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Primitive Outdoor Skills at Canyon Ranch in Tucson

I go to destination spas for their outdoor hikes, indoor fitness classes, healthy food, wellness lectures and, of course, massages. I do not associate destination spas with wilderness survival skills: learning how to create fire or crafting a knife out of stone. However, these two worlds collided during my January trip to Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, when I sampled some primitive outdoor skills that the the spa offers regularly in its weekly program, as well as in a specific “featured event” a couple times annually.

Trust me, twisting yucca leaves into twine is not high on my priority list of things to do while at a spa. And I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be lost in the wilderness without matches in a backcountry kit (i.e. there’s probably no need for me to learn how to make fire without matches). But survival lessons added a totally new element to spa-going  — “try something new” and “get out of your comfort zone” — that I’ll take with me on future visits to destination spas. Plus, patient and knowledgeable survival guide Randy Kinkade made all of my survival lessons fun. Really, really fun.

To add to the entertainment, my longtime travel-writer pal Melanie Wynne, who pens Travels with Two, was on hand for all the giggles. Massages and making fire and Melanie for three days? A win-Wynne all around. (I did not come up with that clever pun, btw.)

First up on our primitive skills agenda: Make a hoko knife

No-nonsense Outdoor Sports Manager and survival-skills guru Randy Kinkade met Melanie, two other journalists and I in the spa lobby before he led us along a dirt path to a quiet spot on benches under trees about a 10-minute walk from the main Canyon Ranch campus. Here, Randy gave us a quick lesson on how to use a round “hammer stone” to strike a piece of obsidian (aka “volcanic glass”) to make the perfect pointy flake fly off. Then we pounded yucca leaves into stringy pieces, and twisted them together to make sturdy(ish) twine (I was a pro at this, I must say). After that, we slid the rock “blade” into a piece of yucca root and voila! We have a knife out of items we might find in the wilderness (if we were in a spot that produced obsidian naturally…. the only place I know that has plentiful obsidian is Minecraft).

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Here Canyon Ranch Outdoor Sports Manager Randy Kinkade explains how to strike the obsidian “just right” to create the ideal sharp flake for the blade in our hoko knife, so named for the primitive knives found near the Hoko River in Washington state.

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Safety first. Wearing in clear plastic glasses and leather gloves, Melanie tries her hand at striking the obsidian.

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We pounded the yucca plant to make stringy fibers that we twisted into string for our knives.

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My hoko knife. Glad I didn’t have carry-on bags, as I’m pretty sure the TSA would have confiscated it. Oh yes, this thing is deadly.

Next up: Create fire

After my stellar success at constructing a stone knife, I figured I’d be able to make fire pretty easily. Ha! Big ha! Vigorously rubbing wood pieces together to create burning embers, then placing them in “fluffy” tinder and blowing on them to catch the tinder on fire is hard. Really, really hard. I will say that Melanie rocked this activity. I needed to have help — from about three different people — to make my “coal” and get my “fluff” to finally catch on fire. It was difficult, physical work in the hot sun. But I did it.

Here, Melanie uses a knife (not her hoko knife) to round the top of a piece of wood for her drill. Note her pretty non-wilderness nails.

Here, Melanie uses a knife (not her hoko knife) to round the top of a piece of wood for her drill. Note her pretty non-wilderness nails.

We were given the basic wooden shapes, but I carved out the"divets" in the fireboard and hand hold, and then rounded the edges of the drill.

We were given the basic wooden shapes, but I carved out the”divets” in the fireboard and hand hold, and then rounded the edges of the drill.

Once again, our instructor Randy Kinkade makes it look easy.

Once again, our instructor Randy Kinkade makes it look easy. See the smoke he created in mere seconds?

Here, another participant demonstrates how we rubbed the bow against the drill while gripping firmly a handhold from above and stepping on a fireboard to hold it in place. Lots of actions to create a teeny tiny coal.

Here, another participant demonstrates how we rubbed the bow against the drill while gripping firmly a handhold from above and stepping on a fireboard to hold it in place. See the jute “fluff,” too. There are lots of actions that must be performed seamlessly and steadily to create a teeny tiny coal.

Blowing steadily on the embers to make fire.

Blowing steadily on the embers to make fire. We used pulled-apart jute twine purchased at Michael’s, but in the wilderness you’d look for “fluffy” brush and leaves for your tinder.

Moments after this photo was snapped, the "fluff" burst into flame and I tossed it on the ground. Very satisfying.

Moments after this photo was snapped, the “fluff” burst into flame and I tossed it on the ground. Very satisfying.

Introspective part three: Native awareness

This part of our survival-skills training was most vague to me. I wasn’t quite sure what “increasing my natural awareness” meant (per the itinerary description), but anything that might help me be more mindful while outdoors sounded good. For this session, Randy had us focus on our vision while we walked along and around a dirt trail on the outskirts of the Canyon Ranch campus. He talked about using a “large visual screen” and “soft focus” when we sauntered about, which helped us (well, me) pick up more action in my peripheral vision.

I also picked up some great tips I’ve put into practice at home. In the past, I constantly looked down at my feet when hiking, afraid I’ll trip. Randy suggested looking down at the trail, a few steps ahead, taking a “snapshot” in my mind, and then looking up. “Your feet can be on autopilot. They know where to go.” This has totally changed the way I hike and snowshoe. I’m definitely more aware — and more appreciative — of nature and my surroundings. Very cool.

I also really enjoyed an exercise we did in which we chose a place in our desert surroundings to focus on a one-foot square spot; then we sat down to look at the same spot; then looked at it as if we were the size of the ant. Whoa. The world becomes a very, very big place when you change your perspective to that of an ant.

I found myself much more appreciative of nature's beauty when I'm not constantly staring at the hiking trail.

I find myself much more appreciative of nature’s beauty when I’m not constantly staring at the hiking trail.

Part four: Animal tracking, silent movement and the primitive hunt

I had this part figured all wrong. I thought we were going to identify coyote, bobcat and other animal tracks in the desert sand. Not so much. Instead, we met up at a “tracking box” — sort of like a short horseshoe pit without the stakes. Randy raked it and then he walked, ran, twisted and hopped in the box to teach us how to tell what an animal (in this case, a human animal) might be doing and in what direction he might be heading. Subtle marks in one’s footprint — say a “heavy” little toe impression or a scuff — might indicate the animal heard something in the distance and turned his head or he started running. These minimal changes in footprints are quite telling — and important for tracking animals, say, to kill them for food if you are trying to survive off the land, in the wilderness.

Next, we learned how to walk silently, to creep up on unsuspecting animals. We also played a game where one of us was blindfolded and tried to discern from what direction the “creepers” were coming — very hard! With eyes covered, hearing becomes more acute, but none of us was trained enough to fully figure out from where a very faint noise was coming.

Finally, in perhaps the most entertaining exercise of our weekend, we went on a “primitive hunt,” in which we flung throwing sticks at stuffed animals propped upright on pieces of wood. Making a Lamb Chop puppet topple over garnered the most cheers.

Randy points out subtle footprint "pressure releases" in the sand.

Randy points out subtle footprint “pressure releases” in the sand.

Melanie listens for footsteps behind her.

Melanie listens for footsteps behind her.

Using a throwing stick to knock off Lamb Chop in the distance.

Using a throwing stick to knock off Lamb Chop in the distance.

Poor, unsuspecting giraffe and one-eyed frog.

Poor, unsuspecting giraffe and one-eyed frog.

Final test: Would we survive in the wilderness? Probably not.

Our last challenge was to use our newly acquired skills to see if we, as a group, might actually make it in the backcountry for several nights without modern tools. Alas, we were down one team player, since he got really sick and couldn’t participate. I think that was our excuse why we may not have completed the final test in the time given. If we had gotten points for expletives, I think we would have won.

In which Melanie is goofing around while my teammate and I are frantically trying to make fire. No wonder we didn't finish the challenge in time. (Just kidding.)

In which Melanie is goofing around while my teammate and I are frantically trying to make fire. No wonder we didn’t finish the challenge in time. (Just kidding.)

Again, learning to build fire is not typically on my list of must-do activities at a destination spa. But, man, did I have a good time learning these new skills. Destination spas like Canyon Ranch offer a myriad of activities, many of which include getting out of your comfort zone: from navigating a high ropes challenge course, to meditating in a spirit lodge, to visiting with a clairvoyant. My sampling of primitive outdoor skills definitely added a new element to my spa-going, and I’ll certainly keep that in mind for future spa visits.

Huge thanks to Canyon Ranch for inviting me to participate in these activities; the next Primitive Outdoors Skills featured event takes place May 13-16.  And an even bigger thank you to Randy Kinkade who put up with Melanie and me, and our tardy issues, and off-topic jokes and frequent giggles. I am honored to have spent time with you, Randy, and I remain in awe of your survival-skill abilities!

7 Responses to “Primitive Outdoor Skills at Canyon Ranch in Tucson”

  1. 1

    I remember before when I joined a camping activity, we made a fire from scratch. It’s really fun, especially when you already see a smoke, it’s like a big achievement!

  2. 2

    When I think about spas, this isn’t what comes to mind at all! But this still looks like a lot of fun. I actually loved spending time in the desert when I lived in Scottsdale. But if I went there now, the desert would probably be hard to find, because it’s been built up so much. Tucson would probably fit the bill, and this outdoor skills camp would have essential things to know.

  3. 3

    Wow! Sounds like an adventure. I’d love to do something like this. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy travels :)

  4. 4
    Elena says:

    Wow- definitely not what I would have thought of when I envision Canyon Ranch- but what an incredible experience to -as Kara wrote-put you past your comfort zone.

  5. 5

    Very fun to learn new things especially when that type of learning is unexpected. Sounds like it was worth your time and provided quite a few laughs which is healthy in itself.

  6. 6
    Karl Bergerson says:

    Sounds like a fun and gratifying experience. I doubt if they’d have such things here in Japan.

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