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A survival situation

The pandemic taught the director of southern Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School to keep calm and stay in the moment.

Eli Loomis holds his 1-year-old daughter, Alma, while she points at a dog at Squalicum Creek Park in Bellingham, Washington. Loomis has taken a renewed interest in his local parks now that he’s unable to go on outdoor adventures.
Eli Loomis holds his 1-year-old daughter, Alma, while she points at a dog at Squalicum Creek Park in Bellingham, Washington. Loomis has taken a renewed interest in his local parks now that he’s unable to go on outdoor adventures.
Provided by Eli Loomis

Eli Loomis isn’t panicking. Not anymore. He knows better.

Far from the red rocks of southern Utah where he teaches survival skills for a living, Loomis strolls the asphalt walks of a suburban park in Bellingham, Washington, past patches of woods, taking in the blooming Indian plums and sprouting nettles. Spring wafts through the air, along with something else: apprehension, in the form of saliva droplets.

“There’s a dance,” he observes, when joggers and cyclists and dog walkers converge. Some don’t care; others wade into the bushes to get some distance or simply turn their faces. But Loomis, probably with a flannel shirt draped over his trim outdoorsman’s physique, still goes to the park. He must go. He anchors himself in nature, usually somewhere far more remote.

As director of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah, he’s led students through the more rugged canyons and bluffs of the San Rafael Swell. He’s hiked through spitting rain in the desert and slept in nothing but a pile of leaves, and thank goodness, because “it would be so much colder” to sleep on the bare earth. He pushes his students, challenges them to confront discomfort. But facing a pandemic, he forgot some of his own training.

Survival is about more than making fire with a bow drill or finding fresh water or foraging for edible plants. “The usefulness,” he says, “is more in the mental equipment of knowing that I can make fire with sticks. What else is possible?”

A survival mentality, he explains, starts with staying calm. But as coronavirus gained prominence, Loomis lost his cool, devouring news and refreshing his browser on the CDC website dozens of times each day. Before long, he didn’t recognize himself. “Am I the person who is calmly asking questions of the experts and accepting the uncertainty when they don’t have details to offer?” he wondered. “Or am I the person freaking out?”

Loomis knew he was freaking out. And freaking out leads to bad decisions, he says, which can kill you much faster than starvation or hypothermia.

So he regrouped.

Now he draws on his past confrontations with uncertainty to inform his approach to this new one. He’s still reading the news, but less. He’s dealing with the situation as it unfolds, rather than as it might unfold. In a survival situation, that’s all you can do.

“I’ll get informed,” Loomis says. “I’ll take the smartest action I know how to in the moment. And then we’ll see.”

So on a day like today, he takes his 1-year-old daughter, Alma, to the park in their hometown, not far from Canada, where towering conifers dot the foreground and mountain curves interrupt the horizon. He sits in the grass and feels the blades, smooth and stiff as usual, between his fingers.