Being ready, just in case/Times Union

May 13, 2013/Times Union

Like all good teachers, Shane Hobel wants his students to be prepared.

Seated on a stool at the center of a semicircle of pupils, he laid out the central question behind the day’s lesson plan: A day of survival training, study in the primitive skills one might need if stranded in the wild without really any modern convenience.

“What do I do in case the big pile of poo hits the fan?” Hobel queried his scholars at theMountain Scout Survival School, invoking the classic survivalist cliche.

The excrement was a metaphor for any range of societal, economic or natural disaster.

The answer to his rhetorical question was, of course, the reason an odd mix of suburban families, urban professionals and nature lovers from up and down the Hudson Valley had assembled on a hunk of private Putnam County woodland. In the face of the big “what-if?,” it might be useful to know how to build shelter, a fire or hunting traps. It might be useful to be prepared.

“Being prepared is simply being responsible,” Hobel, also known as “White Feather,” lectured his students. Some were in camo, others in sneakers and fanny packs, most vigorously taking notes. “Your ancestors used to be preppers.”

Call it prepping, survivalism or self-reliance: In the wake of natural disasters, the recession and terrorist attacks, the tenets of survivalist philosophy have moved increasingly into the mainstream. Fear of the end of the world as we know it — “Teotwawki,” in prepper lingo — has spread beyond the bunker.

Hobel first began teaching wilderness survival to school kids and summer camp programs 15 years ago, but in the years since the recession his clientele has become almost entirely adult.

During the recession his business doubled, bolstered by fears of economic collapse. Since then it has tripled, with the latest surge coming after Superstorm Sandy invoked yet another wave of fear of environmental catastrophe. Full-day courses cost $100 for individuals; the school’s hugely popular private lessons are priced upon request.

His classes, in both Putnam County and New York City, attract people from all geographies and walks of life – from “wackadoodle” hoarders to suburban soccer moms.

A Saratoga Springs personal injury lawyer, Rob Coughlin, was among those in attendance at a recent class. Coughlin, 56, first became interested in prepping after the December 2008 ice storm that walloped the East Coast and cut power for millions, some for more than a week.

He volunteered at a Red Cross shelter in Clifton Park in the aftermath, and began to consider the intricacies of disaster response. Eventually, he began to rethink his own disaster preparedness and concluded he wasn’t very prepared at all.

“Most people already have some sort of plan in the event of something going wrong,” he said. “The problem is the degree to which people prepare.”

He started small: buying a generator, stocking up on food. He took classes with the Red Cross and eventually wound up at Mountain Scout Survival School. In his house, he has enough freeze-dried food to feed one person for six months. He never lets his car’s gas needle creep below half a tank, just in case. He keeps a Red Cross disaster backpack in his car. “This has been a metamorphosis for me,” he said. “I don’t want to die in a disaster. I want to be a survivor and be able to help.”

He reached his limits, though, when he considered purchasing a shotgun to protect his stock. For a liberal lawyer from Saratoga Springs, walking into the gun store just felt wrong (that, and his wife was firmly opposed).

“That’s not who I am,” he said, “Living out in the woods by yourself in some fortified shelter.”

Evidence of the movement’s growth is elsewhere, too. Phil Burns, a Utah resident who co-founded the American Preppers Network in 2008, estimated that there are “at least a couple thousand” who identify as preppers in upstate New York alone. Since its founding, the APN has become a hugely popular online and offline community for preppers. A Schenectady chapter of the APN, founded last April, now boasts nearly 100 members.

Ron Douglas, who founded the Self Reliance Expo in 2010, a traveling convention that showcases survival gear and skills, said he is inundated with requests to bring the Expo to New York. He said since Superstorm Sandy he has received about 400 requests.

Survivalism received its first surge in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, after which the Department of Homeland Security advised Americans to assemble disaster supply kits in case of biological or chemical attacks. The recession, Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene all fanned the flames. In recent years, survival culture has spawned not only expos, but magazines, reality television, blogs and even a dating website,

“The apocalyptic ideal has vaulted from religious esoterica to pop culture headline; yesterday’s disheveled wackos are today’s American middle class,” wrote Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles in their book “The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America,” published last year. “The widespread belief in some kind of apocalypse is the defining cultural phenomenon of our time.”

At the Y-Die Emergency Preparedness Outlet in Gansevoort, owner Dan Colon has turned survivalist ideology into a hefty paycheck. His store, off Route 9, is rarely without a steady stream of customers, who peruse his shelves for everything from suture kits, solar radios and 40-pound bags of rice to gas masks and machetes.

His store started as an occasional booth at gun shows, but demand was so high he decided to invest in a brick-and-mortar location in 2011. Business, he said, has never been better.

A young couple from Fort Ann shopped in his store, 4-month-old baby in tow. They were picking up a utility vest and shoelaces made from paracord, which can be unwound to yield hundreds of feet of very strong cord.

The couple, Josh Cross, 30 and Sarah Schnabel, 26, said they live “totally off the grid.”

With Colon, they discussed the threat of “zombies” – not the living dead, but rather those who might attempt to mooch off the more-prepared members of society were a disaster to occur. (Such zombies are the reason many shoppers at Colons store declined to speak to a reporter at all.)

“I think a lot more people are becoming aware of the state of things,” Colon said. “People are concerned about economic collapse, solar flares, natural disasters.”

He added: “I prepare for everything.”

Shane Hobel does not refer to himself as a prepper or survivalist, though he has been featured on the Discovery Channel show “Doomsday Preppers.” Instead, he presents preparedness as something obvious — skills everyone should know. There is no secretive paranoia. In fact, he succeeds in making prepping sound kind of fun.

“We display these skills in the Museum of Natural History,” he said. “It’s my job to break that glass.”

Hobel has a point. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency launched the Ready campaign to encourage Americans to prepare for emergencies. The campaign echoes much of survivalist rhetoric, including having enough food, water, medication and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours.

“People are concerned,” said Hobel. “They don’t trust the government. They just want to know what to do in case something happens. That conversation has started to become more and more socially acceptable.”

At a recent Mountain Scout Survival class, Denise Mauri, 46, worked on perfecting her skill in lashing, using rope made from tree bark for binding – potentially useful for building shelter or making tools in an emergency.

Mauri, her husband and 10-year-old daughter attended the session from New Windsor, Orange County. They had moved to New Windsor from New York City after Sept. 11, 2001. The event also sparked the family’s initial interest in survivalism. “We’re preparing for anything that could happen,” said Mauri.

For Rob Coughlin, the attorney, his latest class underscored just how far he has to go. Using a knife to carve a wooden fishing spear was particularly challenging: he had a hard time conceptualizing how exactly the wood might be transformed into a spear.

“Overall, I realized that I really don’t know a lot,” he said.

In the weeks after the class, he signed up for two eight-hour search-and-rescue courses. He hopes to continue to learn more.

The real trick: balancing family life, billable hours and learning to be prepared.

[photo: John Carl D’Annibale/Times Union]