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Studying Tracks in Snow, Building Fires

Primitive Pursuits club connects students with nature

On a recent wintry Friday afternoon, a group of ESF students wandered around the Quad, deliberately making footprints in the snow. Others waited to track them, hoping to determine which foot or hand had been used to make an impression. Then they switched roles and repeated the exercise.

They compared the differences among tracks made by people who were walking, jogging and running by examining the depth and width of the tracks and the distance between them. The next step would be animal tracking in nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

The students are members of Primitive Pursuits, an ESF club that promotes outdoor activities and skills. The members learn new methods and techniques for "ancestral living skills" and outdoor awareness.

"If we can have our meetings outside, we do," said Jacob Sanua, an ESF junior who is club president. "Temperature is something we don't really care about."

Sanua believes a passion for outdoor learning draws students to the club. The group welcomes anyone who wants to learn wilderness skills. Sanua said the club's mission is to inspire deeper connections with nature through teaching and learning activities, including primitive skills and storytelling. Above all else, the club encourages participants to be more aware of nature, Sanua said. Most of the students already have an interest in these activities, and Primitive Pursuits provides a friendly community to share their enthusiasm. Others want to learn these mostly forgotten techniques to balance their more factual, scientific education from the classroom.

Sanua attended a bow-making workshop as a first-year student and has been hooked since.

"It really is a community," he said. "We connect with other organizations."

He said the club attends workshops of like-minded groups in Ithaca. Last semester, the club had an informational table during Sportsmen's Days at Carpenter's Brook Fish Hatchery in Elbridge, N.Y., and Sanua plans to increase community outreach.

What separates Primitive Pursuits from other ESF clubs is its inclusion of graduate student members who regularly take part in meetings and events. The club has more than 20 active members.

The Friday afternoon meetings start with the telling of "nature stories," with members describing what they have done in nature, usually during the previous week, said Sanua. Denali Trimble, a first-year student majoring in environmental resource engineering, said the nature stories inspire club members to spend time outside so they have something to share with the group.

The students then focus on learning one or two primitive skills, including coal burning, flintknapping, stone/glass tool manufacturing and friction fire creation, among others. They also take part in games that increase awareness and motor skills. Trimble said he has always wanted to make his own moccasins, and Primitive Pursuits allowed him to progress toward that goal. He has already learned to turn deer hide into usable buckskin.

"An overall key idea (we) have is to connect to the outdoors," and Alex Szuba, a wildlife science first-year student. Szuba had previously been involved with a similar group at his local nature center.

The club sponsors at least one workshop and one campout per semester, and these generally include activities that take at least a few hours to complete, said Sanua. Sanua said club events balance recreational and educational activities. "There are a lot of hardcore skills that need time to be learned proficiently," he said. These longer sessions allow students time to focus on learning new things.

"I kind of came in not really knowing that much (about primitive skills), but as I progress through the years, I'm hoping to teach later," said Trimble. Both he and Szuba said they have already learned a lot; for example, they spent a couple meetings just on plant identification so they would know what to eat and use when outside.

"If any members have skills that they want to contribute or teach, they are welcome to," said Sanua. He cautioned that there is almost always a safety lecture before any activity. "We ensure the safety of our members through preparation and safety knowledge."

The club is planning its winter campout the weekend of Feb. 8 and plans to practice shelter building, hoping to utilize snow as a resource.

- By Alison Gibson ES '14