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Where the Wild Kids Are

Out in the East Bay woods, a group of hardcore “re-wilders” teaches the original STEM curriculum.

Campers warm up around a fire they built themselves.


Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

The first
rule of Trackers Earth: “No one dies.” The second rule? “No wounds that won’t heal in four days.”

This is what I hear from a group of eight-year-olds sitting around a picnic table at Redwood Regional Park in the hills east of Oakland, whittling sticks with large knives and preparing to set some kindling ablaze. On any given day, these second graders might be throwing knives at stumps, forging metal, sparking friction fires, or foraging for edible plants and herbs—all potentially deadly activities. They’re learning all this from Trackers Earth Bay Area, a Berkeley organization that teaches outdoor skills, wilderness survival, and DIY homesteading to thousands of kids (and some adults) each year through home-school programs, after-school classes, camps, and apprenticeships.

A Trackers Earth apprentice blows on a coal from a bow drill, an ancient tool for sparking a friction fire.

Here in the Bay Area, where almost every educational organization is trying to get kids excited to code, parents see a program like Trackers Earth as a necessary antidote. It offers what we might call the original STEM curriculum, developed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive and thrive in the natural world. “We wanted to make a world where kids could catch crawdads, ford creeks, and climb trees, because our world today is not designed for kids to be kids,” says Tony Deis, who founded the organization in Portland in 2004 with his wife, Molly Deis. A longtime outdoor educator, Deis wants young iPad swipers to learn the type of skills that indigenous cultures still teach their kids: tracking animals, foraging for food, making tools from natural materials. It’s self-reliance without self-involvement. “Tracking is a way of seeing the world from an ecological mindset,” says Deis, who likens the worldview to “a village way of thinking.”

In addition to reviving Stone Age culture, Trackers Earth also passes out a fair amount of Band-Aids, says instructor Pixie Johansson, who teaches knife skills to children as young as five. “Kids are extra careful when they hear that most adults wouldn’t dream of giving them a knife,” she says. The danger and privilege inspire mature caution. I see this in action.

When one boy brings his knife a little too close to eight-year-old Spencer Michaelis, he admonishes his peer: “Check your blood circle,” says Spencer. That would be an arm’s length away from your neighbor, a distance that ensures that nobody violates the first two rules of Trackers Earth. Clearly, the kids here have a level of autonomy not often allowed by certain urban helicopter parents. As Bay Area regional director Jess Liotta sees it, Trackers Earth appeals to parents who “have a vision of a Tom Sawyer childhood they want for their kids, but then find that it’s not so easy to arrange.”

It is, however, becoming easier to outsource. Trackers Earth is one of dozens of camps that have popped up around the country in the past decade espousing a back-to-nature philosophy that environmental journalist Richard Louv popularized in 2005 with the book Last Child in the Woods. Cliff Hodges, CEO of Adventure Out, which runs outdoor education and wilderness skills training near Santa Cruz, says he has seen his programs grow “a hundredfold” in the past decade. “We are learning about the psychological and physiological ailments that can happen to people when they don’t have nature or wilderness in their lives,” he says. According to recent research, 8-to-12-year-olds average four and a half hours a day in front of screens. For adults, the figure is 10 hours. In this way, wilderness camps aren’t so much an indulgence as a last-ditch effort to rescue kids from our own bad habits.

Not that Trackers Earth is some kind of neo-paleo camp: Modernity does have a way of creeping in. Past lessons have incorporated plotlines involving secret agents, Hellboy, and even a zombie apocalypse. Picture 20 kids and counselors in full undead costume and makeup, all sprinting through a stand of trees. Can the human survivors evade the zombies with stealth and camouflage? “We use live-action role-playing to teach outdoor skills,” Liotta reasons. And it doesn’t hurt that many eight-year-olds, like their parents, are obsessed with The Walking Dead. “We create a gateway to skills and a deeper connection to the land through, well, zombies.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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