By Will Grant
I met up with the West Coast Survival School in November last year outside Wrightwood, California. The nearby ski area was open, and a light snow had fallen the day and night before I arrived. The three-day school was being held on the east slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, in a dry valley of oaks, firs and pines.
The two instructors, Reuben Bolieu and Reza Allah-Bakhshi, had just opened their West Coast school as a branch of the Alabama-based Randall’s Adventure and Training (RAT). Both are young, energetic instructors who willingly share what they’ve learned over the years from bushcraft experts.
In a lot of ways, Reuben and Reza are a refreshing pair. Their open-minded approach to wilderness problem solving encourages out-of-the-box thinking and innovative ways to apply survival skills. They teach you the skills you need to know, and they let you decide how to best apply them in a given situation.
“We show you what to do, and then make you do it,” Reuben says. “That way, the first time you do it isn’t when you actually need it.”
Reuben, 36, who writes regularly for SWAT and Tactical Knives magazines, first became acquainted with Randall’s Adventure and Training in 2007 on a survival course in Peru led by owner Jeff Randall. Since then Reuben’s been on half a dozen jungle trips with RAT, traveled around the world learning local bushcraft techniques, and instructed classes here in the US. He first met Reza in 2011, and “we knew he was the right guy to start up the West Coast class with me,” Reuben says.
Reza, 28, is an avid student of survival. Much of his training is within the same school as Reuben’s, and because they’ve been subject to the same teaching, they work well together. And what makes their schools so valuable, are the expert teachers they’ve had—people like Jeff Randall and Mike Perrin.
In the class I attended, four of us had braved the snows to spend two nights camped with minimal gear in a cold valley. A low ceiling of clouds hung a gloomy mist in the forest, and fog drifted in and out all weekend.
By far the highlight of the trip was the squirrel dinner. When Reuben and Reza arrived at the campsite the day prior, they found a hawk eating a squirrel. They flushed the hawk off its dinner and retrieved the squirrel. All but the squirrel’s front left leg was uneaten; the carcass was generally intact.
Everybody was interested in how were going to cook the squirrel. After gutting the small varmint, Reza skinned the squirrel by holding the body with one hand and firmly gripping the skin in the other hand. He ripped the skin from the body—just like peeling a banana.
We boiled the meat for about 15 minutes before roasting it on sticks over the fire. With a little salt, the meat tasted just like chicken. Everybody was pleasantly surprised how delectable the squirrel was, and how good the dinner tasted in the cold night.
Like most bushcraft schools, a lot of time is spent on knife work. Using a variety of blade shapes and sizes, Reuben and Reza go through the basics of how to use a knife—the four different ways to hold a knife, how to make fuzz sticks, how to baton a knife, split kindling, and lop off a branch.
“It takes a lot of feel,” Reza says. “Not a lot of strength.”
After the class demonstrates an understanding of how to use the knife and proficiency with it, pairs of two people build a shelter of pine boughs and branches. Mistakes are made, the shelters look lousy, and some can’t even be entered. But after adjustments and advice, the lean-tos start to look better. Pretty soon, all are worthy of a night’s sleep.
Reuben and Reza demonstrate how to make a figure-4 trap, how to tie half a dozen basic knots, and how to find north using the sun’s traveling shadow. Every body goes through the motions. Everybody builds a fire using a ferrous rod, and everybody has to find dry tinder in a forest that was under an inch of snow last night.
Of the five people in the class, all had come from the smog of urban centers to spend a few days in the woods breathing clean air, getting their hands dirty, and learning how to survive if they get lost, injured, or otherwise in a bad situation. Which wouldn’t be that hard to imagine, given the generally low level of wilderness experience the students had. And that’s exactly the reason they’re out there with Reuben and Reza: to learn.
Since I attended the West Coast Survival School, Reuben and Reza have held similar schools in the same area and continue to grow their branch of wilderness instruction. Next year, they’re planning on a Southeast Asia survival class in May held in the Philippines. They’re also hosting a women’s-only class in June. Check the website for dates, availability and pricing.