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It's apocalypse now at Zombie Survival Camp

It's 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday and I am one of 20 day campers sitting around a fire pit in rural central New Jersey. Doused in suntan lotion and bug spray, we are all there for the same reason: to learn survival skills, particularly those meant to fend off cannibalistic corpses.

Yes, you read that correctly — cannibalistic corpses, more commonly known as zombies.

From TV favorite "The Walking Dead" to last year's blockbuster "World War Z," the flesh-eating foes are everywhere.

Now, you can channel Rick Grimes, Glenn Rhee or whoever your favorite zombie killer may be at Zombie Survival Camp in Manchester Township.

From shooting rifles and throwing knives to stitching wounds and purifying water, the curriculum provides a foundation for conquering not only the living dead, but also other emergency situations such as car accidents and floods.

"The skills you're learning today are real," says Mark Scelza, camp founder and instructor of firearms and emergency preparedness. "The zombie apocalypse is the worst-case scenario. We're preparing you for natural disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. We got a lot of thank-yous after [Hurricane] Sandy."

The camp, now in its sixth year, is run by Scelza and his wife, Suzanne, the camp's resident crossbow expert.

The couple, who live in Jobstown, N.J., are joined by two other instructors: their 19-year-old son, Sam, a bladed-weapons expert; and Jonas Sherman, a hand-to-hand combat expert and creator of Zombitsu, a defensive fighting style that focuses on how a zombie would attack.

Following welcome remarks, the group is divided into four teams of five, which remain together throughout the eight-hour camp.

On my squad, Team 3, are 15-year-old Kinjal Ruecker and her stepfather, Jason, of Silver Springs, Md.; and husband and wife Joe and Sofia Spenser of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jason registered as a Christmas present for Kinjal, who wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. The Spensers, self-identified outdoor enthusiasts, were simply looking for a new activity.

"We like to hike and rock climb and have also taken trampoline and trapeze classes," Sofia Spenser says. "This is just another adventure for us."

No one actually believes in zombies, and only one, Kinjal, is a fan of "The Walking Dead."

In the morning, we rotate through four stations: sutures, crossbow, knife-throwing and emergency preparedness.

My team begins at sutures, where we stitch up a sliced pig's foot and also master other first aid tactics such as dressing wounds, applying tourniquets and using medical syringes (on oranges).

"Be sure not to suture the skin to the muscle," Sherman says.

Not having operated on anything since my frog dissection days in middle school, I struggle to mend the slimy hoof. My teammates appear more adept, especially Sofia, a former assistant to a dental surgeon.

Our second stop is with Mark, who discusses how to prepare for emergency situations, including the loss of electricity and clean water.

"Bottled water packs are what — $5 now?" he asks. "Buy some! You can't go three days without water, so make sure you have one gallon per person per day for at least that time."

Another way to stay hydrated, he says, is through purifying water. Methods include filtration devices such as Lifestraw and specially designed water bottles, as well as a home remedy of mixing 1 teaspoon of household bleach into 5 gallons of water.

Mark, a personal trainer, martial artist and NRA-certified instructor in multiple disciplines, discusses the importance of having several light sources and ways to light a fire — from matches and lighters to candles and hand-crank flashlights.

"ChapStick and cotton covered in Vaseline act as great fire starters," he adds. "Also, grain alcohol can light fires, sanitize and take the edge off after a long day."

Next, we find ourselves learning crossbow, the highlight of my day.

As an Eagle Scout and son of a hunter, I've shot bows, rifles and shotguns from an early age, but never a crossbow. The experience allowed me to pretend, for a moment, that I was the zombie-killing tough guy Daryl Dixon from AMC's "The Walking Dead."

Suzanne Scelza shows us how to load, hold and aim the weapon before we each take a turn at the target, roughly 40 feet away. We use field-tip bolts with one point as opposed to broadhead bolts with several points, which can do much more damage.

"Look through the scope and shoot as quickly as you can," she advises before I hit the upper right corner of the target. "The more you hold it, the more you're going to move it."

Our last stop before lunch is knife, ax and shuriken (more commonly known as "ninja star") throwing with Sam Scelza, who possesses vast knowledge of medieval weapons. He's convinced that after the apocalypse, society will revert to the Dark Ages once ammunition runs out.

We start with knives, which Sam Scelza instructs us to "let glide out of our hands" toward the wooden planks about 5 feet in front of us.

"You're not actually throwing them," he explains. "You're letting gravity take them from your hand. Keep your arm at a right angle and don't snap your wrist like you're throwing a baseball."

The skill proves challenging, with a majority of our throws resulting in the clanging of metal against the wall.

The axes and shurikens, which have more than one point, are easier to plant in the wood.

Following lunch, campers move to a field to learn Zombitsu, Sherman's signature fighting style.

Using foam-padded sticks, we practice our newly learned striking techniques (think lethal tennis swings) on partners before practicing on half of the group (think a killer version of the kids game Red Rover).

"If possible, aim for the cup on the back of the skull — the kill shot," Sherman says while stressing the importance of soft strikes during practice. "But don't overthink it. Hit what you can when you can."

We then assemble at the firearms range, where all four instructors assist us in shooting a 20-gauge shotgun, three different kinds of rifles and four different kinds of pistols at zombie targets, including a butcher zombie, a pizza delivery zombie, a chainsaw-wielding zombie and an iPhone-carrying zombie (looking strangely similar to Paris Hilton).

Safety is paramount as we strap on ear and eye protection and learn the intricacies of properly handling each one of the guns.

"Bullseye!" yells Sofia Spenser while firing a .357 Magnum revolver.

Everyone on my team is shooting extremely well, but I quickly take note of our MVP, Kinjal. Her accuracy is on point — literally — with each gun she fires. And the fact that this is her first time shooting makes the performance that much more impressive.

"We're not going to let you become a sniper," her stepfather tells her.

While the firearms training was a highlight for many campers, James Pellettere of Passaic County, N.J, preferred the first aid and crossbow portions.

"Guns are guns," say Pellettere, who was attending with his daughter, Jessica, and brother, Scott. "Once you've shot one, you've shot them all."

The brothers, who say they are "part-time preppers," each have about six months worth of non-perishable food and emergency supplies at home. They attended the camp to learn new skills, as well as new items to add to their "bug-out-bags," backpacks containing maps, matches, medicine and other materials meant to keep you alive for at least 72 hours.

Just as we think our zombie-killing day has concluded, the teams are surprised with a contest (think killer obstacle course) to cap off the day's activities.

Using all of our new skills, we test our abilities during two rounds of competition (the fastest team average wins). I take on Zombitsu and pistol shooting (missing only one balloon) while my teammates are responsible for other duties.

We put forth a valiant effort (Kinjal shoots distant shaving cream cans on first shot), but finish in second place.

"This camp has really opened my eyes," Sofia Spenser says. "I never realized what I'd need in an emergency and I don't think we'd have room for it all in our apartment — but it's nice to know!"

Zombie Survival Camp

What: Learn crossbow shooting, knife throwing, first aid and other skills necessary to live through a zombie apocalypse.

Where: Manchester Township, N.J. (address revealed after registration)

When: Sept. 13 and 27. Classes run 8:30 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m.

How much: $179, includes coffee and doughnuts in the morning, lunch and a snack

Details: Day classes are offered to adults and children, ages 15 and older, who are accompanied by an adult. Long pants, sturdy shoes, bug spray and suntan lotion are recommended.

Info: 609-864-3369, zombiesurvivalcourse.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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