The listing for a New Orleans Recreation Development Commission class on outdoor survival skills caught my eye as something unusual, something I should sign up for, but in the same kind of way that I view eating collard greens: good for me, maybe even necessary for my health at some point, but not a lot of fun. Turns out I was wrong about the class (although I stick to my opinion on collards.)
Marie Piccione and Justin Ammon teach the sessions at Joe Brown Park in east New Orleans. While survival addresses the harsh side of Mother Nature, their work covers her gamut: She can also be beautiful, inspiring, restorative, informative and entertaining. That’s why they also teach canoeing and fishing and lead nature walks.
Ammon is the outdoor program manager and Piccione the outdoor activity coordinator at NORDC, and with two lagoons that encompass a mile’s worth of canals, an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant dock and a nature trail, Joe Brown Park is the hub of the program.
The survival sessions can be booked by appointment for groups of eight or more, usually school classes, home-school organizations, Scouts and the like. (Canoeing and fishing can be booked for groups as well, but there are also public hours every Saturday. See accompanying story.)
Building fires and creating your own shelter in the wilderness were the topics at a recent class. With our group, the would-be woodsmen were adult special needs clients from the ARC of Greater New Orleans center in Westwego. Both Piccione and Ammon have worked with the group before and showed a knack for catering the experience to their audience, keeping it educational but easy-going and often funny.
Ammon, a master naturalist, has degrees in public relations and journalism, and a master’s in public policy and administration.
With a master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology and coursework in science education, Piccione can talk scientific detail with best of them on nature walks as well as create a different vibe with the ARC clients.
Before walking our group to the trail, Ammon playfully sets the scene.
“We’re on a journey to the wilderness. There’s no electricity. No cellphones. Just us and the land.” It's an invitation, not a warning.
He asks us to name things we should take along. The answers come in spurts as participants start to feel more comfortable. Some suggestions are more practical than others.
We settle on water and an ax, to build things and for protection.
There are a few basic guidelines: Tell someone where you’re going before you leave, just in case; and “Remember the rule: Never leave a man behind,” Ammon says.
With that admonition, we leave the Joe Brown Rec Center, walk behind the Victory Track to the nature trail, with Piccione and Ammon pointing out plants -- many edible -- and wildlife along the way. There’s camphor, with its invigorating scent. And poison ivy: “Don’t touch it. The oil can get you even if the plant is dead,” Ammon cautions.
What if you get lost? we’re asked. The answer: Stay put — rescuers search in quadrants. And find shelter.
Once we're in the center of the trail, Ammon sets another fictional scene. “Who can tell time by the sun? It’s 7:30 p.m. now and temperatures are dropping. We need to build a shelter. What should we do?”
We should collect wood and sticks of various sizes, but we chat a lot, too.
Finding branches from a fallen tree turns out to be the survival equivalent of winning the Powerball jackpot; they make an easy skeleton for building a lean-to. Other assorted sticks and small logs fill in the crannies.
A saw is handy for paring wood down to size, but there are more practical methods.
“Lie the stick down on the ground and step on it,” Piccione shows one participant. “Put your foot right here.”
Layers of palmetto fronds are gently laid across the top of the structure to create a roof. Gaps are the enemy when you’re out in the elements.
There are ant piles and slippery leaves to avoid, but after about 30 minutes, the shelter is complete, and the building crew is eager to try it out. Volunteers take turns getting down on the ground, then scooting into the structure and underneath its low roof. There is just no way to do this gracefully, so the exercise is already funny.
Ammon tests the group’s handiwork. “Tell me if you get wet,” he says, pouring a bottle or water over the roof. Everyone laughs harder, but the test is real. It shows the project is a success.
The volunteers emerge dry, but dirty.
It's all good fun, but there are a few philosophical moments. “They’re learning safety and survival skills and general knowledge of the world,” Stefan Luck II, of the ARC Westwego Center, says of his clients. “We’re their only outlet to anything, so we try to let them experience as much as possible. We’re trying to give them the lifestyle any American deserves.”
Ammon notes the health benefits from being outdoors. “People get lonely. Depressed. Anxious,” he said. “People need to reconnect to the earth.”
Content of the sessions vary with participants, Ammon says. Young people might be split into small groups with each making its own shelter. “There’s more reflection and a chance to explain why they did what they did.”
With adults, there also might be map and compass skills.
Leaving our new shelter behind, we travel around the trail. It’s campfire time, and there’s a promise of s’mores.
Safety rules dictate that the fire be built in a pit, which is located at the family campground. So there’s more wood to be gathered.
“Get the size of your pinkie to start the fire. Then some bigger than your thumb, but not as big as your arm,” Piccione tells us.
It's a simplified explanation of the tinder, kindling and fuel needed for a fire. Tinder should catch fire quickly: straw, tiny sticks, dryer lint. Dryer lint? “It’s super flammable,” she says.
“Reach into your pockets,” Ammon tells us, pulling lint from his own. “You brought tinder and didn’t know it.”
Kindling is a little larger, to get the fire going, and larger fuel keeps it blazing.
Piccione has a bag with fire-starting tools. There are matches and a lighter, and steel wool with a D battery. “When you touch steel wool to the battery, the steel wool starts to burn,” she says.
Also, there's flint to strike against steel and a bow drill, which creates friction.
Her preferred base for a fire is the shape of a log cabin; skinny sticks form a square, overlapping at the ends. Tinder goes inside the square, and the bigger fuel is added on the outside.
“Watch your fingers, Mr. Justin,” an ARC client cautions as Ammon saws a log.
“If you stack a log on top, there now we might smother it,” Piccione tells a participant.
With the fire burning, we move on to sweeter issues: “You don’t want to roast marshmallows over an open flame. You want coals,” Piccione cautions. “You’ve got to twist it like a rotisserie chicken so you can get it golden brown on all sides.”
In perhaps the biggest moment of the day, ARC client Duong Nguyen, who's new to the country, eats his first campfire marshmallow. It’s hot and gooey and it gets all over his face, but he’s all smiles.
And so we all survive and thrive in the beautiful morning at Joe Brown Park, emerging a little dirtier, a little sticker and a little happier.