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Honing skills that work beyond the wilderness

  • Frank Grindrod of Earthwork Programs in Conway helped Edwin Anderson, 13, of Greenfield start this fire using a bow and spindle.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Frank Grindrod of Earthwork Programs in Conway helped Edwin Anderson, 13, of Greenfield start this fire using a bow and spindle. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Participants in the EarthWork Programs in Conway roast hot dogs, marshmallows and stick bread over an open cooking fire started with a bow and spindle on Thursday. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Participants in the EarthWork Programs in Conway roast hot dogs, marshmallows and stick bread over an open cooking fire started with a bow and spindle on Thursday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Basket weaving at Earth Works Programs in Conway. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Basket weaving at Earth Works Programs in Conway. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Earth Works programs in Conway gets kids into the outdoors. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Earth Works programs in Conway gets kids into the outdoors. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Frank Grindrod of Earthwork Programs in Conway helped Edwin Anderson, 13, of Greenfield start this fire using a bow and spindle.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Participants in the EarthWork Programs in Conway roast hot dogs, marshmallows and stick bread over an open cooking fire started with a bow and spindle on Thursday. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Basket weaving at Earth Works Programs in Conway. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Earth Works programs in Conway gets kids into the outdoors. Recorder/Paul Franz

CONWAY — Frank Grindrod has noticed a trend that disturbs him deeply. To see it, he said, all one must do is compare a child’s ability to recognize corporate logos to their capacity for identifying wild plants and animals.

“You show them a ‘Hello Kitty’ logo and they’re like, ‘Oh, I know that one,’” he said, as we walked through a dense pine forest in Conway. He stopped to bend down and examine a patch of leafy green plants on a plot of land, which had sprung up under a rare, sun-soaked gap in the canopy. Cupping the leaf of one plant in his hand, he said, “But you show them one of these, and they say, ‘Uhh ... a fern?”

That trend — one he defined as a decline in knowledge of and appreciation for nature among young people — is one he is determined to change.

As part of Earthwork Programs, a Conway-based wilderness survival school that he started 15 years ago, Grindrod runs a series of day camps each summer that give children the opportunity to unplug from their computers, smartphones and television sets and instead spend a few hours each day learning the primitive methods of survival that their ancestors had relied on for centuries, including plant and animal identification, fire-starting and tracking.

In addition to his basic “At Home In The Woods” program, Grindrod runs two additional programs that focus on specific aspects of survival: The “Way of the Scout” program teaches campers wilderness skills and martial arts and “Hunter-Gatherer” shows them how to skin an animal, process wild food, use primitive cooking and fishing methods, make net bags and cordage.

According to Grindrod, learning these ancient skills teaches the campers about more than just surviving in the woods. They also help to hone other attributes that are useful in all walks of life, including building confidence, leadership skills and awareness of one’s surroundings. That personal development, he said, is the program’s true goal.

“A lot of the nature education is on the surface,” he said. “Some of the kids are good with their hands, and that’s great, but for the ones that aren’t, we feed them stories that they can then share with the group. That way, everyone gets a specialization and it grows exponentially.”

As he continued to examine the foliage, Grindrod noted that developing a good sense of awareness is something that the program stresses, since everything else in the art of survival hinges on it. Moments later, I received a lesson in that particular attribute that made his teaching style very apparent.

“Sometimes you can miss things that are right in front of you,” he said, still examining the leaf. “As an example, what I’m going to do now is have Lucas stand up very slowly.”

Grindrod glanced slowly to his left as he spoke and just a few feet away Lucas Sclater-Booth, 14, of Greenfield, rose out of the brush, his face covered in camouflage paint and an olive-drab cloth net draped over his back. I was crouching right next to where he had been laying and hadn’t even noticed.

As we trekked on to Grindrod’s main camp, Lucas truly looked “at home in the woods.” Covered in dirt and woodchips from head to bare feet, he said he had been attending Grindrod’s program since he was 8 years old and had returned for this session as one of two leaders-in-training, or LITs. I met the other one a few moments later.

“People tend to look down, or straight ahead as they walk through the woods,” said Grindrod. I watched his face turn upwards to look over my head, and he beamed a smile. “But then, you miss things.”

Above us, nestled in the branches of a large tree, stood 13-year-old Edwin Anderson, of Greenfield, silent and unmoving. My own environmental awareness clearly needed some improvement.

Further up the trail, the forest opened into a small clearing and a group of boys scampered about the program’s main camp, which consisted of a series of tarps strung up for shelter, a fire pit with handmade log benches and various stations set up to learn skills like flint knapping and making cord from cattail and grass fibers.

Around the fire pit, Earthwork staff member Matt Byrne, 22, of Amherst helped a few of the campers learn how to use a bow drill to start a campfire. Others busily collected kindling and dry wood shavings from a nearby pile.

Later in the day, Grindrod, Byrne and a third instructor, Michael Haynack, of Conway led the group on an expedition to see a village of debris huts — shelters made of logs, branches, pine boughs and dead leaves — that had been built by participants in another of Grindrod’s programs.

Throughout the journey, Grindrod would periodically stop to teach the campers about different species of mushrooms that they came across and how to identify bear territory by looking for piles of droppings or claw marks on trees.

At times, the instructors would randomly initiate a game and activity that would test the group’s survival skills. In one such game, Grindrod suddenly stopped and shouted, “Camouflage!” As he counted down from 10, the kids tore off through the woods and hid behind trees or boulders. If they could remain hidden from Grindrod’s searching gaze, they won.

The point of the games, said Grindrod, is to give the campers a chance to use the skills he has taught them and apply them in new and innovative ways.

“The kids are all learning how to challenge themselves through these games,” said Grindrod. “Here, they try different strategies and find out what works and what doesn’t. It really makes them start to think about things from other perspectives, outside the box.”

In another game, Lucas and Edwin took charge and led a stalking game called “Coyotes and Deer,” in which one camper acted like a deer and the others played the role of coyotes hunting for their dinner. The goal, said Grindrod, was to sneak up and catch the deer without being seen.

For the LITs, being asked to organize their fellow campers and run the game was an exercise to help develop their leadership skills. In Lucas’ case, the awareness and leadership skills he’d developed through the program showed when he noticed a length of barbed wire strung between two trees, the rusty metal barely visible against the brown leaves that covered the ground and held it down as the younger campers safely crossed over.

As the game unfolded, the instructors met on the sidelines to watch how the children handled the game and interacted with each other. Later in the week, they would use the observations gained from those “coyote meetings” to focus on where each camper needed to improve most.

At the end of the day, the parents gathered at the trailhead to pick up their children said they noticed the improvements.

“He’s been coming since he was 8, and now he’s in leadership training. It’s helped him become more confident, better at working with others and learn how to build a consensus,” said Edwin’s mother, Katie Schendel, as her son quickly scaled a tree behind her. “And he can climb trees, which shows that he can still learn to have fun and be safe. He knows how high it’s safe to climb.”

Jay Sullivan, who brought his 12-year-old son Wyatt out from Boston to participate in the program, said he enrolled his son in the program five years ago, and he’s been coming back ever since.

“He always had a curiosity about the outdoors, and this certainly hasn’t dampened his spirits,” said Sullivan.

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