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A Weekend at Doe Camp With Mom


Published October 2, 2013 at 8:26 a.m.

“No!” I screamed with each smack of my palm heel. I was striking a punching pad but pretending it was instructor Renald Mathieu’s chin — or, better yet, his nose. One violent upward smash to the nose, the young woman beside me said, and you can kill a person.

I didn’t want to kill Mathieu. In fact, he and his wife, Lynn, had quickly established themselves as my favorite instructors at last weekend’s Doe Camp, an all-women outdoor-skills retreat hosted by Vermont Outdoors Woman. The Mathieus taught a class on self-defense without firearms, or, as I called it throughout the weekend, punching and jabbing.

I did Doe Camp with my mom. And it was so much fun, we still haven’t stopped laughing about it.

Since 2002, Doe Camp has convened one or two seasons a year in different venues around the state. Last weekend nearly 80 participants, organizers and instructors trekked up to Jackson’s Lodge and Log Cabins in the tiny Northeast Kingdom town of Canaan. The place is seriously remote — I didn’t know it was possible to drive three hours from Burlington and still be in Vermont.

It is, but just barely. The Canadian border runs along the edge of Jackson’s property, cutting through the camp’s beautiful Lake Wallace. New Hampshire is six miles away.

It was the perfect spot for a weekend of archery, rifle shooting, kayaking and fishing with women of all ages and backgrounds. Some come for the camaraderie; others come to brush up on their skills. Some, like me, come for mother-daughter bonding — what better way to say, “I love you, Mom” than to cheer her on as she beats up a pretend would-be rapist?

Plus, you get a 10 percent discount on the $349 fee if you bring the woman you spawned, or who spawned you.

My mom isn’t the kind of person you’d imagine participating in an outdoor-skills retreat. She loves long walks and riding her bike, but at the end of the day she’s happier bellying up to the bar than building a campfire. Mom has the kind of nervous energy that makes her a great deadline-driven journalist, but she’d be a menace with a loaded gun. Also, she has the attention span of a goldfish.

Then again, I’m not sure any of the women at Doe Camp fit the rugged-adventurer mold I had expected. Amid the few hardcore survivalists and fearless shooters were a middle-aged postal clerk, an empty nester who wanted to meet like-minded women, a platinum-blond bank teller who had recently rescued a wounded porcupine from the side of the road, a college student who wanted to learn self-defense and a young mother of two with another on the way.

On Friday, we registered and settled into our lakeside cabin, which we shared with friends — my friend Julia; her sister, Bridget; and their mom, Catherine. (Props to their family for coming up with the headline for this story.) Then we embarked on our first course, a wild-plant walk with survivalist and herbalist Marty Simon.

Simon, who ran an outdoor wilderness school in Chateaugay, N.Y., for 27 years, looked like a Boy Scout leader, with a smoky-gray goatee, a ranger’s hat, and a holster holding a knife and a pistol, just in case. Our walk took us only as far as the perimeter of the lodge property, but Simon came prepared, as he said he always does, with his army canteen, flashlight, whistle and fire steel, which can be used to start a fire with a rock.

As we walked, he stopped at various beneficial wild plants. We learned how to prepare milkweed pods (boil them twice to get rid of their natural milky goo) and nibbled on super-sour high-bush cranberries. Simon split open a white willow branch to show us the salicin, a natural anti-inflammatory, within. We found some hawthorn, which can lower blood pressure, and dandelions, which can cure topical warts — although “duct tape works just as well,” Simon said.

At one point he stopped and sat down to appreciate a tall, blooming yarrow plant, “one of the most beneficial plants I know,” said Simon, who noted that he had treated a recent bout of pleurisy with yarrow tea.

Simon has three basic rules of edibility in the wild: If it smells like onion or garlic, if it’s a berry with a corolla, or if it’s a segmented berry, you can eat it. Mushrooms, he told us, simply aren’t worth the trouble. Not only are they difficult to identify, but they’re what he described as a thermogenic food, meaning they take more energy to digest than they give back.

Three hours later, as my mom’s and my interest in wild plants was rapidly waning, we passed a group of women hunched over bow drills trying to start fire by friction. Their instructor, Laura Zerra, is the badass hottie from the Discovery Channel’s reality show “Naked and Afraid,” in which she and a male contestant were left for 21 days on an island in Panama with no food, water or clothes. (More like “naked and annoyed,” Zerra would confess to me over lunch the next day.) Before arriving at Doe Camp, the Massachusetts native, who has taught at wilderness survival schools including central Vermont’s Roots School, had bagged an enormous bull moose. Its head, hooves and hide stayed in the back of her truck all weekend.

On Saturday morning, we got up at six for a yoga class. “I don’t need my name tag for yoga, do I?” Mom asked. “Oh! But I do need this,” she said, clutching the Bingo board we’d been given the night before at dinner. “I’m gonna win this contest!” she vowed. Each square featured a sentence written by a different Doe camper about an unusual experience. Identify all the women, and you’d win a prize.

My mother is no survivalist, but competition is her calling. And she has a flair for talking to strangers. She ruthlessly pursued the Bingo game and was declared the winner before the second class session started on Saturday.

It was time for self-defense.

Lynn and Renald Mathieu run a martial arts school in nearby West Stewartstown, N.H. — and they’re utterly adorable. I’d never seen a couple laugh so much as they punched, kicked and strangled each other.

They set out to teach us a handful of simple self-defense moves well enough so that we wouldn’t panic if, God forbid, we ever needed to use them.

Renald served as our goon-size punching bag. He’s a big, handsome guy, more than six feet tall, with abs so hard that when I jabbed him with all my might, my elbow just bounced right off. It sure was fun to hit him.

The Mathieus described a world filled with mysterious and threatening men who could be waiting anywhere to attack: hiding in hedges, lurking under your car or even at your front door. “If someone grabs you,” said Renald, “you only have 10 seconds to survive. Knowing one thing can save your life.”

For example, if someone tightens an arm around your throat, turn your head to the side so you can breathe more easily, then grab his pinkie finger and bend it backward. Stomp on his foot, kick out the back of his knee, jab him in the eyes with both thumbs and, of course, a knee to the balls works wonders.

But it wasn’t all kicks and punches. The Mathieus advocated using whatever you have on hand as a weapon. Got Chapstick in your pocket? Jam it into his solar plexus. A comb in your purse? Slash his face with it.

And if an intruder threatens you near the front door, use what you can easily reach. “You’ve probably got a broom,” Renald said. “What other uses are there for a broom?”

“You mean, other than riding it?” joked Suzette, a spunky postal clerk.

My mom, always the teacher’s pet, was the first in the class to try out a new move every time. Turns out her rabbity nervous energy is great for attacking villains with her bare hands. And miraculously, the Mathieus held her attention for the entire three hours. Then again, it’s unlikely she’d ever get bored with fighting off a hunky instructor.

At one point, Lynn launched a sneak attack on me while Renald was choking my mom (much to her delight). When I realized Lynn had her arm around my neck from behind, I screamed and snapped into action, grabbing her pinkie finger a little too furiously — I actually drew blood with my nails.

But the class went on.

That night, we dined on a roadkill feast. Jackson’s cooks had made succulent moose tenderloin and aromatic moose pies from a huge specimen the game warden picked up after it was struck by a car last spring. With stuffed bellies, we waddled down to a bonfire on the lake’s edge under a perfect, starry sky.

My mom and I had avoided signing up for any gun courses — I’m just as jumpy and nervous as she is. But by the end of the weekend, after listening to women talk about how great it made them feel to shoot a gun, I transferred into Larry Hamel’s rifle and muzzleloader class.

My mom sat the last session out. After a moose-pie-making class the day before, she’d had her fill of structured activity. Besides, nothing could top the Mathieus’ self-defense class for her. So she went for a long walk, met the Jackson’s octogenarian neighbor and chatted up folks in the lodge.

I met Hamel and the rest of my class in the parking lot to carpool to the shooting range.

Hamel has collected nearly 200 guns over the past 40 years. He brought a carful of them to the shooting range on Sunday morning and laid them out on a dusty blanket.

“This is, I believe, my 27th weekend away with the girls, as my wife puts it,” said the National Rifle Association-certified instructor and president of the Lamoille Valley Fish & Game Club. He looks like a Wild West prospector, his white beard reaching halfway down his chest. When he didn’t have a gun in his hand, he puffed on a pipe.

Our class, again, was diverse. Two tough-looking twentysomethings had taken only shooting classes over the weekend. Another woman explained that she’d hunted with her husband and wanted to learn more. “I don’t think I’d ever shoot an animal, but I sure liked walking in the woods with a gun,” she said.

Another just wanted to know what it feels like to shoot a firearm.

As for me, I wanted to try the thing that scares me most.

We started with .22s. “After you become expert markspeople, you can move on to higher-powered rifles,” Hamel said. “If you want pain, we can accommodate you with that.” The bigger guns have bigger kickbacks, meaning they hit your shoulder with a powerful jolt as the bullet releases. I had no interest in experiencing such a thing.

Hamel has rules: “Do not shoot me. Do not shoot each other,” and “Always treat each gun as if it’s loaded.”

A quick test revealed that I’m left-eye dominant, so I shot lefty. Hamel’s co-instructor, Dick Bayer, showed me how to nestle the stock of the gun into my left shoulder, balance the magazine on my right hand and pull the trigger with my left index finger.

What he didn’t show me was how to aim, so my first several shots whizzed past the target and into the cliff beyond. Luckily, one of the young, avid shooters saw I was struggling and offered some pointers.

My next shot sailed into the target. What a thrill! I breathed deeply and kept a wide distance between myself and the next shooter on the firing line. The gun was surprisingly heavy; after just a few shots, I could feel my shoulders stiffening.

I was starting to get the hang of things, feeling confident and really enjoying myself, when a huge blast erupted from the gun beside me. My fellow Doe campers had started trying out deafening semi-automatics such as M4s and AK-47s. I jumped, and my own loaded and cocked rifle bounced in my hands, pointing God knows where.

I had the sudden urge to flee, but participants in a primitive-biathlon class were shooting muzzleloaders on the other side of the parking lot. There was nowhere to hide. So I handed my gun off to someone else and sat on a rock, my hands over my ears.

The takeaway? I’m glad I got to experience target practice with a relatively quiet, smooth-shooting .22. The ladies were right: It does make you feel powerful.

But when it comes to self-defense, I think I’ll stick with punching and jabbing. It’s much more my style, and I can practice with my mom.

The next Doe Camp is February 28 to March 2 at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee. voga.org/Doe_Camp.htm

The original print version of this article was headlined "Guns ’n’ Yoga"

Megan James launches an attack on instructor Lynn Mathieu.

Megan James tries her hand at a semi-automatic rifle.

Bridget Levine fly fishes in Lake Wallace.

Reality TV star Laura Zerra (left) teaches Raymonde Mayhew fire by friction.

Larry Hamel offers pointers to Alexandra Genimatas.

Susan James, the author's mom, makes crust for a roadkill moose pie.

All photos by Jack Rowell, except last photo by Megan James.