Laura Dean Bennett
Judging by the energy and attentiveness of the students who attended the “My Side of the Mountain” workshop at the Yew Mountain Center, I’d have to say it was a resounding success.
One student was overheard saying, “I woke up this morning, and it was the first time I was really excited to go to school.”
That’s what I call a rave review.
Forty fifth grade students – 20 from Hillsboro Elementary and 20 from Marlinton Elementary – made the trip from the civilized confines of their school classrooms to the wild and wonderful wilderness surrounding the Yew Mountain Nature Center on the first day of October.
The day was warm, but the occasion was “very cool.”
It all began with an introduction to a novel about living with nature – that was written long before these youngsters were born.
“My Side of the Mountain,” written by Jean Craighead George and published in 1959, was the inspiration for the field trip.
It turns out, the Yew Mountain Center was the perfect setting for the trip.
“My Side of the Mountain” is a wonderful story.
And, apparently, a story of self-reliance coupled with a reverence and respect for nature never grows old.
I read this book more than 50 years ago when I was in sixth grade.
Apparently this simple little story affected an entire generation of young readers.
There’s something irresistible about imagining oneself going off into the woods and living a wild life among the forest creatures.
What child hasn’t fantasized about doing it? In fact, what adult can honestly say that they don’t sometimes think about it, even now?
The main character in the book, a young teenager named Sam Gribley, runs away to his great-grandfather’s land located in an isolated area in the Catskill Mountains.
He spends a year in the wild – living alongside his wild neighbors.
He made friends with his next-door neighbor, a cranky but curious weasel, whom he named “The Baron,” and a frequent visitor, “Jesse C. James,” a bold raccoon.
His best friend was a hawk he named “Frightful.”
Sam came by this amazing hunting partner when he captured a baby falcon chick from its nest and trained her to hunt with him.
Sam’s tools included a penknife, an axe, a ball of cord, flint and steel for fire-starting and whatever tools he could fashion in the woods.
With these meager supplies, his knowledge of wild foods and his own ingenuity, Sam not only survived, but thrived.
Thank goodness Sam had a lot of “book learning” about how to find food in the wilderness and was willing to try almost anything, because his survival depended on it.
He learned to make a fire without matches, fish without a fishing pole or line and hunt for game without a bow or a rifle.
He made snares and traps and dug a pit to trap a deer.
His penknife came in handy for all manner of things.
Sam used it to whittle wooden eating implements and to make a wooden fishing hook.
He built a rack for smoking meat and fish, which he stored in his cache for when it was too cold or the snow was too deep to hunt or fish.
This resourceful young man knew to watch what the animals were eating.
He ate crow eggs and developed a taste for what he called “wild salad,” meaning all kinds of greens and flowers that grew in and around his forest home.
He ate frogs, crayfish, snapping turtles, cattails, wild onions, wild garlic and all kinds of roots, like jack-in-the-pulpit corms – which, apparently, taste like potatoes.
Sam tanned deer hide by soaking it in a burned-out hole in an oak tree filled with rain water.
From the deer hide, he made clothes, moccasins, a door for his home in a hollowed-out tree trunk and even jesses for his falcon.
And for entertainment, he learned how to make slide willow whistles on which to play a tune.
He even discovered that hickory sticks, boiled dry in a discarded tin can will produce salt.
Sam was quite proud of the culinary touches he added to his wild cuisine, and he included a few recipes in his birch bark journal.
He grew to enjoy the taste of fresh water mussels, which he gathered from a nearby stream and came upon a good way to prepare them.
Here’s Sam’s recipe for freshwater mussels:
“Scrub mussels in spring water. Dump them into boiling water with salt. Boil five minutes. Remove and cool in the juice. Take out meat. Eat by dipping in acorn paste flavored with a smudge of garlic, and green apples.”
Sam remembered what his mother, who was an R.N., had taught him about our need for vitamin C when, after a long winter without any greens, he had a nosebleed.
His instinct made him eat the liver of his fresh kills to replenish his vitamin C and his body soon mended itself.
The bravery and inventiveness of this fictional character would be an inspiration to any young person who reads the book.
And, if their interest in learning about the many skills required to survive in the wild is any indication, the fifth graders who read the book were certainly inspired by it.
When the students arrived at Yew Mountain Center, they were divided into two groups.
The classroom was outdoors among the birch, apple trees, red maples and pines, with the sounds of a waterfall in the nearby creek and a cooling breeze wafting overhead.
One group of youngsters combed the woods and fields looking for evidence that a deer had passed or likely spots where a raccoon or a weasel would make their home.
They were intently studying deer droppings on the ground, when someone looked up and noticed a doe, standing just a few yards away, observing them.
The students were delighted.
The deer demonstrated her ability to disappear as she leapt gracefully into the woods.
And that was just one of the many adventures that the students had.
While the first group searched for evidence of wildlife, the other was gathering acorns and chestnuts.
While they used rocks to pound the “meat” out of the nuts, Yew Mountain Center Director Erica Marks showed the students how to make a nut paste, just as Sam had done in the book.
Marks taught the kids that chestnuts and hickory nuts can be eaten right away, but acorns need to be rinsed thoroughly to remove the tannic acid before eating.
She had the kids gathering rushes from the nearby pond to teach them how they are woven into baskets.
As they made their way along foot paths and through the woods, the students were also asked to consider what they would take with them inside a hollow tree if they, like Sam, were planning to spend a winter there.
They experienced writing on birch bark with berry ink, as Sam had done so he could keep a diary.
To show how it’s possible to boil water or cook food in a leaf, as Sam had done in the book, Marks started a fire and propped a cabbage leaf filled with water over the coals to demonstrate.
She dug a sassafras root and passed it around to show the kids that it smelled like root beer. She explained how to make a delicious tea from it, just as Sam had done.
It was all very exciting, and zip lining from one tree to another in the woods was perhaps the most fun activity.
But the high point of the day was the falconry demonstration.
David Trenton, falconer and state police officer, brought his three year old Harris hawk named Hancock to teach the students about falconry.
Hancock performed a thrilling demonstration of how quickly a hawk can spot and dive down on a rabbit lure.
David had also read “My Side of the Mountain” when he was young.
“That’s one of the reasons I was always interested in falconry,” he told the students.
Trenton explained the lengthy process of becoming a falconer and the training necessary for falcons to become hunting partners with their handlers.
“You need an experienced falconer to teach and mentor you.” Trenton explained. “And then you have to take a DNR test to qualify for your license.”
Becoming a falconer is a complicated process. Maybe that’s why there are only 26 falconers in the entire state of West Virginia.
“A lot of training a falcon is like training a dog,” Trenton said.
And the bird becomes something of a hunting dog.
“Except in falconry, the bird is the hunter and the human is ‘the dog,’ he laughed.
“The bird comes to rely on you for food. A lot of the training uses positive reinforcement with food.”
Just as the young man in the book found out, the long training process, if done correctly, ends with the hawk and the human becoming a team.
“Eventually it becomes a strong partnership,” Trenton said. “When I come for him, he knows we are going to chase a rabbit.”
Falconry is a lot of work, but it looks like it would be very rewarding.
Of course, to Sam, the boy in the book, the relationship with his hawk, Frightful, was far more than that.
Frightful caught a lot of rabbits for the pair to eat, she was an excellent “watch dog” and she was good company to the boy during his long weeks and months of isolation.
The lucky fifth graders who spent the day on “My Side of the Mountain” at the Yew Mountain Center came away with more than just another completed school assignment.
I predict that reading the book, combined with their experiences in recreating Sam’s adventures, will be a lesson they will never forget.
For those who read “My Side of the Mountain” when you were young, I heartily recommend reading it again.
It’s a quick read – more than worthwhile for the two hours of time you will invest.
If any youngsters in your family have yet to read it, “My Side of the Mountain” is available at Pocahontas County Free Libraries and can be purchased at bookstores and online.
It would make a great gift – easy to tuck into a backpack and take along to hunting camp or as a stocking stuffer for when the snow flies.
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org