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Trial by fire
Photo by Eliza Wiley IR Staff - David Cronenwett starts a fire with the hand-drill method during a survival course at Helena Middle School.

A long, long, long time ago, even before the invention of GoreTex and fleece, Mary Caveman said to Bob Caveman, "Honey, I'm cold. Will you build a fire?"

Bob grunted a little and dragged his heels to the tool cave where he proudly beheld his grand collection of tools - a couple of sticks and a rock. He might have had a fantastical premonition of Stihl chain saws and 10-pound splitting mauls, but he shook it off as pure lunacy.

In the meantime, Mary fell asleep sewing the finishing touches on her mammoth-skin duvet cover and dreamed a crazy dream of space heaters.

Fire has been around a really long time. No one knows how long exactly, but it was one of the most important discoveries ever made. Without it, we might not have survived long enough to invent the S'more.

But over the years, the great majority of us have become incompetent fire makers. It's easy to forget the necessity of this skill when we have things like polypropylene underwear, expedition-weight fleece and breathable, puffy parkas to keep us warm in the outdoors. Some of us carry packs equipped with small survival kits for those "just-in-case" scenarios.

But what would happen if you fell into an icy cold river, lost the pack and suddenly remembered that in your rush to ditch your friends, you didn't tell anyone where you were going?

Students in a winter survival class on MacDonald Pass on Saturday discovered they would more than likely die. The class was sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association and the Montana Discovery Foundation. Of a group of about 20 people given one match and the task of building a fire within 10 minutes, only two succeeded.

"Most people who die in a survival situation are dead within 36 hours," said instructor David Cronenwett. "People who are rescued are rescued within 72 hours."

Most of the deaths can be attributed to panic-induced exhaustion that leads to hypothermia, Cronenwett said.

To Cronenwett and fellow instructor Leif Fredrickson, survival is really not an issue. When your idea of fun is to do things like snowshoe across hundreds of miles of northern Canada in sub-zero temperatures pulling a toboggan loaded with hundreds of pounds of food and gear, a night alone in the winter woods is probably akin to leaving a window open for the rest of us.

In other words, if they have to spend a couple nights in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a knife, they can make things almost as comfortable as an RV.

"When you have these skills, you see things coming so much sooner," Cronenwett said. "Survival skills aren't worth worrying about."

Cronenwett, who lives in Dillon, learned many of his primitive living and wilderness skills at one of the toughest survival schools out there - the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah. He also studied with master woodsman Mors Kochanski in northern Alberta. He shares what he knows at outdoor survival and bushcraft seminars at the University of Montana and other places throughout the region.

All you need to know about Fredrickson's survival credentials is that he did that toboggan thing on purpose and enjoyed it. When he's not teaching survival skills or marching across the tundra, he lives in the Bitterroot Valley.

Why practice primitive survival skills when there are perfectly good Strike Anywhere matches and pocket-sized butane torches on the market?

"I really feel it is a way to get closer to nature and the land," Cronenwett said. "It's much more intimate without the clutter of modern equipment. It's about getting in touch on a cultural level with our aboriginal and frontier forbearers."

It's also about self-sufficiency. And that's what Fredrickson and Cronenwett try to relate to their survival students.

When they were given the fire assignment, the students rushed around, trying to gather small bits of wood and dry needles. Most of the students gave up the fire quest, however, when their one match either disintegrated or fizzled out.

That's why it's best to be proficient with two methods of fire making, Cronenwett said.

If he has to, Cronenwett can make a fire with two sticks - one used as a drill, the other for a hearth. And he can certainly create a spark striking the back of his Mora knife against flint.

But the spark has to have a target - a place that is sure to create a flame. That was one of the mistakes people made during the fire-building exercise. Many of them created nice piles of dry wood and needles, but if they weren't accurate in hitting a good target with the match flame, a promising looking fire fizzled fast.

"I think these are good things to learn in case you get stranded," said 12-year-old survival student Clare Jose while practicing striking a steel blade against a flint stone.

Jose has recently started spending more time with her father outdoors hunting and ice fishing.

One of the successful fire starters, Boy Scout troop leader Brian Smith, learned a new thing or two.

"I'm going to take what I learned here back to the troop," he said.

In addition to fire skills, Cronenwett and Fredrickson stressed the importance of staying hydrated. Without enough water, the body's thermoregulation system doesn't function properly and you will become colder much faster. With proficient fire-building skills and the forethought to put a cooking pot in your survival kit, and as long as there's snow to melt, dehydration shouldn't become an issue.

Cronenwett's teacher Mors Kochanski is quoted as saying, "The more you know, the less you carry."

If survival student Matt Hulbert retains what he learned Saturday, his burden may be a little lighter.

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"I learned more today than I did in college," Hulbert said.

Be prepared

While winter survival instructors David Cronenwett and Leif Fredrickson could comfortably get by with a knife and their own common sense, the rest of us need a little more help.

Here is a list of items that Cronenwett and Fredrickson recommend for a survival kit:

Two knives — They recommend Swedish "Mora" style knives, which are high quality carbon steel knives with 3- to 4-inch blades.

Two methods of fire lighting — Matches are not a bad choice as long as you keep them dry. But also carry either flint and steel (the back of the knife blade will do) or a zirconium stick. It's a good idea to carry one method on your person, in case you lose your kit.

Pot for cooking and heating water

Tarp, reflective blanket or sleeping bag — for shelter, hauling materials or to wear as a shell

Signal mirror — not only for signaling search and rescue teams, but for removing grit from your eye

First-aid kit — just enough stuff to treat a serious knife cut; antibiotic ointment, needle and thread and pain reliever are also good ideas

Map and compass — and the ability to use them.

Cordage — A 50-foot hank of 550 parachute shroud line works best.

Food — candy bars, gorp, packets of cocoa or tea are good ideas, but don't eat it all at once in an emergency situation.

Miscellaneous — Extra sunglasses, LED headlamp

A lick of sense

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