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Back to the future: Preppers learn old-time skills to ready themselves for times ahead

coverFire, smoke, and efforts to make more of both fill the event pavilion at Haywood County Fair Grounds on a chilly May morning that feels more like early March. The Dutch oven class gathers around a fire in the right corner of the open-walled building, the blacksmiths get ready for their afternoon class in the far end and a cotton ball flames placidly atop the green metal case that Doug Knight is using to hold flint rocks for his fire-starting class. Class is in full swing, but nobody is paying the burning cotton any mind. They’re all too busy trying to ignite nests of frayed rope and char cloth with hard-won sparks from flint and steel.

It’s harder than it looks. 


Lighting a spark

“The philosophy is, be prepared,” Knight had warned them. “By being prepared, you’re going to have extra lighters, you’re going to have these things. But just in case, we’re going to teach you how to use flint and steel.”

Flint and steel are an ancient combination that has been used to start fires for thousands of years, but it takes some skill to make a spark. There’s the angle of contact between rock and metal to consider, the speed, the sharpness of the edge on the flint, and, of course, the position of the char cloth and tinder waiting to receive the spark. If the spark doesn’t alight on anything flammable, it just dies uselessly in the air. 

“You have to practice, practice, practice,” says Mike Fulmer, who enrolled in the class with his wife Jaymie. 

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The pair came all the way from Aiken, South Carolina. It was a long drive, three-and-a-half hours, but the Fulmers consider the trip worth it. Their trek was far from the longest, anyway. The fairgrounds parking lot boasted cars from Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina, but that’s not so much of a surprise. After all, where else can you find a three-day event dedicated to teaching all the skills every prepper worth his — or her — salt needs to know? 

The third annual Heritage Life Skills event, put on by Waynesville-based Carolina Readiness Supply, fit the bill. Classes covered everything from bread baking to butchering to knot tying to radio communication. It drew locals and out-of-towners, hobbyist campers and bona fide preppers. But even with such a spectrum of interest and geography, most everyone included the word “learn” in their reason for being there. 

“It’s always important for people to be able to function without having to rely on others, the government,” said Billy Sterrett, Carolina Readiness’ vice president of operations. “We’ve gotten lazy. Society in general has gotten lazy. Everyone’s used to buying their food. Well, what happens if inflation hits or it’s just not there anymore?”

Answer: you’ve got to know how to kill it, grow it, cook it, preserve it and guard it, all without help from Wal-Mart or the government.  

“Everything you learn this weekend is going to fall back to fire and metal implements,” Knight tells his class. He outlines a laundry list of materials for getting a fire going quick — hanging flower pot liners, pine pitch, cotton balls smothered in Vaseline like the one burning on the metal case — and methods. A beam focused from a magnifying glass or glasses lens, the old-fashioned flint and steel, a cigarette lighter. He schools his class on how to get at least three more lights out of an empty lighter (you have to remove the metal guard at the top) and counsels them to pick up discarded lighters they find while strolling through their daily lives. Just in case. 

“I have bookoodles of them in my pack,” Knight says. “I have these because I want to work smarter, not harder.”


Keeping warm in the storm

It’s great to know how to use flint and steel because, after all, that’s the most basic way of creating fire, a method that doesn’t depend on sunlight to work or require a refill of fuel. But the point of this event is to equip attendees with the practical skills they’ll need to survive when modern infrastructure deserts them. What, exactly, that scenario looks like varies from person to person. 

“About six months ago, we had an ice storm, and it knocked the power out in our community,” Jaymie Fulmer says. “After a couple days, people started panicking.”

With the right equipment and skills at their disposal, the Fulmers didn’t have to worry. They were even a little disappointed when the lights came back on after “only” two days. 

“We were actually hoping it would be out for five days so we could practice,” Mike says. 

Tammy and Tony Haney, who sell their handmade bracelets at Carolina Readiness Supply, put themselves in a similar category as the Fulmers. They term themselves “everyday preppers” and say they’re learning the skills in preparation for inevitables like snowstorms, hurricanes and downed power lines. 

“You don’t have to wait for the apocalypse for it to pay off,” Tony says. 

Lauren Henderson, of York, South Carolina, agrees. She traveled to Waynesville mainly to learn some skills that will fuel her interest in camping, but there was a survival element to the decision. 

“I lived through Hurricane Hugo, and I wasn’t prepared,” she said. “I don’t ever want to do that again.”

And plus, the classes are just plain useful. For the most part, they teach tasks that anyone’s grandmother would have lumped in the category of must-know life skills. 

“It’s just normal heritage things,” Tammy Haney says. “It’s practical. It’s not crazy.”


Preparing for collapse

Diane Bush, of Lake Junaluska, came for the inherent value of the old-time skills peppering the course schedule — when I caught up with her, she was just finishing up her meat canning class — but her interest had a more serious undertone, too. 

“I think that our economy, our government, there’s going to be a collapse eventually,” she said. “I don’t know how soon, but I want to be prepared.”

She’s not kidding. Bush and her family are looking at property, hoping to buy 10 acres or so to set up as a refuge just in case that happens. 

“You can’t even run your car if you have an EMP, and people don’t realize that,” she said. 

An EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, refers to a sudden burst of atmospheric energy that would burn out anything that depends on electricity to operate. It’s an acronym that hard-core preppers refer to gravely, a vulnerability of which they fear hostile nations taking advantage, sinking the United States back into something resembling nineteenth-century living. 

“It’s a warfare thing, and they can disrupt your power grid for the whole United States,” Bush says. 

“It would shut off your cell phone, your car,” Knight agrees. “Everything that has a magnet in it is fried. So how you gonna get home? You gotta walk.”

Thus emerges an importance to his fire-starting class that far transcends a hiker’s need to reliably heat up some Ramen. Because, as Knight pointed out, my backpack stocked with a single sandwich and bottle of water wouldn’t get me far down the road. Eventually, I’d have to boil some water and hunt some game. That’s where Les Wynne’s archery class comes in. 


Becoming a sharpshooter

“If you want to be quiet about what you’re doing, a bow,” Wynne tells his class in the fairgrounds pavilion Friday afternoon. “At 50 yards, half a football field, you are mine.”

Of course, Wynne has been a competitive archer since the 1980s, with winning titles to his name and 16 years of owning Right on Target Family Archery in Waynesville under his belt to boot. He makes it look simple, but achieving any kind of accuracy takes some practice. 

“It’s the nut behind the bow that’s missing the target,” he tells his class. “The bow will hit the target every single time.”

He unpacks a table full of recurves, longbows and crossbows, passing them around the seated group before turning to his collection of arrows, silencers, arm guards and even a fishing bow with accompanying heads. 

“Deer, pigs, there’s room for all of God’s creatures right next to the mashed potatoes,” he says, cautioning that he never shoots anything he’s not going to eat. 

But Wynne is certainly all about archery, whether it’s a means to fill a hunting tag or to prepare for the apocalypse. Because first off, it’s fun. That’s why Kevin Williams, 17, took the class. Bow hunting is a hobby he’d like to get started on. 

“I’ll be using this later,” he said. 


Benefits of a bow

But for the prepper crowd, the other benefit to bow hunting is that it doesn’t require all the commercial components a gun does. Without the bullets, Wynne said, “your gun is nothing more than a club shaped like a gun.”

Thus the bow. Wynne walks Waynesville resident Roger Tapp through the arduous task of loading a crossbow, letting Tapp see firsthand just how hard it is to draw that weight back. But Tapp is committed to learn. 

“I wanted to learn how to do archery because I may need it someday,” Tapp says when he’s finished his lesson. 

Someday, as in one day you might want to take up hunting, I ask him.

No, he replies. “More like the doom and gloom thing” of terrorists causing an EMP, the government crumbling, civilization changing radically. 

“I think it’s a possibility,” he says. “I think it’s a strong possibility. In the future, it could happen. I don’t know the reason why it would happen, but there’s a huge probability that it can.”

And if it does, Tapp says, archery will be a must-have skill. 

“Most people would have a gun,” he said, “but then you may run out of ammunition.”


Bang for the buck

As the class ends and I wander up to Building A, I run into someone who sees preparation as something that involves more than just the nitty-gritty skills of shooting your dinner and building a fire to prepare it, or even than tending the perfect garden and canning the results. 

“The average person spends $100; I spend $25,” says Jennifer Elswick, who is running a booth selling dehydrated food. But she’s there as more than a vendor. Come Sunday, she’ll be teaching a class on financial intelligence. Namely, how to coupon and buy in bulk. She spends about two hours a week clipping coupons and winds up saving $75 out of $100 on each grocery run. Time well spent, she’s decided. 

“My husband and I both got laid off in 2011, and if it wasn’t for this coupon and food storage, we wouldn’t have made it,” she says, offering a dehydrated strawberry. 

Economy is a big draw for many of the 100-plus people attending Heritage Life Skills. Canning food yourself is more cost-effective than buying it from a grocery store. Raising bees yields honey and beeswax, a base for a plethora of products. And living in a yurt, well, that’s just a whole lot cheaper than building a house. Plus, you can relocate the whole thing in a matter of days. 

“If you buy a piece of land and you can’t afford to put a house on it but you really want to live on your land, it can be a great solution,” said yurt builder Hal Jackson, of Mills River. 

The business has taken off, Jackson said, and demand for yurts is rising quick. 

“Yurts are really hot right now,” he said while screwing together his demonstration yurt, in preparation for his 3 o’clock class. More permanent yurts take two to three days to assemble, but he can put this one together in just a couple hours. 


Taking care of tech

As Jackson finishes his preparations, Dave McCall, of Transylvania County-based McCall Technologies, is in the thick of his class on surveillance detection. 

“If you pick up your phone and call someone, it will send someone else a text,” he says, showing his class one of the many commercially available bugging devices to be on guard against. 

“This is not about Big Brother,” he says. “It’s about Little Brother. Your neighbor, or the guy sitting next to you.”

Technology is constantly evolving, McCall says, so you have to stay informed about the myriad ways that exist to violate your privacy. That cell phone in someone’s pocket could actually be a voice recorder. The wireless network you join in Starbucks might not belong to Starbucks at all —  the signal could originate from a hacker sitting in a car outside. That hotel computer? It might have a bug plugged into it, storing every piece of information you enter. Same with the network itself. You might be connecting to a fake one, and the thing is, there’s really no way to tell the difference. 

“You just don’t know,” McCall says. “You just gotta stay off it. Take a cable and plug in.”

He’s serious about the threat, but McCall isn’t about to let fear ruin one of the best weekends of the year. You’ve got to be aware of the risks, he says, but that’s no reason to ignore the fact that many of the skills, and the people who value them, are just plain enjoyable. 

“It’s a lot of fun,” McCall says of the event. “You think you’d meet a lot of nuts, but you don’t. Last year I think I met one person with tinfoil on their head, and that was it. It’s just normal people interested in taking care of themselves.”

And that, said Carolina Readiness co-owner Jan Sterrett, is the point: learning how stuff works so that when the lights go out, there’s no cause for fear. 

“If there’s no power,” she said, “McDonald’s ain’t going to be there.”



How to make char cloth

Just like charcoal is partially burned coal that tends to light up easier than fresh, char cloth is singed cotton that’s capable of catching a spark in a hurry. Having a healthy supply on hand is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ve got fire-building capacity to last, said fire-starting instructor Doug Knight, and it’s easy to make. 

“You can do it on a campfire. You can do it at home,” he said. “I don’t recommend it if your wife is at home — make sure you turn the exhaust fan on.”

• Find a metal can with an airtight seal. Fill it loosely with cotton material such as squares of denim. 

• Close the lid and poke a hole in the bottom of the container with a nail. 

• Place it over a hot fire with the hole facing upwards.

• As the material inside heats up, a tornado of brown smoke will come out of the hole. When the tornado stops, the fire is no longer needed. Allow the fire to go out, but leave the can there until it is cool enough to pick up and open barehanded. 

• Start building fires. 


Building a bunker

Just how prolific bunkers are in Western North Carolina, or anywhere else for that matter, is hard to tell. They’re generally kept on the down-low, surreptitiously stocked in case of disaster by people who would just as soon keep their efforts quiet. 

“Most preppers do not tell what they have or that they are preparing, because then people will go raid those places,” said Heritage Life Skills attendee Diana Bush.

However, Bush and other attendees were more than happy to share a checklist of what the conscientious prepper should keep in his or her stockpile. 

• Water and a purifying system. A minimum supply of 45 days is recommended. 

• Food for at least 30 days. Dehydrated food is recommended to create a compact stockpile that will stay good for a long time. 

• Alternate cooking method, such as a sun oven, a propane stove with extra fuel or a fire pit. 

• Cooking implements. 

• Transportation, including extra fuel for cars or motorcycles, a bicycle or a horse. 

• Salt for preserving foods. 

• First aid kit, including over-the-counter medicine and any necessary prescription medications and soap. Better yet, learn how to make your own soap. 

• Weapons, both for hunting and for self-defense. Extra ammunition is essential, though getting skilled in the bow-and-arrow department is a good idea because it reduces that need. 

• Warm clothes.

Of course, equipment can only go so far. To survive, you also need the skills to use it, and that’s where Heritage Life Skills comes in. 

“We just want to educate and teach people how to be self-reliant,” said Billy Sterrett, Carolina Readiness’ vice president of operations.

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