Updated: Dec 8, 2021
A Year of Ancient Skills and Voluntary Simplicity in Montana
In mid-September, 15 people made a bold decision… move to Montana for a year, learn ancient skills and voluntary simplicity, live in community, and finish with a 500 mile and 6 week long Stone Age paddle down the Yellowstone River in a dugout canoe.
Sounds like a reality TV show, right?
But it’s not.
For me, it’s the completion of a big circle. I first visited this land 24 years ago as a young man seeking to understand myself and my place in this world. I met up with Tom Elpel, the director of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School. For a summer, I helped thatch a wickiup and build an earthlodge and learned to braintan deer hides, then moved on to live in Idaho, Utah, British Columbia, Oregon and California. Tom stayed put.
Now I’m here again and so much looks the same… but I am different. Some experiences invite different ways of seeing, and I’ve been married and divorced, raised a son, lost a father, hurt people and been hurt, worked in the most dangerous job in the world, experienced affluence and poverty and nearly died 6 times. I ran an ancient skills school in British Columbia with a Dené (First Nations) brother. He spoke of the Medicine Wheel as a verb, a way of understanding how things are moving. Now it’s helping me understand how my return to Montana is both a new beginning and a continuation around the Wheel.
One interpretation of the Medicine Wheel places two animals in the East, the direction of new beginnings. They are mouse and eagle. Close vision and far-away vision. Narrow focus and big picture. That seems about right as I consider the current lessons inviting my attention. I am the lead instructor here and also a member of a sometimes-reluctant community.
The students are from all over the US. California, Oregon, Wyoming, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Utah, Alabama and Florida. Their ages range from 18 to mid-30s, except for me… I’m 52. We are about an even mix of men and women, plus one non-binary human and a 3 yr-old girl. Some want survival skills and are on the path of Rugged Individualism, some want a return to living in harmony with nature, some are seeking community. Two participants have visited this place, called River Camp, before… the rest had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
We began here just before the cottonwood trees withdrew the nutrients from their leaves, removing the green chlorophyll that was masking the bright yellow that was there all along. We pitched our tents before the arrival of snow geese and the departure of sandhill cranes. It was a time in which each day felt precious and vital because winter was coming. And Montana winters are long and deep, with temperatures dipping below -20 degrees. I knew this, but it was hard to convey to folks who had rarely seen snow. And there was a lot to do.
The nearest town to River Camp is Cardwell, Montana, population 96. It’s mostly open grasslands here, with willow bushes and cottonwood trees along the nearby Jefferson River, and conifer forests carpeting the mountains in the distance. There are just two permanent structures at River Camp, an earthlodge (a dome structure which almost all of the students moved into once cold weather arrived) and a tiny kitchen with cardboard on the walls in a frail attempt at keeping out the frigid Montana winds. When I sat in this kitchen with Tom, two weeks before the arrival of students, on a 1970s era chair missing some stuffing, with my elbows resting on a table missing most of it’s paint, a mouse ran across the floor and up the side of the waste basket, where it sat and stared at us, as if daring us to change things.
Oh yeah, there’s also a shed, of sorts, attached to the back of the kitchen. This is where tools and extra clothing and a refrigerator are stored. When it rains, the roof leaks. A lot.
Our first task was to remove all of the contents of the kitchen and turn it into a real kitchen. The walls were insulated and covered with plywood and painted. Most of the materials Tom likely salvaged from the local dump, but it looked good and would keep out the cold and the mice. Then we installed the propane stove/oven that I brought and drilled a hole through the wall for the hood vent. In went the shelf unit I donated, in went the shelf Tom found at the dump, plus a few others that were here before; next, the foods and herbal medicines that students had brought. A small selection of books that were here before went back upon the shelves to comprise our camp library. Many hours would be spent in this space around the wood stove, reading and talking, stretching deer hides and making crafts. The table went outside… there was no room for it.
In the earthlodge, the students of previous years had slept on the floor. I made a strong case for sleeping platforms all around the circumference of the 32 foot diameter round house. We purchased off-cut slab wood from a nearby mill (the boards you get when milling a log square, so one side is flat and the other is rounded and covered in bark) and we fitted and nailed them in place. Sleeping on top and storage underneath. Everyone found their bunk and moved in.
And then we left.
A new project awaited! A 5 foot diameter cottonwood tree was laying on its side and we were going to turn it into our canoe. It was also 50 miles down the Jefferson River; so we loaded several days worth of gear and food into modern canoes and set off. Only one canoe capsized and another was swamped, LOL! Learning to canoe is fun! We saw deer and eagles and a huge bull moose and slept under the stars or under a rock overhang. One morning, I led a few students in the pre-dawn darkness up a mountain slope in search of bull elk. With a bugle call I made from a section of cane, we were rewarded with the screams of two rutting bulls.
Near the town of Three Forks, we beached our canoes and walked over to the cottonwood tree that would become our transportation for the 500 mile journey next August. It was massive! Weighing many thousands of pounds, we had a lot of work to do before it would be light enough to load onto a flatbed trailer and bring it back to River Camp. We started in with Tom and I running chainsaws alternating with the students using adzes to chip off large flakes of wood and shape the canoe. I would have enjoyed the Stone Age process of burning and scraping (with clam shells), but we didn’t have time. Even with modern tools, we spent 2 weeks on the tree. Finally, in mid-October, it was light enough to barely lever it onto a trailer and drop it off at River Camp.
Three days later, the temperature dropped to -11 and we got our first snowfall.
(Tune in next time as we learn about the joys of roadkill and the struggles of living in community)