Doug Hill Is Defending the (Modern) Caveman With Primitive Skills Classes

Doug Hill Is Defending the (Modern) Caveman With Primitive Skills Classes

Doug Hill would not be opposed to living completely off the grid. He could sport his homemade buckskin shorts every day, drink untreated water from streams, pluck his lunch from blueberry patches. He wouldn’t need to worry about a 401(k) or his ten-year goals; his only concerns would be surviving. But in order to change the world by reconnecting people with the technologies of our ancestors, Hill knows he has to fit into today’s society.

When someone says “technology” in 2015, most people think of the latest iPhone or tablet, a curved TV or something from the endless list of brand-new widgets, gadgets, screens and lights. To a growing group of primitive-skills practitioners, though, “technology” really comes down to what Hill calls “the big three”: a sharp edge, fire and cordage — tools that gave modern man’s ancestors an evolutionary advantage.

Hill lives in an equilibrium between the new and the old world: professor and hunter-gatherer, educator and practitioner, user of modern technology and 2.7 million-year-old tools. He updates his website for Gone Feral School of Primitive and Traditional Outdoor Skills on a laptop, but says that “a day in the woods is a good day.” Practicing primitive skills isn’t just a hobby; it’s his life. He’s a modern-day caveman who wants to remind people in 2015 where it all began.

Primitive skills are hot! Doug Hill builds a fire with friction.
Primitive skills are hot! Doug Hill builds a fire with friction.
Anthony Camera

Thirty-three-year-old Doug Hill saunters into the Northglenn Gunther Toody’s wearing cargo pants and a T-shirt, a beard and long hair, and carrying on his back a tall, cylindrical hand-woven daypack that he takes everywhere — whether he’s in the city or the mountains. It looks unassuming, but it can hold fifty pounds of supplies. Around his neck is a metal knife in a tightly twined sheath made of jute.

Hill pulls some of the items from his pack and puts them on the table: a swatch of pronghorn that he “waterproofed” by smoking it over a fire in his back yard; an in-progress knife sheath that he’s twining out of grass; an atlatl for throwing spears; a cattail quiver; and a bowl made from a seven-inch section of a tree trunk cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out by setting hot coals on the flat side and scraping out the burn, doing that over and over again until it’s deep enough to hold liquid.

With the front of a red Oldsmobile hanging over him and a mug of Fat Tire before him, Hill conducts an impromptu class in weaving — an activity our ancestors would have done constantly as a clan. He takes out a couple strands of raffia and, after a few minutes of crossing the strings over each other, back and forth, he has a cord that could easily hold thirty or forty pounds or be used for the start of a bow’s drawstring.

Hill wakes up with the sun — or when his dogs wake up — and goes to sleep with it, too, adjusting to the seasons. He keeps a careful eye on his energy consumption and limits his time in temperature-controlled rooms, preferring to feel the natural world on his skin — though he will go grocery shopping, work in an office or go out to eat. He lives in Lafayette with his girlfriend, an environmental educator who supports his activities. Both of them forage for wild seeds, leaves and fruits in the tiny front yard of their home, which has become a wild garden, six feet tall in some areas; yarrow, echinacea, sunflowers, milkweed, stinging nettles, plantain, wild strawberry, amaranth, curly dock, mallow, sage and eleven pollinators are only some of the species they can see out their front window. The garden requires very little water and no landscaping. For the dogs, there is a grassy back yard maintained with a reel mower and hand clippers: human-powered hand tools that are cheaper, longer-lasting and have fewer plastic parts than their gas and electric counterparts. “To bring it full circle, human energy, of course, comes from the plants and animals we eat, so providing those for yourself starts to make your life a little more circular,” Hill explains.

Hill will also forage for fruits, seeds and vegetables on public land, always making sure to adhere to “ethical harvesting” practices by only taking 10 percent of a crop, leaving enough for other foragers and so that the plants can perpetuate. He keeps his foraging areas confidential — “I can’t tell you that,” he says, when asked where he finds wild asparagus — because as soon as the public knows about an area with free crops, it’s depleted. Roadsides are considered public land, but the amount of pollution from passing cars sucked up by nearby plants should definitely be taken into consideration when harvesting.

When he’s driving those roads, if Hill passes any roadkill, he may stop, get out of his Subaru and investigate whether the meat’s fresh enough to take home — reporting his find first to the appropriate authorities with his smartphone, of course, so he’s not accused of poaching. His preferred method of preserving the meat is freezing, for the flavor, but he also appreciates canning to save evergy, and he’ll smoke it in a primitive setting, using the bone for tools and the brain for tanning hides (he once made a shirt from a hide tanned with the fat rendered from a Christmas goose). Citing the Native American way, Hill says that the whole animal can be used and that material can always be repurposed; he sees that as a good way to “bring the primitive mindset into the modern era.”

And modern man is increasingly interested in primitive ways. The Discovery Channel show Naked and Afraid puts two stark-naked survivalists who have never met in a strange environment. Each is given a cross-body satchel, a personal camera (for times when the cameraman isn’t around) and one item of their choosing, like a hatchet or bowl; with these items, they’re expected to last 21 days. No prize is awarded except an appearance fee, but the show has had no shortage of contestants. Since it first aired in 2013, the producers have asked Hill three times whether he’d like to participate. Although he’s declined each offer — that’s just not his style — the invitations did get him thinking about what item he would bring.

After some coaxing, he says that depending on the environment, elevation, resources at hand and other factors, he would probably bring some sort of water-carrying vessel. A hatchet is easy to create by smashing two rocks together, he points out, and a knife by making an arrowhead. While a bow and arrow would take a while to construct, it could be done in a couple of days. Starting a friction fire isn’t a problem; he has a 90 percent success rate. But to be able to contain life-sustaining water would be a game-changer. Contain it, ideally, in a double-handled wok, preferably with a sharpened rim. That way he would have both a water-carrying vessel and a blade he could use to strip the bark off a tree or cut wood.

Shows like Naked and Afraid; Bear Grylls’s Running Wild ; Dude, You’re Screwed; Survivor; Preppers; and even The Walking Dead can be lumped into the recent trend of “survivalist” shows in which subjects duke it out with nature. In the case of Preppers, subjects are preparing for a catastrophe they must survive. But for the most part, everyone is just trying to get through these shows and back to their lives.

The skill sets of survivalists and primitive-skills practitioners are similar, but the end result is different. Survivalists are looking to get away from nature, survive at all cost no matter the damage, and return to civilization. In a primitive-living situation, practitioners are looking to get back to nature, nurture that connection and live sustainably.

Hill thinks the rise in survivalist shows may be the result of a society starved for a connection with nature. But putting a knife in a person’s hand could make him a “liability,” since he has no idea what to do with it. Putting him alone in nature is even more hazardous. Hill wants people to stop talking, stop watching TV — and act.

“As we get more caught up with computers and electronics, we spend our lives not doing things,” he says. “We talk about it in terms of ‘nature-deficit disorder,’ but it’s a lack of experience — whether that’s with nature or tools or just doing. So I think that’s one of the big things that I’m all about, is getting people actually doing things and not just talking about it or watching more TV.”

Doug Hill displays what you can create with cordage and twigs.
Doug Hill displays what you can create with cordage and twigs.
Anthony Camera

Hill’s take-action attitude can be traced to his early years in West Deptford, New Jersey, a small town on the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia. Growing up, he always felt most comfortable outside, tromping around in the woods behind his house, where he would build forts, play games and run wild. His father, a former Navy man, was an engineer for DuPont and his mother a secretary for a Catholic school; both encouraged learning by doing. For example, Hill learned the Pythagorean theorem by building a shed in the back yard with his father.

In college, Hill would skip class to spend time in nature — but not doing anything “bad,” like smoking pot with his classmates, he clarifies. He just wanted to be outside. After graduating from The College of New Jersey with a bachelor of science in technology studies and a teaching certificate in industrial arts and technology education, Hill taught shop class for a couple of years at Warren Hills High School in Washington, New Jersey. But he wanted something more. He wanted a deeper connection; he just wasn’t exactly sure what that connection would be or where to look for it.

In his early twenties, Hill was “struggling to live more honestly,” he remembers, and that included forcing himself to see the truth about his food. Many people today don’t know where their food and water come from, even though that consumption is what keeps them alive. Hill didn’t think it was fair to eat beef but not kill it himself, or at least know how it got to his plate. So he knocked on the doors of a slaughterhouse and was taken straight to the kill floor, where cows were lined up waiting to be killed by a bolt to the head — sometimes two or three if the first didn’t work. Meanwhile, another cow was right behind, watching as the previous cow “is being dragged by, headless and eviscerated,” Hill says.

This was the first of many profound experiences in seeking truth in nature. “Regardless of how you feel about the beef industry, I think it’s safe to say that killing an animal in the wild with a sharp arrow or a fast bullet, who lived every day of its life wild, is a good bit more humane than that scene in the slaughterhouse,” Hill notes. “Some might say that to take part in the ‘game’ of hunting is the highest, and oldest, form of spirituality that exists.”

At first he aspired to be Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings: someone who could run off into the woods and make it. He began exploring primitive skills, taking classes from other practitioners and wilderness-survival teachers, learning skills like fire-starting, plant identification and how to make stone tools. That last lesson wasn’t such a big shift after working with power tools in his shop classes, but the reality of the rest was a lot different from the dream.

Hills’s first skills class was at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School, now based in Waretown, New Jersey. It was a weeklong general-skills survey that taught fire-starting, tracking and shelter. Brown’s lead instructor, Eddie Starnater, broke off from the Tracker School to start Practical Primitive, now based in Great Meadows, New Jersey. A year after that first class at Tracker, Hill was accepted into Starnater’s hunter-gatherer course, a six-month intensive. One weekend a month, he and three other students would go into the woods, learn new skills like fire-starting, first aid from plants, shelter-building and plant-preserving. Then they’d go home and work on the skills they’d learned for a month, until the next session.

Starnater told his class that a hunter-gatherer was “the ultimate opportunist.” In today’s world, Hill explains, a hunter-gatherer might miss an early meeting to gather roadkill to fill his freezer with or take advantage of a beautiful trunk from a tree that had recently fallen and turn it into bow staves, or transform weekend plans with friends into a harvesting party in preparation for a freeze. “It’s simply a shift in thinking,” Hill says. “Of course, for some modern lifestyles, taking advantage of that opportunity isn’t always an option, but for a lot it is. Life is rife with other ways to be opportunistic.”

At the end of the six-month intensive, the four students did a weeklong survival trek that Hill compares to Naked and Afraid, although it was less intense. Regardless, they were in the middle of nowhere, putting to the test skills they had spent the past six months learning. This was when it really started to hit Hill: Everything he’d been “doing lip service to” all those years was actually in play. He was surviving in the woods.

After Starnater’s class, Hill felt like he had a fairly basic yet solid understanding of primitive skills. He practiced them while working a myriad of jobs to make ends meet: barista, cabinet-maker, even coffin-builder. In 2007 a friend invited Hill to visit Boulder, but after a couple of months, Hill found himself on the streets. He made the best of it, enjoying his first long-term outdoor-living experience under the stars.

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“I think I learned to fall in love with the sky and life outdoors, and in some ways, life was never the same after that,” he remembers. “That put the nail in the coffin for me never to be able to return to a mainstream life and job. After that, I didn’t think I could go back to a Monday-through-Friday nine-to-five…. Living that way was pretty amazing. You’re just worried about the here and now and taking care of yourself and maybe the few people close to you. You’re not worried about your bank account at the end of the month or what your retirement account looks like. I think you’re a lot more conscious and present in that lifestyle.”

But Hill knew he couldn’t stay homeless forever, and he began to climb his way out of his financial hole. He managed to get part-time jobs at It’s Your Move (located on Pearl Street at the time) and a Petco that helped him get an apartment. After six months of working, though, he moved back home to help take care of his parents.

A few years later, after making regular visits there, Hill moved back to Boulder. By now he had more of an infrastructure he could rely on, as well as more direction. He quickly immersed himself in the city’s environmental-education community, volunteering for Boulder Open Space and with the Mountain Parks Department to lead nature hikes through the Volunteer Naturalists Program, which required volunteers to complete a twelve-week training program. He was teaching at a private summer camp when he was scheduled to take a group of campers to Earth Knack Stone Age Living School in Crestone, in the San Luis Valley. The trip was canceled, but Hill went to Crestone anyway, and ended up doing an internship under Earth Knack founder Robin Blankenship in the fall of 2011.

Blankenship is one of today’s more advanced primitive-skills practitioners and has been featured in the New York Times, but she tends to stay out of the limelight. She started her journey into the wilderness-survival scene in 1978, when she was leading pack trips in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness for Adventure Unlimited Ranches. In 1984 she began teaching for Larry Olsen’s School of Urban and Wilderness Survival, as well as National Outdoor Leadership and Outward Bound. She started Earth Knack in 1990. She runs the company from a hogan on the Crestone property that contains a laptop and an old desk. Like Hill, Blankenship is online because she recognizes the importance of building bridges between the two worlds so that people who learn primitive skills can “pass the torch along,” she says. “Folks who live in urban environments with [high-tech]-type jobs or business jobs, they’ve been disconnected in some way and they are feeling the void.”

Earth Knack interns sign on for an “outdoor living experience” at Earth Knack. They can set up a tent or create a primitive shelter out of a canopy and tree trunks. There is an outdoor kitchen and a centralized fire pit where the interns gather at night over a dinner made with a wild food ingredient and an ancestral cooking method. Many interns start off knowing nothing about primitive skills, and they are often exhausted for the first few days because they burn more energy than usual doing simple tasks. During those early days, interns will often sneak into town or go off to the edge of camp to catch the wi-fi and check their messages. By the second week, however, people tend to accept where they are and stop worrying about what’s happening somewhere else.

Hill was Earth Knack’s first intern that season. While he admits that the experience wasn’t completely primitive, he was living outside, escaping early snowstorms, using his skills, getting water from the stream and experiencing real cold and real hunger. He was enduring the “raw reality of life,” he says, learning what it felt like to be truly hungry and cold — but alive. He was finding what he’d started looking for years before.

Three weeks into the internship, Hill discovered a dead, bloated raccoon upstream from his water supply; it appeared to have been dead at least six weeks. To his surprise, Hill hadn’t gotten giardia — even though he’d been drinking dead-raccoon water for three weeks. He picked up the raccoon and walked it away from the stream, talking to it the whole time, pleading for it not to explode on him. But for him, that experience exploded another myth about wilderness living.

Living off the land: Robin Blankenship with her family in the mid-’90s.
Living off the land: Robin Blankenship with her family in the mid-’90s.
Earth Knack Stone Age Living Skills

Aside from bow-carving and more traditional homesteading skills like canning and butchering, Hill didn’t learn many new primitive skills at Earth Knack. But what he did acquire there was more important: a confidence in his abilities that allowed him to start his own business, Gone Feral.

During the internship, Hill, Blankenship and other instructors would sit around their campsite, talking about how they were going to pass on these primitive technologies. Many of the old-timers do not rely on modern technology to communicate their skills — but Hill recognized that he’d need to use it if he was going to work with younger generations that get much of their information through social media. Without the tools of today, he says, the primitive skills that date back millions of years could die out; it’s necessary to have a foot in both worlds and not be a “holy man on the mountain.”

The oldest stone tool on record is about 2.7 million years old. Stone lasts long enough to provide archaeologists with a time frame, though they tend to make assumptions about an entire culture based on a few arrowheads, Hill says. He equates this to trying to reproduce Tolstoy’s War and Peace with only the first and last letter and some punctuation.

Man learned how to create fire 80,000 to 100,000 years ago; for the 1.5 million years before that, he and his ancestors controlled fire by getting it from a lightning strike or stealing it from others. Man didn’t make it to the top of the food chain until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Until then, he could be found running from hungry saber-toothed cats or cave bears, which would have towered over today’s grizzly.

Cordage is the youngest of the three major primitive skills, in the game for only about 10,000 years. Impressions on pottery vessels between 5,000 and 10,000 years old show evidence of cordage. Such inventions “eventually become spears, atlatls, bows, guns, spaceships, cell phones...that put us in a position of power [and responsibility],” Hill says. “It all began with the Big Three. Pretty neat stuff — and very humbling, if you ask me.”

Learning those three skills is a key step to doing what’s most important: Getting outside. Blankenship notes that quantifiable data now exists showing the healing effects that nature has on the body and psyche. New York Times bestseller Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, discusses just that, coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.” According to Louv’s website, the book is the first ever to organize the available research that connects nature with healthy childhood development as well as healthy living in adults.

At the same time Louv was starting his work, the Japanese Shinrin-Yoku movement was developing in the ’80s; it translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” as explained on shinrin-yoku.org. That concept has become increasingly important with naturalists, and the nonprofit has garnered an international following, offering program guides on its website for soothing walks through the woods and other avenues to healing with nature.

These developments have just added more fuel to the fire for primitive-skills practitioners in this country, increasing the number of people suddenly interested in their services.

The inspiration for Gone Feral’s name came from one of Hill’s mentors, Steven Watts, an aboriginal-studies educator at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. (Watts also helped create Tom Hanks’s tools for the film Castaway.) The two had met early in 2011 at Idaho’s Rabbitstick, one of thirty primitive-skills gatherings held across the country every year. Attendance at these gatherings can range from a few dozen to four or five hundred people — the usual number at Rabbitstick — who camp together for a week to a weekend. After meeting at Rabbitstick, Watts and Hill spent several weeks together studying very specific subjects, such as re-creating the first stone tools in recorded history or primitive lighting like oil lamps and torches.

Watts had a saying that stuck with Hill: “Once domesticated, you can never be wild again, only feral.” Humans are domesticated animals, unable to fully “re-wild,” as Hill puts it. So the logo for his business includes the words “Gone Feral” on a “Gone Fishing” sign.

To get Gone Feral going, Hill sought advice from the Small Business Development Center in Boulder, filed the proper paperwork a week after his Earth Knack internship ended, thought up a few classes and did some grassroots marketing, hanging up posters in Boulder coffee shops and holding free community classes.

The business grew quickly. Today, keeping up the website and Facebook page are about the only tasks Hill has time for beyond teaching. He brings on guest instructors who are well versed in primitive skills but may not have an online presence, enabling them to pass on the primitive-lifestyle legacy. Hill also leads wilderness treks and teaches semester-long classes at Red Rocks Community College.

Students range from kids to adults in their fifties and sixties. Hill teaches all of them the primitive skills he’s learned over his ten-year journey: how to create fire with friction, basket-weaving, plant identification and bow-carving, to name a few. He feels it’s his duty to educate people about these skills, he says, even to “change the world” by doing so.

Back at the Northglenn Gunther Toody’s, primitive tools are strewn across the table. Holding his impromptu cordage class, Hill is doing what he does best: educating.

Talk to Hill for an hour and you may find yourself eyeing the weeds in your front yard, wondering if they are edible, or thinking about how to turn that sapling into a bow and arrow, or maybe trying to light your grill with a friction fire.

This summer, Hill is teaching primitive skills to families, individuals, staffs from organizations and businesses. He also has a dozen regularly scheduled classes throughout the year.

Doug Hill and the tools he created.
Doug Hill and the tools he created.
Anthony Camera

Some people come to Hill grounded, with a hard idea of what they want to learn and why. Others float in with airy, hippie-ish ideas, looking for some unrealistic spiritual connection. Hill admits that he’s a little jaded because here in Colorado, many people already feel they have some kind of spiritual connection, since they live so close to nature. But he doesn’t always see this as genuine, “so I try to gauge whether they are talking about reality or some false sense of reality,” he says. In the end, though, he’s willing to teach anybody.

Hill has noticed that some of his students use the same language he used when he started looking for something more a decade ago. They are looking for something outside their LCD box and seem to find it in the skills of our ancestors — as Hill did. Students successful in starting a fire with sticks are overwhelmed with emotion, sometimes jumping up and down, hugging Hill or breaking down in tears at the sensation of accomplishing something so easy by today’s standards, yet once so challenging and necessary for survival. And it’s cool, he says: “I think it’s a really powerful moment for somebody when they take two pieces of wood and rub them together and it makes fire. It’s like magic. I think it does move people a lot.”


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