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Thursday, October 17, 2019

How a Midwestern Survival Camp Is Uniting the Outdoors

“OK everyone,” Derek Barkeim announced to the loaded van of kids, “this week we’re going to do three things: Build a semipermanent shelter. Do some hide tanning—it’s called brain tanning, but we’re not going to use the actual brain. And we’re going to butcher a lamb.”

The hand of a ten-year-old named Jonah shot up. “Can I shoot the lamb?”

“No. We’re not going to shoot the lamb.”

Jonah was silent for a second, then said, “Can I decapitate the lamb?”

Barkeim chuckled a little, then turned around and drove.

We left the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the kids had been dropped off by their parents that August morning, and drove over to Minnesota and headed up the Mississippi River. In the van were ten boys and one girl, ages 9 to 14, on their way bushcraft-skills camp. It’s one of many day camps Barkeim offers as part of his Seeker’s Wild summer program, which he started in 2014. Each week he brings a new group of kids (and sometimes college-age interns) into the woods to teach them the lost arts of survival.

When we arrived at a farm in southeastern Minnesota half an hour later, we piled out and marched into an unnamed wooded valley. At the head of the line, Barkeim swung a stick, clearing a path through an ocean of stinging nettles. Some kids got stung. Some complained. But Barkeim walked on. After a quarter-mile or so, he looked around.

“What do you all think of this spot? What would you want to look for if you were going to build a shelter here?” Barkeim asked.

“Widow-makers!” a Seeker’s Wild veteran shouted. (It’s poor bushcraft to get killed by a falling tree in the night.)

“That’s right: widow-makers. Look up around you. You see any dead trees?”

“No!” several campers shouted.

Barkeim ran through a few more points for locating a good campsite (don’t put your shelter in a dry riverbed, check for poison ivy, look for resources). Then he hauled out a bag of knives for anyone who hadn’t brought their own.

“What do you need when you’re carving?” he asked.

“A blood circle!”

“Right.” He held his knife out at arm’s length and spun in a circle to demonstrate. “Make sure no one steps into your blood circle when you’re carving.” He went over a few other safety points about knives (carve away from you), then machetes and hatchets (bigger blood circles), and breaking sticks for a fire (“Not by banging! The broken end will become a projectile.”). With safety pretty much covered, survival began.

“OK, we need some diggers, and we need some gatherers!” A few kids fanned out through the woods to find timber for the small shelter. Others grabbed shovels and sliced into the ground where it would be built.

“Welcome to the Seeker’s Wild!” said one kid to no one in particular. “You’ll be issued a machete and a hatchet!”

“And a knife!” added another.

I’d first heard about Seeker’s Wild the year before, when I attended the Driftless Outdoors Show, put on by the La Crosse Visitors Bureau to highlight sports on both sides of outdoor recreation: hunting and hiking as well as fishing and fat biking. It filled a small convention center with booths housing mountain-bike makers, kayak fishermen, bow hunters, and disc golfers. There were reps from the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum for traditionalists and from Nose Jammer shampoo and body wash for deer hunters (“Wrong wind? Jam ’em!”).

It was, in a sense, the kind of unification I’d been hoping for. For years I watched as two separate outdoor cultures emerged in America. One climbs rocks, runs, bikes, paddles, and hikes, while the other hunts and fishes. One shops at REI, while the other shops at Cabela’s. One reads Outside, while the other reads Outdoor Life. One wants preservation, while the other wants conservation. Both love the wild, but they have different goals there: One wants to play. The other wants to eat. One wants to visit. The other wants to partake.

Lately, I’ve grown more uncomfortable with this division. Like Barkeim, I grew up in hunting country just up the river from La Crosse, running around these same hills, swimming and fishing, playing and eating. I’d worked as a camp naturalist and a trips director and, more recently, I’ve been a trail runner. I’d had a foot in both worlds and had always been a fan of great writers like David Quammen, Thomas McGuane, and Randy Wayne White, who were avid hunters and fishermen. I loved Hemingway and Harrison, for whom there wasn’t such a stark line between recreation and harvest. And I’d always believed in what Aldo Leopold called the “spiritual danger” of thinking your food came from a grocery store.

But as our country has become more divided, so has our outdoors. And now, with public lands under assault, wild places more fragmented, and hunting in decline, this division matters more than ever, as does finding a bridge across it.

seekers wild
(Photo: Frank Bures)

In the grassy field just outside the Driftless show, a young man in his early twenties crouched over a bow drill. He drew his arm back and forth, his bow wrapped around a spindle, turning it into a plank of soft wood. Wisps of smoke rose from it.

I asked where he learned to make a fire without matches.

“I just learned it this week at Seeker’s Wild, with this guy, Derek Barkeim,” he said. “He runs a summer camp for kids. I’m doing my practicum with him.” He went on to describe Barkeim’s fishing 101 camp and river-rats camp, where he’d take youngsters hunting for frogs and then feed them fried frog legs at the end of the day.

This didn’t sound like any summer camp on offer when I was a kid. More importantly, it sounded even more like the kind of convergence I wanted. Eating and playing. Enjoying nature and being part of its cycles. Maybe at Seeker’s Wild I could find the bridge I was looking for.

On the second day of camp, we pulled into the farm and drove through a cornfield.

“Hey, look!” yelled Jonah. “Corn! Kill the corn! Kill the corn! Kill the corn!”

“Hey, Jonah,” Barkeim said from the driver’s seat, “remember to find that positive balance. We’ve got a lot of negative jokes about killing going on.”

Jonah paused for a minute, then changed his chant. “Eat the corn! Eat the corn! Eat the corn!”

“You’re still killing the corn,” observed Brody, a 14-year-old Dungeons and Dragons fan and reader of high fantasy. He wasn’t the most outdoorsy kid you could imagine, but the campers came from both sides of the outdoor divide. Some were mountain bikers. Others had already shot their own deer. Each morning the parents dropped their kids off in all manner of vehicles: fancy Jeeps, modest sedans, Ford F-150’s, and a host of minivans. I suspected many, like myself, spent time on either side.

We drove on.

This was Barkeim’s sixth year putting on Seeker’s Wild. His first year, there were 14 kids. Now he was pretty much maxed out at 88 campers over the course of 10 to 12 weeks in the summer, and he was trying to decide whether to hire staff outside of the occasional intern and keep growing or to keep running it himself. He went to college a little north of here, in Winona, where he majored in recreation and tourism studies. That’s also where he met his wife, Ariel. After graduation they moved to Portland, Oregon, for a few years so she could study naturopathic medicine. There, Barkeim worked at Trackers Earth, an outdoor school and summer camp, taking kids out to state parks and patches of woods and teaching them survival skills.

This was during the height of the “zombie-apocalypse–Walking Dead craze,” as he calls it. (They would occasionally dress like zombies and wait to surprise commuters at Portland’s light-rail stations.) Such end-of-the-world survivalism was great fun, getting paid to play outside and do something meaningful. It also made him think: I could do this myself.

When he and Ariel came back to Winona in 2014, he set up shop. Seeker’s Wild wasn’t meant to be any Tom Brown–esque survival cult or a school for roadkill-eating rewilders. It was something simpler: “The heart of Seeker’s Wild,” Barkeim says, “is getting people outside and reconnected to the natural world and making sure kids get their share of ‘vitamin N.’” At his camp, kids learn how to build shelters, make fire, clean fish, skin frogs, make turtle soup, and other useful skills. (He also has a more lighthearted Goonies Camp, with treasure hunts, maps, caves and, of course, a viewing of the film at the end.) Barkeim’s pedagogic approach consists largely of laying down some basic rules, handing out matches and knives, and letting the kids learn by doing. So far the only serious injury has been to an intern, who stabbed himself in the hand trying to open a bottle with a knife tip.

But Barkeim also has a more subtle agenda: to make his campers feel like they belong outdoors. Occasionally, he’ll have campers do a “sit spot” in the woods, where they stay in one place in silence for 10 or 15 minutes. Other times he talks to them about the “boredom monster” or the “fear monster” and about exercising their “patience muscle” to make it stronger. He wants them to settle into a calmer rhythm than the one created by the constant thrum of technology.

In Barkeim’s ideal world, his campers will learn that nature isn’t some pristine place to take a vacation or something apart from us. “I want to break down that perceived void,” he said, “that idea that humans are here and nature is there. Because we are part of nature. We are nature. That’s just the world.”

At camp, Barkeim’s immediate concerns were less philosophical. He gathered everyone around and mapped out the day’s goals: gather logs and dig a hole for a chimney. The kids broke off into groups. They lit fires and looked for sticks. For much of the day, the camp was filled with the smell of smoke drifting through the trees. The forest was quiet except for the sounds of machetes hacking and young voices cajoling, complaining, arguing, and laughing. Later in the afternoon, after digging most of the hole and building the chimney, their energy started to flag.

“OK,” Barkeim said, “why doesn’t everyone get three sticks to put on the shelter, then we can call it a day.” The kids grudgingly left their fires and walked out of what was beginning to look like a small village. “Sometimes it’s fun to just sit back and watch them,” Barkeim said.

On the third day of camp, Barkeim brought his bow-drill sets to the park where the kids got dropped off: there were bows, spindles, sockets, and bearing blocks for starting a fire without matches. He dumped them out and announced that before each kid received their own box of matches, they needed to learn to spark an ember without them.

The kids started sawing and spinning. No one got an ember. Barkeim took a set and soon had one.

“How do you do that so fast?” asked camper Brody.

“Easy,” said Jasper, an 11-year-old who’s been to Seeker’s for the last five summers. “He’s a professional survivalist.”

There was a fair amount of smoke, but no fire, so Barkeim changed his criteria to “try to get an ember” and handed out matches. Within 15 minutes of our arrival at the camp, several kids had spent every single one trying to spark flames. A couple managed to start fires, then spent all day tending them. At lunch someone busted out a pack of hot dogs to roast.

“I pricked my wiener!” yelled someone, after putting one on a stick. “My wiener tastes good!” came a response.

Barkeim remained calm. “OK guys, let’s not go too far with that. Remember, humor is an art.”

After lunch the kids settled into building the shelter. They wove the few sticks they’d collected together, put ragweed on the roof, and gathered clay. They scraped the hair off the deer hide. The day was quiet and slow. It all had a relaxed feel. The kids cooked their food and fed their fires, carved sticks in their blood circles, and played in nature. No one took out a phone. The boredom monster was nowhere to be seen.

This was exactly what I remembered about being outside as a kid and what I love about it as an adult: the feeling of total escape, the enveloping sounds and rhythms of the wild. That’s the feeling that draws us players back to camp, to hike, to explore.

“Well,” said Jasper at the end of the day, “mostly we just roasted marshmallows and hot dogs. This was the best day of Seeker’s Wild I’ve had in five years!”

Ari, 12, looked at the shelter and marveled. “I can’t believe before yesterday this was just a pile of weeds,” he said. Far overhead, a small plane buzzed through the sky. “Imagine if someone crashed their plane here and stumbled on us,” Ari said. “They would be amazed!”

On the fourth day of camp, when we arrived at the farm, the lamb was hanging from a tree. A stream of blood dripped from its nose. The owner of the farm had shot it not long before we arrived, and now it spun slowly in the wind. Today was field-dressing day.

The campers stood back subdued, almost reverent. Of all the things that separate the two outdoor cultures, this may be the biggest: killing. It’s something that humans have done forever but that recreationists rarely do personally. Unlike the outdoorsmen of the past, we don’t take part directly in this process. Most of us bring our packaged meals into the woods. Barkeim’s hope is that this will help the kids appreciate the animal, the life, the process, and the fact that we’re part of this chain.

seekers wild
(Photo: Frank Bures)

“Has anybody here ever killed a living creature before?” he asked. Hands went up. “What have you killed, Maddox?”

“A deer.”

“How about you, Brody?”

“I’ve killed some insects.”


“Deer and turkey.”

“Has anyone felt bad after killing something?” Barkeim asked. They nodded. “That’s probably some empathy creeping in, which may not be the most fun feeling, but it’s useful. It helps us realize that this animal’s life ended so we could have food,” he said. “Now I know each of you might have some personal beliefs about life and death. But we want to be respectful to the animal.”

“Can we sword-fight with the legs?” Jonah asked.

“Do you think that would be respectful?”

“If you were fighting to honor the lamb.”

“Maybe. But I think we’re going to skip the sword fighting.”

Barkeim explained that we were going to take the skin off, remove the organs, then cut and package the meat to take home. He started slicing the connective tissue at the ankles. “Who wants to jump in here?”

Some stood back. Others, like Brody and 9-year-old Gracie, the lone girl at camp that week, jumped in. With their knives, they started cutting away the hide and pulling it down with Barkeim’s help. Other kids rotated in. A few opted to play on the tire swing across the field. But eventually, they, too, came over to watch and even help as the inner animal was revealed, a puzzle of red and white lines, curves, and stilled movement.

“Can someone grab this stomach?” asked Barkeim.

“Can we cut it to see what it ate?” said Jonah.

“Let’s hold off on that. We don’t want to stink up the area. Who wants to pull the liver out?”

Hands shot up. “Me!” “Me!” “Me!” 

In an era obsessed with safety and hand sanitizer, there was something beautiful about these kids handling the muscles, tendons, and bones like normal, natural things. One by one, pieces of meat came off and were taken over to a table that Barkeim had set up. An assembly line formed. The cuts were wrapped and put into a cooler.

“I’ve never seen meat before,” said Brody.

“Yes, you have,” said Ari. “If you walk into a grocery store, you see meat.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but not like this.”

Driving though the farm on Friday, Barkeim pointed to a row of blooming yellow flowers. “That’s goldenrod,” he said. “You know what’s in there?”

He stopped the van, jumped out, then grabbed a stalk with protruding bulb. He cut it off. “OK, who wants to join the grub club?”

“Me!” “Me!” “Me!” “Me!”

With his knife, Barkeim cut the bulb open and pulled out a wiggling white grub. He handed it to 11-year-old Owen, who popped it in his mouth and swallowed without a second thought. Then he cut a few more and passed them around like candy bars.

Today was the last day of Seeker’s Wild. After this, the kids would go back to civilization, to their screens and batteries and games. But before they left, there was much to do: clay to harvest, branches to gather, a wall to build, a hide to dry.

The work proceeded slowly. Gradually the roof was covered in dirt. The clay pit was filled and the clay mixed with wood-nettle fibers. Fires were started. Someone carved a face on a small log and called it King Fred. Soon another log was dubbed Queen Felicia, and these idols were alternately burned and rescued from the fire. As morning crept by, there was a sense of winding down.

“What time is it?” one camper asked.

“12:15,” someone said.

He looked at the shelter. “OK, we can get this done.”

Others had the same realization that the end was near. A few kids climbed down into the creek bed and formed a fireman’s line to move clay up to Gracie. Oscar grabbed a shovel and threw more dirt on the roof. Piece by piece, the wall came together. As the day ended, the last holes were filled.

“You guys, I’m really impressed,” Barkeim said. “You crushed it! You remember how this place was before we came here? It was just like that patch of nettles over there.”

The campers looked at the stinging nettles that stretched across the valley floor. Barkeim then tried to put their small shelter into a bigger picture.

“It’s kind of a two-sided coin,” he said. “Humans have this innate desire to conquer and develop.”

“It will grow back!” someone yelled.

“Yes, and that’s a good lesson about how resilient the earth is. But if you were going to stay here, what would be your next steps?”

“Put on a door.”

“Yes. And you’d also want to secure your water and food supplies,” said Barkeim. “And what would you do for entertainment?”


“No, not Fortnite. Has anyone played cornhole? You could create that kind of game with rocks and holes in the dirt. And what about art?”

“Carving wood?”

“Exactly. OK, who wants to put their name in the wall?”

They all rushed over to leave their mark.

“All right,” said Barkeim when they were finished. “Say goodbye to your shelter.”

The campers gathered their things, packed their bags, then marched out of the woods. Next year some of them will come back to build a new shelter in the valley. By then the nettles will have returned. The shelter’s roof will have fallen in. The holes will have filled. Without the kids here, nature will claim this place.

Hopefully, nature will claim them all.

from Outside Magazine: All

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