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Sticks and stones

John Hart
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

That episode of “Survivor” where they struggle to rub sticks together to get a fire started?

“I was not impressed,” said Grayson Coney, a Nevada County man who teaches Stone Age skills, including fire starting.



One of the “Survivor” teams finally was able to get a fire going. The other team gave up and was given matches. But Coney would have done it differently: He would have braided a rope out of palm tree fiber and quickly pulled the rope back and forth underneath a log until embers fell off.




“You can braid a palm fiber rope in 10 minutes. (Then) the embers will fall off in 10 minutes,” Coney said.

If any of Coney’s students ever winds up on a reality adventure show, look out.

For the past several years, Coney has been teaching fire starting, plant identification, animal tracking, and other “Stone Age skills” to a core group of about eight teen-agers.

They gathered on Bureau of Land Management land along the Bear River near Highway 174 and Spenceville Wildlife Area, among other places.

The informal classes started when Coney began teaching Patrick Kavanaugh, the son of Coney’s friend Jenny D’Heurle. Kavanaugh got interested in wilderness skills after reading about them in books written by Tom Brown Jr., the well-known author of such books as “The Tracker.”

Pretty soon, Kavanaugh’s teen-age friends started showing up to learn from Coney and each other, too.

Now, since the teens have grown into young adults with a few years of learning under their belts, the plan is for them to teach wilderness skills to others.

In fact, Kavanaugh and Coney’s son Cameron registered a business name at the Nevada County Clerk’s office: Restore to Native.

Last week, Coney and one of his students, 21-year-old Kevin Dockery, put on a demonstration for The Union.

First off, Dockery started a fire. He didn’t exactly rub two sticks together.

Instead, he had one round stick which was the branch of a mock orange bush. He held that between his hands and then rubbed his palms together so the mock orange “drill” spun back and forth into a “hearth” or stick of incense cedar which Dockery held steady with his bare foot.

Rubbing quickly, Dockery was able in just a few minutes to get a red-hot coal to drop off the hearth.

He used it to ignite a “nest,” or handful of dried grass, shredded bark and cattail fluff he’d collected.

It burst into flame.

Coney showed off a number of implements he’s made.

Including an arrow straightener, a rounded, piece of soapstone with two grooves that Indians used for straightening arrows each morning before the day’s hunt.

An Indian would bank his straightener overnight in a campfire’s coals so the soapstone – a dense rock that holds heat well – would get hot enough to undo arrow bends caused by changes in temperature and humidity.

Three hundred years ago, “Every Indian in the state had one of these, who was hunting,” Coney said.

Coney also demonstrated an even older weapon, an atlatl, or spear thrower, which he made out of Pacific yew.

In an emergency situation, it would be easy to braid twine out of plant fiber to make a snare to trap small game, Coney said.

But – although they’ll gather plants, such as wild onion – neither Coney nor his students hunt.

He said a better test is to stalk an animal until you get close enough to actually touch it.

“Go touch a rabbit. If you can touch it, you can hunt it,” he said. “Or call it right to you. We do a lot of game calling in the fall.”

Coney said he learned his skills growing up amongst thousands of acres of ranchland in Placer County near the Bear River.

“I met people that showed me certain skills. My main objective is to teach people, to perpetuate what I’ve learned,” he said.

Coney, a horticulturalist, was a golf course superintendent for many years. He oversaw construction of the Del Webb Sun City Roseville course.

Constructing golf courses helped inspire the name of the business Coney’s son started.

“All of my plans, on the outskirts of the golf course plans, it would say ‘Restore to Native,'” he said.

Learn more

For information about learning primitive living skills, call Patrick Kavanaugh at 346-2307. A free, three-day primitive skills camp will be held during the summer solstice at Middle Meadows Campground at Hellhole Reservoir, about 45 miles out of Georgetown. Or, Restore to Native can arrange three-hour private courses with two instructors for up to eight people. Cost is $150. Special deals are available for nonprofit groups.


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