Randolph outdoor school teaches survival, preparedness

By Stephanie Casanova

Dave Carlson has spent a lot of the last year and a half cutting trees in the woods. He’s used the wood to build grills, a cooking stand, fire circles and has started to build emergency shelters and a cabin.

Last week Carlson built a blacksmith shop with the trees he’s cut down, just in time for a weekend blacksmithing class. Carlson is the owner of Blackthorn-USA, an outdoor adventure school that offers courses in preparedness, bushcraft and survival.

Carlson bought the 80-acre property he’s been shaping into a school almost two years ago. The property is in Randolph off of Tuttle Creek Boulevard, behind an old, abandoned gas station. Carlson uses the gas station as his shop and office and has plans to expand it.

The school’s first location, where it still holds classes, takes up 350 acres and is about eight miles northeast of the recent addition. Carlson and his co-instructors have been working toward making the new location their headquarters.

Survival skills is a small part of what they teach at the school, though they have had people come to them for that training, he said. A girl who was planning to hike the Appalachian Trail last year took survival classes at the school.

“People oftentimes refer to us as a survival school because that’s easy and catchy and cliche,” Carlson said. “But the fact of the matter is we do some survival training … but survival is not really what we’re big into. Most of what we do is primitive living skills and we delve into homesteading and blacksmithing.”

The most popular classes range from building snares, traps and deadfalls, to building fires and survival shelters.

“Everybody loves fire but not so many people are interested in learning how to purify water,” Carlson said. “And they’re both about equal as far as importance.”

Carlson said a lot of what he teaches are skills that used to be common sense but are now a lost art.

“It used to be everybody knew how to pluck a chicken or make soap and now nobody knows how to do that,” he said.

He said the classes prepare people for natural disasters, personal emergencies and homesteading.

“Personally, I think prepper is just the new, warm and fuzzy term for survivalist, because survivalist was so demonized in the ‘90s,” Carlson said. “You know, nobody wanted to be a survivalist because that was like a militia. The fact of the matter is the preparedness crowd now is basically doing the exact same thing that the survivalist crowd did.”

Being prepared is important and shouldn’t carry a stigma, Carlson said.

“You shouldn’t be stigmatized just because of ... what people think preparedness people are or survivalists are,” Carlson said. “Cause sure you get some whack jobs, but hell you get whack jobs in everything.”

Carlson used an example of how preparing for a disaster can help, even if it’s just a personal emergency. If every payday someone buys three extra cans of food and adds $10 to an emergency fund, it would be helpful no matter what emergency situation that individual is in. “If the zombies come then that’s probably gonna help you out,” Carlson said. “The zombies probably aren’t gonna come. But you might lose your job. That’s not a big, huge, worldwide or regional emergency. But it can be a pretty big emergency for you.”

Carlson said he doesn’t believe in zombies, but survivalists use it as a metaphor. If someone is prepared for a zombie apocalypse they’ll be prepared for anything, he said. The classes aren’t like what people see on TV, Carlson said, where people prepare for doomsday scenarios.

“If you’re out with nothing but the clothes on your back and you need to make shelter, you’re gonna have better luck if you’re prepared with knowledge to be able to do that,” he said.

He also teaches urban preparedness and encourages people to have a bug out bag that includes clothes, food, and a USB drive with important documents saved, like insurance information, if they have to leave home in a hurry.

Carlson said he gets a lot of students from other states. Classes are usually about 10 or fewer people. Some events include 30 to 40 people for an extended weekend. The school is growing every year, he said, with the more popular classes being in the spring and fall.

Carlson lives onsite with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

The land is mostly woods, with a large open space he’s cleared trees. Half-started projects cover that area. A cooking station with a wooden bar-height table and four poles meeting at the top like a teepee will be a group cooking quad. A deep rectangular hole will become a hog roasting pit. Carlson has finished one of a few planned fire pits, with log seats surrounding a stone fire pit.

He plans also intends to build sample shelters, a pavilion and a cabin where people can register for larger events. Camping is set up north of the cooking areas throughout the woods.

Carlson said he grew up in the country and didn’t have internet or watch TV. He spent a lot of time reading and playing outdoors.

“Here I am out running around in the woods. Well, anything I’d read in a book, I’d go out in the woods and try,” Carlson said.

Those childhood hobbies progressed into reading books about survival, woodcraft and camping, he said. As he was growing up, he continued to try the things he read about.

“I just never really got tired of it,” Carlson said. “There’s always more to learn. It’s just an interest.”

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