How to Practice Your Skills

At Earthwalk, students learn a variety of ancestral living skills such as bow and arrow making, weaving, flintknapping, wild food foraging, fire making and shelter building.  Anyone who has studied ancestral living skills knows that there are a vast number to be learned – and hopefully, some to be mastered.  With so many skills to learn, it can be overwhelming.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.  Start easy – maybe one skill per week.  Make it manageable so you don’t get bogged down.  Be patient, including with yourself.  As you practice over time, your confidence and skills will increase.

Tips on Practicing Your Skills

  • Pick one at a time.
  • Start easy (crawl first, then walk, then run).
  • Go slow. Take your time. Don’t rush.
    • If you rush, you are more likely to make mistakes.
    • Speed will come with experience.
  • There is no magic pill!
  • The more you get into the skills, the deeper the connection you will feel to the earth.
  • Be well-rounded with your skills.
    • You will specialize in some skills, but should practice and enjoy them all.
  • As you practice the skills, let them become a meditation.
  • Go over your notes.
  • Get some good quality tools (cheap ones break).
  • At the end of the day, ask yourself:
    • What went well?
    • What could be improved?
    • If you could do it again, what would you change?
  • Don’t forget to have a life.
  • Don’t neglect your family while practicing! Try to include them.
  • Share the skills with friends and family members who are open to them.
  • Enjoy the experience!

– Frank Sherwood

How to Practice Your Skills

Wilderness Survival Trek

Last week, Frank and Karen led students into the wilderness to test their survival skills.  First, students spent a few days at base camp preparing for the trek.  Tasks included drying jerky and making pemmican (nutritious survival food)…

wild food foraging…

and learning to prepare the wild foods.

Once on the trek students practiced shelter-making,


and food foraging among other valuable skills.

New this year was a “solo” night at the end of the trek where students separated and spent the night alone in the wilderness.  Everyone made it through with flying colors!

Wilderness Survival Trek

Survival Tips: Weather Conditions

With the Pacific Northwest’s unseasonably warm weather continuing, it’s easy to forget that weather conditions can change quickly – turning a fun outdoor experience into a true survival situation.  Learning to read the weather is a crucial wilderness skill that could mean the difference between life and death.  Here are a few of my tips about different weather conditions you might encounter in your outdoor travels.

  • WIND: Cools our body and pulls away heat faster than we can produce it.  Cover all exposed body parts, put on adequate clothing, and find shelter so wind chill is not a factor.
  • RAIN: Cold and wet conditions cause extreme body heat loss.  Keep as dry as possible, avoid wet clothing, and keep firewood dry.  Seek shelter.  Remember, wool or equivalent-type clothing will keep you warm even when wet, and the layering system will create dead air space to retain warmth.
  • BLIZZARD AND WHITE-OUT CONDITIONS: Cold, body heat loss, mental stress, and fear make mobility a problem.  Do not travel; instead seek shelter and remain until the storm passes or the weather clears.
  • FOG or DARKNESS: Leads to loss of mobility, mental stress and fear, and inability to tell direction.  Do not travel; instead seek shelter and wait until morning or clearing.
  • DESERT SUN: Overheating in our body core leads to dehydration, blindness, and sunburn.  Find shade and shelter from the sun, travel early or late in the day to miss the heat, conserve as much energy as possible and stay hydrated.
  • LIGHTNING: Get off of high, exposed areas immediately.  Stay away from lone trees or tall isolated objects, open fields, rocky overhangs, cave mouths, and metal fences or railings.  Try to get into a building, closed vehicle, or forest with many trees the same height.  Try to be as small as possible and squat on a mattress pad or something dry and insulated from the ground.  If you are in a group spread out, don’t bunch up.

Be aware and respectful of the ever-changing conditions, and be prepared for them as they occur.

– Frank Sherwood

Survival Tips: Weather Conditions

Fields of Blue

In April, Ethnobotany apprentices enjoyed a day communing with one of the highlights of spring in the Pacific Northwest: blue camas (Camassia quamash).


Blue camas was a staple food for the first people who lived here.  Camas bulbs are rich in the carbohydrate, inulin, which is indigestible until cooked for a long enough period of time. Native peoples cooked the bulbs in steam pits, which converted the inulin to fructose.

Not only did native people gather camas, they tended the patches by doing periodic controlled burns to ensure their food supply.  They also weeded them of the poisonous bulb look-alike, death camas. Although easily distinguishable from blue camas when flowering, death camas has similar leaves and bulbs.  Only harvest when the blue flowers are blooming!

We were grateful for a beautiful day and a bountiful harvest of blue camas bulbs!



Fields of Blue

Birch Bark Knife Sheath

Birch bark knife sheath

In our last post, ethnobotanist Karen Sherwood shared the numerous gifts of birch.  Now you can join Karen on Sunday, May 22 to learn how to use this wonderful plant material to create a beautiful, sturdy and functional knife sheath.

In this class, students will use time-honored techniques unique to working with birch bark. Students will form a birch bark sheath around a Swedish-made Mora carving knife (included in cost of class). Students learn how to prepare the bark, how to lash, and one of several traditional patterns to stitch the bark sheath closed.

Karen also teaches students how to  make a cedar bark-plaited lanyard so that the knife sheath can be conveniently worn around the neck. The cedar lanyard will be finished as time permits.

To join us for the class, please visit our registration page. Cost of the class, including the Mora knife, is $125. Class will be held at the Earthwalk Northwest classroom in Bellevue, WA. Directions and follow-up information are sent after registration.

Birch Bark Knife Sheath class at The Tracker School
Birch Bark Knife Sheath

One of Nature’s Greatest Gifts – Willow

Karen willow baskets
Karen Sherwood with her hand-woven willow baskets

Sometimes at this time of year when our grey cold days stack end to end, it is easy to forget that spring will indeed arrive.  It is at these times we often need an extra reminder from a wise elder, of the magnitude to which we are guided. Such a day arrived here not too long ago and with the wisdom of Grandmother Willow (or perhaps one of her many granddaughters) which completely changed my perspective.

Here in Washington State we had been enduring a marathon rain.  With each day’s downpour more of my energy seemed to wash away with it.  Finally, the days dried out and the pull to get outside was met with a short walk to the willow patch, whose brilliant yellow branches glowed so brightly it was like the sun itself.  It gave me pause to stop and reflect on the many gifts of willow and realize this plant, which grows literally everywhere, is one which everyone should know.  It is one of our foundation medicinal plants as well as a versatile utilitarian one.  Each spring I harvest hundreds of willow withy to dry and weave into strong baskets.  They become my stakes for garden plots, fencing for berry beds and we have even planted them for living willow structures.  We split and skin the willow for fine twined baskets and lashings and peel the bark into long strips for strong cordage.

Some of the nicest bark, however, always gets carefully peeled, and set in a shaded place to dry, as this lovely bark is one of our most useful medicines.  No other plant used for healing purposes has a longer recorded history nor wider use in the world than White Willow.

Willow appears frequently in prescriptions on the 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet from Egypt (16th Century BCE).  About 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, prescribed hundreds of natural medicines from the plant kingdom.  Among the plants he used frequently was white willow bark for pain and fever.  It is this same willow that thousands of years later would be the inspiration for a German alchemist to create a drug to help his arthritic father.  This new product was named aspirin.  While now commercially available, it is important for us to remember the earth connection and be reminded that the earth still continues to provide for our many needs.

While white willow (Salix alba), red willow, and western willow have the most recorded uses by native tribes in North America, all willows (Salix spp.) have the aspirin-like compound salicylic acid.  Simply by simmering the bark in water, a tea can be made to effectively reduce fevers, reduce pain, and reduce inflammation.  This makes it effective for treatment of arthritis and rheumatism, sprains, strains, fever from influenza and malaria, headaches, muscle cramps – including menstrual cramps, as well as general aches and pains.  While willow tea is bitter, remember that bitters have many beneficial qualities such as helping to promote digestion.

Willow is a plant that has so much to offer, yet I was reminded of one additional gift one day while weaving a large basket using stout willow weavers.  As I started working up the sides of my basket, my hands began to ache so badly I was sure I would have to stop soon.  However, after pushing through another couple of rounds I noticed the pain had almost vanished.  It was then I realized how tremendous the gift of willow was.  The “aspirin” in the willow I was weaving had worked through my hands, enabling me to finish my weaving Gift indeed!

Life in balance was the big reminder here.  While we are given challenges, the earth also offers us the solutions, just as willow lends strength to our baskets and our hands, it also offers respite from the pain it begets.  These miracles are all around us.  Take the time to listen to what the plants have to teach and always expect a miracle!

One of Nature’s Greatest Gifts – Willow

What is flintknapping?

Tools of the Trade

Flintknapping is the art of making stone tools through percussion and pressure and flaking methods (plus a few more).  As part of our Ancestral Living Skills course, we teach students flintknapping techniques.  Flintknapping has its own language and it can be confusing.  This post covers some basic terminology to get you started on the right track. We’ve also included pictures of the tools of the trade for the purist and modern stone worker.

Biface: A tool that has been flaked on both sides.

Billet: A cylindrical-shaped tool for removing flakes from stone made from hardwood, antler, or copper.

Blank: A piece of lithic material for the making of a tool (e.g., arrowhead, knife, spearpoint).

Core: A chunk of stone (lithic) material.

Cortex: Outside edges of stone like the rind of an orange.

Debitage: The waste lithic materials.

Flakes taken off a core

Flakes or spalls: Small or large pieces removed from a core.

Flaking: Removing small or large flakes of stone from a core by percussion or pressure.

Lithic: Anything to do with stone.

Percussion flaking: Flakes are struck off the edge of the core with a hammerstone or billet.

Pressure flaking: Pushing small flakes off with an antler tine, mild steel, or copper tool.

Pressure flakers:  antler and copper

Interested in learning more about flintknapping? 

Our next class is Saturday, April 2 in Issaquah.  Students will learn flintknapping techniques and also make their own tool kits to continue refining their new skills at home.  Class size is limited to ensure individualized attention.  At this time, we have a couple of openings but the registration window closes soon!


What is flintknapping?