The first of the podcasts I recorded with Tim Smith of Jack Mountain is up. Go Ahead and listen here. It was a fun time, and we cover a lot of things about the course and learning in general.
The first of the podcasts I recorded with Tim Smith of Jack Mountain is up. Go Ahead and listen here. It was a fun time, and we cover a lot of things about the course and learning in general.
The semester in Maine is over, but I’ve still got a few of these interviews to knock out.
Paul, showing us an insect nymph
I’d like to introduce you all to Paul Sveum. I don’t claim to make any real breakthroughs of information on this site. However, during my sit down with Paul I did manage to get him to say out loud his full given name. According to him, the first time he’s ever done so. Look at me, getting the scoop left and right. Paul’s an instructor at Jack Mountain, and actually started out as a student in one of the earlier courses Tim ever taught. Paul sort of reminds me of those “Most interesting man in the world” commercials, if the Dos Equis guy was wicked tall and running on midwestern charm. (Which, even after living in St. Louis I still don’t understand. How in the world do people manage to be so humble about themselves, but still in your face about being from the midwest? If I ever figure that dichotomy out I’m applying for a Nobel prize in something.) Paul’s introduction to this world was actually more down to paul’s own inner compass and curiosity than anything. After seeing the fire lighting scene in “castaway”, he simply went out and tried to do it.
Previously mention insect nymph escaping, Paul in hot pursuit.
Paul was born in Wisconsin, but I hesitate to say he’s from there. Certain people have this ability to become a conglomerate of every place they’ve been. They explore and pick up little things from each place and hold onto them. It’s an admirable trait if you’re of the traveling mindset. Think of all the jokes about tourists going somewhere to visit and getting upset that they can’t get their favorite meal from “Johnny whatsit’s famous whatever hut”. People who travel for the sake of the novelty new places offer aren’t interested in that, and Paul’s certainly of that mindset as best I can tell.
That need for the next horizon is exactly why writing this piece didn’t happen sooner. I sat down with Paul for this in the second week of the course. Most of these little chats with the other students took about fifteen minutes, and my podcast recordings with Tim were about a half hour. Paul and I ended up just talking for forty-five minutes, and I honestly forgot we even started with this article in mind. Which of you wouldn’t get distracted when five minutes into it Paul offhandedly mentions that he lived on an island by himself for about three months.
Oh, should I explain that? Paul almost didn’t. If I hadn’t pressed it, he’d have glossed right over it. It’s pretty simple. Paul paddled out to an island in the great lakes and just stayed there. He fished and camped. On an Island. For three months. How fuckin’ wicked is that? It’s one of the things I respect most about Paul. He follows that urge to go and do that most of us put on the shelf till a later date that we know will never actually arrive. He’s hitchhiked all over the country, paddled the Mississippi, and doesn’t just keep those experiences for himself. He’s found a venue and career at Jack Mountain where he can share the things he’s learned to those of us that want to be that brave. I had a laundry list of stories from my chat with paul, and if I decided to type them all out Paul would end up with his own little novella. (Note to self. Write a novella about Paul as a wandering pirate of the great lakes. Give him a pet trout that’s always on the verge of death because Paul’s still trying to figure out his stance on keeping fish out of water)
In our time in Maine Paul managed to expertly toe the line that so many teachers try to approach, but often fail. The ability to be both an instructor and a friend is a hard thing to accomplish. Go too far and folks may stop listening to you when you’re genuinely conducting a class. Not far enough and you remain in that state of endlessly lecturing to a group that has written you off as a droning they are obligated to listen to. Paul has an ability to keep people engaged in what he’s teaching through humor and a bit of self-deprecation that makes students feel comfortable enough to fail a few times. That’s important in this industry. Not everyone “gets” the concepts of paddling a canoe right off the bat, or can immediately cast a fly rod with grace. Paul can do both, but rather than acting like he’s something more than human as many college professors or outdoor “experts” do, when he makes a mistake he turns it into a learning experience not only for the students, but for himself. It’s a rare, but valuable thing. When students see those mistakes and have the chance to acknowledge them in a class environment, they run less of a risk of committing them when it actually matters out in the field.
In our down time , Paul slid right into the social aspect without hesitation. Always happy to talk about struggles students had, not only with subjects related to our course, but with outside influences as well. Family, the social sacrifices some of us going into this industry may be forced to make, or just a certain book that he’d recommended that had driven a few of us into a semi-righteous fury. On that note, if you haven’t read “Ishmael”, I suggest you stop reading this article and go pick up a copy. When you get back I’ll continue.
Done? Good. Now take that copy of the book, find Mr. Sveum, and hurl it at him.
Hurl it right at him.
Paul is also a man of his word. After hearing about “the Gatorade challenge” from Raife during the winter course, he implied that it would be easy. Sure enough in the second week of the course he was presented with five Gatorade’s and a timer. Paul did not back down from this, instead he tackled it full force. The end result? Feeling vaguely hypothermic and hypoglycemic for the rest of the day.I mostly included that story because the pictures are too funny to waste.
All in all, Paul is a truly passionate individual. I fully believe that the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to have a discussion about something they have no experience in. Paul takes that a step further. Not only can he have the discussion, but if he’s interested, he’ll also throw himself into it in order to gain the experience. Paul taught me a lot during the course, but that’s what I’ll take away most. If something interests you, go fuckin’ do it. You’ll probably screw it up the first time, but as the saying goes around camp “The first one’s for throwing away”. If you can’t figure it out after a few tries, I guarantee Paul will have the insight to help you see where you’re going wrong, and a solution to it. What else do we want from a teacher?
Him to grow that sweet beard back, that’s what.
Paul writes over at 21 Days on the road, and I really can’t recommend his work enough.
You should also all mail him copies of Ishmael. Like six of them a piece.
It’s strange not being at Jack Mountain. I woke up yesterday morning and immediately felt out of place. I was in my grandparent’s cabin in NewJerseyy and couldn’t hear the woods around me. As it said in the title, Jack Mountain’s field school provided a constant supply of fuel for the thing in me that craves the wild, and know I have to wean myself off a bit until I head back up in January.
So that’s what I’d like to talk about today. It’ll be short because I’m exhausted from the drive down, but I’ll lay out my plans for the months I’ll be in Maryland.
First off, let me go on record as saying that being back among throngs of people isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m happy to see my family, and get reacquainted with Baltimore, the city I’ve been away from for far too long. I’m also incredibly lucky to be in the state that is referred to as “America in miniature”. If I want mountains, it’s an hour and a half drive west. Ocean? About the same but heading east, and the whole state is crisscrossed by the Potomac, and a few other rivers where I can continue to paddle my way through any time off I have. Like I said, I’m lucky to have this as a staging area until I can get back up to Maine and the rivers and woods I fell in love with over the last few months. So far I have a few definite plans I’d like to see fulfilled while I’m here. I’ve already fed the addiction a bit since I got down east, going to a few nature reserves and the ocean with my grandparents. It’s not enough though. I got a taste over the last few months, and I’m not stopping. So here’s my initial list. Believe me when I say it’ll get added to constantly.
(Osprey in nest at the nature reserve. She really wasn’t happy I was so close. )
The first is canoeing or kayaking the Potomac River. I want to keep improving my canoeing abilities, and if I convince friends and family to come along, I can practice the day to day skills involved in guiding. (Plus I want to show off my fancy new open fire culinary abilities.) I’ll also be taking as many day trips as I can get away with by myself along the rivers and streams here, just continuing to observe and finding new plants to press, animals to look up and getting a better grasp on reading the weather and water. An advantage of this field ,I’m coming to realize, is that there are endless opportunities to improve yourself for it, as long as you have the motivation to find them. One of the biggest ones on the list is paddling through the paw paw tunnel in western Maryland. It’s an old canal built for moving goods, and not really a part of the original river, but get this. It goes underground. How the hell do the gods of canoes expect me to resist that?
(It was so good to be back in the ocean. I missed my Atlantic.)
Secondly, I plan on studying like a madman for my guide exams. In my time during this semester, I noticed a tendency in myself and other students to avoid the academic side of this field. I shouldn’t have let myself do that, and I’m going to relearn the habits I let fall to the wayside over these next few months. I want my guide license more than I ever wanted my degree in college. It’s not just a symbol of the fact that I sat in enough classes and memorized enough facts to spit them back out. It’s a gateway into this field in a real tangible way. It’s proof that I’ve got enough knowledge and experience to take out someone who knows nothing about the outdoors, and bring them back in one piece. (Perhaps a little sore if it’s a canoe trip, but hey, I can’t fix everything). Really this should be number one on the list, but that whole “paw paw tunnel” trip hit my adventure button hard.
So, if you know of places around Maryland, Virginia or the surrounding area that are worth checking out, please let me know. I guarantee I’ll find a way to go see it.
So the semester comes to an end.
I’ve been dreading trying to write this piece. There’s so much to address about the time I spent here. Countless off color jokes that will come to mind (likely at inappropriate times, when they’ll get me into trouble) or the inevitable first time I wake up in a bed confused by the fact that I can’t hear the woods all around me. Leaving here is going to be hard. Getting back to a city will be harder. I’ve experienced so much up here, and it’s only the beginning of this new path I’ve found in life.
That’s the part I’m going to focus on for this bit of scribbling. I could write about individual experiences, or how much I’ve learned from Tim, Paul and every other student here. I think I’d do those subjects a disservice if I didn’t devote separate pieces to them, so stay tuned because they’ll be up here.
Instead I’ll focus on this semester as a whole, and the closeness I’ve started to gain with the natural world during it. I don’t by any means imply a spiritual connection, or anything of the sort. I mean the feeling of waking up every morning, and already being outdoors. Of hearing the woods wake up with me, and feeling that I was part of those woods. Some people go into the outdoors to challenge them. To confront the wilds and come away feeling superior. I wish them the best in that. However, I am not of that mindset. The longer I was here, the more I felt at home. Not only that I was comfortable in the woods, but that the woods were comfortable with us being there. This is evidenced by a few separate separate occasions over this course. The first happened early on, and involved a mated pair of Canada Jays or “whiskeyjacks” that hang around camp.
Tim had mentioned that you could get them to eat out of your hand with enough patience. I incorporated this into my daily sit spot, taking a handful of oats with me across the field to the massive white pine I spent my mornings under. The birds at first would only eat the oats if I tossed them, but over a few weeks they eventually warmed up enough to land on my knee and eat the food I’d placed there.
The second, not chronologically but in level of effect, took place a few days ago. I woke up to rustling underneath my raised bed in the hoop house I’ve been sleeping in. As I leaned over to check, a snowshoe hare bolted out between the gap of the tarps. In the moment I was irritated, as anyone woken up unexpectedly would be, but in retrospect it was a sign that the wildlife around us had become accustomed to us. My hoophouse was such a staple of the landscape that a rabbit, one of the flightier animals around here felt comfortable coming in from the cold and rain. There isn’t any meaningful metaphysics behind this. The rabbit is not somehow bonded to me in any sense besides the fact that I was part of his landscape. That’s what being outdoors and watching is about. We do not go into the woods and simply exist in it, we become a part of it in a tangible way. We are simply a part of an ecosystem and it’s vital that when (read as “if”) we leave that ecosystem it should be able to keep going as it was. I’m confident that will be the case as we all pack up and leave “Moose Vegas”.
The experience here that will most stick out in my mind has already had an article written about it. I don’t care. Camping on lake millimagassett changed me. It made me understand why people seek wilderness that is pristine and remote. Moose Vegas is a small, relatively contained environment, and while it is still an ecosystem of its own, it is drastically effected by its proximity to the field school and the nearby towns. The lake was different. We were small and at the behest the weather and water. Our days revolved around what it decided to do, and we had no ability to change that. That’s a powerful and beautiful thing to experience. To be out paddling the lake, feel the wind change and see the sky darken. Knowing this is a warning to get off the water, and that there will not be a second one. You do not challenge nature the way many of us think we can. You adapt yourself to its moods and hope for the best. Trust me, the best is there. As the rain cleared the next morning the rest of the world around us was taking advantage of the clear skies as well. Eagles fished, the Loons called back and forth letting their mates know where they were and providing us with a haunting soundtrack to exit the lake to.
Moments like that are what I’ve enjoyed most about this course. It’s been hard. Learning new things in an unknown environment always is, but those moments of belonging will be what I remember. It only comes with competency and understanding. I still have and always will have plenty to learn about this world and this field of work I want to be in, but I will tell you one thing. The North Maine woods will always feel like a vacation home of sorts to me after this course. I’ve always been outdoors. Hiking, camping, out on the ocean. This course will forever change the way I do those things. None of the places ive been have brought that feeling, because I was just passing through and observing . I am no longer interested in being a voyeur of the woods. I want to feel that belonging anytime im outdoors. I think I probably will now. It’s no longer a place I go to visit. The outdoors will from here on out b a place I can go to feel that sense of belonging. That utter and total acceptance I’ve started to earn by knowing the limits of what the woods will allow me to do. I have no wish to ever push those limits, only to find new ways to exist within them and experience all they have to offer
I still have some interviews with students and teachers to write, and plenty of articles about the projects we did up here. Don’t worry, they’re coming. For today though I want to thank Tim Smith and his Wife Jennifer again for providing me this opportunity, Paul Sveum for and endless supply of energy in teaching us, as well as all the other students here. It’s been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to start planning expeditions with you guys in the future.
Slainte Maithe everyone. Go do something outside
My first semester here at Jack Mountain is coming to a close. It’s an odd feeling. We’ve been out here a little over two months and just started to fall into the swing of things.
I’m sure there will be an article about that adjustment, but for now let’s talk about final projects. In the second to last week here students are given almost free reign to work on a project that we touched on that really intrigued them. It’s a good idea from a guide training standpoint. Throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks may not work when you only have one wall, but doing the same with eleven different walls does. We’ve each found a niche that we really enjoy and in this week we’re allowed to pursue that.
I chose to make another canoe paddle. Not only getting a blank and carving it, but actually felling a tree, splitting out a board and using that. I plan on getting into canoe and kayak guiding, so it seemed the only path I could take with this project. It didn’t quite go as planned, but we’ll go over it anyway.
The first step is finding a good tree to bring down. That cannot be stressed enough. The spruce I felled took about forty-five minutes to bring down, and then another hour or so to split. Unfortunately, once split it became apparent that the tree had started to rot from the roots up. I planed down more with my axe hoping for a section that I could work with. No such luck.
As with most roadblocks, there’s always a few options for getting around it. Felling and planking another tree would have cut into the carving time. Another option presented itself in the form of buying an extra blank from professor Paul. Path of least resistance and all that right?
(Jeremy and my blank)
The blank I ended up using was a piece of butternut walnut. It’s a softer wood than I’m used to working with, so I moved as slowly as I could pulling out the form. With my previous paddle I used my drawknife for a lot of the removal. For this the spokeshave was a much slower, less aggressive tool. It took about two days to pull out the basic paddle shape, at that point you start the detail work.
This is the part I struggle with. It’s true of any woodworking projects I do. I get it to were it does what I want it to do, and then any extras are a different project in my mind. So something like a canoe paddle, where function and form are married so closely brings me out of my comfort zone. I made a paddle, then after a discussion with Paul started sanding down and scraping out little details on the spine and throat. It felt superfluous to me. The paddle already pushes water, why does it need to look nice?
Because you’re an idiot Christopher, that’s why. As I said before, form and function are almost the same thing with a paddle. The gentle curves create less drag, the softness of the handle wears less on the hands. This is an idea some people (read as; Christopher) have trouble grasping. What feels like fluff and extravagance to me, isn’t. It’s the fruition of a deep understanding of how water interacts with objects moving through it, how human muscles and joints cope with resistance and pressure over a long paddling session. It’s, to put it bluntly something I need to beat into my head until I get it.
(Grips of my paddles)
That’s not to say that I’m not happy with the paddle. The grain in my plank had some beautiful whorls and sweeping loops that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been pushed to really focus on the details and bring them out. I also added a few personal touches, staining the guide style grip grey and carving in a raidho rune, as well as burning in an allusion to a line from the havamal. (If I can’t make a project nerdy, why even do it?)
This is all words for now. The real test will come once the varnish on the blade dries, and I can take her out on the water. Until then the project isn’t finished in my mind. It’s just a pretty board until it propels me through a river, or across a lake.
If you have questions about the process of carving a paddle, or anything else please don’t hesitate to comment below, or email me.
It can be hard not romanticizing experiences. It’s partly due to the fact that people who wander have a cloying feeling inside us that begs to be fed with novelty. So we tend to find novelty in everything just to stave of the creep of the mundane.
This is important to keep in mind throughout this piece. We’re in the final stretch of the course up here at Jack Mountain, and our latest canoe trip really solidified that in my mind. Not because the experience is romanticized in the article, but because it didn’t need to be. The place we spent time in had something pure that any additions would only spoil.
Our destination was in the North Maine woods again, but with a very distinct caveat. We didn’t just drive up stream, unload the canoes and head down the river. The campsite was an island on lake millimagassett. I hesitate to even give the name because it was truly pristine and I want to keep the location to myself, but that’s not what this site is about. The lake is remote, due to the fact that it’s inaccessible by car. The only way in? Paddle upstream. (That’s another clever attempt to keep people off it. Really we poled up almost all of millimagassett stream.) Or if you’ve got a puddle jumper plane handy you can fly in.
Like I said , wanderers romanticize things. This lake expands that idea. I challenge anyone to paddle around the outlet of the stream until the lake and it’s islands come into view and not feel the sense of being somewhere truly free and wild seep into their hands and replace the ache that built up as they paddled. As my canoe partner Jeremy and I rounded that bend I felt the first inkling that we as a group had progressed at this skill. This became even stronger when we pulled into our temporary island home and began to set up camp. On the previous trip, we’d been directed by Tim and Paul as we played out our base. This time, everyone knew what needed to be done for the most part. It felt good to wander the island, find a spot as far away from the group as I could manage and set up my lean-to. I wanted to wake up the next morning to a view of the lake, and be able to hear the pair of Loons that patrolled the water around us. I was not at all disappointed.
(as I said, not at all disappointed)
Breakfast the next morning was another indicator of how comfortable we’ve all gotten with camp life. Everyone was capable of making their own food in a timely manner, and this allowed for the meal to just be that. A meal. Not a teaching experience or something that felt bracketed into the schedule. Paul and Tim both just sat with us for an hour or so, drinking coffee and talking and joking.
It’s odd how the learning experience changes once everyone has that solid foundation. The learning is on us now, and that’s a great thing. Just sitting and chatting with Paul about an odd insect nymph we’d found spiraled into an in depth conversation about insect life cycles, how they fit into the ecosystem they inhabit and little details about their body structure etcetera. Of course this was all a clever scheme on Paul’s part to talk about fly fishing. I should have seen that coming.
We spent the day paddling around and working on softening some hides we’d brought along. I was out on the lake when I had the next moment of clarity. Throughout this course we’ve been keeping weather journals. Watching the direction of the wind, types of clouds and anything else we can in order to keep tabs on incoming rain etcetera. As I sat floating and listening to the Loons and eagles (oh, yeah. There was a bald eagle nest on the peninsula of our island. I’d make a big deal out of it if they weren’t as Paul aptly put it “really pretty vultures.”) I felt the pressure drop, and the wind shift and knew in a visceral way that it was about to rain. People tend to talk about being in touch with nature in a superficial way. This was something else. It was an understanding not only of the visual signs of weather ,but of my own bodies reaction to it. It’s not a hard thing to learn, but it’s not something a lot of people nowadays pay attention to.
Once the rain hit, we all hunkered down for the night. The next day though was a day for paddling. At least for me. As soon as I was awake I had a boat in the water and was exploring the lake. It was incredible to see the water and the woods around it wake up. I sat still long enough that the Loons came within ten yards of the boat, I watched the eagle circle the lake looking for its morning meal, and swam by the shore once I’d paddled back to our island. Once everyone else was up, we had our canoeing practical exams, and tried out sailing with two canoes lashed together. (Of course the wind died JUST as we got the rig set up.)
The paddle back down stream was calm and relatively slow. No thirty-five mile panicked race back, just floating down, watching the nature around us and joking with Jeremy about the fact that I had my shield strapped to my back and was wearing a kilt. Oh. That didn’t get mentioned? Raife and I did the full three days in kilts. I have no other information to add to that. I do have a picture though.
(No “true Scotsman” jokes.)
All in all? I enjoyed this trip much more than the last one. It felt easier. I don’t mean that I liked it because it wasn’t a challenge. I liked it because we all felt prepared for those challenges. After a long talk with Jeremy, he termed this “the gospel of millimagassett”. (For a guy as quiet as Jeremy, I’ve heard some absolute poetry out of his mouth.)
We may not all go into this industry, but we’re certainly turning into a group of people who can handle themselves in the outdoors. Not in a “survival” sense. We’ll do you one better. If we take you out to a lake, or pine woods, we know enough now and are still learning more about how to keep you comfortable in it. Its not about surviving, it’s about fitting into the world we’re a part of. All of us up here are becoming the people to help you do that.