An East Calais outdoors school revives the art of Stone Age subsistence
Brad Salon kneels in the dirt of an outdoor classroom on a broad ridge in East Calais. He’s gingerly setting a primitive trap, propping up a heavy plank with a few notched twigs. “Traps are blind,” he reminds his students. The 10 pupils, who span about three decades in age, have come to study primitive survival skills in the woods of Vermont.
What Salon means is that a trap, once set, won’t differentiate between “your neighbor’s cat” and a wild animal. It’s the trapper’s ethical responsibility to use caution and check a trap frequently, he urges his students.
By now the trap is in position. Salon gives the trigger a tug and snatches his hand back quickly. The simple contraption collapses, the plank slamming into the dust.
“Squish,” says Salon.
The students scribble furiously in their notebooks. They’ve given up a week of their summer to study here at the ROOTS School  under Salon and a handful of other survival-skills gurus. The school attracts a wide variety of students, “everything from the train-hopping crowd to school teachers and surgeons,” Salon says.
The excitement of setting a trap is slightly diffused when Salon reminds his students that primitive trapping is illegal except in a true survival situation, when all bets are off.
“Have you ever killed anything with these?” one student asks.
“Not on record,” Salon replies. “I’ll just say this: They work.”
ROOTS — which stands for “Reclaiming Our Origins through Traditional Skills” — is catering to a growing number of adults, teens and children who are curious about primitive skills long abandoned by modern society. Here, you can build your own bow, purify drinking water in a birch-bark kettle, construct Stone Age tools from rocks and flint, and study the tracks of elusive game animals.
“I’m definitely not a doomsdayer,” Salon tells me, when I ask why anyone would want to learn, or relearn, skills that modern technology has made obsolete. “But I also invite people to have the thought exercise of What if the 18-wheelers stopped running? Or What if you get lost, and have to spend a night in the woods?” he adds.
These are the sorts of “thought exercises” that I secretly love. Since moving to a 65-acre farm in Addison County with my husband, I’ve been daydreaming about homesteading. Apparently I’m not the only one preoccupied with self-sufficiency: Survival schools have been cropping up across the country for the last 30 years. Some students specifically seek them out because they’re concerned about the scarcity of oil and the sustainability of an economy that ships food and other goods thousands of miles; others, because they want to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. “People are starting to realize that the status quo isn’t a guarantee,” says 33-year-old fellow instructor and ROOTS co-owner Nick Neddo.
In the four and a half years since ROOTS found its home on this mountainside, the teachers have poured tremendous time and energy into their 160-acre rented property. Tucked away on a back road in East Calais, the school is tough to spot, though the image of a hand-carved arrowhead on a wooden sign points the way.
Salon and a few other instructors live in one house on the property. When I arrive mid-morning, he leads me past the house and onto footpaths cut through the woods, darting past primitive structures fashioned from sticks, reeds and leaves. Later, deeper in the woods, I find a stone-lined natural spring where water flows from a hand-carved stone flute. (The instructors built the spring, Neddo explains, because they “needed a place to hang out and honor the water.”) There’s even an open-air gym where students can practice self-defense, swing at a punching bag hanging from a tree limb or dart across a rough-hewn balance beam. The campus, if you can call it that, feels like a fantastic kingdom dreamed up in a children’s novel — it’s Hatchet meets My Side of the Mountain.
In fact, ROOTS runs programs specifically for children and teens, and Neddo says he and the other instructors tried to build the kind of school they wished they’d had in their own childhoods.
“I haven’t met too many kids who don’t like throwing sticks or getting muddy or hiding on people,” Salon says. But the children’s and young-adult programs focus on more than play. One program designed for 11- to 13-year-olds brings the kids to the ROOTS complex one day a week for an entire year of lessons in ecology, natural history, wildlife tracking and other skills. There’s a fair bit of fun, of course, in the form of building primitive weapons and chucking spear-like atlatls.
Plenty of adults enroll, too — some in weeklong programs such as the current crash course in primitive skills, others in more specialized programs devoted to winter survival or scouting and tracking. Neddo admits that survivalism has become something of a fad. That may be due in part to television’s “awful survival shows,” as Salon calls them, which he argues have simultaneously excited and misled viewers. Most, Salon says, are overdramatized scenarios that make survival appear akin to an extreme sport, rather than a set of tools that Salon argues he can teach to schoolchildren.
“If I can teach an 8-year-old [to build a fire], it’s definitely doable,” he says.
Among the participants in this week’s course are a couple of juniors from Bard College at Simon’s Rock. The young women came on a friend’s recommendation, curious about gaining skills in self-sufficiency and independence.
By contrast, fortysomething Karsten Weiss, a teacher at Morrisville’s Peoples Academy, has a practical reason for attending. When a few girls at his school complained about the dearth of opportunities for them to learn the kinds of outdoors skills taught to Boy Scouts, he and another teacher decided to create a program to do just that. It’s a bit outside Weiss’ area of expertise as a teacher of design and technology, but he says he wanted to step away from robots and electric vehicles for a little while.
“I don’t want to forget, and I don’t want the kids to forget, what it takes to be independent from air-conditioning and plug-in electricity,” says Weiss.
Sadly, because of my schedule and squeamishness about playing “Survivor” in the rain, I’ve missed this week’s lessons in flint knapping and fire building. I also skipped the overnight stay in the debris shelters that were among the students’ first undertakings. Under Neddo’s careful eye, they fashioned little cocoons from saplings, sticks and piles of crackling dead leaves. If built with plenty of insulation — meaning the dead leaves might be piled three feet thick — these shelters will keep their occupants warm even when the temperatures dip below zero, Neddo says.
“You are the source of heat,” he explains. The leaves just act as insulation, keeping one’s warmth trapped inside the little nest.
Neddo admits that the shelter’s comfort depends in large part on the skill and experience of the person constructing it. “I can get 10 hours of sleep in one of these,” he says. The students at ROOTS, who will each spend at least one night inside their shelters, aren’t so lucky. Weiss complains about the rustling of small critters in the walls of his shelter, and 19-year-old Avery Mauel of New Jersey ditched hers at 1 a.m. the previous night to scramble back to her “real” tent.
When I join the class, they’re just finishing up a lesson in wild edibles. We amble out of the woods to the garden beside the ROOTS instructors’ house. Salon’s girlfriend and co-instructor, Sarah Corrigan, leads the way, her Katniss Everdeen-style braid slung over one shoulder. We nibble on the carrot-flavored roots of Queen Anne’s lace and snack on mint leaves and red clover blossoms.
Then we’re handed off to Neddo, whose mountain-man look is enhanced by his wardrobe: buckskin pants, shirt and backpack, with buckles carved from a cow’s horn. After an appropriate amount of oohing and ahhing over the primitive couture, which Neddo sewed by hand from hides he also tanned, we set off into the woods. We follow Neddo on a bushwhacking overland course to locate and identify natural springs that are sources of clean, safe water — a godsend in a survival scenario, he tells us.
The day’s lessons also include a primer on compression tracking — the seemingly impossible task of searching leaf litter for signs of recent human or animal activity — as well as camouflage and “stalking.” As Neddo gives me a tour of the school, we pass students creeping through the woods all around us — slow as molasses, some crouched on hands and knees, others with one foot lifted precariously mid-stride.
I’m not convinced that I’ll ever need to stalk my prey through the woods, even in that living-off-the-land fantasy I entertain. Then again, perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to survival; I make a few notes on a technique Salon calls “fox walking” in my reporter’s notebook. Just in case.
Mastering these skills is a humbling experience, Salon warns. For students new to stalking, each step brings with it the crunch of leaves and the crack of twigs. But the good news is that these long-dormant skills become easier with practice.
“We’re hardwired [for these skills],” Salon says. “The software might have changed, but the hardware hasn’t.”