The Festival of Strenuosity Southwest 2021 was held, just as it was last year, in the Blue Range Primitive Area in eastern Arizona, part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The campsite was located in a verdant part of the Blue River valley, surrounded by mountains on either side and ringed the Blue River itself. The weather was virtually perfect - beautiful temperatures and enough rain to make it a truly strenuous event.
Day 1 of Strenfest is reserved for transportation - some members drove quite a ways to get here! Interestingly, everyone arrived roughly at the same time, a few hours before sunset, and began pitching their tents and setting up camp.
The members who attended were:
As the sun went down we all pitched in to cut firewood. As the last rays faded a fire was lit, and was inaugurated by sprinkling the growing flames with the ashes of Strenfests past - Strenfest SW 2020, but also East Coast Strenfest 2019 and 2020 as well. This is the first time that we have ourselves performed this tradition, but it will not be the last.
The first dinner was held around the roaring campfire. Handouts for the next four days were passed out, and we discussed the events that we would be doing over the course of Strenfest. Once business was taken care of we moved on to the great habit of Strenfest - conversation around the campfire. This lasted until 9PM, at which point we turned in. Wakeup for the next day was 6AM sharp!
We woke with the sun on the second day of Strenfest. James got a fire going from the embers of last night’s fire - a practice he repeated throughout the event. He was indeed the fire master of Strenfest SW! Once the fire was going we used it to cook breakfast.
After breakfast was complete we split the group into two teams who would challenge and compete against each other for many of the upcoming events. James, Chris and Taylor, who all hailed from Tucson, AZ, created Team Tucson, while JT and Abe created a team of their own that, to my knowledge, never had a name, but did not lack at all in grit or spirit. The events of Strenfest were designed to some degree with teams in mind, and with these in place, we got right to it with the first event: knotsmanship.
Readers of the Strenfest SW 2020 writeup will recall that our workshops during that event tended to focus on teaching the basics of certain skills. For 2021 we took a different approach - the idea now was that each member was expected to show up already knowing the basics; the event itself would be challenge them to demonstrate the skills they already possessed in a contest between teams.
With the Knotsmanship challenge, this would be put into practice shortly, but first each team was challenged to demonstrate their mastery of the basic knots. Both teams succeeded at this, working together to fill in any gaps in an individual member’s knowledge.
Once the basics were established, it was time for the challenges. I had devised three different challenges in which the teams would compete.
The first challenge was to use their knot skills to create a hammock from a tarp which could hold my weight. They were also asked to lash a second tarp above the hammock to act as a shade or rain fly. Both teams set right to work on getting their designs set up.
Team Tucson getting their hammock mounted. They chose to use two sticks to brace the ends of the “hammock” tarp.
Both teams managed to get hammocks strung within the time limit, but only one team’s design withstood actual use. Team Tucson took the first point!
The second Knotsmanship challenge was to lash together a travois, a stick frame which can be used to drag heavy loads over long distances. These frames were widely used among primitive peoples and are a fine bushcraft design to know.
The challenge for the travois was to drag it for a certain distance with me riding on it. These frames are often described as being useful for transporting a patient in a medical emergency - but it turns out that this is not nearly as easy as it might sound. Dragging a person is hard work!
Team Tucson dragging me in their travois. The faces tell the whole story.
Team Tucson managed to go the distance, but unfortunately, JT and Abe’s travois was made with a little bit thinner material, and as a result the following happened when they tried to move me:
Once again, Team Tucson took the point. Would they shut out their opponents or could JT and Abe come back at the end?
The final challenge was to lash together a freestanding structure that could bear the weight of the entire team, plus me. Team Tucson was at a disadvantage here, having one extra member - that’s another person’s worth of weight.
For their part, Team Tucson started out strong, quickly coming up with a bench-like design:
JT and Abe, on the other hand, began work on the a classic tripod design with crossmembers for bracing:
In the end, both teams built a structure that could hold the required weight, and as such the final round was a draw! See the photos below for the final structures:
Pioneering - the art of lashing structures together - is a fantastic bushcraft skill and these men quickly picked up on it, building some truly cool structures by the end of the half-day event!
Following a lunch break, it was next time to move onto Day 2’s second challenge:
First Aid Challenge
Any man who ventures out into the wilderness must, to some degree, take responsibility for his own health and safety and the health and safety of those around him. As such, first aid skills are a critical part of being an outdoorsman, and the First Aid Challenge was meant to review and test those skills.
Prior to Strenfest, an extensive writeup and workshop was provided to get everyone up to speed. These skills were reviewed in the first part of the First Aid event. We started out with the basics of evaluating a patient in an emergency.
Skills such as tourniquets, bandaging and splinting were also practiced. Each man got to practice performing these techniques on each other and in some cases to themselves.
The first aid practices and demonstrations lasted well into the night, and after a break for dinner, we returned back to it for what is perhaps the most difficult of first aid scenarios - a low-light / no-light emergency. What will you do if your friend gets injured in the dead of night? These men were about to find out.
We all walked out of camp to a distant oak grove and ducked our way under thick canopy, situating ourselves in a very dark, claustrophobic environment. Under the boughs the only light sources were our headlamps and these were extinguished, plunging us into total darkness. The challenge: each man would have to respond to a fellow TSL member calling for medical help in the darkness. The responder would have to diagnose the issue and treat it with only his own personal light source to illuminate the scene. Sometimes a headlamp was used, sometimes a handheld flashlight, and sometimes nothing more than a glowstick.
Low-light medical care can be intensely difficult, but I can say with pride that these men, despite only having a half-day's worth of practice, were able to successfully handle virtually all the emergencies I threw at them. Each man walked away from the First Aid challenge with more confidence in his ability to save the lives of themselves or their friends. First Aid education is a lifelong practice, and these men took their first big step into it at Strenfest.
After debriefing on what each man learned from the challenge, we found that it had gotten quite late. Returning to camp, we headed straight to bed, exhausted from a very full day.
We had another early start on Day 3, starting with our morning campfire and breakfast before packing up and heading out on one of the most important events of Strenfest: the Strenfest Hike.
The Strenfest Hike
I think each Strenfest should have a major hike as o ne of the events. For this year's hike we would travel up a game trail to the top of Whiteface, which is the local name applied to some distinctive white cliffs that stand tall above the Blue River valley; not only would we travel to those cliffs, we planned to continue past them up even higher into some beautiful red rock country. To do this we would use another game trail that I myself discovered several years ago.
The trail up Whiteface was extremely steep in some places and we took it slow, enjoying the trail and the scenery.
We hiked through amber fields of grass:
As well as through some incredibly gorgeous, colorful sections:
Finally we reached the top of Whiteface proper, where we took photos of the Blue River valley below, as well as a group shot perched atop the cliffs:
Up to this point we had traveled the same trails that we hiked at Strenfest 2020. From here, however, we pushed onwards up even higher, into the red cliffs even further beyond Whiteface itself.
Our trek was rewarded with spectacular views of these incredible red rock formations:
Having climbed even higher than before, we stopped here atop these cliffs for lunch on the trail. In my opinion the best lunches are those cooked and consumed while looking out from a cliff’s edge.
After finishing lunch we began our descent. The only thing more difficult than steep climbing is steep descending:
To our amusement we found a horned toad on the way down:
This would not be the only reptile we encountered today!
Upon our return to camp we moved straight into the afternoon event: the Wilderness Survival challenge.
Wilderness Survival Challenge
Many TSL members take great interest in creating survival kits or packs, but how many of you have ever actually tested these by living out of them for a night? I am happy to report that Strenfest 2021 attendees did just that for the final event of Day 3.
We began by getting our packs out. Each member described how his pack was constructed, and why it was designed the way it was. Sharing one’s kit design like this is always valuable - you can learn from other people, and they can learn from you.
After the review was completed we packed everything back up, threw the packs on our back, and headed out away from camp to a new location where we planned to stay the night. Until morning of the next day, we’d have to rely entirely on our survival kits!
The hike out to our survival challenge location was a cool journey in itself. We crossed the river several times to get there:
At one of the creek crossings we spotted several well-defined tracks in the mud. Which tracks can you identify?
Upon reaching our destination, we immediately began practicing various skills using the tools we brought with us.
We started with firemaking - each man was challenged to get a fire going within 10 minutes. Many succeeded!
After getting a fire going within a specific time limit, we continued practicing starting fires with other sorts of tools. Several men got fires going with ferro rods!
Next up on the prioritie of survival was filtering water. This is a particularly important survival skill for those of us in the desert, and fortunately we had the creek nearby and so water was abundant. This was a great chance for people to see how their water filtration system would work in the real world.
Around this time we also found an unexpected visitor in our survival area: a prairie rattlesnake. James took this opportunity to give us a lesson in catching and relocating snakes:
Following this discovery a not-entirely-unrelated decision was made to return to the original camp and finish the survival workshop there. Therefore, our remaining survival practices were performed back at camp itself.
On the way back to camp we split up into two groups and practiced signaling one another from a distance, again using whatever signaling methods we had in our packs. If you have never done this yourself, I recommend it: if your “emergency whistle” only carries for a quarter mile, you’ll want to find this out before you actually need it!
Back in camp we performed our final survival exercise: building a shelter using a tarp. With just a simple tarp and paracord, you can easily rig a fairly solid shelter that will keep you dry and warm at night. Here are some examples:
These tarp shelter designs are really quite solid, as we observed following a rainstorm. Notice how dry the shelter kept the ground underneath:
Of course just creating the shelter isn’t enough - for a truly strenuous experience we had to sleep in them. Night fell and we spent the night under our tarps, sleeping on the ground with nothing but an emergency blanket to keep us warm. This is a prospect that sounds terribly uncomfortable, and I must admit that it’s not pleasant - but on this night each man learned that it is doable and is in fact not all that bad.
The wilderness survival event is a fantastically strenuous event and one that is perfect for Strenfest. Along with the First Aid workshop on Day 2, this event allowed us to cover all seven priorities of survival. A fine way to wrap up the third day!
The last full day arrived to find us (or most of us, anyways) waking up under our tarp shelters. We rose with the sun and got the morning fire going to warm ourselves up after a cold night. As usual we started some breakfast cooking over the fire.
We didn’t have much time to relax in the morning (who wants to relax? This is Strenfest!) because we needed to be little ways down the Blue River canyon at 9AM sharp. Once we had all eaten we packed up, piled into my truck and headed out!
After driving for a few miles we pulled up at the Blue schoolhouse and library. Blue is a tiny mountain community founded nearly a century and a half ago and the community institutions that the settlers built here - the schoolhouse, the library - are still in operation. Everyone was quite simply to see such a thing!
We came here today in order to do a good deed. Prior to Strenfest I had spoken with Maryanne, a member of the Blue River Cowbells (an organization dedicated to community service on the Blue) and asked what sorts of projects they might need doing while we’re up here. She suggested that we could apply a new coat of oil and finish to the library building, and we eagerly accepted. As you can see in the photo above, the building was quite in need of a fresh coat!
And so we met Maryanne and a few other Blue residents (Jay and Tom) to get this project going. Jay helped us mix up the log oil, each man took a brush and a bucket of oil, and the work began!
As we applied the oil and finish we chatted with Maryanne, Tom and Jay who told us stories about the history of the Blue and the library building. The current library building, a replacement for the older one, was originally a hunting cabin that was moved log by log into its current position!
After several hours of work we had completely redone the entire building! Tom, one of the Blue residents helping us, told us that the building was last oiled twenty-five years ago, and that he had done it all by himself over the course of three days. The Desert Rangers were able to get it done in less than four hours!
Every Strenfest traditionally must have a good deed event and I am very pleased with what we accomplished in this one. Getting to do this was a real joy - it was fun in and of itself, to be honest, but in addition to the fun we were also able to really contribute something to the Blue community which will last for decades, and that really meant something to us.
A few weeks after Strenfest concluded, I received a thank-you note from Maryanne addressed to the Rangers that expressed her deep gratitude for helping out. Personally I feel we ought to be thanking her for giving us this amazing opportunity!
With the good deed complete we headed back to camp and had a quick lunch before taking on the final event of Strenfest SW 2021:
This was the last day of Strenfest and at this point we had traveled all over the camp and its surrounding areas. As such, the final challenge was an event that would test each man's ability to navigate around this environment. This would be an orienteering challenge!
We once again split up into teams for this event. Each team got a map like the one seen in the photo above and the map had several points marked - 15 in all. At each point would be a cone with a secret code, like the one seen in the photo. The goal of the event was to navigate to as many of these points as possible, recording codes as you went, and make it back before time ran out!
When I said 'go', both teams headed off, and I went off on my own to an overlook point on the side of the canyon to watch the men as they navigated. It wasn’t very long after arriving at my point, however, that the rain started.
In truth, we had been getting small bursts of rain on and off for much of the week, and on this day in particular it had been threatening to open up, so this rain wasn’t entirely unexpected. Still, it came down hard for a good thirty minutes during the orienteering event. But the attendees, to their credit, powered through it!
I had put 15 points on the map, but the time allotted for the Orienteering contest turned out to be far too short to hit all of those. When the teams returned we found that Team Tucson had found five cones while the other team came in a close second with four. Given how deviously I had hidden some of these cones, the fact that they found as many as they did was still quite impressive to me!
And with that, the final event of Strenfest SW 2021 had wrapped up. In the last short hours before sundown we got a bit of downtime for the first time in the whole event with which to clean up, to bathe in the river, and to rest and recover from three days of strenuous challenges.
Ceremony and Final Dinner
Before the sun totally went down, we made sure to perform a few ceremonies to close out Strenfest. These Festivals of Strenuosity are very special times and it is appropriate to mark them with particular reverence and honor.
The first ceremony we held was the awarding of Desert Ranger patches to three men from the Arizona group. In the Desert Rangers we award a patch to a member after he has attended three events, and this patch signifies that you have reached the first rank of honor in the Desert Rangers. I was deeply pleased to be able to award three of these patches to members in attendance - Jonathan Trottier, James Cole and Chris Jarvis.
Following the awarding of the Desert Rangers patches, all the man in attendance were awarded a Strenfest 2021 patch to commemorate their attendance at this event. This once-in-a-lifetime will never be awarded again! Each man received his patch with a handshake.
We had two more important ceremonies to perform. First, all men who had earned their Challenge Coin (and who had it with them) brought them together for a group photo. Last year we had two coins at Strenfest - this year we had four. The Challenge Coin roll call is one of the most honored events that we can perform at Strenfest, and I was so excited to see so many coins in one place:
The final photo we took shows something even rarer. As it turned out, two of the Strenfest SW 2021 attendees were members of Class 000, the very first Strenuous Life class! This class, upon completing bootcamp, created its own special “Red Team” patch, and to celebrate and commemorate this small reunion of Class 000 members, we made sure to get a photo of both patches together again for the first time in four years!
With that, the ceremony was finally concluded, and we could get on to the final dinner of the event.
We carried on a tradition of making the final dinner of Strenfest a hot dog cookout. During the cookout the rain picked up a bit again, giving us an incredible ambiance as we cooked our dogs over the fire:
Given that this was the last fire of the event, we decided to commit all our remaining firewood to the blaze, giving us a fire that grew to quite an enormous size at times.
During this great bonfire we engaged in one final special Strenfest activity, and one that can never be planned for - the campfire conversation. After three days in the woods together, we were all comfortable enough to really discuss some heavy topics and this is what we did, for hours, as the fire burned and eventually died down.
The experience of having such a conversation between men can’t be described and so I’m not going to try. Suffice it to say: if I was to describe the one best reason to hold a Strenfest event, it would be to create an opportunity for a conversation like this.
After hours of converesation the fire finally died down and it was time to go to bed. We all turned in for one final night under the stars.
Technically, Strenfest concludes with the dying of the fire on the fourth night, and the fifth day is simply a day to pack up and travel home. Despite that, we did hold one more “event”, but before we could get to that we had to tear down the camp!
With all the rain the previous day we had a dewy, brisk morning with low-hanging clouds. We got some amazing photos of the valley as we ferried gear back to the cars
Amidst packing up we also made sure that everyone saved a bit of ash from the fire, to continue on the tradition of “carrying the fire” from Strenfest to Strenfest. I am happy to say that we saved plenty of ash and have more than enough to share with the other groups.
(A brief note - if you are reading this and are a Strenfest organizer, or intend to become one, please contact me [@gwalliman] so I can get you on my ash collection list! In addition to all the other things I do, I am also the current keeper of the ashes for the fire carrying tradition!)
By 8AM we had all packed up, and together we convoyed out of the Blue River canyon and up to the nearest mountain town, a lovely little village named Alpine. It was here that we stepped back into civilization with a trip to a local breakfast diner.
I think a pancake breakfast at a greasy spoon after three days of nonstop strenuosity is well deserved! We had visited this restaurant on our way home in 2020 and we were back, double in size, for 2021. Everyone had a nice meal to fuel them for the long drive back.
Following breakfast we shook hands, said our goodbyes and departed. It is a bittersweet departure after having spent almost five full days together, but all great events must come to an end at some point.
Strenfest SW 2021 is the second Strenfest I have hosted, and of course is the second Strenfest held in the Southwest. I feel that we have made some major progress since the previous event in 2020, having taken some good lessons from it - what to do, what not to do, etc. We also doubled our turnout, a trend that I hope to see continue in 2022!
Many men never get a chance to participate in an activity such as this. Indeed, I’d imagine that it is the lack of experiences such as these - entering into the wilderness for an extended stay and dedicating several days just to learn, practice and prove your skills - that motivates many men to join The Strenuous Life in the first place. I consider myself so incredibly lucky to be able to facilitate an event such as Strenfest, and to have so many fine gentlemen join me up at the Blue.
After having put two of these events together, something I can confidently say is that the organizer of a Festival of Strenuosity, while he certainly plays a part in the success or failure of the event, is not in fact the main contributor to the outcome. Instead it is the men who attend and put all they have into the challenges and activities that really makes a Strenfest successful.
During our campfire discussion on the first night, I challenged each attendee to step into the arena and to suck the marrow out of his time at Strenfest. Only each individual attendee will know to what degree he did this over his time at the Blue, but having seen what these men accomplished, it is my belief that each one ably rose to the occasion and got all he could out of his experience. Gentlemen, it was an honor, and I look forward to joining you at a future Festival of Strenuosity!