Wilderness survival was once a way of life for hunting and gathering tribes in North America. Winter wilderness survival posed an extreme set of challenges.
Valley teacher and game hunter John DeLorenzo has been exploring the art of primitive survival for many years, recently spending three weeks in subzero temperatures in the Yukon Territory to get a sense of how native societies once dealt with the cold.
DeLorenzo and friend J.M. Amoeda, who has lived in the Yukon for many years, will share what they know in a winter wilderness survival course north of Ketchum next month.
“The point of this course is to show that we do not have to simply ‘endure’ winter, but to prove that with the rights skills and attitude we can thrive in it,” DeLorenzo said.
The two men met five years ago at the Rabbit Stick gathering on the banks of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River near Rexburg, Idaho. The Rabbit Stick gathering offers training from many “primitive technologists and artisans” with backgrounds in ancient skills, from bow-making and flint-knapping to holistic medicine and gourd-craft.
DeLorenzo spent time last fall with Amoeda in the Yukon, tracking lynx, wolves, otters and other animals, learning to build snares and traps, and getting some lessons on how to survive indefinitely in very cold places.
“These are old bush-craft skills, that someone could fall back on in case of the absence of modern technology,” DeLorenzo said. He said he has spent more than 3,000 hours in the high mountains of Idaho during the last 10 winters, at times hunting mountain lions with a bow and arrow.
“We learn how to make a knife with a rock and how to make a bow from a stick, but also how to get in touch with the ‘real world.’ This is a key tool for inner growth and for understanding our planet and fellow human beings,” DeLorenzo said.
“Natives and trappers in North America and Siberia would go into the Taiga wilderness with little more than a rifle, hatchet, a bag of flour and salt. They could travel for months in this way. The more you know, the less you need,” he said.
DeLorenzo grew up on a family ranch in Tuscon, Ariz. His father raised cattle and cutting horses, and was a well-known saddle-maker. Hopi and Navajo Indians who worked on the ranch inspired DeLorenzo to explore native technologies.
His interest eventually led to training with John and Geri McPhearson, authors of “Naked into the Wilderness,” a how-to book about using only primitive technologies to live in the backcountry.
For the last five years, DeLorenzo has taught wilderness skills, animal husbandry and wood-working to grade-school children at The Mountain School near Bellevue. On his own time, he has horse-packed solo for weeks at a time each fall in the mountains of Idaho, hunting for elk and deer.
This winter, DeLorenzo is feasting on buffalo steaks from a successful hunt last year near Blackfoot, Idaho, using an old-fashioned “buffalo rifle.”
DeLorenzo said he learned some important skills for surviving in extreme cold, while with Amoeda in the Yukon.
“You need a lot of calories when it’s cold. We ate caribou, moose and woodland buffalo, as well as beaver tail, which is solid fat,” he said.
Amoeda’s biography states that he served in the Special Forces Unit of the Spanish Foreign Legion, and taught bow-making in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain. He has also studied spirituality with a Lakota tribe in South Dakota.
“He has an amazing story,’ said DeLorenzo. “He was once shipwrecked in the Amazon on his sailboat, and also spent a winter in an Eskimo village in Alaska, while working as a sled-dog handler for an Iditarod racer.”
DeLorenzo said the knowledge Amoeda gathered in Alaska will provide essential training next month at the winter survival course on private land near Smiley Creek in the Sawtooth Basin north of Ketchum.
“A lot of it has to do with clothing. Synthetic fabric can burn quickly when it gets close to fire. Down is great for insulation, but it is worthless when it gets wet,” DeLorenzo said. “Caribou skins were used as clothing by the Eskimo. If you get wet, you can roll the fur in the snow until it is good and frozen and then shake out the ice and put it back on.”
“We also teach how to start a fire from scratch in snow country under any circumstances,” he said.
DeLorenzo said the skills he and Amoeda will teach could be helpful to snowmobilers and backcountry ski-guides, as well as search-and-rescue personnel.
“If your machine goes down and you are 60 miles from home, you are not going to make it back in one day,” he said.