The Ron Hardt Experience
The Ron Hardt Experience
The potatoes were starting to brown on the outside as the flames licked their skins. I tried to keep them cooking evenly but the heat kept on changing due to the quick burning wood. The fire that I had made using flint and steel and a bunch of small leaves and birch bark was the only real source of heat for Mike and me on the cold and windy night that we were about to spend on the top of the ridge. The two “Y” shape sticks that I had put up on either side of the fire pit held up a long straight stick with 8 potato quarters spaced evenly across it. This was our dinner for the night and we had earned it.
The temperature had dropped significantly since Mike and I arrived atop Silent Cliff in Bristol, Vermont on our adventure out into the woods to test our skills. I had my winter hat on and my wool jacket buttoned all the way to the top. Mike heard a cracking of leaves and instantly shined his flashlight over to the area where it came from. The stars were out in force but the moon was not. The stars cast a soft glow over the landscape around us.
“Don’t worry Mike, it’s just us, the stars, and the bears…” I said jokingly. He didn’t appreciate it.
I am Hunter Nolan, a twenty two year old that grew up in Falmouth, Maine, on an old working farm. I spent summers out on the ocean running around islands, making campfires and always looking for an adventure with friends and family. I like to think of myself as able bodied and usually up for any task that is thrown at me in the outdoors. I enjoy being outside but most of all I love a good adventure that takes me outside of my comfort zone. I remember the first time that this happened to me.
The summer after seventh grade, I went away to my first sleep away camp called Camp Kieve in northern Maine. I think that I learned more about myself there than anywhere else up to that point. It was the first time that I left home for more than a few days. I arrived and was immediately homesick because I didn’t know a soul at this camp and had never fully left the nest before. After writing a midnight letter back to home stating how much I wanted to come back, I talked to my counselor who convinced me to give it a few more days. I am really glad he did that. It ended up being the trip of my life. I hiked Sugarloaf mountain with my cabin and we then went on a two-week paddling and camping trip down the Kennebec River where I pushed my limits more than ever.
Setting my own tent and carrying my own gear for those two weeks gave me a new perspective of being in the outdoors. I had camped with my dad overnight but it had never been with the intention of then waking up, moving a few miles and setting up camp to do it again. Being the youngest in my cabin on this trip with Kieve, I was paired to paddle with the lead counselor. With that came the experience of always being the first to shoot a rapid or try a run down a stretch of unruly river. I felt like a leader (and also a guinea pig) as we shot a rapid first out of the group for everyone to watch and notice tough spots and make notes for their runs. I was small but a strong paddler, and lived up to the challenge working hard all day long to my counselor’s surprise. By the end of the camp as I drove away, I had the itching desire to get back out like that. So nearly ten years later I found myself packing a bag with tools that I had no intention of using while outdoors for the night.
“I am so freaked out by the idea of a bear coming in tonight,” Mike said while he looked intently into the brush. His high-powered LED flashlight lit the surrounding area up and there was nothing to be seen. Ron’s stories about being in the bush in Alaska and encountering grizzly bears had gotten to Mike’s head. He told us that he had come back to his camp a few times while outdoors and found a bear rummaging through his things. I asked him, “What do you do about that?” He told me “There really isn’t anything you can do but to wait and let them enjoy themselves.” Ron chuckled as he told me this, I could tell the thought still amused him.
As I have gotten older, the adventures have also gotten a little more daring. I packed a sleeping bag, a lighter, a camp stove, a thermarest mattress pad, knives, a hatchet, string, food, a pot, a pan, and a few other things that I knew I “needed” but didn’t want to resort to using. The adventure that we had embarked on started as a far-fetched idea that Mike and I might be able to spend a night out in the wilderness with minimal supplies and get by somewhat comfortably for the night. The only reason that I thought this would be a plausible situation was because I found Mr. Ron Hardt who agreed to take Mike and me under his wing for a few outdoor sessions leading up to our big adventure. Boy was I lucky to find him.
Ron is a man who I dare say is more comfortable in the wilderness by himself than in town with other people. He grew up learning basic outdoor skills from his Russian grandmother who enjoyed the outdoors as well. When he was in grade school he used to read books on survival and the environment. He told me that he often times would go spend a winter in the woods rather than going to school. When he joined the mountain division of the military, he was eventually promoted up to the special forces sector where he climbed through the ranks and ended up becoming a wilderness survival teacher. His time in the military isn’t a subject that he is very keen to talk about but it is quite apparent by his breadth and experience in the field that the military was an integral source of knowledge.
When he left the military in the mid eighties, he went to Alaska and spent seven months out in the bush living out of his backpack. He had no car to go back to for warmth or a home that he could retreat to in bad weather. Instead he utilized what was around him and lived on the land without having a home base. His knowledge about animals, plants, trapping, shelter, fire, natural medicine, and living with a minimal impact on the environment ended after seven months of being out. He told me that it was indeed “the woman that he ended up marrying” that helped him make the decision to come out of the bush and return to the continental United States and modern civilization.
Once back and settled in to his home in Vermont, he and his wife started “The Hardt School of Wilderness Living and Survival” in the heart of the Green Mountains.
The Hardt School is dedicated to the conservation of our natural
environment, and to providing you with a better understanding of
our wild places and your connection to them. We will teach you the
skills necessary to survive anything from a short term crisis to a
permanent situation living in the wild. – Hardt School Pamphlet Cover
This school ran for many years and Ron taught everyone that had interest. He found many interested civilians coming to the school and even state troopers and army personnel. He no longer runs the school as he has grandchildren now and has taken most of his time to follow passion projects such as helping out at the Keewaydin Camps and building his own canoes from scratch.
Mike and I found our location out on Silent Cliff after an hour of hiking into the woods. We were set on building a shelter for the night so we got right to work chopping and collecting sticks and branches. Ron had shown us some survival style huts that could be constructed quickly but we opted to build a larger shelter since we had the whole afternoon. Starting with the frame, we built a freestanding lean-to style shelter. We were not sure about the rules of cutting a tree down in National Forest so we stuck solely to down and dead trees.
Ron had instilled in us that many of the skills we were going to use out in the bush would take practice and would not work when we first tried them. He was right, we hit a few snags along the way that slowed our progress. First off, Mike took a break to have a bit of pepperoni while we were collecting stick and ended up gashing into his finger. We (stupidly) had no first aid supplies so we resorted to toilet paper wrapped around his finger and twine holding it tight. About twenty minutes later while shortening some logs, I broke my hatchet. One of our most valuable tools was rendered useless. I found myself not feeling as in control as I wanted to be.
When I first found Ron, I showed up at his house unannounced. I could not get in touch with him on the phone or via email and the clock was ticking on getting my project started and our sessions underway. I am a somewhat shy personality but with a little nudge from my professor I went out and dropped by.
I found Ron behind his house milling boards with a mask on to keep from breathing the sawdust. His bushy beard exploded from the mask as he pulled it off to come talk to me. His suspenders were keeping his beaten jeans above his waist and he had a pair of rugged work boots on that sported a small American flag pin on either shoe’s shoelace. We sat down and I explained who I was and that I wanted to do a project that encompassed survival in the woods culminating into me doing an overnight with a light gear kit. There were a few things that he said to me during that afternoon that really helped me to understand his knowledge and to a degree, my naivety.
I talked first about my desire to do a project on surviving in the woods.
“Well you’re using the word survival and you know, I kind of have a different take on that. I taught quote “survival” in the military and all that kind of stuff, but the bottom line is that you know it’s not survival. You’re living out there, you know, so it’s a different concept. But that’s how most people in our modern culture look at it now because they are so separated from things that a most simple and common situation to them is survival, but it isn’t. It’s just that we are so far disconnected at this point that it is kind of interesting when you look at it. A fellow can grow up, go to school, have a career, basically have a successful life but if you stick him out in the woods… the common statistic now is that less than 24 hours and he’s done…” Ron said. I realized a huge distinction between my original thought for the project and what he was about to teach me.
To him, going out and making a trap, building a shelter, creating fire without a pre-existing flame, finding water, etc. was not survival. It was a way of living. Ron does not go to the grocery store more than once a month to get essentials such as flour and sugar. Even then, he tries to buy from local distributors. His meals (for himself and his family of five children) all come from plants that he grows, chickens that he raises, animals that he traps and from gathering of plants, herbs, roots, and barks in the forest. I had not realized the caliber of the outdoorsman that I had just met until that moment.
I sat on his milling machine thinking about my last six meals over the course of two days. I had not contributed to the production of a single thing that I ate in more than a month. I caught a fish over the summer that I ate but I could not really think of anything more than that.
Mike and I had no time to build traps or try to forage for food in the forest by the time that the sun went down on Silent Cliff. What I took from my time with Ron regarding food was that instant gratification doesn’t really exist out in the bush like it does at home. Ron would set traps a day or two in advance for food that he needed.
Rather than a reactionary instinct outdoors, Ron has a preventative instinct. If he didn’t want to be cold, he would build a shelter before it got cold. If he knew he would be hungry then he would build traps before he ran out of food. If he knew snow was coming, he would trap for furs in the Fall.
Mike and I ended up cooking pasta, potatoes and eating slices of salami for a quick fix dinner over the fire that night. It felt a little bit like cheating after we had worked so hard to use such minimal supplies. If we had more days in a row out there I believe that we would have been able to set up some successful traps and find nourishment.
My initial thought when I met Ron was to get out there and get right to it but Ron sensed my ambition and gave me another piece of advice from his experiences as a teacher.
“You know I taught survival for many years in the military and what they call survival anyway, and you know one thing I always tried to get through to people because a lot of people were like ‘let’s get out there and do it!’ is you know… you can’t do it (yet)… you need a lot of classroom time before your skills are to the point where you can actually do something. If you just try to run out there and do it now, you’re going to spend so much time trying to take care of yourself that you’re not going to get anywhere. And that becomes evident once people start trying to do things. But by the same token you should be able to get out and build some sort of a fire and build a shelter and make some type of a trap to catch a squirrel or something. I can show you how to make all sorts of deadfalls and snares and that kind of stuff, how to make rope and all that kind of stuff.”
My session with Ron ended that day on a very good note. We ended up having a few laughs over the fact that he knew my grandfather and by the end I felt like I was leaving a friend’s house. His laugh from the belly, his long bushy beard, and the property that he inhabited all told of a character that was enjoying his existence outdoors very much. With this I got ready to start coming back on a weekly basis for our outdoor sessions. Mike and I planned to be out for a night by ourselves after a month or two and we were excited
The first time that Mike and I went out with him was a walkabout. He identified many different plants that were edible and showed us just how much was right in front of us every time that we walk in the woods. We were just in his back yard and woods surrounding his house when we found everything from edible mushrooms to ginseng, which is a rare and expensive root.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the story of that young fellow that went up to Alaska and died in the bus?” he said to Mike and me.
“Oh yeah,” we said realizing he was talking about the character from Into the Wild.
Mike, Ron, and I were all knelt down looking at a plant stem that rose from the ground. Ron dug around the base of the plant as he talked to us.
“Everybody had different takes on that. My take on it is he was… uh… you know probably a really nice kid but very arrogant… he ate a part of the plant that he shouldn’t have. He didn’t take time to really learn what he was doing.”
Ron was speaking about the seeds of the hedysarum alpinum plant that Christopher McCandless ate while on his solo trip in Alaska. The seeds ended up shutting his digestion system down and ultimately killing him as many people learned in Jon Krakauer’s book and the subsequent film adaptation Into the Wild. Mike, Ron, and I were gathered around a plant in the same family that McCandless had pulled out.
“So you already know that story but that’s just to show you how serious some of this stuff can be. By the same token to show you how beneficial this stuff can be, I eat these things all the time” Ron said.
At the base of the plant was a spring onion. He cracked it in half and handed them to Mike and me. Perfectly edible, and we had been walking by them for the last hour without knowing it.
Ron and I later sat down in his house and examined the nettles plant that we had gathered while out on the walk. We used the skin to make some cordage as he calls it (simple twine) that would be useful for the next adventure of learning to trap.
“All these different skills that I show people are going to be easy. If it’s not easy, you can’t do it in the woods.” Ron explained.
“Never never never never never never trust high tech. If it breaks and you cannot fix it out there, don’t use it.”
As he said that, he finished about six inches of cordage that had been the stock of a plant 5 minutes previous.
“If I did this for an hour, you see I’d have about sixty inches worth of stuff… and then if I double that up I’d have a sixty inch snare that I could catch a deer with.”
Once again, I had been walking past a plant my whole life that I had no clue could be twisted together to create a string stronger than myself.
Just as I finished my first foot-long cord, Ron turned to his wife and asked,
“What do you think, can we get a little bit of food?”
“Yes” she said.
Ron’s face lit up, his hands clasped then rubbed together and he belted out a hearty
Ron uses his time and hands to obtain his food, not money. I recognized a genuine excitement and pride that came from his receiving dinner. On each of our plates were whole chicken breasts (raised at the house), broccoli (that tasted better than any I had ever eaten), and a white bean and cilantro salad that was also delicious. I enjoyed the meal and ate every morsel of food on the plate that had come from the square mile surrounding me.
Looking back on the day and Ron’s skills I reflected about his lack of dependence on the outside world. He really enjoyed the fact that he kept strong and provided for his family. The joy of collecting out in the woods satisfied his desire to be outside and his enjoyment of eating that which he collected satisfied his natural sense of providing.
“Nobody thinks of making a piece of string anymore, they just go buy one. This is so much more rewarding I think.” He said.
“You know I love canoeing. I could go paddle a plastic canoe all day long… but I LOVE paddling the canoes I built.”
“I cut these trees down, I milled out this cedar, I steamed it and bent it, I made this craft and you know it’s just so…”
Though he couldn’t put an exact word or phrase that moment to describe that feeling, I did understand. The joy is in the craft and the utilization of your own potential. He wanted to see people understand and utilize their abilities to the fullest.
Two weeks later I shifted back down into second gear. The bumps in the road were too tall to risk bottoming out going faster. I listened carefully for the sound of scraping even though Subaru built in a hefty ground clearance on the Outback model. The driveway into Ron’s house separates him by a half mile from anyone else on the rural drive in Salisbury, VT. I was interested to see what he had lined up for Mike and me on that week’s adventure to his outpost. My first sessions with Ron, I’d been alone. Now Mike and I came together, in preparation for our adventure.
“Hey guys how are you?!” Ron hollered from his belly as I stepped out of the car.
“Ready” I replied with confidence.
Ron’s suspenders kept his worn sun-bleached jeans above his waist. His boots thudded through the mud as he came in to welcome Mike and me in the driveway. I dressed prepared for the elements in anticipation of getting my hands dirty in our outdoor session. Flannel, boots, and a pair of beaten up carhartt pants became normal attire every time I went out to see Ron. I usually dressed comfortably on school days but those clothes did me good out in the bush with Ron.
The wood stove cranked out heat and filled his modest workshop with a strong smoky essence, the kind that stays in your clothes for weeks. Ron constructed it to house all of his outdoor necessities and ordinance. The shelves were filled with a range of gear from past travels. One rack on the wall housed neatly labeled ammunition for calibers from .22 to .45. The next was filled with books on reloading ammunition and shells, something that I myself had done with my father in high school while I tried to get my mind off of work or that week’s distraction.
The back wall of workshop was filled with shelves of outdoor supplies. When I stretched my arms I looked up and I spotted the racks of guns, bows, and fishing rods that hung from the ceiling. They were neatly ordered and evenly spaced, like an outdoorsman trophy case. Below, there were several squirrel and otter skins drying and tanning on wooden planks that Ron had milled in his backyard. The room was littered with hunting, trapping, and preparation supplies that detailed a life past and present out in the woods.
Ron reached and picked up a piece of birch bark half the size of printer paper.
“Tell me how I can catch a bird with this…”
Mike and I looked at each other puzzled trying to imagine the possibility. Ron held the answer behind a smirk while he watched Mike and me try to figure out the answer.
“It’s about simplicity. Complicated will fail you more often than not,” said Ron.
He took the birch bark and rolled it into a cone. He then wrapped a piece of twine around it at the bottom. I watched the calloused and rather large hands work, I really couldn’t imagine how this was going to catch me food outdoors.
“Now! What you are going to do is to take some pinesap and rub it inside the cone.”
“When you finish your meal near your fire, take some crumbs and sprinkle them into the bottom before placing it next to where you ate.”
My demeanor changed from puzzled to amazed as I realized his tactic. He didn’t want to chase the animal; he wanted to let it do all the work. Ron shared wealth of knowledge through the evening as we used sticks, line and a knife to create a multitude of traps. They all had specific applications and were useful in trapping in different settings.
The genuine joy that Ron shared as Mike and I watched these creations in action made me more excited than ever to get outside. Ron impressed upon us how important it was to practice these before applying them in a time of need and expecting them to work. When we arrived back home in Middlebury, we set up a classic paiute deadfall trap (mouse takes cheese, cheese moving lets rope go, rope pulls stick out from under brick, brick falls on mouse) for the mouse that had been frequenting our kitchen and leaving little “presents” for us in the bottom of the oven.
Just as Ron predicted, it fell a few times before we were able to get a stable version up and running. If it were a time crunch situation with the sun going down, we wouldn’t have gotten the traps up in time. Ron’s philosophy of practicing the skills before they are needed made sense here, trying to figure this out in the cold while hungry with shaky hands would have been no fun. Mike and I familiarized ourselves for an hour with the trap in preparation for our final outdoors adventure, the one without Ron there to help us.
Mike and I woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday when the sun came over the ridge and poured light into our shelter. It felt quite natural to wake up so early even though I normally sleep in. We were so tired the night before because of all the work we had done and because the light had vanished at four in the afternoon. We slept on leaves, with leaves covering us, in a structure made mostly of leaves. It got us through the night but was not the most comfortable situation I have had outdoors.
When we set out to make it a “survival” adventure, Ron brought up the point that in a survival situation, you are not supposed to be comfortable. You are supposed to make do and last until the sun comes up again so that you can get out. Mike and I had successfully modeled our “survival situation” for twenty-four hours.
We didn’t really talk much that morning. We were tired but we were both happy and reflecting. I was surprised because I thought that the endeavor was going to be grandiose and a huge deal but instead, the adventure was quite easy and enjoyable. It wasn’t what is shown on TV. It really is a way of life that is much more accessible and possible than I imagined. The night put into perspective many of Ron’s philosophies. We didn’t panic and we lived.