Living in the woodsWatch as Matt Guenther, a 17-year-old Signal Mountain High School student, is spending 9-months living in the woods for his senior project.
Down a zigzag path, across fallen branches, through briars and across a creek, Matt Guenther was sleeping at least a mile into the woods when he heard a woman scream.
It woke him at 5:20 a.m.
As Guenther lay in his hammock, he heard footsteps about 150 feet away from his campsite, then another scream.
“I didn’t move,” he said. “I was definitely scared.”
After several harrowing minutes, the screams stopped and the footsteps faded away. The sound, the Signal Mountain High School senior later learned, was the piercing scream of a fox.
Guenther, 17, was not in the woods for a weekend camp out. Instead, he’s spending his senior year among the trees as part of his individual senior project, a requirement for graduation by the Hamilton County Schools.
“Most people don’t think about [existing without] the computer, games or Facebook,” Guenther said. “Before all that, people went outside for fun. There are actually personal benefits of spending time in the woods. The woods are not something to be afraid of.”
Last spring, prior to any talk about senior projects at Signal Mountain, Guenther was reading “The Last American Man,” the true story of Eustace Conway, who left his suburban home at age 17 to move into the Appalachian Mountains and live off the land.
Thoughts, he said, began to churn about formulating a senior project around a similar idea.
A teacher thought it was a cool idea. His father, Jeff, from an outdoors-loving family, was all for it.
His mother, Mary Clarke, had to warm to the idea.
“I had a very selfish reaction,” she said of the older of her two children. “When he first started talking about it, I thought, ‘This is his senior year, my last year to have him at home, and he wants to go live in the woods?’”
However, Ms. Guenther recalled, she probably never said no.
“He’d thought it out so well,” she said. “He talked about it, showing such great initiative. Every time he talked about it, he was demonstrating to me ... the young adult in the making.”
Guenther said he has always been drawn to the outdoors and has had a fascination with bugs and snakes. He once even worked for a snake breeder.
He’s also a recreational tree climber — having been the youngest to complete a course with Tree Climbers International in Atlanta — and an off-road unicyclist.
“He’s always reached for challenging projects,” Ms. Guenther said. “He doesn’t like to fail at things. He puts 100 percent behind the things he wants to do. He’s got a really strong, adventurous spirit.”
THE PLAN COMES TOGETHER
From research, Guenther determined to build a wigwam like Canadian Indians did through the early 19th century. The design called for a covered branch frame with a domed roof and a hole at the top for smoke to escape.
The next part of the project was to secure a location. It would need to be within walking distance to school, and somewhat sheltered from rain and cold.
The first acceptable spot Guenther found was owned by the federal government. Securing permission likely would take a long time and was not a sure thing.
Eventually, he found spot owned by a private citizen with whom he drew up a contract. The land owner would not be liable for injury, and he would not have parties or groups of children come to the campsite.
“I could get out really fast if I wanted to,” Guenther said, “and there was not going to be anyone stumbling upon me.”
As school drew nearer, he worked — sometimes with his father — to assemble the frame from flexible branches they found around the campsite.
Many of the branches were from the cucumber magnolia, which was plentiful in the woods. The now-brown cucumber magnolia leaves, which range up to 9.8 inches long and 4.7 inches wide, were used to blanket the camouflage tarp that covers the frame.
While the top of the dwelling has a screened hole for smoke — from fires made inside for warmth or cooking — a wood stove is on order, which will allow for more efficient heating and cooking.
Before starting the project, Guenther met with Chattanooga-based Rock/Creek Outfitters, which gave him a sleeping bag and some other items for winter comfort.
He also has applied for a grant from Hamilton County Schools, which would reimburse him for the money he spent on the camouflage tarp and the wood stove.
Inside the wigwam, Guenther has created a curved bed platform on which he will sleep more and more as the nights get cooler. Cardboard presently covers the platform, on which his sleeping bag is placed, but he may add thick moss for additional comfort.
He spent his first night at the site Aug. 9, the day before school started, and has spent all but four nights there since.
‘NORMAL HIGH SCHOOL BOY’
Guenther said lest anyone think he’s abandoned modern society, he doesn’t beat his clothes on rocks in the nearby stream to wash them, eschew showers, eat berries and sticks, or write his term papers in pencil by the fire.
He has a cell phone with him, at the insistence of his parents, that gets acceptable reception. He showers at home before he goes to work at Bi-Lo three or four days a week, and he uses his computer at home for his online math course and other necessary schoolwork.
Guenther also has a girlfriend he sees as often as he did before he went into the woods, and, like many of his classmates, attended the school’s homecoming football game Friday night.
“I’m a normal high school boy,” he said. “To truly live in the woods would be a full-time job.”
Unlike other high school boys, though, Guenther shares his space with bugs, deer, raccoons, owls, snakes (his dad spotted one, a copperhead) and nearly a dozen wild turkeys he unexpectedly woke one day on the way to school.
The clamber from the turkeys roosting high in the trees frightened him almost as much as the fox.
“I thought a tree was falling,” said Guenther.
Next week, he’ll attend Falling Leaves Rendezvous, a weeklong program that offers instruction in ancestral and heritage primitive skills, near LaFayette, Ga.
While he already has learned to identify certain edible plants — he’s made tea from the heal-all plant, for instance — he hopes the program will offer skills in edible and medicinal plants and matchless firemaking.
Guenther’s senior project requires four parts: logged project hours, a research paper, a presentation and a product.
He’s already logged most of the 40 hours he needs to complete the project, and Signal Mountain High teacher Les Hegwood said the senior’s “exceptional writing skills” on his blog about the project (ayearamongthetrees.wordpress.com) will probably satisfy the product portion of the project.
Few other people would have been approved to take on what Guenther has, he said.
“But we knew Matt,” Hegwood said, “and we knew what he was capable of. We were excited to be able to approve it. It definitely is exceptional. It’s the kind of project that seemingly has a lot of liability and red tape. Not many students would want to go through what he did to get to where he is now.”
But Guenther’s gone further, having spent three class periods talking to juniors about the merits of the environment and planning to spend additional class periods with eighth- and fifth-graders.
Among other things, he said, he challenges them to analyze the time they spend inside and urges them to see what nature has to offer.
“It wouldn’t hurt them to get dirty,” Guenther said.
Meanwhile, in addition to learning about his surroundings, he’s also learned a thing or two about himself.
“I’m a big procrastinator,” said Guenther, who was wearing a brown shirt with the slogan “Tree Hugging Dirt Worshiper” on the day he showed his campsite to several visitors. To get in and out of the woods and do all he needs to go, “I can’t put things off to the last minute. I have to be done on time.”
He’s also surprised himself in the success, so far, of the project.
“I’m impressed [the wigwam] hasn’t fallen over,” he said. “I’ve never built something like that. It all went together so smoothly.”
But if he’s surprised, those who approved his participation aren’t.
“It’s a strange thing to want to do,” said Hegwood, “but we knew he’d go into it with a passion we already knew was there.”
Ms. Guenther said she can’t entirely remove her mother hat but is proud of what her son has accomplished.
“He’s doing really well,” she said. “It didn’t surprise me for him to come up with something as ambitious as this.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...