The hardest part of finding dinner in my Harlem neighborhood is deciding where to order takeout. During a recent weekend in the Catskills wilderness, it was whacking off my meal’s head.
Welcome to the Bear Grylls Survival Academy — “It may hurt a little” is its slogan — an experience from across the pond that arrives this summer in Claryville, NY.
I’ve seen Grylls, the outlandish British survival expert, on TV’s “Man vs. Wild,” and the show scared me to death. But I hadn’t been in the wilderness since my dad forced me to join the Boy Scouts, so I figured it was time to give it another shot.
I packed my flannel shirt and headed north for a 24-hour course that drops regular city dwellers and suburbanites into the woods and teaches wilderness survival skills in a variety of extreme situations.
Under the threat of eating nothing but foraged leaves for the next 24 hours, we begin by carbo-loading on spaghetti and meatballs in the cafeteria at the Frost Valley YMCA and then spend an overnight on its grounds, which are filled with coyotes, bears and bobcats.
After what could be our last supper, we drive off to a more remote starting point, bidding farewell to civilization and, possibly, any future happiness.
Each group (maximum 12 people) is paired with two or three survival instructors “handpicked” by Grylls, who does not oversee the course. Ours are Josh Valentine, a handsome mountain man with tattoos that say “honor” and “allegiance,” and Jeff Williams, who wears a bull ring in each ear.
Two minutes in, they force us across an icy river that rises up to my calves, ensuring that our feet will not be dry again until we return to the city.
“Shouldn’t we take off our boots and empty out the water?” one camper asks, as we begin to slosh our way through the initial hike in shoes that have become little swamps of misery.
“Not if you want the authentic Bear Grylls experience,” says Valentine, winking and flexing a bicep as the afternoon sun silhouettes him atop the hill like a Thracian warrior. (It’s unclear whether that last part actually happened or if I was just becoming delirious from 30 minutes of not having my iPhone.)
We eventually make our way to the campsite, which is not so much a campsite as a part of the woods that looks exactly like every other part of the woods. We’re tasked with our first priority: shelter. No tents are allowed, so I have to build a fort using sticks and leaves. As I set up the A-frame structure topped with cross-hatching and fern waterproofing that the leaders have demonstrated, I imagine the night that lies ahead of sleeping on the ground in 40-degree weather. But then I hark back to something Valentine told us earlier.
“In a hostile situation, it’s the rules of three,” he declared. “You can survive three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, but only three seconds without a positive attitude.”
I tried that. The result? Out of the entire group, my shelter turned out to be only the second worst. And that made me proud.
Soon, we were learning multiple ways to get clean drinking water from the river, how to build a fire (including my personal favorite method of using a tampon as the base kindling — “You’ve got to use what you’ve got,” says Williams) and how to find something to eat.
We do not, thank God, drink our urine, which seems to be Bear Grylls’ favorite method of hydration on his old Discovery Channel show.
Indeed, Grylls is known for his extreme measures, such as sleeping in a camel carcass or eating basically anything alive. But he’s also been accused multiple times throughout his career of faking the high stakes survival drama on his shows. Grylls has defended himself, pointing out that safety is a primary concern.
In the Catskills experience, comfort and food deprivation loom large, but I never felt like I was going to die. The shtick, essentially, is to scare the crap out of you, then provide a bit of relief.
“Part of what we do is try to push you outside your comfort zone,” says Williams at the beginning of the journey. “It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to take on that challenge.”
The challenge included foraging for edible plants, like the lemony, vitamin C-rich wood sorrel. And we did eat mealworms — which kind of seemed like eating dirt. But eventually the leaders gave us rations of a few pieces of fruit and granola bars.
We later set up snares and snap traps, which we found two rabbits hanging from suspiciously quickly. Regardless, I chopped off my first bunny head and helped tear off the skin and fur. After the instructor gutted it, I skewered it and put it on the fire. Surprisingly, it felt awesome — even the the meat tasted like low-quality pork.
“I loved the fact that we were not being coddled,” says Fred Confer IV, a 45-year-old tech exec from Hopewell Township, NJ, who booked, with his two sons, a calmer family trip the academy also offers. “We were soaking wet and tired for the entire weekend. I’m an executive in an office. We don’t do that all that often.”
Sydne Didier, a 43-year-old swim coach from Amherst, Mass., who took a course with her son Aidan, 13, says, “The staff really presented challenges — there’s something for everyone, and we both learned a lot.”
After a night of the worst sleep of my life — I worried that a snake or bear would eat my face at any moment — the second day brought us lessons in “escapes”: ways to exit dangerous situations, including rappelling down the side of a mountain, crossing a fallen tree over a river and commando crawling across a rope bridge.
By the end of it, I had rope burns on my neck and my belly that looked like I had been attacked during a rogue game of tug of war. My feet were shriveled beyond recognition, and one particular misstep in the river left my tailbone aching like a prostitute’s after a 12-hour shift.
But I did it, and I have a badge to prove it. Now that I’m a certified badass wildlife super-ninja, my only regret is that I didn’t bring that rabbit head back to the office to wear around my neck.
Weekend survival courses ($579) and others are available per demand. Go to beargryllssurvivalacademy.com for info.
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