You have just crash landed in a small plane, deep in Maine's winter woods. It is minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit and getting colder. Nobody knows where you are. The radio is broken. The plane is burning. The pilot is dead. And there are at least 80 miles of forest between you and the nearest town.
What are the first things you drag from the plane?
* A quart of 86-proof whiskey;
* A flashlight and some steel wool;
* A pen and paper to write your farewell address.
If you answered flashlight and steel wool, you might already know most of what Marta Sylvester can teach you in four hours about wilderness survival. If you opted for the whiskey or an eloquent surrender, Sylvester, a 22-year-old naturalist, has news for you.
"Survival is something really important to know," said Sylvester to 28 men, women and children who spent Sunday afternoon in a miserably wet patch of Pohick Bay Regional Park lighting fires, building temporary shelters and generally preparing themselves for disasters that would make a Green Beret cry for his mommy.
While the world comes equipped with pretty sharp teeth, the odds of a person emerging from a downed plane in the wilderness or wandering far enough from the Winnebago to be lost for weeks are remote.
Despite those odds, survival courses like the one Sylvester teaches for the Northern Virginia Regional Park authority and more extensive ones offered by outdoor schools in the area have become popular in the last decade.
"I had 200 calls yesterday about this seminar," said Sylvester. "It seemed like the whole world wanted to come down here."
Some came in clothes that looked more appropriate for an afternoon in a shopping mall. Others wore jungle fatigues and complete rain suits. A few had Bowie knives big enough to whittle an oak tree into a toothpick.
"I took a survival course in the service for two weeks in Alaska at 40 below zero," said Bob Sweigart, a government chauffeur who attended the free seminar with his wife Zinda and their 6-year-old daughter Lisa.
At the other end of the experience spectrum was Lisa Davis of Alexandria, who came with a friend.
"We're thinking of getting into hiking and figured this would be a good place to start instead of getting lost in the woods," said Davis, who stood under an umbrella, offering encouragement to more aggressive students trying to start a blaze with flint and steel. "Let's build a big fire."
Fire building was the first of the tasks that included constructing a temporary shelter from dead trees, making rope from milkweed stalks, learning to set a snare to catch wild animals and preparing a solar water collector. The solar water collector seemed somewhat academic in the pouring rain.
"Some of you might not be too happy about it, but I'm glad it's raining. It's more of a challenge," said Sylvester, who grew up in Baltimore and Columbia, Md., and therefore served as encouraging proof that outdoor smarts can be learned.
The fire had to be built without matches. In the rain, that would have been considerably more difficult if Sylvester hadn't brought a few bags filled with easily ignited tinder--fluffy pods of milkweed.
"Good tinder is milkweed, the bark off birch trees, pine needles, cattail fluff and the underside of logs," said Sylvester as she doled out handfuls of the white stuff to three groups at separate fire sites. "Remember that, because I'm not always going to be there with the tinder."
Some former Boy Scouts in the group admitted they had forgotten much of what they once knew. One current Cub Scout, 11-year-old Jack J. Levenson, claimed he had not been taught much to forget.
"Scouts today get merit badges for blowing their noses. (Scout leaders) don't take you out in the woods and teach you to build a fire anymore," said Jack's father, a psychologist from McLean.
At another fire, another Cub Scout seemed to prove Levenson's point. Nine-year-old Chris Holtkamp, who has been a scout for almost two years, stood so close to the blaze, he seemed in danger of becoming part of it.
"Have you ever felt flames?" said Holtkamp after his father had pulled him back. "It feels weird."
As rain continued, the lessons required more concentration. But few left early, and no complaints were heard.
"Even if you never have to use it," said Jim Levenson, "knowing how to take care of yourself in an emergency situation helps build self-confidence."