Outdoor enthusiasts and all around adventurers Tom Pence and Mandy Daumiller were looking to fill some time off between overseas contracts (they spend their summers working in Antarctica). They had already made the rounds visiting various friends around the country when they decided to embark on one last road trip. This time, they were headed south to Georgia. Their destination? Rivercane Rendezvous. A 7-day immersive earth-skills camp centered around fostering community and teaching basic primal survival skills that have all but disappeared in our modern world of iPhones and Netflix.
Tom and Mandy were kind enough to tell us about their experience and convince us that a self-induced technology ban in the wild could do us all a bit of good.
We heard about Rivercane Rendezvous from Mandy’s friend Sandy who has been fully submerged in holistic farming for a few years. Sandy attended in 2015 and was still living in the afterglow of the event. She convinced us to make the trek to Georgia by telling us we would return stronger, wiser, and sore from laughing and it she was right.
The rendezvous is held just outside the city limits of Lafayette, Georgia in a forest populated with ash and birch trees, a lake, poison ivy, and a few ticks. Once we arrived we were given a rudimentary map that outlined a basic layout to the grounds but left a lot the imagination. Camping was separated into a quiet area for families and light sleepers, and a louder site for those who don’t mind going to bed to the sounds of late night storytelling and campfire sing-alongs.
We camped next to firefly-filled woods for the week long event and were fed a daily wholesome breakfast and dinner. Each morning we woke to the serenades of other attendees who wandered the grounds with homemade flutes. A bell served as our clock, ringing throughout the day to announce meals, breaks and the conclusion of classes in the evening. Without having to rely on phones to keep time, we were able to almost completely disconnect from electronics for the week (which was recommended by organizers for the “full experience”).
The class schedule was posted nightly around dinner time so we could plan for the classes we wanted to take the next day. Some classes lasted all week and others were as short as an hour. The selection of skills being taught was so broad that it was impossible to do everything we wanted, especially since we had both committed to week long projects –building a bow and an atlatl (a type of spear thrower). It was recommended that first-year attendees should begin with the basic courses like cord making and fire starting, but the idea of crafting weapons and pottery lured us away to the more glamorous projects.
With Sandy’s help, a few friendly emails to the coordinators, and a paid commitment deposit, we were able to do a partial work trade to defray some of the cost. Worktrading gave us the roles of a morning dish washer and a trash handler (a coveted job because it involved driving a golf cart through the grounds). This work paid for half of our admission fees, but only took a couple of hours a day, leaving us with ample time to attend classes. The behind-the-scenes experience of work trade was appealing and there was an added bonus of camaraderie with other volunteers. Coordinators and attendees were all tremendously gracious while we were working, and when we return to the Earthskills scene in the future we definitely plan on applying for work trade positions again.
An opening ceremony was held after breakfast on the first day and was teeming with excitement for the week to come. An elder named Snow Bear (a.k.a. Stephen Taylor, one of the event’s founders) started the ceremony by emphasizing the need to understand our past and appreciate the collective history of humanity. He followed up on the importance of elders in a community. They are the people who carry knowledge from one generation to the next, who give unbiased council, and who become the storytellers that engage all ages in society.
On our first day of classes, our initial task was to harvest clay from the ground so we could clean and prepare it for pottery projects. Instead of a structured class, the pottery instructor offered his space, tools, and knowledge in a come-as-you-please workspace, nestled down by a trickling creek. When we had spare time throughout the week we would wander over and work on ceramics. After our work duties were done, we split the rest of the day up by devoting a few hours to making our respective weapons and then squeezed in a few other courses: lymphatic bodywork, bow-drill fire starting, plant identification, and moccasin making. There was enough space that each class had it’s own private area, all with stunning views of the surrounding environment.
The environment was a major contributor in the fun to be had at Rivercane. It was our first time to Georgia and we fell in love with the wild hills and explorable ash forest. The night was as exciting as the days, with hordes of fireflies, bioluminescent mushrooms, friendly campfire gatherings, and an epically starry sky to illuminate our campsite. The one thing we could have done without though, were the ticks. We had been camping for a good portion of the year, but having to burn a tick off Tom’s armpit was a first for us both.
At maximum, there were around 300 people on site for the rendezvous. With an abundance of different age groups ranging from 4 to 80 years old, the classes were split so the smallest kids and younger teenagers had their own groups. The youngest were mostly read to and enjoyed a lot of swimming and games. They joined in on the primal living instruction by finding specific types of flexibles woods for hat making, foraging for edible plants, and learning how to make and play flutes from native rivercane. The teenagers took to the construction of a secret pirate fort and other teen-focused projects. Adult classes were filled with an assortment of ages and skill levels, with plenty of noobs like us being guided by elders and returnees.
Community ties created a warm family atmosphere that we were instantly welcomed into. Constant interaction with such an array of interesting and skilled people served as solid inspiration to learn as much as possible. The crowd was refreshingly laid back. On a social level, it was similar to a music festival, but instead of partying, the goal was to learn and share primitive skills. The excitement and friendliness of a festival scene was palpable and everyone was eager to have fun with plenty of live music and dancing. Walking to camp, I was struck by how similarly sweet the campground is to a music festival, except that people are sitting around the fire whittling spoons or making arrowheads. Mandy’s favorite part of the week by far was sitting around the main campfire each night, listening to stories and sharing songs with the wise and whimsical community.
It seemed that everyone at the rendezvous turned out to be a master of something, and plenty of artists brought wares to share. We were surprised (and stoked) by how much group singing and storytelling transpired. Many attendees showed up with their own (often homemade) instruments, hoping for a chance to jam together. People would spontaneously start to sing and everyone around would quickly join in. One night, there was a potluck held, and everyone was invited to share food. We sampled all kinds of awesome homegrown delicacies and had a chance to feature our own homecrafted cheese. Being new to the cheese making world, it was nice to have the opportunity to share this goat cheese called cabecou that we had made with friends prior to the rendezvous. Another aspect of the community dynamic that impressed us was the group’s ability to keep conversations meaningful and civil when there were so many differing lifestyles represented, from the crustiest hippie to the staunchest survivalist. We never heard even the slightest hint of fighting about politics and rarely heard someone getting too outlandish with their explanation of a conspiracy theory.
Photographs by Tom Pence.