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Staying alive

Learn how to build shelter, fire, and find the tastiest tree bark

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When Paul Gardner takes three-day weekends in the summer he travels light. He wraps a small pouch around his waist to go camping in the mountains of Naples or the Adirondacks. In the pouch, Gardner carries a disposable poncho, a lighter, a knife, and a 12-foot rope. And yes, the survivalist does this on purpose.

Since 2001, Gardner and business partner Sean Pearson have also been teaching others survival skills at the Nature Awareness and Survival School based in Pittsford.

"How do you make a home without Home Depot?" Gardner asks. It's the question he wants to answer at his school. In sessions ranging from two hours to a three-day retreat, students learn how to make shelter, craft tools and utensils, find food, and, of course, start a fire.

Gardner says the TV show Survivor has had little to do with the interest in his school, which began shortly after the wakeup call of 9/11. After that, people started worrying what they would do without access to Wegmans and other conveniences. Although Gardner teaches how to survive in the event of a catastrophe or a wrong turn in the woods, his school also stresses the value of nature.

Gardner, 47, has considered himself an outdoorsman from the time he started climbing into treehouses near his childhood home on the canal in Bushnell's Basin. Yet a deeper appreciation grew after reading the book Grandfather by Tom Brown Jr. The author is an expert tracker regularly recruited by authorities to help solve crimes and missing people cases, and he was the basis for Tommy Lee Jones's character in The Hunted. In the book, Brown talks about how an Apache chief called Grandfather could interpret 25,000 facts from a single print in the ground. Gardner calls this "nature storytelling."

After reading the book 10 years ago, he began attending Brown's tracking school in New Jersey. Gardner soon started paying attention to nature everywhere --- even outside the Henrietta office where he works for LeCesse construction. He noticed bear-like prints in the mud but eventually concluded a three-foot snapping turtle from a nearby pond left the marks.

From tracks, Gardner can determine facts like the gender of an animal, its size, and what direction it was heading. He teaches these tracking skills to both educate about nature and survival.

"Some people track because there's dinner at the end," says Gardner. "I track to feel a unity with nature."

Gardner's other specialty is building debris huts. He stresses how shelter is the most important of the Apaches' four vital elements for wilderness survival. Humans can die after one night of exposure but can survive for days without food. The huts consist of sticks constructed like the frame of a house and then covered with leaves and other debris. Gardner says he has slept in a debris hut on a 10-degree night, and the shelter stayed between 50 and 60 degrees because of body heat.

Although he now builds the huts proficiently, he remembers his first hut leaking all over his head during a rainstorm. So he never blames the people who bring sleeping bags as a precaution for their children when attending the school's weekend retreats in Mendon. However, he says the adults usually wind up in the sleeping bags more often than their children.

Pearson, who was in a remote part of Germany for survival training and teaching during July, generally teaches the flashiest skill. He is the fire-starter, which Gardner says provides the second most important survival element --- heat. He says in the movie Cast Away Tom Hanks' character spent two weeks trying to start a fire because he didn't understand friction. Pearson shows how to fashion a number of tools from wood, including a drill bow that uses a shoelace and ends up resembling a cello bow.

Even after building a shelter and fire, you still shouldn't worry about eating, Gardner says. After you find a clean water source, then you can start searching for the most appetizing dishes on Mother Nature's menu. While Gardner and Pearson teach how to track, hunt, and trap animals, they both survive essentially as vegetarians. Gardner eats fish, but mainly depends on sustenance like acorns, cattail roots, and other goodies. "Eating bark is something you usually offer [to novices] and then tell them what it is after," he says.

In addition to mastering basic survival skills, students can participate in search and rescue classes, which Gardner compares to a wilderness version of the TV show CSI. Most importantly, though, the school wants to instill security in humanity's resourcefulness.

"How confident would you be if you fell out of a Fed Ex plane [like in Cast Away]?" Gardner asks. "Or how confident would you be if you went to the end of your driveway and never stopped?"

NASS is located at the Institute of Martial Excellences, behind Crystal Barn Restaurant, at the corner of Jefferson Road and Clover Street, in Pittsford. 425-9134, www.martialexcellences.com

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