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Global Survival Savvy with Tom McElroy

Over twenty years ago I met a young instructor at the world-renowned Tracker School, run by Tom Brown Jr. He was teaching bow and arrow making, among other skills. I was blown away by his attention to detail and craftsmanship. In a subsequent course, the "scout class," all students, myself included, made "scout pits" which were hidden, subterranean sleeping shelters that we slept in during the week-long course. This young instructor was also teaching at that class, however, I learned that he had taken the subterranean sleeping shelter to another level. At the time, he was living in an underground hogan shelter that he built, complete with a fire chimney that exited secretly through an old hollow stump on the surface.

That young instructor was Tom McElroy. Since that time in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Tom has ventured around the globe, from the Amazon to Australia, to New Guinea, to remote tropical islands and beyond. Each of his explorations is fueled by a curiosity to learn from nature and to share this information with others.

Today we interview Tom to get a teaser-sampler of  the wisdom behind some of his experiences. Tom has taught everyone, ranging from children to hunters, to outdoor enthusiasts, and even elite military groups such as Seal Team Six. He has consulted for numerous news programs, Hollywood movies, and was featured on the Discovery Channel. He holds a BA degree in Anthropology and Geography from Rutgers University and a Masters in International Policy related to Indigenous Peoples from the University of Connecticut. At the age of 18, he spent an entire year living completely off the land. During that time, he built and lived in a shelter made from the land, made fire by friction, purified water naturally, hunted, fished and gathered all of his own food.

Tom takes wilderness living skills to the level of a true artist. You can see this for yourself in the detail of his handmade tools. His tools are not only functional, but beautiful. This is evident in the pictures of his handicraft included in the interview below. Pathways Dojo has been fortunate to have Tom guest instruct at some of our events.

Here's Sensei to tell you a little about his connection with Tom...

Tom and I actually live in the same town of Santa Cruz, California. I first heard of Tom through local friends. I met him when we did a podcast interview of him at his house several years ago. We discussed how survival skills and ninjutsu go together. Little did I know that I would be going to one of his island survival courses a few years later. More on that adventure in an upcoming post. That first experience with Tom would lead me to some really fun adventures in nature. I'm really excited that we get to work with Tom. He's an amazing survival skills instructor and is very tuned in to the natural world.

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Here's our recent interview with Tom...

Pathways: You have traveled all over the world to learn and teach survival skills. Is there one place/experience that stands out that was extremely challenging? What did you do to overcome that challenge?

Tom: I really believe that the only way that someone can easily survive off the land is if they have a deep knowledge of place, meaning they have an intimate knowledge of the terrain, edible and medicinal plants, animal behavior, weather patterns, density of wood, strongest fibers for rope...etc.  While indigenous people are the only masters of survival, you still couldn't take an Inuit person and drop them in the Amazon and expect that they would thrive. Some skills might transfer, but it would still be a struggle to adapt and relearn what you need from the foreign landscape. It's always a challenge entering an unfamiliar place to attempt to survive. The second I walk into a survival situation I have to try to soak up a lot about what is useful to me in that area--playing catch up with what I should already know.

I would say, one of the biggest challenges would be in the Amazon jungle where everything is out to get you.  There are spikes on half the trees, mosquitoes spreading malaria, poisonous spiders, and snakes lurking under every fallen log.  These are things I can’t plan for, and sometimes it's just luck that has kept me safe from total catastrophe

Pathways: What was the biggest hazard you have encountered?

Tom: I have to admit, with all the chances I have taken, I've been pretty lucky.  I try to stay very safe in survival and am hyper-vigilant of anything that can hurt me.  In my first full-survival situation I remember breaking firewood and cutting my finger fairly deep when I broke a stick in half.  I still have a scar from that. Every time I see it, I think about how the smallest mistakes in survival can lead to big consequences.  In Papua new Guinea I saw how tiny cuts would get infected and turn black in a day.  That is probably the most common issue that people overlook.  Infection is not as much a part of our modern world, but in survival, it's one of the biggest threats to your life.

Another experience stands out. While staying with a tribe in the Amazon, a hunter named Nanto and I wandered too far into an "undiscovered" tribe's territory in the jungle. They are a very hostile group. Many intruders into their territory have been found dead with a spear in them. One day, we were out blow-gunning birds and came upon Puma tracks on a tree. Nanto mentioned that the shaman had told him that he needed to be wary of Puma as they were a sign that he was in danger. Soon after that, we came across two spears crossed in an 'X' across the trail. Essentially this was our one warning that this one tribe, the Taegeri, were watching and they were telling us that we had gone too far. If we went any further, that would have been the end. Nanto was pretty shaken up when he saw that, which made me literally shake. Luckily we took the warning, turned around, and quickly headed back to his village.

Pathways: Is there a favorite/memorable shelter experience that you have had?

Tom: One of my favorite shelters I have ever lived in was one that was a completely underground hogan.  To get into the shelter you would lift a small oak bush to reveal a door, then climb down a ladder into the shelter.  One could walk directly over it and not know it was there. I even had a “chimney” going into a hollow tree stump to dissipate the smoke so you wouldn't notice it.

Pathways: What's one of the tastiest wild meals that you have eaten?

Tom: In my island survival class we get pretty into creating amazing meals while in a full-survival situation.  We caught spiny lobster and crab and made coconut cream bisque with Mango dessert.  After 4 days in survival, that may be the best thing I have ever tasted.

Pathways: Do you have a memorable/favorite fire-making experience?

Tom: After 25 years since making my first friction fire, I still get a huge kick out of it.  When I lived in the woods at age 18 for a year, I wouldn't allow myself to have any fire unless I got it with a hand drill or bow-drill.  After consistently getting friction fire for 6 months, one day it just stopped working.  I still don’t understand why, but I could not get a friction fire for about 5 days.  This was in the middle of December, so you can imagine how difficult it was to not have light or warmth in my shelter, warm food and all the things I was taking for granted.  After 5 days, to finally get that back was incredible.  I was so grateful then and still feel grateful even today when I get a fire.

Pathways: What about a memorable water gathering or landscape/water experience?

Tom: One time I drank from what I thought was a clean spring when running with the Tarahumara tribe in Copper Canyon in Mexico.  It kicked in after my trip, but I felt like my insides were on fire for a few days.

Pathways: Do you have a memorable tracking experience?

Tom: I once was called in to track a tiger that escaped from a pen in New Jersey.  It was wandering around the woods and people’s backyards.  After tracking cats with prints the size of quarters, it was incredible to track one with prints the size of dinner plates.

Pathways: When you are preparing to go to a new place to enter into a survival living mode, do you have a routine for preparation, such as researching maps, local indigenous practices, hazards, or practicing techniques at home before you go?

Tom: I try to pour myself into every book of that area to learn about plant life.  Then I try to see what indigenous people of that area do/did.  I think through all the potential problems I could face and try to play it all out in my head beforehand.  Of course there are always surprises, and I only find a few of the  hundreds of plants I have studied.  But, I do plan for how to provide the basics of Shelter, Water, Fire, Food.  After that, I just try to get creative based on what I discover in real-time.

Pathways: Shelter, water, fire, food...every landscape/ecosystem is different. Still, are there common themes to your approach to these needs that pertain to most/all landscapes you encounter?

Tom: One thing I try to emphasize with my classes is that it's the principles of survival that are the most important to learn.  For example, when trying to stay warm, in a deciduous forest you would use the principle of insulation with light, fluffy material, like piled leaves, to trap dead air space around your body.  I then ask my students, using the same principles, how would you create insulation if trapped in your car in a blizzard.  By wrapping yourself in the car seat foam, you can also trap dead air space around your body and stay warm.  Totally different situation, different “shelter”, but the same principles.

Pathways: You write that you came to the realization that "experiencing survival-living changes the way people approach their entire lives." How have you seen this in others and in yourself?  

Tom: I feel really fortunate to have spent a year living off the land when I was 18.  That entire year I spent about $300-$400 in total.  What this has gifted me is the ability to know that no matter what happens in my life, I can always go back to that forest and do that again.  Because of this, I felt free to take chances on pursuing my passions rather than always playing it safe.  I always had an answer to the big “what if things fall apart?” question.  I think this gives people confidence to live in less fear, even if they never actually use it. Knowing you can survive off the land gives you a confidence that even the wealthiest person does not have.

Pathways: If someone is new to survival skills, or lives in an urban area, what is a good way to begin practicing the skills?

Tom: Nature is everywhere.  The amount of interesting wild edible plants found in abandoned lots could keep you busy studying for years.  I grew up near a lot of woods, but still spent most of my initial learning stages making friction fires in my basement, or setting box-traps for pets.  While it's good to get into the forest so that you're comfortable with it, it’s very possible to practice a lot of these skills at home.

Pathways: Why would learning survival skills benefit someone who studies the art of the ninjutsu?

Tom: In one of my classes, there was a Master Chief from the Navy Seals.  He was built like a Greek God and probably one of the scariest people I could ever meet.  He had been in the Seals for more than 20 years, and I can't imagine the talents he possessed.  During one class on tanning deer hides, my co-instructor had everyone make small leather bags of the buckskin.  She taught everyone how to sew various stitches and at some point this Navy Seal called me over asking me how to do a ‘whip-stitch’.  I told him that for a guy as tough as he was, I found it funny he was asking me how to sew a tiny little leather pouch to go around his neck.  Surely this was beneath him at this point.  He then looked at me and commented that being a warrior was about collecting as many skills as possible, and the only way he rose to the top of the Seal program was because he never stopped learning, and finding new things to learn.

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To learn more about Tom and to attend one of his upcoming courses, you can checkout his website which also has a treasure trove of tutorial videos. Tom travels the globe teaching and has upcoming courses in the near future that we highly recommend.

As Tom mentioned above, fire by friction is a skill that is a lifelong learning journey. It always has something to teach. Making a bow drill fire kit is a great way to enter this learning journey. Check out the free video tutorial access on our website for making a bow drill fire kit.

But, once you make a bow drill kit, you are only halfway there. There are a lot of small details that are very important to consider when using a bow drill kit. If you know some of these tips, your chances of a successful fire are much greater. This could save your life one day.

In the video below, we go through the next step...some helpful tips for using your bow drill kit that will help you be successful in making fire.

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Decoding Nature’s Secrets

In our last post, we interviewed renowned tracker and naturalist Jon Young who introduced the world of bird language to Sensei Roemke. Bird language reveals how listening to birds can teach us the art of invisibility on a landscape. In this post we interview Dan Gardoqui who specializes in teaching people how to get close to animals.
Sensei Roemke also shares one of our favorite meditation exercises for quieting the mind, which is key to getting close to wild animals.
Over thirty years ago, one of Jon's first students was a young guy named Dan Gardoqui.  Today Dan is one of the preeminent trackers, naturalists, and mentors of nature connection in North America. He co-founded and was Executive Director for the White Pines Program in Maine. He lives in Maine today where he runs Lead With Nature which offers consulting, coaching, online training, and more for those wishing to tap into a deeper awareness of nature. Dan teaches how to use tracking, bird language, and an ecological awareness approach in order to help people get closer to wildlife by "decoding nature's language."
We recently sat down with Dan to get a glimpse under his cranial hood, learn his approach to getting closer to wildlife (including humans), and how this can help us as ninjas.
Pathways: You use a term called "Ecological Awareness." How do you define this and how do you use it to get closer to animals?
Dan: To me it is knowledge of place. It's understanding landscapes, habitats, the animals that inhabit them. For instance, if my goal is to get closer to a moose in the fall, I am going to go to a place on the landscape where I am most likely to find them. So I have to understand what moose are eating, what they are thinking, what they are doing biologically that time of year which is their rut. Or after their rut when they are done breeding, I need to know if they are likely to be alone, or in pairs, or in bachelor groups. If they are in their thicker winter fur and it's a warmer day, they are going to be seeking out cooler and moister areas, so I'm going to have to think about microhabitats. I'm going to have to think about the cool pockets on the landscape. Ecological awareness flows with the rhythms of nature and is about understanding the natural history of animals and how habitats are preferential or not to different animals.
Pathways: In your work you refer to helper species and allies. What are they and how do they help you get closer to animals?
Dan: This one is fun. "Helper" is a bit biased. It implies that the animals have the intention of being helpful to humans, and they may actually. I'm not sure we can say they definitely do or definitely don't. Some of the most well known examples are of ravens. There are many stories about these birds and how they sometimes act as guides to help people or other animals find certain things on a landscape, such as carcasses or prey species. If you pay attention to some basics of how ravens communicate, and if you are open to the fact that you are in communication with them, because frankly we all are in communication with the animals in one way or another whether we are conscious of it or not, then they can truly help you with some of your goals. The flip side of this relationship is that the ravens also get a benefit. For instance, if you are a hunter, and the ravens are helping you find your prey, after you successfully get that animal, you may leave parts of that animal behind after you process it. Then, the ravens will benefit from this food. There are other examples of this such as the honey guides in Africa.
 
Pathways: If I live in a city or don't have a lot of experience in nature practicing these techniques, what is a good skill to begin with?
Dan: Listening, sitting still and giving your attention to the more-than-human world. It's important to pay attention to humans as well. Knowing our human behaviors and patterns is really helpful and wise when we want to stay safe and alert. But, also start to pay attention to everything else. It can be pigeons, crows, rats, squirrels, little sparrows. Start to give your attention to things that are not human and be open to a fact that they are speaking a language that we can understand. Just start being curious, ask questions, and develop relationships with them. The more you spend time in the same place, quietly listening and observing and being open, chances are those individuals are going to get used to you being there. When you give them your attention and respect, they are probably going to do the same for you. Start by just listening, watching, and giving them space. Say you are walking down a sidewalk, and there's a pigeon in front of you feeding on the sidewalk, just slow down and go around it. If you start to give birds a little more space and respect, it changes the dynamics, and it changes the way you see the world.
How does quieting the mind relate to getting close to animals? What is a technique that you use for this?
Dan: This is what I was just talking about. Doing the quiet sits and giving birds your attention and respect for example. Doing this just helps us get out of our own little bubble of thoughts, emotions, and things that might cause disturbance around us. If you think of yourself as moving through a pond, when the mind is quiet, the ripples you cause and the way you move is much smoother, so there are many less ripples or disturbances. When the mind is busy, we tend to cause quite a wake, ahead and behind us. This tends to push things away from us. Many species are very sensitive to our thoughts and emotions, and where we are in our heads, including our own species. It's easy to tell if your family or friends are in a tough space or not. So it's silly to think that wildlife can't detect this as well. Whatever helps you to get to this calm mental space, be it yoga, breathing exercises, or meditation, it's going to help you be more "invisible" in the forest. But it's not really being invisible to me because that means we are trying to hide from something. To me it's more about having integrity with the vibe of a forest or nature. It's not thinking that our human existence is the most important thing. It's just being open to all the other things that exist around us.
You use movement, camouflage and stealth as a method for getting closer to animals. What are some of your preferred techniques in this area?
Dan: This is a big one. You need to spend a lot of time outside in nature to get to understand the baseline of those places before you decide the techniques you are going to use to blend in with that place. For instance, the pace that you would move in a busy city street in rush hour in order to blend in better be pretty quick. Whereas the pace you are going to use in a quieter rural wild area will probably be a bit slower. So getting to know the baseline of a place and how to blend in with that baseline and how to be invisible, that's part of the stealth and camouflage. So you really need to know a place. Camouflage is not just about colors and patterns. It's about our energy and speed, our body movements, and where we put our eyes. There's all sorts of little tricks in there.
You teach people to "decode nature's language" in order to get closer to wild animals. Do you have a favorite or recent short story about doing this?
Dan: I have lots of great failures. It's really hard to do sometimes. I think that's really important to know. You shouldn't just walk out the door and think, "I'm going to take you to the bobcat licking her paws with her babies next to her." That almost never happens to me. That's because there is an early warning system in the wild that is used by every animal that is paying attention. Every animal that is awake and alert is warning each other when there is trouble coming. So that's part of the decoding- being aware that early warnings exist. The second part is tuning into it and getting to understand it by practicing and testing it out. The third part is being able to manipulate this system. It's like hacking the system and using it to your advantage.
An example of this happened last fall when I was turkey hunting in the woods behind my place. I am an avid birder and conservationist, but I also hunt birds. On this day, I approached an area pretty quickly where I thought there might be a flock of turkeys. One technique for hunting turkeys is to bust up a flock and then camouflage yourself and hide, then try to call them back. Often it's successful. On this day, I tried this and it didn't work. This group was a bunch of male Tom turkeys. They didn't separate, but instead stayed together. So I tried tracking them and that wasn't working. So I decided to do some predictive tracking. I imagined where they would move. I visualized in my mind's eye the landscape- all the slopes, wet spots, dark spots, spots for feeding, and hiding. I thought of the direction they took off in. So I sneaked quietly away from my spot and I listened to the birds. I listened to what was the baseline with the birds. I listened for alarms. I was able to move quietly without scaring any birds. I moved around birds that were feeding so as not to spook them because the turkeys would key in on this. Eventually I moved across the landscape at a very, very slow stalking pace while listening, breathing, and waiting. Then I repeated the process- stalking, listening, breathing, waiting. I noticed some chickadees doing their typical calls and songs. But then I noticed that they suddenly stopped. Without even thinking, this made me realize that the turkeys were nearby. I quickly raised my weapon and waited. About ten seconds later I saw a large gobbler walk by about ten yards from me. He seemed a bit nervous which made me wonder if he also heard the chickadees stop singing. When the chickadees stopped their singing, this was a slight change in the baseline. This was a moment of decoding nature's language for me. It doesn't always go this way. But this time I was able to intercept this animal.
I just had some pulled turkey leg sliders with some friends the other day.
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Dan mentions that meditation can help build integrity with the vibe of nature. In the video below, Sensei Roemke shares a meditation technique that will help quiet your mind in nature and help to close the gap between you and the animals around you.
If you want to learn more, check out Dan's programs at Lead With Nature.
If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to get the latest from our Ninja Blog or you can train live online with us with our PNT or NTTV Live training programs.
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How to save your life with some really hot rocks

Most people have heard of the four basics needs for survival: shelter, fire, water, and food.  Let's zero in on one of them...water.

I remember one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with fresh water in the wilderness. I was about a week into a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. One day of the trip, we went for a five mile hike up into the desert canyon. The temperature was over 110 degrees F. The dry desert landscape showed little sign of fresh water. That changed as we rounded a bend in the trail that put us at the base of a 500 foot high red wall limestone rock face. Hundreds of feet above us an enormous spring roared out of the rock wall face from a cave, landing in a large pool at the bottom of the cliff. It was the only time in my life that I have ever swam and drank the water at the same time. I can still hear the roar of the water fall. The dramatic contrast with the parched landscape surrounding this spring highlighted the value of this amazing resource.

As summer approaches, much of the northern hemisphere starts to dry out, shifting the water dynamic. Depending on the landscape, you only have a few days that you can survive without water. Less than 1% of the Earth's water is suitable for drinking. Over 3.6 million people die every year from diseases from drinking unsafe drinking water. Unless you find a spring where the water is coming directly from the ground, it is generally not safe to drink directly from most streams, lakes, ponds, or rivers. You have to purify the water.

One way to purify water is by boiling it. One way to boil water in a wilderness situation is by doing a rock boil. In this method, you heat stones in a fire, then after brushing the ashes off of them, you drop them into your container of water. You need to make sure these stones aren't "wet" stones, meaning that they aren't gathered from places like streams, or from underwater. Wet stones can be like a sponge and explode when heated.

Check out this short demonstration video where we show how to boil water with rocks.

Rock Boil

It might just save your life some day.

Keep training!

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