Shelters in West Virginia: September 8, 2011

The Charleston Gazette: September 8, 2011

South Charleston environmental consultant Ann Schoolcraft erected this survival shelter using a thick layer of leaves and other forest debris.
By Rick Steelhammer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What do you do if you find yourself lost in the woods, or stranded by a flash flood or heavy snow, as nightfall or severe weather closes in?

 If you're Ann Schoolcraft, you start looking around for a suitable campsite and the materials needed to construct an emergency debris shelter.

"Hypothermia can set in even if it's fairly warm outside -- 53 degrees or below," said Schoolcraft. "You can build a shelter that will keep you dry and reasonably warm using just your hands and materials like sticks and leaves that are already on the ground."

Schoolcraft, an environmental consultant who lives in South Charleston, studied survival and tracking skills under legendary tracker/outdoor survival expert Tom Brown Jr., is now affiliated with the Coyote Trails School of Nature, with operations in Ashland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio.

"We held our first weeklong Coyote Trails class in Ohio in June to great success," she said, "and we will have weekend and daylong classes in Ohio this year, hopefully expanding into West Virginia in upcoming years."

On Saturday, Schoolcraft will be among presenters taking part in the annual Margaret Denison Fall Nature Walks program in the Kanawha State Forest, where she will demonstrate, with the help of participants, the art of debris shelter construction.

Debris shelters, also known as debris huts, generally make use of a sturdy pole, braced by a tree, boulder or some type of prop at its elevated end, and secured to the ground at the other end. Sticks are leaned against the pole in a tight, rib-like fashion to support the shelter's walls. A layer of twiggy branches and brush is often used to fashion a lattice over the stick walls, atop which leaves, pine needles and other "debris" is piled high -- often two feet or more -- to provide insulation and weatherproofing.
 The shelters are built only large enough to accommodate the desired number of prone occupants, to make the most efficient use of body heat.

In previous Coyote Trails workshops, "we poured 5-gallon buckets of water over the shelters to make sure they were built correctly," Schoolcraft said. "You stay dry if they are."

If enough time and effort are spent on the shelters, "they can be very comfortable," said Schoolcraft, who has winter-camped in debris shelters she built.

One participant in Saturday's debris shelter workshop will have the opportunity to spend the night in the newly built shelter.

Schoolcraft hopes to offer future workshops in other outdoor survival skills during upcoming nature walk programs in the Kanawha forest and other West Virginia locations.

The 2011 Margaret Denison Fall Nature Walks Program takes place Saturday from the swimming pool area in the Kanawha State Forest. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m., with walks beginning at 9 a.m.

The walks, led by knowledgeable volunteers, cover such topics as late-summer wildflowers and fungi, birds, trees, beavers and pond life, edible and medicinal plants, insects, salamanders, general ecology and nature photography. An auto tour is available for participants with limited-walking abilities.

Cost for the event is $5 for adults and $2 for children. Free drinks and a barbecue sale will follow the walks, sponsored by the Kanawha State Forest Foundation, the Mary Ingles Trailblazers, the Handlan Chapter of Brooks Bird Club and the Division of Natural Resources' Master Naturalist program.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 304-348-5169.