Five young people push their edges as forest caretakers in the mud, rain and snow above Ashland


By Juliet Grable

for the Mail Tribune

Living close to the earth sometimes means wearing it. Fortunately, Katie Buttermore, Steven Cossin, Dirk Minton, Amanda Smith and Sam Forti don’t mind a little mud.

The five 20somethings are halfway through a year they’re spending as caretakers of EarthTeach Park, on 1,680 forested acres east of Ashland. Six months into their tenure, all five say they are happy and healthy, spirits undampened by rain, snow, mud and the absence of Netflix.

The all-seasons Caretaker Program, brainchild of Coyote Trails School of Nature founder Joe Kreuzman, gives students what he calls “dirt time,” the chance to learn self-reliance and practice primitive skills such as tracking, trapping and flint-knapping, which they turn around and teach to others.

“I was drawn to the opportunity to live immersed in the four seasons,” says Minton, 24, who co-owns a business making herbal tinctures.

The caretakers live in shelters they built themselves and pipe water from a nearby creek, but they’re not entirely cut off from the modern world. They carry cellphones and drive into the valley once a week to re-supply and teach classes at the Coyote Trails’ Jefferson Nature Center in Medford. And to snag the occasional shower at a friend’s house.

“It’s amazing to turn on a faucet and have hot water flowing out,” says Cossin, 23, a recent graduate of Ohio State University. Not that he’s complaining. All five concur that the program’s biggest challenge isn’t dealing with the elements or dearth of luxuries.

“When you spend a lot of time outside, the silence and the slowness give you the chance to reflect on relationships,” says Forti, 23, who first gained experience with primitive skills through Boy Scouts. “It can bring up a lot of personal demons, though I hesitate to use the word ‘demons’ because it’s such a hugely positive experience.”

Smith, a violinist, was considering music schools when she decided to become a caretaker.

“I realized that I loved the violin because I could be outside while playing it,” says the 22-year-old. “This opportunity allows more well-rounded personal growth, whereas if I studied music, that’s all I would have been concentrating on.”

So far they’ve built three shelters framed with young trees harvested from their thinning projects and nestled village-style among the conifers. Cossin and Minton share a large debris hut called the Root-Chair Lodge — picture a giant woodrat nest with more attention to aesthetics. It’s named after the natural easy chair formed by the arc of a massive root. Eighteen inches of earth and forest litter insulate the walls; a curving vestibule keeps out wind.

“You can’t tell if it’s day or night,” says Cossin. “Sometimes we go out in the morning to a foot of snow.”

The two women share Deep Purple, named after the purple-red clay discovered during construction. The “modified root-ball hovel” seems to sprout from the earth, and was modeled after dwellings developed by the Adena people. Forti sleeps alone in a single-person shelter, dubbed OR-7 in honor of the gray wolf that’s gained notoriety while wandering through Southern Oregon and Northern California. The conical hut is sided with cedar-bark shingles skinned from downed trees. Inside, Forti has fashioned a stove from clay and stones harvested from the creek.

“It’s the first time I’ve had my own room since before college,” says Forti, who studied music and creative writing at Denison University in Ohio. Entering and exiting requires some contortions and inevitably results in muddy knees, but once inside the shelters are snug and cozy as any den, illuminated by soft candlelight and warmed with wood stoves.

After completing daily chores, the caretakers practice flint-knapping, bow-making and starting fires by friction. They’ve even crafted snowshoes. Tracking is a huge component of the program, and it involves more than reading animal tracks and signs.

“Tracking is an umbrella,” Smith says, one that includes “internal tracking” — observing the body’s response to food and fluctuations in mood and energy. Tracking will eventually lead the caretakers to secure some of their own meat.

“Each person will start trapping when they’re comfortable,” says Buttermore, 23, who attended Denison University with Forti. For now, they practice processing techniques on roadkill and trade their labor for meat from a nearby farm. A recent meal? Bone soup, fortified with heart.

“I’ve never eaten so much lard and real butter in my life,” says Cossin.

Witnessing the transitions between seasons and the movements of animals are among the high points of caretaking. Mostly they see evidence, such as bear scat or coyote tracks mere feet from the shelters. Other times they’re lucky enough to see the animals themselves, such as a bobcat they spotted leaping across a clearing.

“That bobcat had been playing with us all winter,” says Buttermore. “I felt an explosive bubble of gratitude for the chance to finally see it.”

Projects for spring and summer include completing two more shelters, learning to tan hides, planting a garden and raising chickens. Kreuzman already has five new recruits for next year’s program, which begins in October 2012. If he can oust the graduating class, that is.

“Joe thinks we’re leaving,” says Cossin.

All five caretakers plan to continue teaching at Coyote Trails. There’s no doubt this shared experience will stick with them, even if the mud doesn’t.

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at