A Retreat for Revamping Your Survival Skills

Luxury resort attracts travelers with primitive technology program

Katie Jackson

Before there were blowtorches, there was blowing. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were fire breathers; not the colorful fire breathers seen at the circus, but a hardy, hairy crew who relied on fire much like their descendants depend on Wi-Fi.

Just ask Randy Kinkade, Outdoor Sports Manager at Canyon Ranch, a revolutionary health and spa resort in Tucson, Arizona. Kinkade can take three sticks, a piece of string, and a pile of tinder and turn it into a fire faster than most mortals can fathom. Kinkade, who manages the resort’s relatively new Primitive Technology program, says fire making is surprisingly strenuous, and it’s not unusual for first-timers to break a sweat.

Before the last step, which is the blowing, Kinkade must first get his students to create a coal. Using tinder, also known as Jute fibers, and a few pieces of carved wood including a bow, one creates a coal by mastering the force of friction. Upper body and core strength are crucial, and stability is also a factor. It’s optimal to get down on one knee and wrap an arm around a shin. The objective is to combine the force of the arm and the leg to create one greater downward force that is applied to a carved piece of wood known as the drill.

The other arm, your right arm if you’re right-handed, wields the bow that is used to drive the drill into another carved piece of wood called the fireboard. It is the physically demanding friction between the bottom of the drill and the fireboard that creates the coal. The trick is to apply as much downward pressure as possible while working the bow back and forth as quickly as you can. Both tasks are more trying than they seem.

The payoff though, is priceless. Once you’ve created an adequate coal, you wrap the tinder around it. But you’re not done yet; you still need to breathe the fire to life. The breathing is an art in itself. While the tendency is to huff and puff and blow with reckless abandon, Kinkade uses a relaxed breath in a rhythmic manner as he slowly turns the tinder in his hands until it begins to smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and in this case, a sense of accomplishment.

In less than ten minutes, a few cold sticks and a pocketful of tinder have birthed a ball of flames. When you make something—whether it’s a pizza, a knife, or a fire—what you create has more personality if it comes from your hands. Kinkade believes that there is a difference between fire that comes from a little match and fire that comes from a little muscle exertion. 

After more than 30 years of making fire, Kinkade still lights up when he sees someone succeed. Even if it means he has to step in and help apply pressure or hold the bow. He taught his sons how to make fire and recalls camping trips where he told them that if they didn’t make the fire themselves, there would be no fire. Fortunately, he’s not as strict with his Canyon Ranch students.

But why would one want to learn such an archaic method for making fire? “Why not?” asks Kinkade who says that his students cite many different reasons for wanting to spend their time at an award-winning resort learning how to make fire. He also notes that his students are incredibly diverse. “You can’t point out one person in a crowd and say, ‘that’s the kind of person who would be interested in primitive technology.’” And maybe that’s why the Primitive Technology program is growing in popularity.

Fire making is actually just day one of the Primitive Technology program. The other three components include knife making, native awareness, and animal tracking. On day two, students are taught how to make string from the yucca plant before being taught how to use the string and obsidian to make a knife.

Day three is spent learning how to hone your peripheral vision in order to be more observant and track animals. Senses can atrophy much like muscles can atrophy, and Kinkade is a big proponent of practicing the use of peripheral vision. The four-day program culminates in a surprise team challenge known as the final test. The entire program takes place within the confines of the 150-acre property so students never have to worry about being dumped empty-handed in the nearby Sonoran desert. But they will have to be prepared to be taken back in time.

Although Kinkade hesitates to use the word primitive, saying, “Our ancestors had the same brain capacity as we do, they just didn’t have the foundation. In that sense the technology is not all that primitive.” Whatever you call it, this unique program is both physical and fun, and it’s hard to envision a better outdoor classroom than Canyon Ranch. 

The next Primitive Technology session at Canyon Ranch will be held from May 13-16, 2014.


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