A Weekend at Oakwilde Camp

A Better Bachelor Party

By Christopher Nyerges

I received a phone call from a young man, Doug Burke, from San Diego who was about to be married. He told me that for a "bachelor party" he wanted to have a survival skills weekend in the local mountains with his buddies. He had no interest in a stereotypical drunken bachelor brawl. He wanted to know if I could lead such a survival trip. We arranged to do a survival skills weekend at Oakwilde Camp. We started at the Oak Grove Ranger Station, and hiked up the Arroyo Seco to Oakwilde.

We carried essential gear, minimal food condiments (some of the guys carried along some "power bars" and beef jerky), no toilet paper, no matches, no flashlights, and no tents. We did carry sleeping bags, and knives, and fishing equipment. Our goal was to travel lightly and spend the weekend learning to identify wild plants and practicing survival skills. Most of the young men were from the San Diego area, but one flew in from Colorado and another from Missouri for the trip.

We spent most of our first day walking in to our campsite, a distance of about five miles upstream. We identified and collected edible plants for our meals along the way.

Then we began our campfire, making fire with a bow and drill, flint and steel, and a magnesium fire starter. Again, no matches were allowed.

Doug Burke and Claudio Marino with their catch. Claudio's pole is willow with yucca cord holding the line.
Photo by Nyerges

I prepared a lunchtime salad of chickweed, miner's lettuce, and watercress, three common mountain plants that were abundant in the spring. It was a delicious salad. A few of the fellows went up stream to try their hand at fishing around sunset. They came back with a few trout, which we added to our evening meal.

I had prepared two large cans full of the evening meal -- cooked rice into which I added watercress, mustard, and miner's lettuce. It was delicious and filling, and between all eight of us, it disappeared rapidly.

As everyone gradually went to sleep in their bags, Peter, Troy, and I remained sitting around the dwindling coals of the campfire. As we talked, we heard footsteps, and we finally realized it was a deer cautiously exploring around the edges of our camp. She was very close, and I felt blessed to be so greeted by the deer on our first night in camp.

Nyerges collects fruit from the Prickly pear cactus.
Snider Photo

We began the next day with a breakfast of prickly pear cactus pads, which we had peeled and diced, and cooked with powdered eggs. It was good, and the pie pan skillet was cleaned of the cactus omelet quickly.

I then showed everyone how to make a solar still. The solar still is essentially a hole, which you cover with a sheet of plastic. After we took turns digging, we put a cup in the middle of the hole, and then covered it with plastic. We placed a pebble on the surface of the plastic to create a cone-shape to allow water condensing on the bottom of the plastic to drip into the cup. It didn't take more than an hour to dig the hole and set up the still. We would check the following day to see how much moisture we collected.

We spent much of the day building a lean-to shelter so everyone could see exactly how such a structure is made. Properly made, you can spend a cold night in one of these small, snug shelters and stay warm. The key is to stack as much insulation on the top as possible. In our case, we used all the dry grass and leaves we could collect, and we built a simple small shelter. Troy -- who I later learned was an architect -- spent much of the day building and insulating a top-quality, well-insulated lean-to. After the lean-to was done, we began building a sweat lodge, a dome-shaped structure built of willow saplings which is then covered with a sheet of plastic. Those who were not fishing helped me with this task. We lined the dirt floor of the sweat lodge with a layer of sage and mugwort leaves. By mid-day, we started a second fire so we could heat a pile of rocks for the sweat lodge.

Claudio Marino stirs the wild stew cooking in cans. Note the bread wrapped around the horizontal stick.
Photo by Christopher Myerges

In the meantime, we had lunch. The fellows who were out fishing brought back trout and two snakes. We cleaned them all and cooked them over the fire. The fish was all eaten, but a few of the guys thought the snake meat was a bit too tough. I reminded everyone that snake meat is quite delicious when prepared in a covered stainless steel skillet and cooked at low temperatures with butter. But we were not in a Gloria Child kitchen. We just had to make-do with a circle of rocks for our stove, and sticks upon which to suspend the snake and fish. Personally, I thought it was delicious.

Some of us spent the afternoon completing the sweat lodge, while others went fishing. When the lodge was nearly done, we had a dinner of more fish and a stew of cooked miner's lettuce and assorted other wild plants.

By the time it was dark, all the rocks in our second fire were glowing red. Using wooden tongs, we rolled them into a prepared spot inside the sweat lodge, and we all got undressed and went inside and sealed the door. It was hot and humid and dark, and then I began to slowly pour water over the rocks. They hissed loudly as the small lodge quickly filled with very hot steam. Sweat poured off our bodies. It was hotter than some of the guys imagined it would be, but it was great.

It was pitch black inside the sweat lodge. The heat was intense, and there was always a hissing of the rocks giving off steam. In the darkness, we talked about the marriage to come. One by one, we gave our good wishes to the new groom. We felt united in the sweat lodge, coming together in the circle of the lodge, experiencing the pain and the purification of the sweat. This was the fulfillment of our purpose for being there, the men wishing one of their own a good life in the upcoming marriage.

In the sweat lodge, your body is simultaneously in pain because of the heat, and you are completely relaxed. It is dark, and hot, and most people describe it as a spiritual experience. After a while, we left the sweat lodge and jumped into cool water of the stream at 10 p.m. We howled like coyotes while cooling off in the stream, and then spent the next hour or so dressing in our birthday suits around the fire.

Line drawing of a solar still from Nyerge's new book Enter the Forest.

Before we departed, we checked our solar still. We had collected about a third of a cup of distilled water. Not bad, but not really great either. Only Pete and I tasted the water. It was bland with a bit of dirt it.

The groom-to-be told me that it had been precisely the type of trip he'd wanted. He felt it was far more meaningful than a bachelor party full of drunks with a naked lady jumping out of a cake. He enjoyed it thoroughly, and learned new skills. He mused that, once married, he might not have the time anymore for such adventures, since married life with children is enough of an adventure -- and a full-time job besides.

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Jake Brouwer
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Copyright 1999