An annual gathering near Spokane, Washington, helps attendees get primitive again. Story by Derrick Knowles. Photos by David Beckstead.

When Patrick Farneman first attended the Rabbitstick Primitive Skills Conference in southern Idaho in 1996, “it was like a homecoming,” he says. “I had no idea there were other people out there as weird as me.” That experience of learning skills, such as lighting friction fires and foraging for edible wild plants, was so impactful that he eventually started a similar event called Between the Rivers Gathering, which takes place on a 40-acre property at the confluence of the Colville River and Bulldog Creek, 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Spokane, Washington.

Above: Coco Becker uses a blow tube to heat coals as she makes a bowl by burning the inside of a wood chunk and then scraping away the charcoal. Top: Bridget Curry practices with an atlatl and dart, an ancient weapons system that predates the bow and arrow.

Now in its tenth year, the week-long spring event features workshops ranging from stone-age skills such as flintknapping — the practice of shaping hard rocks into tools — to bow making and archery. There are classes on wilderness survival and modern homesteading crafts, like hide tanning, blacksmithing, and basket weaving. In past years, ancestral skills celebrities, including Alone cast member Callie Russell and National Geographic Primal Survival host Hazen Audel, have taught classes.

Mike Goot cooks a rabbit on a spit.

Attendance for the sell-out event is typically capped at 350, and all ages are welcome, from babies to the elderly. While some attendees live a primitive lifestyle year-round, most have modern lives with regular day jobs. “I work as a mental-health counsellor, drive a truck, and live in a normal house,” Farneman says, “but I can make a stone tool and butcher a deer with it too.” There are few digital devices and no internet at the gathering, and that, combined with the popularity of survival shows in recent years and climate uncertainty, is part of what draws people to the event and helps give them peace of mind, Farneman explains.

Hari Heath wears the skin of a cougar that he tanned by hand.

Leah Daily-Palmer from Loon Lake, Washington, who hasn’t missed a year since the event started in 2012, says, “It was eye opening to meet all these people who were into learning traditional ways of living and connecting with each other in real time without modern technology interfering with it. I’ve made life-long friends and feel like they are more like real family than my relatives at our family reunion.”

Myron Cretney demonstrates the hand-drill method of friction fire, one of the oldest known methods of starting a fire. The friction generated from spinning a shaft in a wood socket creates and ignites charcoal dust to form a small coal, which is transferred to a nest of tinder and blown into flame.