Wilderness skills as they should be taught—in the wilderness, and an examination of Colorado spelunking survival course. Boulder Outdoor Survival School has classes in wilderness training for homesteaders who want to experience a truly special outdoor experience.
Wilderness Training Schools, Part IV
The day begins gently, cautiously, the way I like it.
I awake on my back on the dusty floor of a shallow
sandstone cave. Opening my eyes I see, high on the sloping
back wall, the faded, crumbling remains of a
pictograph—a small, crude painting made by some
primitive artist who took shelter here centuries before
Christopher Columbus was even so much as a gleam in his
father's eye. The figure is odd, angular, Anasazi.
Anasazi —those mysterious early dwellers of
the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The name
is Navajo and means "the ancient ones," or "the ancient
enemy," and their ghosts pervade these hoodoo canyons yet.
It's the summer of 1987, but the atmosphere here is
Photographer Branson Reynolds and I have come to this
wilderness of sandstone and sage in south-central Utah to
gather photos and experiences for a story on the Boulder
Outdoor Survival School, best known by its acronym, BOSS.
The Wilderness Training School: An Overview
From southwestern Colorado we came, crossing into Utah and
over the Colorado River where it bleeds into Lake Powell
just above the Hite Marina. Then up and over and down and
through the rough-hewn splendor of the Burr Trail.
This 71 miles of dirt road between Bullfrog and Boulder,
Utah, snakes through such natural wonders as the
Waterpocket Fold and Capital Reef National Monument. Its
ruts and sand traps force one to drive slowly, and, driving
slowly, to see. It's exactly what a road through this rare
and beautiful moonscape should be. Unfortunately, the Burr
Trail is soon to be straightened and
paved—downgraded, as it were; converted to just
another Winnebago freeway.
But for now, at least, driving the Burr is still an
adventure: At a place called the Gulch, Branson and I were
stranded for a cold, wet, challenging night when a flash
flood beat us to the low-water bridge by only seconds.
The following morning, the floodwaters had receded
sufficiently to allow us to 4 by 4 across the swollen creek.
Then, while lugging up the far slope, the transmission in
Branson's Jeep began slipping, threatening to leave us
Gulched-up for a second time in less than 24 hours. This
struck us as funny; the joke being: Will we survive long
enough to reach survival school?
We persevered and, at tiny Boulder, rendezvoused with nine
fellow students and four instructors at BOOS’s
staging area just below the hilltop ruins of a 700-year-old
Anasazi pueblo. (Permanent headquarters are at Rex-burg,
That first afternoon and evening with BOSS, we were
introduced to making fire with bow drills, learned
something of the revolutionary Halfpenny system for
identifying and interpreting animal tracks, and practiced
using handmade bows and arrows, spears and atlatls. Our
roof for the night was the star-spangled Utah sky.
Next morning, the 15 of us crammed into three pickup trucks
for the 30-minute ride to a trailhead in the upper canyon
of the Escalante River. A pleasant hike in, a few
waist-deep river crossings, and here we be.
The sun's sharp, bright edge pushes slowly across the sandy
flat below and up toward the open front of my little niche
in this vertical wall of sandstone. From somewhere nearby
comes the flutelike, descending-scale serenade of a canyon
wren. Perfect. Faint in the distance is the constant,
soothing rush of the Escalante River, swollen and muddy
from the recent rains.
I sit up in my bed—a single blanket, the powdery duff
of the cave floor for a mattress—and stretch to get
the blood pumping; it will have to do, for the nearest
coffee is more than 20 miles away. I stand and take
inventory of my surroundings: A sand-sage flat stretches
down to the river from the slickrock cliff face at the
bottom of which my rock condo, the smallest of four along
here, is situated. Up and down the riverbanks stand scruffy
rows of giant cotton-woods, their bark hanging gray and
baggy like the skin of very old men, their green leaves
shimmering in the timid morning breeze. Beyond the river,
rounded sandstone hills like off-white elephants rise to
form an undulating horizon. And, above all, the big
I shake out my baggy fatigue trousers to dislodge any
scorpions or other sneaking invaders of the night, tug them
on and pick my way, barefoot, out from the chill shadow of
the cave and into the warm morning sun, placing my tender
twentieth-century feet carefully between angry clumps of
prickly pear cactus. I greet Branson, who chose to sleep
out among the sage last night, then I wander off alone.
Soon enough, things begin to happen. From the big cave up
the canyon a way, where most of the rest of the group spent
the night, come the sounds of morning activities... the
harsh squawking of someone working a bow drill, trying to
start a cooking fire the good old hard way... the sharp
clack-clacking of a toolmaker striking stone
against stone . . . laughter.
I return to my sleeping niche for socks, boots and T-shirt,
then go to join the others. On an elevated ledge at the
back of the big cave sits head instructor David Wescott,
his legs crossed yogi-fashion, a pile of shaggy juniper
bark heaped to his front and a coil of hand-twisted rope
growing in his lap.
"Uncle Dave" is the school's director and, thus, the BOSS
boss. He stands to about six feet and wears medium-length
dark brown hair and a close-trimmed beard. His demeanor is
serious but easygoing; an unassuming and likable fellow.
Wescott has been at this rope-making task for only an hour
now and already has four feet of half-inch-diameter cordage
for his skilled efforts. This rope isn't as strong as the
much thinner cord another of the instructors showed us how
to braid from yucca fibers a couple of evenings ago, but
it's soft against the skin and more than stout enough to
serve its intended purpose as a tumpline for a wicker pack
Down on the lower level of the big cave, the student who's
been sawing with the bow drill finally gets smoke, then
flame to kindle her morning fire. She hoots in
delight—this is her first success—and is
congratulated by her companions.
I settle down in a quiet corner of the cave to carve a
spoon from cottonwood bark. Yesterday, I'd used my hunting
knife to whittle a fine big spoon, more like a ladle, and
this morning I've determined to shape a second, smaller
utensil, this time using a scalpel-sharp sliver of
fractured river rock as a knife.
After a while we all wander out into the sunshine ... to
study animal tracks in the soft sand along the river's edge
(here a mule-deer doe grazed calmly in the night while her
fawn cavorted nearby) ... to check the Paiute and
figure-four deadfalls we set for rodents last evening ...
to gather willow and grass for basket weaving ... to knap
flint. . . to search for wild edible plants. The latter
task proves particularly rewarding.
With our instructors' help, we come up with a veritable
Anasazi salad: prickly pear fruit, salsify root, purslane,
squaw berries, holly berries, the chewable ends of
horsetail joint grass, seeds of four-winged saltbush,
unopened buds of evening primrose, cotton-wood cambium,
spectacle pods, leaves of young Russian thistle and the
inner flower petals of Indian paintbrush. We graze on these
goodies as we find them—a grassroots movable feast. A
couple of the more staunchly carnivorous among us even
snack on bugs. (Grasshopper, they report, has a pleasant,
nutty taste. The rest of us take their word for it.)
Later in the morning, we all work together to build a
two-person brush survival shelter, or "litter lodge," of
limbs, bark and leaves gathered from downed cottonwoods.
(Construction time, 19 minutes, and I would trust the
structure's efficacy in any weather.)
Afterwards, we trail down to the river for a spell of
"noodling." This ancient form of fishing involves wading
along the edges of a stream or lake and reaching up into
holes under roots and overhangs along the banks, or feeling
down into the quiet pockets behind submerged
rocks—probing gently for the scaly form of a resting
fish. If you locate one, you swiftly pin it to the bottom
with one hand, then grasp it by a gill with the other and
hoist it out.
In this murky floodwater, noodling is spooky business, and
none too productive. We come up with only one small fish,
which instructor David Holliday guts with a sliver of
chert, then skewers on a willow grill fashioned on the
spot. Thus mounted, the fish will slow-cook over the dying
embers of the morning's fire and serve as the main course
of Holliday's supper. (When we return to camp that evening,
Holliday—who has sworn to eat nothing on this trip
but what he can forage—discovers that the two camp
dogs have pilfered his piscatorial snack. It's sad to see a
grown man almost cry.)
At midday we hike up a side canyon to the nearest source of
drinking water—two small, quicksand-banked potholes.
This stuff is the color of good sour-mash whiskey.
("Water's for drinkin'; Dickel's for sippin'.") Still,
we're told, it's safer than the Escalante River, which is
tainted by that bane to wilderness wayfarers, giardiasis.
As I kneel beside the nearest of the twin pools, I startle
a floating horsehair worm—a foot-long, pencil-thin
Nematomorpha. The horsehair's larvae are parasitic on
insects, not mammals. However...
When I splash the water with my hand, the sinuous little
creature writhes across the surface like an anorexic water
snake, then dives, disappearing into the gloom. I kneel to
drink, but, thinking of the worm and its invisible progeny,
"Just grit your teeth to strain out the big stuff, and
gulp," comes advice from behind me. It's Uncle Dave, who
laughs at this stock BOSS water joke, then swigs from the
container he's brought along for hauling water back to
camp. BOSS groups have been drinking from desert potholes
like these, and worse, for years, he assures me, and only a
very few students have ever gotten sick.
A very few. Well, it just takes one if that one is
me. But what the hell, I figure. I'm thirsty; I've been
thirsty for hours now, and, so far as I know, it's either
drink here or go dry I swallow my doubts, dip up a double
palmful and gulp deep of this lukewarm organic soup.
A student kneeling at the second pool sinks elbow-deep in
the shallow quicksand but manages to extricate himself
without help. I reflect that this isn't the sort of place
I'd want to come drinking alone. Unless I had to.
(Later, I confide to Wescott that I wouldn't mind hiking
farther, a lot farther, to find water with a little less
color and body. The following day, he obliges by leading me
and a handful of like-minded souls up the river about a
mile to a cool, clear spring.)
Come evening, we gather in the big cave and boil up a
nourishing stew. Delicious. While we're about it, we use
flour from our ration packs and water carried back from the
potholes to make up a batch of ashcakes for tomorrow's
breakfast. Aptly named, these ashcakes—baked as they
are atop flat stones placed in the ashes of an open fire.
After dark, we loaf around the twin fires in the big cave,
working on primitive crafts in the dim, flickering light,
discussing the day's events and what's yet to come. After a
while, I slip off into the darkness and hie to my hole in
the rock and my warm wool blanket.
So passes another day of cave life in the twentieth
century, BOSS style.
Wilderness School Evaluation
At the backcountry camp of another outdoor school I
attended this past summer, conversation turned to the
competition. When the talk came around to wilderness
survival as opposed to skills schools,
one of the instructors, a man who had attended a month-long
BOSS survival trek, commented, with what sounded like
serious admiration, that "those people at BOSS are so hard
they eat rocks." I doubt it, though I can't swear it isn't
so: BOSS groups do spend a lot of time
breaking rocks (ostensibly to shape primitive
stonecutting tools), and they do have one course advertised
as being for "hard-core rock-biters." But still. . .
Although BOSS offers classes of varying difficulty and
duration, the one that has earned them a reputation for
being the toughest of all civilian outdoor survival schools
is their 26-day Wilderness Expedition. According to David
Wescott, "This program is designed for the individual
seeking to test him- or herself physically, mentally and
emotionally. You'll hike hundreds of miles [the average is
200 to 250] and may lose 10 to 20 pounds in weight. The
mental and emotional challenges come in facing and
defeating obstacles and tasks set before you by nature and
your instructors, and in adjusting and learning to live
with nature in a harsh environment."
Sounds tough, and, according to the alumni and instructors
with whom I have spoken, it is tough—nearly a month
of intense foot travel across some of Utah's rugged and
beautiful canyonlands, carrying a minimum of food, water
The 26-day course is divided into five stages. The first
two or three days are called Impact, a rigorous time during
which you hike long and hard, enjoying little food, water
or rest. Welcome to the wilderness.
Stage two, Survival, begins upon reaching a predetermined
backcountry base camp and lasts for a full week. During
this time, you manufacture primitive tools and gear and
learn essential survival skills to carry you through the
remainder of the course.
Stage three, Group Expedition, involves a re-creation of
the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle. During this stage,
the main group (of perhaps 20) breaks up into several
smaller groups, each consisting of a handful of students
and one instructor. Each group then strikes out on a
different route, traveling several miles a day, fishing,
foraging and hunting and trapping rodents and other
non-game species as they go. At a prearranged time and
place, the groups rendezvous.
The fourth stage is the most trying for some students and
the most memorable for most. It's called Solo, and requires
you to spend three to five days entirely alone in the
The final stage is the Student Expedition, which is similar
to the Group Expedition in that it involves breaking into
small groups that travel different routes, each
accomplishing certain designated tasks en route before it's
time to rendezvous once again. But this time around, the
student groups are on their own, unaccompanied by
For prospective students who can't afford the time or cost
of a month in the backcountry, or who simply don't feel the
need for such a heavy dose of physical hardship, BOSS
offers a 14-day condensed version of the longer course.
And then there's the torturous seven-day Advanced Primitive
Living and Nature Observation trek—the "rock-biter"
ordeal referred to earlier. The premise here is primitive
simplicity itself: no gear, no food, not even a penknife.
You walk into the wilderness with, quite literally, only
the clothes on your back and, for seven days, survive by
wits and gumption. Enrollment in this course is sensibly
restricted to those having previous survival training, and
class size is limited to 12 students (accompanied by two or
It was this rock-biter ordeal that Uncle Dave Wescott tried
to lure me into. "It'll be fun," he tempted. "It'll provide
lots of photo opportunities, lots of anecdotes for your
story." All too true, I suspected.
Branson and I talked it over one chilly night while camped
in a remote Utah side canyon. Tallying up our
qualifications to participate in such a rigorous ordeal, we
reminded each other of our considerable achievements in the
out-of-doors: There was our previous survival school
experience; our day-to-day he-men, macho lifestyles in the
mountains of Colorado; our middle-age vigor; our openness
to adventure; our fearless disdain of danger and
discomfort. We took all of this into consideration. . . and
told Wescott to look elsewhere for victims. Instead, we
opted for an Advanced Skills clinic.
In these seven-day skills clinics, referred to collectively
as SOS ("Sink or Swim"? BOSS isn't saying), the physical
challenge is minimized, with emphasis being placed instead
on developing primitive survival crafts and wilderness
skills in a relaxed and reasonably comfortable outdoor
setting. Rather than hiking across great expanses of
wilderness—starving, freezing, dehydrating,
suffering, surviving —the skills clinics are
stationary (though far from sedentary), conducted at
permanent base camps in Utah's Upper Escalante Canyon
(spring through fall) and Idaho's Snake River Valley
Although modernism is gently discouraged, SOS students are
allowed to bring knives, backpacks, sleeping bags, water
filters and other contemporary gear (within reason), and
the rations are nutritious and filling, if not fancy.
In addition to the courses outlined above, BOSS also offers
12-day Adult Women's Outings, a 14-day Mexico Desert and
Marine Adventure, a seven-day Staff Training Class for
present or aspiring outdoor instructors, and a seven-day
Winter Skills Clinic.
While BOSS doesn't give its services away, the primitive,
low-technology nature of most of the courses helps keep
down overhead—and thus tuition—making BOSS a
bargain relative to most other outdoor schools. Here's a
sampling of 1988 course offerings and tuition rates:
• 26-day Outdoor Survival Trek—$895 (including
transportation from and return to Provo, Utah)
• 14-day Outdoor Survival Trek-$590
• 14-day Mexico Desert and Marine
• 7-day Winter Living Skills Clinic
• 7-day Basic and Advanced Skills
• 7-day Advanced Primitive Living and Nature Awareness
College credit can be earned for most BOSS courses, and a
limited amount of tuition assistance is available to
students who can show financial need.
What of the staff?
Larry Dean Olsen, the father of modern primitive survival
education and author of the bible of wilderness survival
lore, Outdoor Survival Skills (BYU Press, 1967),
has said of BOSS director David Wescott, "There are few
experts in the area of primitive skills, and Dave is one of
them." Wescott was an early star student of Olsen's, then
went on to develop and teach his own outdoor survival
courses at Brigham Young University and other institutions.
Today, Uncle Dave Wescott continues to seek out the
foremost experts in various primitive arts—such as
Dr. James Halfpenny, author of the innovative A Field
Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America (John-son
Books, 1986), and preeminent flint-knapper Errett
Callihan—to study their skills at first hand. More
important, Wescott spends an average of 200 days a year
living primitively in the out-of-doors. The experience
The instructors Wescott hires to assist him are also highly
qualified and varied in their outdoor experience. Like
David Holliday, an incredibly devoted and competent
authority on primitive crafts and wild edible plants and
their uses. When not roaming the Utah backcountry with
BOSS, Holliday conducts special programs in environmental
appreciation for the Tucson, Arizona, public school system.
And there's Mike Ryan, a quiet but likable fellow with
hawkish features, who passes his summers with BOSS in Utah,
and his winters as a hunting guide, horse packer and cowboy
in northern Montana.
Would I recommend Boulder Outdoor Survival School to my
friends? To my family? To you?
If you're looking for a pampered, catered, Yuppie-style
outdoor experience—no. If you're after
paramilitary-type "survivalist" training—no. If,
however, you wish to learn primitive crafts and
down-to-earth, low-impact outdoor survival skills, or if
you have an itch to test your strength and character (and
strength of character) in a most serious fashion, then
While BOSS isn't the only competent wilderness survival
school around, it's the oldest, it's the most challenging,
and it teaches wilderness skills as they should be
taught—in the wilderness.
For a 1988 course schedule and complete enrollment
information, send a 39¢ stamp to BOSS in Rexburg, ID.