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A Woman Among a Bunch of Big Burly Men

Bow drill day.  Will had warned us it would be a killer, and he wasn’t kidding.  My hands were already blistered and bruised from carving out a spindle and a hearth board (two things which I didn’t even know existed before that day) for nearly four hours.  Now, my rubbery left arm was supposed to press down on the spindle with more weight than I knew it was capable of while my right arm was supposed to spin the spindle in this perfect stiff-armed sawing motion with the bow.  In nearly 100 degrees of thick, sweaty, Missouri heat no less.

“That’s really good form, but you gotta go faster. Faster! Faster! Harder, harder, harder!” Will, the muscled out, bearded, combat vet, arms decorated with Viking battle scenes, who can light a fire with a bow drill in less than 20 seconds–or 60 in a torrential downpour–encouragingly yells at me from across the clearing.

Right–faster and harder, I think. That’s all. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I am a 40 year old stay-at-home-mother-of-four-turned-teacher-turned-survival-enthusiast.  (More like survival curious.Perhaps I am not cut out to be a survivalist after all.

How did I get here again? Why did I, as a woman with no survival skills whatsoever, sign up for a survival class from a website bursting at the seams with pictures of big, bearded, burly men? I sat for a moment, waiting for the burn to leave my shoulders, and tried to remember.


I suppose it started back when I was a little girl, watching my dad gut deer in our garage while I poked curiously at the cold, black eyeballs staring blankly back at me, teaching me the symbiotic but harsh relationship between death and life. It was hearing stories of my great-great-great-(great?-)grandmothers who were full-blood Choctaw, Delaware, and Cherokee, wondering what their legacies meant for me, a woman full of primarily Irish blood who checks the “Caucasian” box on formal paperwork. It was reading a book about Sacagawea in my early 20s and being in awe of this 13-year-old-girl who shared her expertise with a bunch of big, surely bearded, burly men, helping me redefine bravery and heroism.

It was traveling to Mexico and seeing first hand that not every country is as safe and secure as our own. And, as for many of us, it was witnessing bits of chaos over the last couple of years as Americans scrambled to deal with flashes of the realization that America’s apparent safety and security is perhaps just that, apparent. After receiving a doomsday prepping book for Christmas from my husband, in partial jest, I sat down to read it through, becoming more and more nervous by the page. It was frightfully obvious I didn’t know anything about surviving. And no, the garden I grew one time from seeds I bought from Walmart didn’t count for anything.

A few chapters and a dozen survival school searches later, I settled on Sigma 3’s Survival Standard program. Despite all those pictures of big, bearded, burly men, the website assured me that the classes were meant for “everyone” and that families were encouraged. I did the best I could to convince my husband that I wasn’t in fact going to be kidnapped by a bunch of Missouri rednecks, (right?), and purchased the class.


Half a year, some blisters, and many burning muscles later, there I was, sweating and fully doubting all chances of getting a coal out of that bow drill and my decision to be in the class.

But Will had assured us that morning that we all had it in us to get a coal, and despite his somewhat intimidating appearance, I knew I could trust him. So get a coal, I would try. For the thirtieth time, I start the pumping motion with my nearly dead right arm. The spindle starts “floating” and that beautiful smoke begins to rise once again. I know I need a lot more smoke and black powder, so I’m not too excited yet, but Will sees the smoke too and starts walking over.

“Harder! Faster! Faster! Push! Give it all you got!”

I bow faster.

“Put all those 15 years of marriage into it! When you think you can’t give anymore, give three times more!”

I try to do what his words are telling me to do. I go faster.

“Go! Go!”

Wishing to high heaven I could stop, I just try to keep the bow moving. He can see I’m starting to slow down and not pushing hard enough. He takes his hand and presses a little on top of my hand, pressing down on and stabilizing the wobbly spindle.  More smoke.


“Harder! Keep going! Don’t quit!” He’s yelling in my ear now and it’s the only thing keeping me from giving up and feeling the burn in my arms.  He helps press down on the spindle.

More smoke. More little black dust is falling.

“Blow on it!” He takes his hand off my hand. “Keep blowing! Keep going! That’s you now! You’re doing that! That’s you! Go! You can do it!” I trust that he’s not just patronizing me, and I keep going.

More smoke. I can’t feel my arms anymore. More black dust is falling.

“Push! Push!” he yells. “Now stop! You got a coal. Blow on it. Put it in the kindling!”

My uncontrollably shaking hand tries to pick up the coal and drops it immediately.

“Hurry! Get it in the nest!”

I grab a piece of bark, scoop it up, and set it in the nest.

“Nice save,” Will laughs. “Now make it a taco. Blow on it.” He coaches a little quieter now.

Suddenly, flames.

Had I not been drenched in sweat, I would have hugged him.

I, Woman, had made fire.

Ok, so maybe not I, Woman, alone, had made fire. Maybe I had needed the mental and physical push from Will, a big, bearded, burly man. But we all gotta start somewhere, right? Point is, I was hooked. I am hooked. And I am beginning to feel a connection again, to my dad, to the dead deer in my garage, to my ancestors, to Sacagawea, to the circle of life, if I can be that cheesy.  And I am beginning to feel a little more confidence. If I can (almost) make a fire, then what else? What next?

Actually, besides trying to make a bow drill fire completely on my own, Sigma 3’s Sere Urban and Wilderness course is what’s next for me. This mother-of-four-teacher-survivalist is gonna get tied up, doused with OC spray, tasered, and hunted. Am I gonna tap out? Will I survive? Only one way to find out.

Let’s do this.

P.S. It’s probably worth noting that I was not in fact surrounded only by burly men in this class. There was a family, a few other women, and well, yes–many, many men, but not all of them bearded, or very burly to be honest. All of them were, however, wonderful humans and we all experienced a great sense of camaraderie together throughout the week. The instructors were 100% bona fide, experts in their fields, and–Viking battle tattoos aside–patient, friendly, entertaining, inspiring leaders, and excellent teachers, to boot, able to narrow down years of experience into practical, comprehensible doses. The course was, in fact, killer.

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