Outdoor skills camp in Mikado, Michigan

Campers fuel a fire for baking pottery during an outdoor skills camping class in Mikado, Michigan. (Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, MCT / June 29, 2012)

MIKADO, Mich. - One dumb camper - me - left a tent pole at home. No problem for Jim Miller, owner of Willow Winds. He cut the trunk of a young tamarack, bent it into an arc, sharpened each end and, voila! Nature's tent pole.

It's not that someone else couldn't have figured out how to rig up the tent. It's the way Miller did it - so gracefully, quietly and efficiently that the tamarack of the proper size was simply waiting in his forest, bent to his will, and the ground then agreed to hold the arc in place without any staking at all.

In outdoor survival circles, Jim Miller is famed for his brain-tanned deer hides so authentic that they have been used in costumes for the films "Legends of the Fall" and "The Indian in the Cupboard." He builds wigwams and tepees for cultural sites. He runs adult camps at his 20-acre property northwest of Oscoda, Mich., teaching how to tan hides, make canoes, paddles and birch bark containers, using native edible plants, orienteering and fire-building.

And as a low-cost vacation, an outdoor skills camp can't be beat. Five days at Willow Winds is $225, and short weekend programs cost less.

Offered across the United States, outdoor skills camps range from doomsday survival courses to floaty shamanic wanderings. They teach everything from desert tracking to candle-making, hand-felting of mittens to evasion techniques.

Some camps teach primitive skills simply as survival. Others do so only in a cultural context that respects native people.

Miller, 56, has seen all factions at huge national outdoor skills gatherings, such as the Rabbitstick Rendezvous in Idaho.

"You had core survivalists, hippies, the beer camp, the camp where you could get stoned just walking by, and the barter camp, where people live off the grid," he recalls. Miller is none of those; he is more of a teacher. He uses skills in a functional way in his own life. He wears moccasins that he made from doeskin tanned from a deer that he killed. If his efforts are artistic, that's good. He has no barrels of rifles buried in the yard.

"I don't want to run away from something. I try running toward something," he says. "I'm not a doomsday prepper. What I'm doing is not fear-based."

That is true. His camp is, well, peaceful. This year, there are six people enrolled besides me, ages 15 to 54. The activities flow one into another, with no written list, whistles or taps. We just follow along, eat when we have a chance, sleep when we finish.

Miller does not baby-sit. He assumes you know how to pitch a tent and cook. He assumes you are careful with knives, that you can recognize poison ivy, can use an ax and handle fire.

The only other woman is staying off-site with her husband, so I have a spot away from the guys to pitch my tent amid the towering trees. Miller's property abuts the Huron National Forest, so it's quiet. The first night, I sleep 10 hours straight.

Miller and his wife, Cheryl, are Port Huron natives. They have three children and three grandchildren. Here, they spread out. They live in a conventional house (dial-up Internet and no cable TV) with chickens and a big garden, a workshop and a pond. Woodland paths branch out to campsites and an outdoor fire pit. Nearby is a log cabin he built in 2000. He just completed a Finnish sauna, which campers are free to use.

Yet except for the sauna, an outdoor skills vacation is not plush. That's OK with campers.

"In my own crude way I've been trying to do things on my own, bone up on my survival skills. But my thinking has been shifting over the years from 'Rambo' to living," says Jeff Emmerling, 40, a kick-boxing instructor from Farmington Hills, Mich. "I've watched every episode of all those 'prepper' TV shows, where you're in the middle of nowhere and you have to get out. But what I'm interested in is, what if you want to live out there?"

Miller believes people should learn the basics of survival - how to make fire and shelter and find water.

He makes fire by whirling a stick between his hands. He shows campers how to make a bow and spindle fire starter, which involves whittling, cutting, tying and also chopping bits of wood with a sharp ax, something some campers seem precariously rusty at.

"It puts the 'ax' in 'accident'" jokes Michael Keenan, 54, of Saginaw, who is here to step out of his daily routine as the owner of a commercial brokerage company.

He is disappointed the group is so small but is very interested in learning about edible wild plants like ground nuts, sorrel, thistle, nettles and cattail. To some, they're weeds. To us, they're food.