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The shelter I’d been building for the past three hours certainly wasn’t pretty. The mound of decomposing leaves, twigs, ferns and bark was more likely to house Oscar the Grouch than Bilbo Baggins.

Still, it had a certain charm.

Earthy and damp smelling, the innards were framed with long branches my group had kicked loose from fallen trees, and latticed with hemlock deadfall. In another three hours, debris would line the walls at least three feet thick, creating a kind of forest igloo that could shed rain and wind for the night.

I stepped back and marveled at what we’d thrown together using nothing but forest litter and our bare hands.

If this were an actual survival situation, our shelter would protect us from hypothermia. Instead, it was simply the first lesson in a weekend survival boot camp at Monroe’s Alderleaf Wilderness College.

If you watch enough survival shows from the comfort of your couch, you begin to grow a lot of false confidence. I’ve told myself countless times, “I could probably snare a rabbit” or “That guy is totally building his fire the wrong way.”

Outdoor classes force wannabe survivalists to actually attempt the techniques popularized by these television shows, learning just how hard — or sometimes easy — they can be.

By the end of the first morning, I’d learned to conjure a shelter out of almost nothing. A few hours later, I would learn how to purify water and cook a stew using nothing but a hunk of wood, a few stones and some hot coals.

Burning a bowl

Hunched on the ground with cordwood in our laps, our class coughed and wheezed as we blew on hot embers. Every few minutes, someone would lift another coal from the fire and place it in an ever-growing divot.

Slowly but surely, the coals were burning their way through the wood, and rudimentary burn bowls were emerging.

I knew that many Native American tribes burned entire canoes out of trees, and for the first time in my life I was seeing how one could accomplish such a feat.

Once we got our technique down, our instructors showed us a finished log holding a liter of water, pulled seven or eight hot rocks from our fire and dropped them in.

Not only did the water bubble in less time than it would take my Jetboil, but to our amazement, it maintained a rolling boil for several minutes.

Forest treasures

Walking around the 24-acre campus with our three instructors was like reading an encyclopedia on native plants. Seemingly everything had a medicinal purpose or could be used by someone with the right know-how.

“As you’re walking, you should be stuffing your pockets with dry tinder like this,” said Bernard Van Der Weerdt as he pulled dead twigs from the lower branches of a tree.

“We like to teach you to be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “When most people are in the woods, their attention bubble is here,” he explained, holding out his arm. “It should be all around you.”

Every few minutes one of them would divulge a useful tip, such as the best places to forage for edible grubs, or what to use as bait in your fish trap.

I learned that nearly every weed in my yard could be eaten — including those pesky stinging nettles that haunted my childhood. In fact, a surprising number of Washington plants are edible, even if they don’t taste very good.

“You get really tired of eating bitter-tasting things,” instructor Georgie Lilgreen quipped.

Fire from sticks

Most of our second day was consumed with achieving the holy grail of survivorship: creating fire by rubbing sticks together.

As it turns out, a bow drill requires a few things — namely a knife, some string (or cordage, as it’s known in the survival community), and dry wood certainly helps.

We hacked planks of wood into pencil shaped pieces, by splitting wood with our knives as I’d seen on survivor shows.

Next we collected young growth from vine maples and crafted a small bow with some twine. Soon we were feverishly running our dowels back and forth, spinning them until the points were ground into fine ash.

The first few times I tried it, my contraption fell apart just seconds before I achieved a coal. Many others in our group grew winded long before enough heat was generated.

Eventually, the ash collected in a small groove, and with the loud encouragement from those around me, I coaxed enough effort from my cramping muscles to produce a tiny wisp of smoke.

Carefully I tapped a cinder the size of a chocolate chip into a tinder bundle, and blew until it magically burst into flame.

Feeling very caveman, I held my bundle aloft and bellowed, “Me make fire!”

Just the start

Throughout the remainder of the day we touched on techniques for making cordage, viewed examples of homemade traps and were taught the most likely places to snare game.

By the end of the weekend, I realized it would take a lifetime to perfect these skills. Our class was only the CliffsNotes version. Even so, I felt confident about what I could accomplish in a pinch. At the very least, I could probably survive for a weekend in the wilderness if I had to.

And while I wasn’t quite ready to apply for an episode of “Naked and Afraid,” I developed a whole new appreciation for the massive effort it takes just to accomplish the basics of food, water and shelter.

Follow Seattle writer Jeff Layton’s blog at