While on course we would also be collecting found resources. Jack and I set out on our course, collecting tinder along the way. We returned a little bit early and were able to get a jump on our next project.

We sourced some saplings to make a quad pod and a tripod fixed with shear lashes. The quad pod would be used for our water generator. It had a shemagh tied onto it at all four corners creating a sort of hammock. The shemagh would be filled with snow and the whole apparatus placed at the edge of our long fire. This would melt the snow and filter it through the shemagh, dripping into a vessel below.

The tripod was to become a tipi smoker and we were to process the beef roast into thin strips and create jerky by placing it at the other end if the fire and allow the smoke to waft in. This was an all-night affair or at least 8 hours.

Back up at the circle we learned about stropping our blades and axes instead of sharpening. We all applied some compound to issued strops and tended to our blades.

We then returned to our pits and improved our shelters by each building bipod lean to with tarps and paracord. The lean tos were erected over our bedding. This would add some more protection from the wind and trap some heat from the fire. The shelter was held up by a ridgeline with guy lines staked into snow and tightened with prusik knots.

We got our long fire going and were determined to keep this blazing all through the night. It would be dropping to +7°F that night with -12°F for the wind chill. I sliced up three-fourths of one beef roast, skewered the slices on debarked sticks and placed them inside the tipi. We cut the remaining roast into chunks and threw them and another pound of bacon in the fat pot. After eating we settled in again for the night. This proved to be another episode in riding the line above dangerous cold. The camp classroom always had a safety fire going that we could move to and the instructors were available should an emergency arise. I did my same checking on Jack throughout the night. He knew he could tap out whenever it became too much. I kept the fire going and had to rebuild it once in the middle of the night. The cold ground would just suck the coals away.

Once more the sun came up and camp started to stir. We had lost another student over the course of the night and were down to fourteen of us now. We met in the chute to learn how to make hush puppies out of cornmeal. Jack and I went back to our spot to drop the puppies in the fat pot and found our jerky to be fully dry and smoked as well. Our water pot was also full underneath our generator although it froze solid each time, we had lost the fire. It would have to be thawed out in the fire and placed back under the generator. Everything we did revolved around the fire. There was an order it all had to happen in.

We met back up in the classroom area to go over more land nav and were given more grid coordinates. This time we had to plot our courses on the 1:25000 scale maps issued. We set out to find our checkpoints again as well as more tinder and anything else useful. Upon our return, we were to further improve our shelters. Jack and I added our survival blankets in front of the lean to, to act as an awning to help direct heat in toward us. We added more pine boughs to the bedding and added snow to the generator.

We were called up to the clearing for an axe safety lesson and to learn about felling, bucking, sawing and delimbing trees. Each student then chose a standing dead tree to take down with our axes. We were taught how to manipulate the falling direction by adjusting the size of the hinge on the back cut. This was Jack’s first time felling a tree. We helped each other drag the 8” x 20’ aspens out of the woods, down the trail and into camp. A nearby student lent me his bucksaw as I hadn’t fashioned one yet. I bucked both trees to 16” sections and Jack split it all. We had quite a stack of firewood in our pit. We knew the coming night would be the coldest, getting down to +5°F with a -15°F wind chill. We also added some clear plastic sheeting to the open fronts of our lean tos. The idea is that the heat from the fire would radiate through the plastic like a greenhouse effect.

We cooked the last roast and the salt pork in the fat pot. I stayed awake, feeding the fire until about 11pm. This was the coldest night, and I lost the fire twice due to falling asleep. Normally, I would have slept in shifts with my partner to be on fire duty but was concerned for Jack getting enough sleep. In the end, we should have just taken shifts as we both just laid there shivering anyway. I came pretty close to moving to Jack’s shelter to put our bodies together and double up our blankets. For the sake of this learning experience, I suppose it important for us to stay separate, but if this were an actual emergency, we would certainly have shared a shelter.

After another very cold night the sun finally arose. We got the fire going again and thawed out our water pot. Each night we would heat our 32oz. water bottles in the fire to heat them just before boiling and then remove them, cap them, and place them in our haversacks and at our feet. This helped somewhat to keep our feet warm, but more importantly, guaranteed drinkable, liquid water in the morning.

We met at the circle for the last time on this fourth morning to learn about Roycraft pack frames, sapling styled snowshoes, Korchanski ESS (emergency ski shoes) and about different signaling techniques when trying to be found. We built a final tripod to create a smoke generator. This consisted of a tall tripod draped with lots of evergreen boughs, with an inner shelf that was packed full of kindling. Once lit an extreme amount of smoke is created by the evergreens. We took our class photo in front of the smoke plume, which filled all the surrounding woods. This wrapped up the course. We broke down our camps, removed most of our trace in the area.

I’ve done many trying things in my life and am no stranger to challenge. This one was special as my son was there with me.

He’s done other adventures with me, but none like this. This required serious trust and some teamwork. We hunkered down in a frozen pit, covered in animal fat, fishing bits of meat out of a fire with twigs. No one cares about the five second rule in this situation. You brush the ashes and dirt off anything that contains calories and in your mouth it goes. We lifted heavy trees onto our shoulders and carried them through the woods. We learned to work smarter, not harder while running nav courses in snowshoes. We learned that Jack’s weak link is his hands and feet and that they must be paid close attention to in the cold. We learned about what the northern woods have to offer, even when covered in snow.

Our chosen equipment worked well. Jack was underdressed and he lost his primary boots to the fire on day four. As a father, my job is to make this boy a man that society will benefit from and expose him to things that will make him stronger. I believe this course definitely did just that. While a lot of the subject matter has been covered elsewhere in my survival training, this course added the cold aspect which wildly changes the whole experience. Fire is life in cold weather.

Josh Enyart and the other instructors are second to none. There is always just the right amount of humor in all information delivery. Everything is explained very eloquently and there is never a feeling that those teaching simply went to classes where they learned this stuff, they’ve actually done it all. Jack and I are anxious to get back in the woods for the next course, wherever that takes us.

– Jeff Carlson

If you’re looking for the GB2 Experience, we are running courses throughout the year. You can check them out HERE.

Can’t make an in-person course, try our films and/or our Distance Learning Center.  

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