Survivor Woman By: Sarah Haase
Photos by: Wasim Ahmad
Posted June 19, 2009
An ominous drumbeat echoed through the dark, quiet forest. With five others, I began a trek across an uneven landscape scattered with fallen trees, rotten stumps, muddy knolls, and budding branches – blindfolded. I “fox-walked,” a slow, cautious technique I’d learned on the first night of camp. I wished I’d practiced it more.
The absence of sight heightened the sounds of lively night dwellers. Placing my palms on the wet forest floor provided a much-needed respite from the dizziness I felt. I swept the air around me, searching for growth that would serve as either friend or foe. Firmly grasping a tiny tree trunk, I pulled myself toward it and found myself tangled in a web of forehead-whipping branches.
The drumbeat continued. Four loud bangs followed by rustling I hoped was a person and not something with fur and sharp teeth. I touched some slimy stuff on decaying, fallen tree trunks and walked faster. Then, I fell onto something manmade. Something familiar. When I rolled into a prickly pine tree that grew beside it, I felt relieved.
I consider myself an adventure junkie at heart who doesn’t shy away from new and risky endeavors. My accident-prone body sometimes holds me back or slows me down. The first time I went skiing, the thrill of whizzing down the hill with the crisp air against my face encouraged me to foolishly forego the bunny slope. In exchange for this daring decision, I won a free snowmobile ride to the first-aid tent with a fractured shoulder. (If only I had learned how to turn.)
The dark forest sounded far better a few weeks ago when I tracked down a primitive survival-skills camp at the Roots School deep in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I read about the course online and saw photos of what I’d be going through: drinking from a freshly dug spring, holding down a fireboard, and plodding through the snow (I didn’t have to worry about that one – it was May).
My mind whirled with thoughts of being part of a hippie commune, learning to build a fire, and maybe landing some sleeping bag time with a burly guy. Once I arrived, all that dissolved. This made the Girl Scout camp I attended in middle school seem luxurious.
Apparently, the wilderness calls to a lot of women – especially those looking to bolster self-image. A study compiled by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) found that half of all U.S. adults, 98 million people, have taken an adventure trip in the past five years. According to Eva-Maria Gortner, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in relationship counseling in Houston, Texas, creating opportunities involving personal risks and challenges can help someone going through traumatic life events, such as divorce, rebuild trust in herself.
“Learning to depend on oneself can increase empowerment, self-trust, and self-efficacy – all important aspects of re-creating life after loss and trauma,” Gortner says. She adds that pursuing experiences outside the comfort zone can increase self-empowerment. Learning and mastering new skills creates a feeling of accomplishment and self-confidence. “Allow yourself to experience something completely new when you are ready to do so,” she advises.
Day One: Welcome to the Camp
I arrived in Vermont that first day with more than enough daylight to set up camp. The puzzling jumble of metal stakes, poles, red cord, and nylon that lay on the ground overwhelmed me. I channeled my inner woodswoman and began sticking the poles through the black, plastic connectors fastened around the nylon. My first attempt folded. The poles needed to cross at the center instead of being parallel.
The campsite allowed privacy but was hardly ideal for roasting marshmallows, telling ghost stories, or singing rounds of “Kumbaya.” That night, alone in my tent, I tried to fend off the possible death scenarios that invaded my weary mind. When that didn’t work, I searched for my flashlight, only to discover that I had left it on my kitchen counter. Great. I faced my first camping challenge, sleep-deprived and scared of the night.