New England Warrior Camp 2011

This past weekend was the 14th annual New England Warrior Camp, a gathering of the very best Ninjutsu practitioners from across the United States for three days of intensive training. My good friend Ken Savage runs the camp – it was his creation back in 1997 after passing his 5th degree black belt test – and truly creates an environment each year where participants are able to “explore, challenge, and develop their warrior spirit.” Everything about the camp is designed to do just that: from the rustic living conditions in Boy Scout cabins (some folks pitch tents) to the meals themselves (no real special dietary considerations), camp goers are encouraged to try and adapt to the conditions in order to better forge their spirit as they walk the path of warriorship. As Ken brilliantly explains, warriors should not be “hothouse flowers” only able to the thrive under the best conditions; they must be able to thrive even in the worst.

Registration began on Friday at 3pm and I arrived around 3:15, wandering up to the White Lodge to check in and say hello to Ken. It’s always great to see him, since I don’t get to all that often because we live a good distance from each other. But no matter the distance, the shared bond of fun, hard training and experiences always dispels any of the “ring rust” and it’s great seeing one of my closest friends I’ve known for twenty years. After dropping the ton of stuff I’d brought this year, including copies of THE KENSEI to sell during the meals, I said good-bye to my family and started to settle in. Paul Etherington showed up and once we were done putting our gear into our room, we headed up for the first training session that Ken teaches. I always love Ken’s session because it’s usually focused on developing some skills that we don’t always get a chance to explore in the confines of a traditional dojo. This year, he focused on shoten no jutsu or literally, “climbing to the heavens.” The idea is to develop skills at running up steep inclines and eventually, vertical walls. To that end, we had planks of various inclinations set up near walls. Once we ran up them and caught the top of the wall, the task was to crest the wall without compromising ourselves through a revealing silhouette, move smoothly over the wall and then return for another go. For some folks, this was the first time they’d ever tried such techniques, but true to the ethos of the camp, they got right out there and accomplished it in excellent style.

We moved from there to breaking up into five-man teams. At one of the activity pavilions, the walls stood about eight to twelve feet high and each five-man team had to form a two-man bridge. Three other teams members would then climb up this “two-man bridge” and come over the wall. One of the two men who had helped the others would then put his back against the wall, and form a hand step for the other man to climb and then be pulled up. The other four would then lean over and pull the last man up and over the wall. Again, camp participants got the chance to practice on walls of varying heights. I always enjoy putting things like this to the test, so since I was the smallest member of my team (along with Paul, Ken Richardson, George K., and Dan) I made sure to be one of the bridge members and the last man to go up two times. It’s amazing how efficient these techniques are – even though they are literally hundreds of years old. You know they work when guys who weigh at least a hundred pounds more than you are able to climb up your body and you don’t suffer any damage. It really breeds a level of confidence in the material we study.

After Ken’s class, Paul and I grabbed some food off-site, since no meals are served that first night. We talked about the weekend ahead and by the time we returned, our third roommate, Mr. Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center and the featured and seniormost teacher of the weekend, had arrived. We headed of to the Chippanyonk Fire Circle for the official opening of the weekend. When we arrived, the logs were filled with participants. Close to one hundred camp goers chose to be a part of this year’s event – folks from all as far away as California, Florida, Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio, and more, waited as Ken explained how the camp came into being and what he wanted them to get out of it. Each of the teachers got up briefly and explained what their segment would focus on for the weekend. This year’s theme, set by Ken, was a “return to zero through kihon happo.” It was beautifully illustrated by a painting that Hatsumi-sensei, the 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu, had given Ken and Ken had emblazoned that on some really incredible T-shirts.

Once the first circle was finished, we moved out to the Ellis Lands, a large open field further out on the reservation. There, we practiced escaping and evading against sword strikes. This is challenging enough in well-lit dojo conditions. Doing it in the pitch dark, with very little ambient light, is even tougher. Along with the physical techniques, we looked at projection and reception of the attacker’s intent to do harm. Some of Ken’s students demonstrated the techniques we would be practicing and did a great job. We broke into small groups and I got a chance to practice with Paul and Dennis Mahoney on the edge of the field under the pine trees. What with the drizzle coming down, the tall grass, and the normal assortment of creeping vines in the undergrowth, footwork, leaping, and more were all soundly tested.

Following this session, five of Ken’s students performed techniques that were required for them to move officially ahead as 5th kyu grades – halfway to black belt. Having endured six months of extremely arduous training that would test the mettle of even hardened veterans of the art, these five showed exemplary skill and fortitude and all passed their examinations. (Big congrats to Andrew, Rob, Kyle, Jack, and Matt for successfully earning their 5th kyu!) Then it was time to crash for the night.

Humidity and excitement plagued the sleep of many, but Saturday dawned bright and early. Camp goers journeyed back out to the Ellis Lands for an early morning gyo session of naturalistic whole body conditioning drills led by Ken. Afterward, with breakfast tucked away (served up by the always colorful personality of Ed, the cook) we all trooped back out for the first training session with Mark Davis. Two hours of punching, kicking, throws, locks, and much more all seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. Sweaty and excited campers moved back for a lunch before the afternoon sessions got underway.

As the clouds threatened, Paul and I set up on opposite sides of the Ellis Lands for our 2-hour segments while my old friend Matt Venier led the live blade cutting segment with swords and tanto knives in another area of camp. Matty showcased some of the blades that he has made himself out at his forge in western Massachusetts. And beauty and efficacy of these blades is quite amazing. Seeing them in person is even better!

The focus of my presentation this year was on projection and reception of energy using examples from the kihon happo (eight fundamental techniques) to illustrate projection, reception, focused projection, and focused reception in a four-level class that had people striking and throwing all over the place. I have so much fun teaching and getting to train with all sorts of new people and old friends that those two hours zip by in no time. I know Paul had a blast, and given the smiles on the faces of his participants, they did as well.

After an interesting dinner on Saturday night (Ed called it his “interpretation” of chicken pot pie, heh heh) Ken Richardson held a class focused on several techniques from the style of Chinese martial arts that he practices and teaches through his excellent organization “No Weapon Needed,” which is dedicated to helping inner city youth steer clear of gang violence. Ken’s perspective on martial arts has been honed through a lifetime of training and brutally hard life experiences that have shaped the manner and style of what he teaches. Ken has also trained in Ninjutsu and remains a very dear friend to everyone who comes into contact with him. With the dining hall packed, he put on a really intriguing class. And perhaps most heartening was the open-mindedness displayed by the participants: they might practice a different style of martial arts, but just as Ken Richardson does, they viewed his class with an open mind and heart and showed their ability to truly appreciate different ideas and perspectives, rather than closing themselves off to the potential of finding something very cool to enhance their own training and world experience.

Up to the Chippanyonk fire circle, Saturday’s discussion focused on a Q&A session with the various instructors as camp goers tossed questions out regarding their own training, experiences at camp, or ideas and thoughts on the concepts of warriorship. After a brief ceremony of tossing intention sticks into the waning fire and seeing the flames eagerly spring back to life as they devoured those plackets of wood and turned the tangible into the ethereal, we headed up to the old activity pavilion where Ken laid out the groundwork for Saturday night’s tactical exercise. This year, camp goers were broken up into four teams and sent to a starting point. By now, it was truly dark out, making the exercise that much more challenging. Each team had to traverse a course, consisting of using shoten no jutsu vertical wall running skills to climb over a wall, enter a facility, rope climb to exfiltrate that facility, head over to another pavilion and enter that using the two-man bridge techniques, and then make their way up to the top of a fire tower before ending up at a giant bonfire in another area of the camp. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the woods were populated by Tengu, camp staff armed with padded swords who would ambush or attack the groups as they made their way from target to target. Some other factors increased the difficulty for participants, and as a referee, I got the chance to watch all the groups approach the fire tower and try to make their way unscathed through that part of the course. Unfortunately for them, the fire tower was manned by three “whackers,” who made sure the groups were treated to an impromptu percussion concert as they came by. 🙂 As I waited for groups to approach, the woods elsewhere were filled with the sounds of roving Tengu making their presence felt. I remarked to Dennis that at one point it sounded a bit like the artillery part of the 1812 Overture.

After Saturday’s exercise concluded, the nine shidoshi (5th dan and higher ranks) and their teacher Mark Davis, made their way to another part of the camp where some other activity was conducted. Following this, we returned to the Henderson Lodge and enjoyed the usual Saturday night campfire that saw the inevitable presence of Spam and the unusual pairings that normally follow (spam with peanut butter, marshmallows, etc.) as informally led by the Camp’s other “chef” Mike Zaino, who while not having graduated by Le Cordon Bleu, nonetheless brings a certain exuberance to his unique Spam recipes. By now, it was roughly 2am and we headed off to bed.

Sunday brought more rain along with another gyo session for those able to rise early. After breakfast, Dennis Mahoney led a segment on use of kamae (postures) as a way of protecting yourself while Leon Drucker taught a segment on swordsmanship as seen from various schools within and outside of our system of study. It’s always hard for me to believe how quickly the Camp passes by once we get going, but inevitably, lunch rolled around and then it was back down to the hill to take Mark Davis’ final session of the Camp. As Ken says, he always opens and closes camp with Mark and the segment is always the sort-of “last hurrah” before Camp ends. By now, camp goers were a crusty, sweaty bunch but still eager for training. And Mark delivered as he always does. We bent and twisted and rolled and punched and kicked for two hours.

At the conclusion of Mark’s segment, Ken said some final words, received a very nice gift from Ken Richardson, and then it was time to move on out. Camp finished with good-byes, handshakes, and hugs as participants moved off, heading back to their lives and their own paths.

Camp this year was an extremely fun time for me. It was great to reconnect with old friends, meet some new friends that I’ve only known through Facebook, see some extremely talented practitioners advance in rank, and enhance friendships with tons of wonderful people. It’s always incredible to see the absence of politics – while so many other ninjutsu organizations squabble about who is the “real thing,” or who is the latest “guru du jour,” the Camp is free from such pettiness. What is so amazing about the people who attend is that they prefer to put their energy into exploring, challenging, and developing their warrior spirit through the austerity of training rather than engage in the simple-mindedness and immaturity of politicking. It’s a phenomenal group of people to surround yourself with and, selfishly speaking, it always reinvigorates my spirit and commitment to this art.

After fourteen years of New England Warrior Camp, I can confidently say that it never fails to produce some of the best training experiences and memories for all who attend. Ken Savage does an incredible job and he really pays it forward by holding this event each and every year. I hope he continues for many more years to come. Thanks to everyone who helped make it such a success; thanks to Ken for having me be a part of it; thanks to all my friends and fellow practitioners for charging me up for another year (okay, honestly, right now I’m pretty crusty, but I *will* be charged up once I get another nap, lol) and I look forward to continuing my own journey down the warrior’s path knowing that I am walking that path with so many kindred spirits.

Until next year!

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