They wait next to the row of parked cars beside Castleton’s Glenbrook gym every Thursday evening. Around 5:30, a red Ford Ranger drives down the road and parks in an empty space between the cars. As the students realize their instructor has arrived, they gather around the truck to see what they will learn about the wilderness that evening. Out of the truck comes Josh Hardt, a college-aged man with blonde hair, wearing a pair of dirty Carhart pants and a green flannel jacket that has a compass attached to it with a string.
As he gathers his wicker basket backpack he made from scratch, he glances at his students realizing that one is missing.
“I hope Adam doesn’t show up ’cause I burned in him last week,” says Hardt jokingly.
“You know what’s more important than anything I can ever teach you?” asks Hardt, the instructor for the Primitive Survival Skills course at Castleton.
His students stare back at him clueless as to what to say.
“Forget about fire, your tools, and food,” he says. “The most important thing of all is your brain and your drive to survive.”
Hardt, 29, is an expert in northern environments. What makes him so unique, however, is not his knowledge of the woods alone, but his experiences in the wilderness.
Hardt grew up in the wilderness with his father, mother, and brother. His father was an ex-special forces soldier who was an expert in surviving in the wilderness.
After serving in the military, he decided to settle down with his wife in Salisbury, Vt. There they bought a 40-acre plot of land and raised a family.
For the first six years of his life, Hardt and his family lived in a tee-pee. They lived there until his father built a small one-room cabin, where he spent the remainder of his childhood. School was also part of Hardt’s life, although school seemed much more difficult compared to the wild.
“I was an outcast throughout school. It was just never really my thing,” said Hardt, reflecting back to his youth. “I never thought it was cool, especially when you haven’t showered in a couple days.”
The other children always made fun of him and thought he was weird.
“The kids in school were just socialized in a different world than me,” Hardt said. “I was socialized in the wilderness, which people instantly associate with being crazy.”
As Hardt grew into a teenager, he began to argue with his parents about the way they lived. His parents responded by kicking him out. With nowhere to go or stay, Hardt sought refuge in the only thing he ever knew, the forest. For three years, he lived in a national forest, which Hardt claims as not the highlight of his life.
However, at the mere mention of his days in the forest, Hardt grows excited to tell the story.
“Oh man! It was crazy! I was totally living there illegally. I would have to hide from park rangers and cover up my tracks by re-walking them,” he said with a grin.
His excitement doubled as he describes the “home” he built while out there.
“It was awesome, you shoulda’ seen it. It was like Robin Hood’s place,” he said.
“There were ropes and tree houses all over the place.”
Eventually Hardt had a friend who offered him a bed and a warm house to stay in. His friend’s mother allowed Hardt to stay as long as he agreed to enroll in a college when he got himself together.
In 1998, Hardt enrolled at Castleton, but he didn’t stay to long. He then moved out to Idaho and finished college with a degree in outdoor recreation and education.
“It wasn’t until college when people stopped treating me as an outcast. My buddies and I would go on hikes in the woods and I’d do what came naturally to me, but my friends thought I was the most awesome guy ever after that,” said Hardt.
Once college was out of the way, Hardt decided to go on a three-week solo trip to Alaska. All he had with him was 34-Winchester rifle along with a box of ammunition. To Hardt, the lifestyle out in Alaska is the only real freedom left.
“To completely live away and free, you need to isolate yourself from society,” he solemnly added after his mental trip back in time.
John Feenick, Hardt’s boss and colleague, describes him as having a wealth of knowledge. He mentions how Hardt is great at encouraging students to want to learn about the environment.
Feenick also talked about the variety of classes Hardt has taught — and will teach in the future. The classes range from fly-fishing to back-country skiing and snowboarding.
“I think he is a great addition to Castleton. He loves the wilderness, which makes him a wonderful instructor,” Feenick said. “I love to go experience the wilderness, from bike rides to nature hikes. I just wish I could find the time to do all that while Josh is instructing me.”
Many students on campus have never heard of Hardt, let alone heard that such classes were offered at Castleton. While some students were amazed and excited, others were disgusted or uninterested. Andrew Rissman, one of Hardt’s students, tried to explain why the class is great.
“He’s not one of those teachers that makes up stories to use as examples in class, like many professors like to do. Josh teaches you the stuff that’s kept him alive his whole life. It’s a class where everything you learn is useful, no matter what,” Rissman said. “I think everyone should take his class. I mean where else can you learn how to skin animals and build shelters?”
Other students didn’t speak so kindly about the classes. Page O’Neil, who plays women’s hockey, was astonished by the fact that part of the requirements for the class was to spend 24 hours in the woods alone.
“I understand why people would think it’s cool, but personally, I would die before I voluntarily spent a night in the woods,” O’Neil said.
Hardt now lives with his wife of six years and his 2-year-old son, not far from where he grew up. When asked where he considers home, Hardt pauses and is silent for a few minutes. He takes his wool hat off and rubs his forehead.
“It’s kind of hard to say,” he says finally. “It’s really important for me that I feel a close interaction with wherever I am.
“I will always constantly need a dose of the natural world, no matter what,” he added, looking up at the nighttime sky.
As Hardt’s students ready to embark on their solo hike into the woods, he looks at all of them and asks if they have questions. One student raises his hand.
“Will we survive?” asks the student, who then begins to laugh along with the rest of the class.
Hardt, also laughing, says not to worry, and gives his students one last piece of advice.
“I don’t survive, I live,” he says.