Ticks And Tea Leaves

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In the last week, I’ve run my first couple of youth-oriented outdoor education programs. The first was as an assistant with the Community School in Tamworth NH, and the second was School of the Forest’s first session of our “Family Nature Walk” series. In each of these, I got the opportunity to see kids interact with the outdoors, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

The most fascinating aspect of this for me is seeing the incredible variation in what gets a young person excited about the experience. That little bit of information, or the sight of a particular plant or animal that makes the gears in the kid’s head start turning. It’s not always what you’d expect either. Just in these first two sessions, I got to see a beautiful contrast in personalities and what draws them to open the door and ” throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” as our old friend Muir said.

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In my time at the Community School, we focused on vernal ponds. Hiking through the woods to where the overflow of streams had created said pools the kids caught me up on what they’d been doing so far in their outdoor course. This group of middle schoolers had already started digging into topo maps, building three-dimensional models of local peaks. They’d even gone so far as to color coordinate them based on changes in terrain, and place markers for campsites, trails and other landmarks. When we reached the pools we talked a bit about the ecosystem that sprouts up in these short-lived bodies of water, and then the fun began. There is no joy like mucking about in mud and grime, and flipping stones looking for things that slide and crawl.

The longer you sit and look at anything in nature the more you see. As Margaret, the instructor from the school and I talked about the easy stuff to spot (Caddisfly larvae, frog and salamander eggs etc) the kid’s eyes were unfocused and bouncing around the pool as little motions and ripples hinted at things not yet seen. After the initial schpiel, the kids got turned loose with sifters and buckets, pulling up all manner of living things from the pools, and as we all sat on our haunches more and more of the tiny ecosystem in front of us started to become visible. Frogs that had been sitting still in the grasses were spotted, a salamander meandered its way across the pool’s floor.

One young man in particular simply sat quietly on a log, not really drawn to the pool as the rest of us were. However as the afternoon stretched on, he started to speak with fascination about ticks. It started an entire discussion among the kids, with opinions following the full range of “I thought I saw a Deer Tick on me, and it was terrifying” to a simple “EEEEW” (read at the highest vocal register possible). The previously mentioned log sitter passed through these two stages and came out on the other side with questions about a tick’s life cycle, and why they were currently in such abundance. As we talked about “the hatch” that was going on as the weather changed towards warmth those gears and cogs in his mind started to supply questions. Questions I could not answer but have been assured he’ll be able to very soon. Ticks. Arguably the most reviled of crawling things had ignited that first ember in this kid and sent him down a path of wondering.

 

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A Red Eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.

 

So onto the next one. School Of The Forest’s nature walks are each centered around a specific subject. This week’s was tree identification and an introduction to the art and process of pressing samples from plants. I had sort of set in my mind certain “cool” little bits of trivia about each plant we talked about that I thought would artificially light that spark we keep talking about. The kids (and parents) found these interesting, but the whole “close but no cigar” trope was pretty applicable.

So I was incredibly surprised when the youngest kid in the bunch was drawn in by the idea of making pine needle tea. Something about this just burrowed into his happy little soul and I watched him drop each of his other clippings one by one as he filled his and “Pappi’s” pockets with pine needles to make take home for tea. It didn’t end there either, every five minutes as we walked from spot to spot, he’d walk up to me with a leaf or twig and ask about it’s chances of making his tea better.

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If I learned one thing from this kiddo, it’s that I need to up my knowledge of wild teas.

While building School Of The Forest, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but as I work more and more with young people I’m learning to ease up on the reins of each class a bit and let kids just flip rocks looking for Efts (pictured above), and pick potential tea leaves. It’s not about a strict outline, followed point by point. It’s about that spark, and how best to add air and fuel to turn it to an ember that will smolder into something more. Apparently, Ticks and Tealeaves make pretty good fuel.

 

A Year In Review

I’m finishing up this piece sitting on a group of friends’ deck in Chicago. It’s fitting. A year ago I sat on the same deck with the friends I’ve known for years, trying to explain why I was leaving my life in St. Louis to go to a semester long course in northern Maine. 

I didn’t have a plan past that. I just wanted a break from the everyday. A chance to get my monsters in check, to sort through the events that led me to need a break in the first place. I went looking for nothing more than an interesting experience. What I found was a lifestyle that did away with previously mentioned monsters entirely. Jack Mountain, and the people I met, didn’t give me what I thought I wanted, but it gave me what I didn’t know I needed. 

It’s hard to explain the last year in a way that doesn’t come off as performing lip service to the school, fellow students and the instructors that have been instrumental in sheparding me towards a way of life that not only brings me more joy than I’ve ever known, but allows me the opportunity to pass that joy onto other like minded souls. Each experience I had that impacted me on a visceral level was crafted by people more experienced, and more knowledgeable than I am. I will forever be grateful to them for those experiences and the generosity they’ve shown in sharing their know-how with me. 

So the past year. That’s what we’re here to talk about. This piece of scribbling could be longer than anything else I’ve written, but I’m just going to chat about the “big three”. Three moments in the last year that stick out in the tectonic shifting that shaped this new life.

1. Seeds of School Of The Forest

April seventeenth was the start of the semester I participated in at Jack Mountain Bushcraft school and guide service. Over those nine weeks I was introduced to skills and methods of living that will forever be the ground work for any program I teach. I learned about “frilufstliv”, or the idea of living a life that has a real and constantly evolving relationship with the outdoors. The moment in this semester that truly shifted my course in life was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I went setting trail markers with my instructor and friend, Tim Smith. As we walked we chatted back and forth about future plans and what I was getting from the course. As we wandered along the paths hammering blazes onto trees, we talked about my desire to bring people into this lifestyle at an earlier age. Tim mentioned off hand that he had run a youth program a few years back, and would love to see it revived. I expressed my interest in being involved, but didn’t think much more about it. It continued to lay low in my mind, dropping in and out of thought, always growing and making its call louder and louder. Now it’s my pleasure to not only be involved with it, but to be running the program itself. It’s a ridiculously underserved opportunity, but I’m grateful and excited that the project is off the ground and has courses listed on its calendar. 

2. Homecoming

I stayed for six months in Baltimore working, but mostly killing time until I could head north again. It was an eye opener after living a sustainable outdoor lifestyle for nine weeks. I’d always previoualy thought of good ol’ charm city as some sort of personal Xanadu. Now though, it serves as a reminder of how detached from the natural world our culture has become. Not by any fault of their own, the folks I worked with had no frame of reference to discuss the experiences I love having in the outdoors. Not the “adventures” or moments of internal/external struggle that invariably become the talking points when discussing the outdoor industry. People want to hear about the romance and the trials, but those aren’t the moments that keep me doing this. It’s those little moments where all is right. They are fueled by simple things, like a pot of trail coffee and the sound of snow falling, or a sit spot that you’ve watched go through its shift from spring to summer. These are the things I want to talk about, but are hard to discuss without a prior reference point for both indivuals. Baltimore cemented my resolve that school of the forest is a worthy endeavor. I saw detachment from, and fear of the world that brings me so much joy. SOTF gives me the opportunity to pass this on to young people and hopefully affect their internal lives for the better.

3. A community on the outskirts of the norm

This industry seems to attract certain types of people. A lot of the self described “lone wolves” seem to rise and bare their teeth in an attempt to make their presence known. In my experience so far, they end up whimpering and sulking away when the day to day work needs to be done. They want the romance of the life, and the ego stroking that comes with having a captive audience to be macho and “independent” at. My friend and associate Ben Spencer put it best while discussing this very subject. “Our best ‘survival skill’ has always been our ability to get along with other people.” 

He said this in passing on a long drive back from northern Quebec, and it wiggled its way down into my brain. It’s the most succinct explanation of humanities’ growth as a species and is becoming more and more relevant in an increasingly interconnected world. Words of wisdom from a fellow filthy vagrant. 

And that’s the amazing thing about this tight little community I’ve somehow tumbled heel over head into. They are an eclectic, intelligent, completely bizzare group of lost souls. Seekers of something more in this life. Something old, that lives in our deepest memories of primordial soup. Sure, half the time our conversations are crass and filled with the worst jokes of every category (dad jokes, groaners, thinly veiled threats of violence) but at the end of the day we as a strange little collective find the meaning we require in our sweat of the day mixed with the nuerons that fire as we sit around our cook fire at night talking about the desire for others to experience this amazing natural world we live in. The outdoor industry feels like home, and it does so because of the people who’ve welcomed me into it. They are too many to mention here, but they know who they are, and the effect they’ve had on me.  

Thanks for keeping up with my ramblings for the last year, and here’s to the next one. Let’s hope it’s filled with bad puns on trail and all the boots I can eat. 

Sambuca And Espresso With The Working Class Woodsman

The first night I met Ed Butler he fed me bear meat shepherd’s pie and a slew of other delicious foods at a “Wild Game Dinner” hosted by Derek Faria of “The Woodsman School“. I’ll just throw a quick photo of the menu here to really set the ol’ hook.

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There, do we have your attention now?

Ed is the “working class woodsman”, he runs a Youtube Channel where he allows other outdoorsy folks with an interest to peer into his activities here in Wolfeboro NH. The reason I wanted to sit down with him for this chat was his youtube series that he uses to show how much there is to do in New Hampshire. No matter the season, Ed’s out and about doing something in the woods. March seemed to be a pretty dead month up north, but Ed’s been as active as ever. So we sat down to talk about his experiences with YouTube, his experiences as a young man growing up in Wolfeboro NH with as he puts it “not a lot of extras to go around”.

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Ed setting beaver traps

  The first topic is the odd parallels he sees as a person who “does this stuff by choice” and what he saw growing up in a family that did the same things but without the romance that a lot of us in the industry tend to apply to the lifestyle. His example is going out fishing. A day of fishing for most of us in the modern world is a fun day out, usually involving a beer or two, but with no real gravity applied to the outcome. In the case of his parents and grandparents though, it wasn’t a recreational thing. A weekend of fishing happened because “we need fish for the freezer”. Ed’s take on all of this stuff is fascinating because of this background. The necessity of the tasks, paired with an early attraction to the woods made for a self-educating streak in Ed as a young man. He describes himself as an “odd, sort of unpopular kid” that became fascinated by the drawings in old boy scouts manuals (though he never joined the scouts) and used them as a source of techniques to try while in the woods. This is where the marriage of necessity and romance of the woods started, to my eye at least. He mentions building a lean-to and cooking a cheap steak over an open fire as a way he’d pass an afternoon, how this was something that even now a lot of his friends don’t quite “get” then, let alone now.

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Ed and Tom prepping bear meatballs

   At this point in the conversation another visitor to Ed’s home, Tom “Migrating Moose” Yevoli, knocked on the door. He brought us in Espresso with a splash of sambuca. This minor interruption brings around two key points about Ed that stick out almost immediately. The first revolves around the act of cooking. A lot of the images shared on the Working class woodsman Instagram feed show images of the meals Ed makes, and a good portion of those are wild game dishes. In the short time I’ve known Ed, he and his wife Tara have invited myself and other friends to their home numerous times for meals and libations. Each time the food is phenomenal, and the process of preparing it is an event in and of itself. You can see the joy and passion that goes into not only the food itself, but the simple act of sharing it with others. As someone who tends to think of food as a necessary inconvenience, this insight into the joy that comes from a meal that’s been truly prepared from start to finish (harvesting the game, processing it and then preparing it and enjoying it with others) has been a really incredible experience.

The second point dovetails from the first, and will also carry us into Ed’s YouTube experiences. The other guest that I mentioned is a friend that Ed made through his youtube channel, and has since invited up from Long Island NY to visit a few times. On this occasion, Tom also brought along his little brother and Ed jumped into showing them both around Wolfeboro’s trails and streams whole heartedly. This is where that passion for the outdoors Ed embodies truly comes to light. That passion is not hampered by sharing it with others. If anything it’s compounded by the opportunity to show others what he knows, as well as learn from them at the same time. The generosity of these acts is palpable. Every outdoor activity he takes part in and loves is magnified by the chance to share it with others, and connect with them in the process.

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Which brings us to YouTube. Ed’s channel is updated regularly, and each video holds that same willingness to share his knowledge with others. That knowledge isn’t just centered around any particular outdoor activity, but each video is firmly braced against the outdoors in general. The example of this that stands out is Ed’s rendition of “The cremation of Sam McGee“, a popular northwoods poem by Robert Service. The poem is quoted from memory by Ed, while casually paddling his kayak back to the pullout site after a day of fishing. A particular line is easily attributed to the working class woodsman’s videos; “Well a pal in need’s a pal indeed and I swore I would not fail”. As we chatted about the ins and outs of the outdoors youtube culture, the thing that keeps Ed making videos and is the opportunity to learn from the friends he’s made through it, and pass on the knowledge he’s acquired.

As previously mentioned, Ed’s series about all there is to do in New Hampshire no matter the time of the year was the reason for this conversation. It’s fascinating to hear just tuned into the seasons he is, as he almost offhandedly lists each month of the years “agenda”. Each month’s description is filled with minute details that could only come from a lifetime of being out in the woods and streams, paying close attention to the habits and patterns of the flora and fauna in them. No biological family is left out either. Ed mentions everything from tapping maple trees and harvesting wild mushrooms, to the best time of the year for lake trout. All this, as well as deer, turkey, trapping and bear season. Each set of dates (even the “unofficial” one’s like when the mushrooms are at their peak etc)  is firmly engrained in his mind, and easily recalled.

As we wrapped up the conversation, the aromas of a bear etouffee that Ed, Tara and Tom had been preparing started to waft from the kitchen, and that’s the perfect note to end this piece on. A touch of the wild, mixed with true joyful hospitality and a slight buzz from the Espresso we’d been drinking. It’s been great getting to know Ed, and I look forward to many more days of walking trails, paddling streams and gleaning as much insight as I can from this New Hampshire woodsman. Plus he gave an extra shirt for when the one I wear everyday needs it’s bi-monthly wash.

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You can find Ed at his Youtube channel and his Instagram account. Tell him I sent you, and keep an eye out for the next episode of the Jack Mountain Podcast, where Tim and Ed have a great conversation about growing up in New Hampshire with a passion for the outdoors.

As always, Slainte Maith everybody. Thanks for reading.

Boreal Expediton finale.

Hello again everyone,

Sorry about the wait between articles and the relative shortness of this one. March has been a rough month for writing. Office work for School of the forest, paired with experiencing my first New England spring has made the finding time to sit and write pretty tough. We’re back in the proverbial saddle though, as winter breathes its last, and I start getting ready for courses to take off.

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When we last spoke, we’d gotten the newer students up to speed with camp life, teaching them the basics of axe work, outdoor cooking etc. As the course progressed, something became clear. The weather was not cooperating with our plans of moving camps every couple of days. It was getting warmer, and the snow and ice on the lake was becoming slush. This made dragging the sleds with all of our gear, an already tough endeavor, pretty miserable. The slush builds up on the sleds making them heavier, and the crust of the snow starts to melt, meaning that every few steps one of us was punching through. Pulling your foot out of three feet of snow is funny the first few times, but gets pretty draining after a few miles. The slush builds up on top of the netting of your snowshoes and adds weight to every step you take. It’s not that the experience shouldn’t be challenging, but there’s a skill to knowing when you should just “hole up” for a few days.

So hole up we did. Our plan was to be moving every couple of days, and with two weeks planned out for the trip, this would have made for lots of chances to practice what we’d all slowly learned. Personally, I was looking forward to being out and moving. I got a taste for snowshoeing while in Quebec, and looked forward to sating that. The constant moving would have allowed for chances to get the process of setting up camp down to a science, and opportunities to experience winter like I never really have. (Not a lot of opportunities to snowshoe in Maryland or Missouri).

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But that’s how things go on trail right? You’ve got to adapt to the situation as it presents itself. If I’d been on my own, I wouldn’t have had A. the experience or B. the wherewithal to see the signs that led to our decision to stay in our original campsite as long as we did. I’d have assumed that this was just part of the experience and pushed through and likely made everyone in our group miserable because of it.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Tim saw what was coming, and adjusted the plans to the situation. We ended up staying close to our original camp and really focusing on a lot of the crafts and skills that may have just gotten a quick overview otherwise. We worked on a lot of carving skills, practiced making and using a bowdrill kit, and processed wood. Man, did we process a lot of wood. Personally, this helped with whatever the trail version of cabin fever is though. If we’d just sat around the fire most of the day, the boredom would have festered and that’s when group dynamics get iffy. Instead we went to bed tired and full of food every night, slept well, and group spirits stayed manageable.

After a few days of this though, it became apparent that the weather wasn’t going to shift in our favor. The opposite in fact, it was going to get warmer. Tim called the trip off at that point. We’d exhausted most of the teachable skills, and even though none of us wanted to go back to our daily lives just yet, the decision was made and we prepped to head out the next day.

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Before that happened though, we all set out for a solo night with the basics. Axe, Knife, Matches, tarp and a pot for melting snow for drinking water. The experience was like nothing I’ve done before, but I can’t do it justice with my current vocabulary. There may be an article in the future about the solo experience and “killing the bogeyman” as Tim calls the results of a solo winter experience, but I’m not sure. At least not till I’ve managed to frame the words in my head in an intelligent way instead of the current “it was pretty great” response when someone asks me about it. Maybe I’m romanticizing it too much (A habit I’m definitely guilty of), but I’m not sure it’s something you can talk about with someone who hasn’t experienced the same thing.

I did,however doodle my campsite for the solo night, and for now that’s what I’ll share.

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All in all, even with cutting the trip short, the experience was a good one. It was great to see more of Maine, a state this southern-ish boy fell in love with quickly and jumps at the chance to learn more about it’s seasons and habits.

Thanks for reading as always, and be sure to check back. I recorded a great interview with Ed Butler (The Working Class Woodsman) last week, and his insight into the outdoors is incredible.

Slainte Maithe everyone. Get Outside.

 

 

Boreal Expedition pt. 2

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We woke up the next day having learned something about our gear.

I’m of the mindset that too much focus on gear is the bane of the outdoor/bushcraft industry. You get a lot of “experts” who know a hell of a lot about knives for example, in an academic sense, and put a lot of weight on the details of a knife. (How it’s constructed, the materials used, etc). To me though, it’s about the ability with a piece of gear that matters. You should be able to do with a ten dollar morakniv, the exact same things you manage with a two hundred dollar custom knife. I’m cheap as anything, so I still stick with my battered “companion” model mora, and know that if and when it eventually breaks (as tools are apt to do with the work we put them through), I’m out fifteen bucks and it’s an easy thing to replace.

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This is getting pointed out as a contrast to a necessary approach to winter gear. Specifically sleeping bags and sleep pads. The most important thing you can do in the field, besides keep hydrated, is make sure you’re getting a good nights rest. Sleep’s not often pointed out a neccesity in outdoor work, but think about that time you crammed every night for a week for upcoming tests. Remember how your mind worked at the end of it? Not exactly firing on all cylinders was it? Now add in days filled with the intense physical activity required by winter camping. The simple mechanisms of keeping warm are draining in a biochemical sense. Even if you’re not expending energy processing wood for your fire, or hiking around the site, your body is working harder than it’s probably used to in order to keep you warm. A few days of that will sap even the most energetic of people without the chance to recharge and reset when you sleep each night. So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping

So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping your stove/fire going all night. However extra sleeping bags mean extra weight, and keeping a fire of any kind going all night means sacrificing some of that much-needed rest. For the most part, we all slept alright. Save one of us, who’d rolled off his sleep pads and lost a lot of warmth as the cold ground sapped it out of him. He didn’t complain much, but it was a visible mental struggle as he warmed back up by the stove. Nobody likes getting out from under the covers on a cold winter morning, let alone when it’s ten degrees while camping out.

Our first day was spent rehashing the skills we’d gone over in a hurry the night before in order to get camp set up. We had two students with us who had virtually no outdoor experience, and this meant going over axe safety, firewood processing and a lot of other pretty basic stuff. For me, that was a good experience. It allowed me to test my own abilities by helping out when the new people struggled. (“See one, do one, teach one” is Tim Smith’s approach to the learning process, and it’s proved itself over and over)

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This was particularly true with one match fires. The process involves gathering a “twig bundle”, and while that seems pretty straight forward, it’s a subtle skill. Simple, and basic sure, but getting the density of the fuel right, as well as collecting the right sized twigs is important. You can explain it over and over, but until someone’s done it a few times the necessity doesn’t quite make sense.

Axe work was pretty similar. There’s a tendency to think of splitting wood as a formula of “harder work=faster processing”. I disagree. Splitting is a calm, almost lazy process if you’re doing it right, All you really need to do is lift the axe up and let it fall again. That’s an obvious simplification, but the idea’s right. Contact splitting makes it even easier, just hold the axe and the piece of wood together, then let them drop. It was interesting to watch new student’s figure these things out as they went. I had a whole semester of fiddling with these skills. They’d had a day or so with them, but a day fueled by necessity is apparently worth more than a day where it doesn’t matter.

In the next article in this series, I’ll span a few days of our trip. We covered a lot of winter skills in a very short time, but I don’t want this series to become a study in winter living minutiae.

Hope you’re all doing well, and thanks for coming back!

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Boreal Snowshoe Expedition Pt. I

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   I just finished attending the Boreal Snowshoe Expedition offered by Jack Mountain. As learning experiences go, this was a great one. Not only for technical skills used on trail, but also for all the teacher/guide skills that go on in the background of trips. I got to help Tim out with the preparation for the trip before and after we got on trail, and that’s as important a job as all the minutiae that happens once everyone is out in the woods.
A lot goes into these trips, and that requires careful planning and a sixth sense for possible issues that’s born of experience. Seeing all the back end work of planning meals and buying supplies for them, going over group kit to make sure everything is working etc. and getting to help with it added something to the trip that would never have happened otherwise. Seeing all the gear and preparation get employed as we went really hammered home the necessity of having a well thought out schedule, organization of gear, and a knowledge base to cope with problems as they arise.
  We left the folk school in New Hampshire the day before the course started, and took an evening of relative “luxury” in a small hotel in Presque Isle Maine. This was oddly another moment of insight into how experience teaches about how to best plan out these trips. In the past, the classes met at the entrance point to Squapan (The lake we’d be trekking across), and invariably people were late, or couldn’t find the spot etc. With this slight adjustment, we could convoy over to the lake and all arrive at the same time.
Arriving at the lake, we unloaded all our gear and the group kit and went over the methods of securing it on our toboggans, and Tim’s approach to snowshoe bindings. We used a simple binding of one rope, looped and knotted in a way that allows for quick, hands-free removal, rather than some of the modern bindings with clips and straps. As we loaded up the gear, each of us was given a piece or to of group gear to haul with our personal kit. This included our twelve-foot wall tent, all of our food for the trip, chisels for breaking holes in the ice for water, and all the other little things I’d seen Tim methodically check off the list while we were packing up.
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Toboggan, loaded and ready to be hauled.
Once the gear was loaded, and the harness explained (they go over one shoulder like a bandolier, NOT around your waist like a belt. My first mistake of the course) we started the trek out onto the lake. The day was beautiful, and the walking easy when aided by snowshoes. In retrospect, the warmth should have been an indication of future issues, but we were all too excited to be out on trail to pay attention.
We found a location for our camp site, our first steps were unloading gear and setting up the tent. Again, this proved to be a finely tuned process that required a certain amount of foresight and attention to detail. Winter camping is much less forgiving than other seasons. The cold, combined with the deep snow creates an environment that demands a procedural approach to site selection and development. You need access to the lake in order to chip a hole to pull water out of, a location for the canvas tent with plenty of tie off points (our tent was eight sided and included a fly with its own eight separate tie offs), as well as an investment of time to stamp around the snow sintering down the ground to create a level spot for the tent and cooking area.
 Once camp was set up, we settled in for dinner and talked about the skills and experiences that the course would cover. Meals on trail are always a high point, they go in for calorie content and replenishing lost nutrients of the day. That’s not to say they aren’t delicious, just that I remember wolfing them down too fast to recall anything in regards to “flavor”. As darkness snuck in around us and we piled into the tent, nothing but joy at being back on trail, and revelry at the feel of once again aching muscles and a calm, tired feeling filled my head.

Winter Living With The Cree (Finale)

Our last few days in Ouje consisted mostly of repition. Checking traps, nets and snares. We’d settled into a rythm of sorts, and that’s not something to take for granted. Life isn’t made up of adventures everyday, or constant excitement. This is the case in an office job as much as in a substinanence lifestyle. Call it “the grind” or a “rat race”, most days consist of repeated actions that sustain us in some way. 

We snared a few more rabbits, but also saw most of the traps come up empty. Laurence and Anna had been after a Marten that’s been roaming around the camp, and had set up a few traps in separate locations with this goal in mind. We snowshoed out to their locations everyday, and each time were disappointed by the lack of Marten in them. It’s a reality check of sorts. Expectation v. Reality is an ongoing struggle for some folks in the outdoor industry. Especially with the rise of social media. We only see the successful hunts, the selfies at mountain peaks and the perfect campsites. So it’s understandable that some of us (myself included) go into some experiences with a preset image of how said experience will go. That’s not how life works, let alone a lifestyle as dependent on uncontrollable variables as the one we experienced in Quebec. 

We did have a few other projects worth mentioning, the first being our snowshovels. The Cree carry small, hand carved snow shovels for the same purpose we use them for, as well as for getting ice out of a newly chiseled fishing hole. They’re beautiful to look at, combining the simplicity of purpose with vibrant colors and patterns. Traditional Cree snowshoes achieve the same concept. They are a tool, and the appeal of them comes not only from their asthetic appearance, but from the way they interact with their intended environment. Snowshoes, for example. The traditional model of a Cree snowshoe is decorated with small colored fibers on their upturned tips, and when they move through the snow the colors, the flexibility of the decoration combine with the motion of the shoes as they drift through powder, drawing the eye into the illusion of something with a life of its own. 

Seeing the process of making a snowshovel as well as taking part in it ourselves forced us to consider not only the shapes we wanted to carve, but the function we needed those shapes to perform. 

                                           Masters at work

There are limited power tools available in the bush. David shaped the forms of the snow shovel with a chain saw, then used an axe to flesh out the basic curves and lines. The understanding of the tool, and the hours logged using it become apparent immediately. Once the basic shape is pulled out of the birch, a crooked knife is employed. Traditionally, axe and crooked knife are the only tools used. 

As we worked the shovels into shape, Laurence and David watched. Their method of teaching was more like being a guide. When we had questions about a next step or a specific curve in the shovel, they simply told us to shovel some snow. It was a continuation of the practical approach they took to a tools use. When we used the unfinished shovel, we could see what needed to change in order for it to be more effective. There are few things as rewarding as making a tool, and employing it for its designated purpose. 

With the shovels carved, we spent the rest of the day rechecking traps, and helping dig out a collapsed shelter. In doing this the necessity of snowshoes in the environment we were inhabiting became apparent. The trail we walked to reach the shelter was hard packed, and didn’t require the distribution of weight that snowshoes provide, but once we reached the walls of the shelter itself we struggled to stay on top of the snow while we dug out enough snow to hop over the waist high wooden walls. 

While we worked with Laurence to empty the shelter frame of snow, we didn’t speak much. The quiet was only broken by small bursts of laughter when one of us slipped, or a leg crunched through the deep snowdrifts on either side of the frame. It was good to simply work, as always. 

By the time we’d finished, it was time for dinner. Our last meal with the Cree was a culmination of a lot of the work we’d done over the week. Stewed snowshoe hare, boiled sucker fish, and the biggest pot of moose meat you can imagine. A few of David and Anna’s children joined us for dinner, joking with us about the best parts of the various dishes we partook in. Even convincing Ben, Colin and I to try the brains of the snowshoe hares. I’ve had fried pig and calf brain sandwiches (Baltimore cusine; if you can fry it, you can eat it) but the rabbit brains were something completely new. Nothing went to waste from the animals we’d harvested. Fish heads, rabbit offal and every other edible piece of these animals was laid out in front of us. 

After dinner, Anna, David and Laurence came to our tent and told stories, sang Johnny Cash songs with us and prepared to say our goodbyes. Before we called it a night however, Anna showed us a special part of Cree culture; the care of infants. This started by bringing the skins of the hare’s we’d caught, now dried and stretched, and demonstrating how to cut and spin the hides into long rabbit fur ropes that would be woven together to make a child’s coat. 

As we sounds the skins, David told us more stories about his life in the bush, and about his memories of the shifting world he’s witnessed as the Cree started to modernize. Once he’d finished, and the rabbit “yarn” had been spun, Anna brought out a finished child’s coat for us to see. She joked that it was a shame none of us were small enough to try it on. As the bag of bones in the group, I offered to give it a try and draped the hood of the coat over my head, while holding the freshly sounds hides up to my face like a beard. Laurence laughed and said I looked like “Daniel Boone”. 

As Anna showed us more of the ins and outs of child care, it seemed that this was the most important thing she’d showed us. We could see the joy in her face as she talked about building the baby’s hammock, and how Cree diapers and swaddling had been practiced. As the night slowly came to an end, it seemed right that our time with the Cree ended with an insight into how their lives had begun. Or maybe I’ve read too much poetry for my own good. 

This experience was one I’ll think of often. We witnessed ways of teaching, and a philosophy behind it that was counter intuitive to our Western education background. We only got a glimpse of life in the bush, and I know for certain that I’ll be hankering for another taste until I get back up to the great white north. 


As always, if you’ve got questions about the experience, or want to know more about Ouje-bougomou and setting up a visit don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe

Winter Living With The Cree pt. 3

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So, I woke up the day after running trap lines and setting nets feeling a bit off. I attributed it to all the rich food we’d been eating. Moose meat is wicked heavy, and I ate enough of it to sate a bear for hibernation. As the morning progressed it became clear I’d picked up a stomach bug that was going around Ouje. Not a great experience on a trip like this, but after a day of rest and lots of water was feeling leaps and bounds better. The bug caught a few of the other guys as well and forced a sort of “sick v. well” rota for all the tasks around camp. I missed out on a day of setting marten traps and getting started on making Cree snow shovels.

 

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Catfish Ben with our first hare

 

The next day, however, was a full one. We started the day walking our trap line with Laurence and checking the snares we’d set. We caught one snowshoe hare and carried it back to camp after resetting the snare. Walking a trap line first thing in the morning has an almost meditative feeling to it. You don’t speak because you don’t want the animals to associate the place with loud noises and human interaction. The trudging of each step creates a rhythm as we fall into line behind one another, matching the stride of the trail breaker and packing down the snow with each step.

 

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Doug watching intently as Anna works the otter’s pelt.  

 

When we got back, Anna led us over to one of the other shelters in camp and explained that she’d be skinning out an Otter and we’d be helping Laurence skin out a Fisher Cat he’d trapped a few days prior. I’m not particularly versed in hunting and my only experience gutting out an animal is with fish (The scales are the best part if you fry them right! Why would you take ’em off?) So I wasn’t sure what to expect. I really shouldn’t have worried. Anna and Laurence made the process look like art. They chattered back and forth with us the whole time, explaining each step as they went. Anna working with the otter was something akin to seeing a master carpenter shape out the pieces he needed for a cabinet. It was slow, and the attention to detail was absolutely impressive. Doug, a member of our group, had been trapping otters on his property in Maryland (Oh, did I mention three of our group of five hailed from the land of pleasant living?) and had found preparing the pelts difficult. Otters, like any other mammal that lives in the water, have a thick layer of fat to insulate them against the cold water. Doug had found removing this layer frustrating and time-consuming. As we watched Anna work, it became apparent that the layer of fat wasn’t even something she worried about. There are tools marketed to trappers that are “specialized” for use on Beaver, Otter and other animals with fatty hides. Anna used a simple, cheap and small knife set for her work. I watched realization spread across Doug’s face as the mental arithmetic added up. Talking with him later he explained that the knives he’d been using were too big, and didn’t allow for the slow methodical method that Anna used.

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While Anna was working with the Otter, I helped Laurence with the fisher. Fisher Cats, for those who don’t know, are a large member of the weasel family. They’re sleek and move through snow and water like a bit of black grease slides through moisture. They’re also known up here in the north for their scream. If you’ve never heard it before I highly recommend taking a minute to go listen here.

Done? Like a banshee right? Imagine hearing that at night time while you’re camped out far away from any infastructure.

Aaaaaaany way, sorry for the little side trip down “What the hell was that?” lane.

As I worked the hide away from the fishers body I was struck by how lithe the musculature of these animals is, and how narrow certain parts of their bodies are, before exploding into a wide ribcage. While we worked away at it, David told us about using dried fisher testicles as slingshot ammo for hunting small game. It’s hard to tell when David’s joking. A lot of the older Cree we met have a very specific laugh that they use almost as punctuation, a short sharp chuckle that ends a sentence. David used it almost constantly, and it was very telling of how happy they are living this lifestyle. Always laughing or smiling, even while doing hard physical work, or talking about hard times in the Cree’s history.

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While we skinned out the fresh hides, David went and got a lynx pelt that he needed to stretch. Seeing a lynx hide up close is something else. It’s large and the paws are like dinner plates, almost shaped like the smaller variety of snowshoes that allow for quick turns between trees in the woods. Watching David stretch the hide out was an education in simplicity (Seems like a trend is forming here), he simply pulled it over two planks that formed a pincer shape. Then using a third wedge-shaped plank forced the pincer apart, pulling the lynx taught. After the otter and fisher had been skinned out, he did the same with them. Once they’d been stretched long enough anna would pull them across a frame to finish treating them.

 

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Otter hide being stretched

 

Once the hides had been processed, we spent a bit of time working on making snow shovels, but I’ll save the details of that for the next piece. Laurence had roasted two geese all day by hanging them next to the stove in his tent, and after a long day of work, we couldn’t ask for a better meal to end the day.

 

I really hope you guys have been enjoying these articles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them up. It’s hard to encompass all the subtlety of the world we only got a glimpse of, but I’m having a blast trying.

 

Stay tuned,

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Winter Living With The Cree Pt. 2

Welcome back to uncle cranky bones’ story corner.

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Last time we were together the group from Jack Mountain had spent the day hiking and getting to know some of the Cree from Ouje-Bougomou. The next day held more of the same. We were invited to visit their cultural center, which filled us in our Ouje’s history as a community. The Cree in the James Bay area were relocated seven times, starting in 1920. As the land they’d lived on for generations was converted into lumber mills and hydro dams in the late 80’s, the Cree decided to fight for their homeland. In 1992 they won that fight. Not only did they can sovereignty in the land set aside for them, the Canadian government allocated funds for use in building up a community center. Thus, Ouje-Bougomou was born. The community was built with the Cree’s values in mind,  even winning an award from the United Nations in 1995 for their efforts in building a sustainable and environmentally friendly town.

After our tour was over we headed out to the bush. We arrived at Scott lake as the sun was setting, got settled in our tent which as similar to our lodgings in Ouje, but smaller. It was filled with tools and a pair of lynx paws that hung off one of the rafters. We had dinner with David and Anna, as well as David’s partner in trapping, Laurence. They shared a little about their lives growing up in the bush. Anna shared her experience working for the cultural center and explained that most of the time doing it she longed to be back out in the bush with David. She used the phrase “He was free out there” and that sentiment really struck me, and influenced the rest of the trip.

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David and Anna have been doing this a long time. They’re in their seventies and have raised twelve children. All while navigating a world that was changing before their eyes. They’ve built a successful guide business, not because they’re industry savvy, but because they live this life every day. It becomes apparent as they talk about traditions, and methods of living in the bush that they have an affinity for the land they inhabit that is far beyond any scribbling I can put in this article. They have thirty-eight grandchildren and are intimately connected with the entire community through their family. Every time they speak about someone they know they introduce them in terms of how they are connected to their family. Our favorite part of every day with them as after dinner. We’d sit around doing the dishes and listening to David and Anna tell stories. Some about their lives, some about the Cree lifestyle, and (my personal favorite) legends their people had about life in the bush.

As we headed to our tent they told us that, come morning, we’d be going out on the trap line ith Laurence. We fell asleep with visions on snowshoes and rabbit snares dancing in our heads. A little less poetic than sugarplum fairies, but still managing to have the same effect on our little band of miscreants as said visions have on children at Christmas.

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Snowshoe tracks and Rabbit prints

The next day held exactly what those visions had proffered. Laurence was quiet. No, that isn’t quite accurate. Laurence IS quiet embodied. . He rarely spoke, and hen he did he muttered to himself in Cree or made little statements that would slip by if you didn’t pay attention. As we snowshoed through his trap line, crossing beaver ponds, hills and eventually moving out onto the lake, he set rabbit snares. The Cree’s approach to teaching is far different from what we in western culture would think of as educating. They don’t lecture or explain things. They simply do, and expect you to pay attention and emulate what you see. The methods we saw employed weren’t fancy. Simple wire snares, and branches placed in the path to guide the snowshoe hares we were after into them. Simplicity is a watchword in the Cree’s traditional way of life. No frills, just enough to get the job done effectively. David, Anna and Laurence all grew up living a subsistence lifestyle. Trapping and fishing to meet their daily dietary needs, and that fact is apparent in the approach taken to running a trap line. The goal isn’t recreation, it’s bringing in the calories they need, in the most efficient way possible.

img_20170117_115724358.jpgLaurence’s‘ Rabbit Snare; simple and as we learned, incredibly effective

 

 

Our next task was the culmination of this approach. After setting the snares, we headed back to camp to help David go fishing. Fishing with David is not a “drink a beer, sit on the dock and maybe catch a fish worth posting to Instagram” affair. There aren’t rods or lures, or the pot of hot cocoa I always mentally associate with ice fishing. David chisels two large holes in the ice, with multiple smaller holes in between them. Then he threads a large net between the initial holes with a forked birch branch and a spruce pole. The spruce is used like a needle, guiding the net from one hole to the next, until it’s stretched under the ice. This isn’t a hobby, this is a means of gathering food to feed a community.

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After setting the net, we headed back for dinner and more stories from David and Anna. We laughed and joked with them for a while, then headed back to our tent for the evening. We talked about books we were reading, and plans for when we got back to the US (Even joking about how we’d inadvertently “run away to Canada” for the presidential inauguration). We weren’t sure what the next day held, as the lifestyle in the bush is less schedule focused, and revolves instead around what needs to be done as needs arise.

I’m going to leave you folks in the same spot. There’s lots more to come in regards to this trip, and I’m chomping at the bit to share it with you. Come check in on ol’ uncle cranky bones later. I’ll have more stories to spin for you as soon as I can.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

Trapping And Winter Living With The Cree.

For the last nine days Tim, a few other Jack Mountain Alums and I were lucky enough to spend time with David and Anna Bosum in northern Quebec. David and Anna run Nuuhchimi Wiinuu , a guiding service that allows them to share their way of life as Cree trappers. It was, in all aspects, a perspective-shifting experience. David and Anna were born and raised in the bush, (David told me the that the first time he lived in a town he was in his forties). They both radiate a love for the land they live on, as well as a breadth of knowledge about the flora and fauna that inhabit it. This trip is going to get split into two or three articles, because even in just a week the Bosums, and the Cree we met in Ouje-Bougomou taught our group more than I could possibly do justice in one.

So, let’s jump right in here.

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We arrived in Ouje-Bougomou on a Saturday evening. It’s a long ride from New Hampshire to northern quebec, but after two days of being on the road, our spirits rose as soon as we crossed out of Quebec and into Ouje. A little background here is probably necessary. Ouje-Bougomou is the most recent Cree community to gain the rights to their own land. The members were relocated over and over for decades until gaining recognition of their territorial land rights in the early nineties. Ouje is a part of a larger territory called “Eeyou Istchee”, which is made up of multiple Cree Nation townships around the James Bay region of Quebec.

On arrival, we found out that David was feeling under the weather, and we’d be staying in a traditional domicile in town, instead of heading right out to the Bosum’s camp in the bush. The shelter was simple. A large one-room home, with fir boughs neatly woven together to make up a cushioned, heat retaining floor, and a large camp stove in the middle for cooking and heating, with wood piled neatly behind it in seperate stacks of dried wood and fresh green logs.

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Around the walls were tools used in the traditional lifestyle of the Cree. A hide scraper made from birch and moose bone, a knife held together by leather cord and duct tape, but with an edge on it that showed it was a tool, not a decorative piece. To my eye, the home looked beautiful, and became more so as it dawned on me that nearly everything in it had a purpose The parts that were simply decorative? They were simple. A few designs stitched into the canvas door flaps, a ring of grouse feathers hung on a nail.

The next morning, David still wasn’t quite recovered. So he sent his son Thomas to take us “up the mountain”. We didn’t get much more information than that, until Thomas and a few friends showed up on Snowmobiles.

I should mention that I guess? There was four feet of snow AT MINIMUM everywhere we looked. If you’re walking on anything but paved, plowed roads, you’ll likely need snowshoes. I have never used snowshoes in my life until this point, but we’ll come to that later.

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The snowmobiles brought us into the trail that led up the side of the mountain, then left us to hike the mountain while they headed up to set up lunch at the summit. The hike wasn’t long, but it was steep in certain stretches and was a good first introduction to snowshoeing. Our guide up the trails was Katalina, a local teacher who gave us some insight into the changing culture of Oje. We chatted as we walked the trail, and asked questions about the youth in the area, and her observations about the interest in the traditional Cree ways of life. It was fascinating to see the merger of those ways of life and the modern influence of technology and the internet.

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Once we reached the summit, Thomas and his friends Antonio and Ron had a fire built, and were cooking moose meat over it. The view combined with a hearty meal of moose and heavy bannock was an experience I can’t imagine getting anywhere else. The wind and clear sunny skies sapped any heat we’d built up while hiking from our bodies as we stood and chatted about life in Ouje. They talked about growing up hunting and trapping on their territories, and how they’d watched a lot of their community shift away from that lifestyle in the nineties once Ouje started to build itself up as a modern town.

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We didn’t stay at the summit for long, as the sun was already starting to set as we headed back down. When we reached the bottom, we were greeted by some of the camp dogs. How in the world have I not mentioned them yet? The community constantly has dogs that roam around. They all belong to someone, but they aren’t indoor pets. They each have a look to them I haven’t seen in dogs anywhere else. London’s descriptions of dogs in his northern adventure stories come to mind. All muscle and grit. They ran alongside us as we rode back to town on the snowmobiles, keeping pace every step of the way. I’ve never seen happier dogs than these. Sheer joy at the energy expended to bound along beside sled and machine.

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Once back at our camp, we loped around with the dogs, continued getting to know some of the Cree, and stoking the fire in preparation for nightfall. As I chased (and was chased) by a large dopey black and tan mutt with paws like backhoes and mismatched eyes, dinner arrived in the form of fried walleye. In the midst of eating, one of the other dogs managed to sneak into our tent and deposit himself on Ben’s (one of the other alumni) sleep pad. We threw him out a few times. Eventually though, he wormed his way into Ben and the rest of our hearts. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to kick him out. We talked and joked late into the night. Well, it felt like it anyway. The sun going down around four thirty in the afternoon really makes judging time hard.

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Be honest. Could you have kicked this guy out?

That’s just our first day, keep an eye on this space. There’s a lot more to come. Our time in town was fascinating, but the real learning experience started once we got out to the Bosum’s camp.

Just a warning to the squeamish, the Cree trap and hunt extensively. So a lot of what we learned and took part in involves skinning and cleaning animals, as well as methods of harvesting them. I’ll be writing about the process, and will have photographs to accompany them.

Slainte Maith everyone.