Sigma 3 Survival: Week 3


   Tom Brown Tracker School 2004; I had flint napped, made bone tools, and tried my hand at pottery. Class size at the school was large, which left little time for individual hands-on learning. Now it was Sigma’s 3 turn to teach me these skills. With smaller class size, more instructors, and a whole five days to learn these ancient skills, it was going to be great.


  We went on a little field trip to the Top of the Rock’s Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. The museum had many attractions including original artifacts similar to the ones we would be making soon. The highlight for me was the impressive amount of Native American buckskin clothing on display. Someday, I hope to go back.


Finally, the long-awaited day arrived…I busted out a coal with my oak board and spindle. With one side of my fire board full of holes, and three spindles ground to dust, victory was mine. Pottery was next.  Some of the guys were naturals at it…possibly on their way to making real works of art. While the pottery was drying, we gathered hickory staves to turn into green bows.


We spread out a large tarp to catch broken shards of stone and glass, creating a knapping pit. I spent most of my time working glass. Back home, quality stone is hard to come by, but there is an abundance of old glass bottles littering the woods. What an enjoyable and relaxing start to the day. Midafternoon, we took a break from flint knapping to work on bone tools. I made a pendent that could double as an arrowhead. The bones we used were left over from processing the goat. We finished the day removing hair from our dried goat hide. Gary and I were chosen for this undertaking. When I said the goat was a stinky little beast, this was an understatement. Thankfully, this task didn’t last for more than 45 minutes with the help of my razor-sharp tomahawk head. The fragrance of old goat wafted from our clothes throughout the camp, which the others made known to us. We ended up driving to town for showers just so we could tolerate our own stink.


 We worked on green bows and flint knapping. That afternoon, we went on plant identification walk with Josh.


We made atlatls, pine pitch glue, arrows, and darts. That evening, we started a huge bonfire as a kiln to temper our previously made pottery. Staying up in shifts, we kept the fire going all night.


We discovered that most, if not all, of our pottery had cracked. I wasn’t too heartbroken. The stoneware cup I made resembled something a small child could have made from Play Doh. I commented, “A thousand years from now, this will be a dig site, where archaeologists will ponder what was mentally wrong with the people who made this pottery.” Everyone laughed.  Later that morning, we cut down trees to make tables and chairs. Rob had a little hand auger called a settler’s wrench which we used to drill holes and cut tenons for the furniture. I would like to purchase one of these handy little tools in the future.  That afternoon, we finger weaved shoulder straps and belts for our Roy Craft pack frames. The last project of the day was tying a gillnet. I had previously made dip nets, gillnets, and bags using a net needle and gauge. At Sigma, we used an overhand knot instead. The nets weren’t as uniform using this method, but they were quicker to construct, which was useful for teaching a group of students with time constraints. This wraps up another fast-paced week at Sigma 3.

Winter Camping w/Sigma 3 Brothers


One of my last weeks at Sigma 3, I woke up in my shelter to notice a text message from one of the guys who had attended a previous class here with me, Peter. He was wondering about going hunting this fall, but I already had plans to hunt with my dad’s cousin, so we decided to plan a small game hunting and camping trip the end of February. Other guys started hearing about the trip, bumping up the number to 5. When the time finely came, it ended up being just 2 men left… Josiah and Dave. We chose this weekend for the camping excursion since it was the last week in Minnesota for legal small game hunting, and hopefully it would be starting to warm up. The weather was almost too nice. They were lucky because they didn’t get a taste of a real Northern Minnesota winter. Just the week before, it had been a bone chilling -30F, or including windchill, -50F. Over the course of the week, we cut a lot of firewood with an axe (Helko Werk Classic Expedition) , an antique 1930’s crosscut saw I had restored, and a chainsaw. We also foraged for winter medicinal plants and chaga, made wood framed bow-saws, hand drill and bow drill fires, built a super shelter, and spent many long nights around the campfire telling tall tales. One of the days, we hiked a 6 ½ mile loop, with over 2 miles of it bushwhacking. During the hike, we stopped by to look at a wiki up shelter I had built for a submission video for the Alone TV show, and under the bed was a porcupine napping! Since we hadn’t seen any fresh sign of game, other than a few rabbits the whole day, we decided that Mr. Porcupine was looking mighty tasty. Upon noticing us, he came bolting through the wall of the shelter with the speed of a slow-moving storm. We ended up dispatching, cleaning, and turning him into a fine stew.  Dave and Josiah each made a highlight video of the trip, which you can watch below.

Sigma 3 Survival: Week 2

Sigma 3 Survival: Week 2

Advanced Survival Course Begins

Day 1 

 I was getting into a routine of waking up around 5:30 without having to rely so heavily on my alarm to do the job. I was enjoying having Matt, Josiah, and around 2-4 other guys showing up for eggs, coffee, and to talk over the upcoming day. After getting the morning dishes done, we all headed up to the main camp. I was enjoying the morning challenge of trying to get a coal from my oak fire board and spindle. As the old saying goes, “Where there is smoke, there is fire”, but in this case is was just an old wives’ tale…especially this morning. Next, we started building a new double lean-to shelter. It took the better part of the day to complete, even with the whole crew working on it. Around 3:00 pm, a strange, but familiar smell came over the camp. It was the arrival of the billy goat that we were about to butcher. In my life, I have butchered everything from squirrels to cows, so I didn’t want to deprive the others of the privilege of dispatching and cleaning the stinky little beast.

Goat hide, photo by Claude Overstreet
Smoking the goat meat, photo by Claude Overstreet

Day 2  

After friction fire practice in the morning, we started processing the rest of the goat and made racks for smoking the meat. While the meat was smoking, we cut down an oak tree, made wood benches, some cooking utensils, and a sweet wood mallet, which we named Thor’s Hammer.

Day 3 

 Rob added a fun twist to morning bow drill practice … PT. Fifty push-ups, fifty sit-ups, fifty air squats, twenty-five burpees, one hundred jumping jacks, and a ½ mile run was a good way to get the heart pumping.  After all that fun, we went right into learning the hand drill fire. I previously learned this at Rabbit Stick Primitive Skills gathering from Myron Cretney, but here we added finger straps with downward pressure to the spindle. This was new to me, and would definitely help when I teach kids in the future. After lunch, we made a bunch of different traps and discussed many others. 

Coal burning a spoon, photo by Matt Kessler
Bird Snare, photo by Matt Kessler


Day 4 & 5

Camping at Assumption Abbey

The first thing we did was go on a hike up to some caves. On our way back, we gathered some nettles and bamboo for making cordage and a fish trap. On the beach along the river, we all cowboy camped and worked on projects, the first one being basket making.

When asked if I had made baskets before by one of the other students, I replied, “I am a level three basket maker.”

 A little later, he was struggling with his basket, and asked, “How do I fix my screwed-up basket?”

  “ I don’t know, I am just a level three basket maker.”

“That’s why I am asking.”

 “You know there’s over one hundred levels of basket making”…

We both laughed and I helped him fix his basket.  After that, we started on the fish trap. When finished, it was real work of art.

We made many crafts, including fish hooks and spears, but the greatest accomplishment for me was making a friction fire with nettle cordage. This alone was worth the whole trip.

Finished fish trap photo by Claude Overstreet
Matt, Josiah, and myself working on the fish trap
Class down by the by Claude Overstreet

Sigma 3 Survival: Week 1

Week 1

Sept 28, 2020. 5 a.m. : started the short 1,100 mile drive in the old work truck towards Reeds Springs, MO. Why would I risk driving a truck with over 350,000 miles on it so far? Well, after watching the news over the summer, I wasn’t about to risk driving our Tahoe through an area where a riot could take place, and having to abandon our vehicle to an angry mob…who knows what could happen during the 45 days I planned on being gone. This was my maiden voyage using the GPS and not relying on my maps…and yes I still have a flip phone but I like being old school, so get over it.

The next day, I arrived at the school around 3pm. The first people I met were William and Josh. They welcomed me and gave a brief rundown of the property, showing me where to park and mentioned that I could sleep wherever I wanted to that night. Being a kid at heart, I chose the tree house that was located in the center of camp. As the night went on, students slowly filtered in. We stayed up pretty late visiting and telling stories around the camp fire. It’s not often you meet so many like minded people.

The first five days were known as the Standard Class and pretty much every class started at 8am. Each morning, I was getting up around 5:30 to make breakfast and read. With a pot of liquid energy ready to go, it didn’t take long to gain two early morning coffee buddies. In our quest to help each other, they offered to share notes and pictures with me, which was great because my picture taking ability is on-par with a small child.


Early morning coffee buddies Matt & Josiah


After introductions on day 1, Rob gave the instructor candidates the rundown on what was expected of them and the main rules… the big one being no sleeping in your car or truck no matter how bad the weather.


The first subject we covered was gear. This included everything from what you wear, to what is in your truck. The teachers were well versed in both modern and primitive skills. I tend to lean more towards the primitive skills end of things. Being a not so gear heavy person, I appreciated learning about tools I had never heard of before. It made me think that when I taught in the future it would help bridge the gap between the old and the new with some of my more modern thinking students.  


 When I first enrolled in class, I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy building shelters so much because I had built and stayed in debris huts and lean-tos before. Surprisingly, it ended up being quite enjoyable because so many people were helping construct them, which consisted of raking lots and lots of leaves…hence the battle cry, “MORE LEAVES”.  We also learned different lean-to variations using tarps and ponchos. Knots were demonstrated to aid in quick take down and setup of shelters, which included the trucker’s hitch, the lark’s heads, and the slip knot to name a few.  


 In this part of the class, we talked about sip wells, primitive filters, and filters that can be carried on you.

Photo by Matt Kessler


 I enjoyed this part of the class the most. We covered everything from ferro rods to bow drills. We even got a coal using a fire plow, though it was a group effort, not a lone wolf method as told in the story books. When we were working on the bow drill, I was trying to learn as much as I could to improve what I already knew. Back in 2005, I had learned how to make and use the bow drill at the Tom Brown Tracker School.. but I didn’t get my first coal until I got home a week later, and still have a picture of that fire. Since then, I have not only made kits for myself and taught classes on bow drill, I actually sell kits online. While using the bow drill at class, every time I got a coal, Rob and William would challenge me to use harder and harder wood, building up to oak (which I didn’t get a coal with for a whole week).

My very first friction fire back in 2005.


 Trapping is something I have been doing since I was a teen. I’ve used snares, conibears, and leghold traps to catch everything from weasels to coyotes. I have made primitive traps, such as the figure four and Paiute dead fall, but the split stick version of these traps I learned at Sigma 3 is superior to the way I had been doing them in the past. It’s kind of funny…if you do the same thing long enough, you overlook the obvious.

split stick trigger
split stick trigger with string through it for bird by Matt Kessler

This is just a small taste of what I learned in the standard class, and just the beginning of the journey. Hope to be writing more soon. Remember; to keep your eyes on the skyline, and your blades sharp.


The beginning of a survival journey

Why I chose the 45 day certification course

For the past 15+ years, I have been teaching survival and bushcraft skills in some capacity.  This being so, some people might ask why I would go to a survival instructor certification course then….

  1. I believe a person should test themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually.
  2. See if I even remotely knew what I was talking about.
  3. Learn different variations of the skills I was already teaching.
  4. Learn to be a better teacher and communicator.
  5. Test my skills for more than just a week or a weekend.

After much research, I decided on Sigma III. From what I read, Founder/Lead Instructor Rob Allen, and Instructors Josh Hamlin and William Hunsaker had many years of proven experience. They looked to be the best, and fell into my budget.

The school is located in Reed Springs, Missouri, which is just like Northern Minnesota; except it has hills, mountains, poisonous snakes, spiders, chiggers, and a lot warmer weather.

Having been a survival instructor myself, there were a few things I tried to make a point of doing from the beginning; have my cup empty, ask a lot of questions… some simple ones at that, try to go slow, not answer other people’s questions, and always point students back to the teachers. Nothing is worse than a student who thinks he knows more than the master and attempts to show his fellow classmates a “better way that he saw on YouTube.” Hmm, I wonder if I’m talking from past experience?

 Over the next weeks I will be sharing about my adventures with new friends ,sleeping in all kinds of shelters ,making primitive tools ,reviewing the school and new gear, and more.  Till we meet again, keep your eyes on the sky line and your tomahawk sharp.



Fort Bridger Rendezvous
Walker's braintan leather & bushcraft
Fort Bridger Rendezvous

Some of the first books that I can remember reading were of the life stories of Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Kit Karson, Jedidiah Smith, and other epic accounts such as the Last of the Mohicans. When my dad told me about a cousin, Jim Walker, who went to mountain man rendezvous’, I could hardly wait to ask if I could tag along. The first rendezvous I ever attended was with my dad and Jim in Kindred, North Dakota, at the age of 12. Mountain men, voyageurs, long hunters, natives, pioneers, traders… all makes and models of wild men, with names like Three Legs (Jim), Fawn Killer, Wood Tick, Uncle Ernie, Crooked Nose, and Colonel Tom, just to name a few. I continued attending rendezvous’ through my early 20’s. My wife Stacie and I attended her first rendezvous in 2015, where we met up with my friend, Fawn Killer at the Bemidji, MN Hang Fire Rendezvous. Since then, we have attended around 1-2 a year, including the High Plains Regional Rendezvous’. It was at the High Plains where one of our friends, TC, was looking at some of my brain tanned leather, and said, “ Brother Man….you should bring some of this stuff to Fort Bridger.” The following fall, I saved out some hides to finish in August just before the Fort Bridger ‘Vous. In early July, we got an order from a costume designer who ended up buying all the leather we had.

“Now what?”, I thought to myself. “Do we still go with no hides to sell…and pass up the opportunity to attend one of the biggest rendezvous’ in the country? Horse Feathers!!! We’re going!”

Labor Day Weekend arrived at Fort Bridger with a bronze sculpture of Jim Bridger pointing the way. It was a beautiful location, with mountains in the distance and a small stream running through camp, which had beaver dam just up current. It didn’t take us long to find our friends, Lance, and later, TC.

Mountain man reencators

Down by the river…

friends at Fort Bridger

left to right: Derrik, TC, and Darrik
At TC’s custom hat, moc, and bag shop, South Fork Traders

While visiting with them, we thought it would be interesting to go around and talk with some of the people selling brain tan, to hear their stories on how they got started. These are their stories….

Scott Schniedervin of Laramie, WY

Scott has been tanning hides for a little over 20 years. When we asked about how he learned his technique, he mentioned that most of it was learned from the Matt Richards book, From Deerskins Into Buckskins. Another influential book for him was Blue Mountain Buckskins. He recalled how the original book came with an actual piece of brain tanned leather. Scott has had the privilage of teaching Native American students the art of tanning. He has worked with elk, deer,  and antelope hides. He normally tans around 10-20 hides a year. Below is a slide show of some of his work, such as a beautifully beaded possibles bag, decorated by his skilled wife, as well as some pants and leggings. 

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Lance Grabowski: An Original Mountain Man

Lance started brain tanning in the 70’s using the method of much trial and error from books he found. Most of the books were truly vague on how to tan, so he’d have to experiment with things such as brain to water ratio, and other aspects of tanning. Blue Mountain Buckskin was the most influential for him however, because it had troubleshooting tips and an actual sample of buckskin…how it should feel. He recalls before reading the book proudly strutting around in the first pair of buckskin pants he had ever made, which had an interesting noise about them…resembling crunchy wax paper. He eventually transitioned from brain tanning to focusing more on creating art using brain tan. Lance has a long and colorful history of being a mountain man; riding horse back through the wilderness tracing Jedediah Smith’s path, being the first mountain man reenactor ever hired by the US Park Service, being a mountain man model for famous artists’, as well as creating western and Native American historically accurate garments and art himself! Below is a gallery of some of the intricate work he does. If you’d like to own a one of a kind custom piece of wearable art, visit his website at

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