Sensei’s Island Survival Story

I once asked the Grandmaster of ninjutsu, Hatsumi Sensei, "When do we learn the survival techniques like building survival shelters, making fire, fishing line and cordage, trapping animals, hunting and other survival skills?"

He told me that he was never taught those by his teacher, Takamatsu Sensei. He said that he primarily taught the skills pertaining to being on the mats and doing the waza in the scrolls. He said that the survival skills I was seeking were being done by many really good people on the planet, and that I should find those teachers.

My searching led me to a world renowned survival instructor who actually lived in the same town as me. His name is Tom McElroy. We interviewed Tom in a recent post. If you haven’t read it, his stories have some real gems of wisdom. He’s been all over the planet seeking the ways to survive from the landscape around him.

When Tom taught a survival skills workshop for Pathways Dojo, he mentioned that he had an opening on an island trip where they were going to learn how to survive in a warm tropical island setting on the island of St. Croix. He invited me to go. I jumped at the opportunity.

A few months later I flew to St. Croix. The first thing that hits you when you step off the plane is the heat and the humidity.

It was really amazing. I learned so many new skills. The survival part of the trip was really challenging, but what I really enjoyed most was the pre-survival trip training session where we learned and practiced skills for several days before heading into "survival mode" for five days.

We focused on learning the local plants on the island. Our days were packed with intensive training that lasted all day- from  morning until we went to bed at night. What was really cool was that we learned all of the native species of trees, the wild animals that lived on the island, and how to identify the local hazards.

There were all sorts of stinging and biting creatures that you needed to be aware of. We also learned safety protocols for what to do if somebody was hurt, such as how to treat a broken arm.

When our front-end training was complete, the day arrived for us to head out on the actual survival trip.

We climbed into trucks and drove a long way down a remote island road. The pavement turned into a dirt road. The dirt road turned into a rough trail of bushes and grass. Eventually we left the trucks and headed out on foot with our backpacks. In our packs we brought a few of the handmade items from our previous class. These included items such as cordage made from snake grass, and calabash bowls for eating. What we didn’t bring was food.

Full disclaimer…I love my morning coffee, and I’m what you’d call a “foodie,” so I knew this was going to be a challenge.

We spent the first day hiking to our base camp location. The first thing we did as a group was to set up a large group shelter. We cut grass and made thatching for the roof of the shelter, which when finished would sleep the ten of us participating in this training. Then we prepped an area out for a central cooking fire. For food that day we caught fish and gathered local plants. I was exhausted by the end of the first day. I crashed and immediately went to sleep that first night.

There were so many cool adventures that happened in the days that followed. What happens on a survival trip is that you go back to basics where every day you get up and you think about getting enough water and food. As the days pass.. day four, day five, day six… you realize how you are hungry all the time and how hard it is to find enough food. This is especially challenging when you're with many people and need to feed everybody.

On that trip, I lost about 35 pounds. On our last day we had to hike uphill out of the valley where we had our camp, and then five miles to the cars. I was exhausted on our hike back to the road. It felt like a rite of passage. It was tough. It wasn’t comfortable. Still it was an amazing experience.

That experience taught me that as a human being, we have an innate drive for survival, like wild animals do. I realized that I could connect with this feeling. I learned that when you need to access this part of yourself, you can tap into it in order to survive. It’s a true feeling of perseverance, the meaning of “nin” of ninja.

There’s much more to this story, which I will share in future posts. I hope this story helps inspire people to go into nature and push yourself occasionally. It’s good to sometimes be uncomfortable in situations that you might not think you could ever endure.

Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll have an amazing experience.


Fire is an essential skill when in a survival situation. You need it for purifying water, cooking food, heat, light, tool making, and more. Odds are you wouldn't survive long without fire. As Sensei Roemke mentioned above, it was one of the first things they focused on when they made their survival camp.

If you have downloaded our FREE Fire Skills videos, we have a bonus fire training below for you. It's one thing to make a bow drill kit. It's a whole different skill to learn how to use it correctly in order to get a fire. There's a lot to body positioning, angling, distancing, and timing.

Sounds kinda like a familiar martial arts style that we study. Hmmmmm....

In the video below we break down some helpful techniques for using a bow drill. Get these skills down, and you'll soon be cooking your own tasty survival island meal.

This video is Part 2 of a series on tips for making fire with a bow drill. To see Part 1, check out the Tom McElroy post.

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