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.

 

 

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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.

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.

The Art Of Gear Checks.

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Whelp,  it’s almost time to head north folks.

I’m mostly packed up and to my mind that’s the most important part of any trip. Not the packing, but the preparation that comes along with it. Making a checklist of gear and supplies, and going through it a few times saves a lot of headaches once you’re on trail.

I’ve become fascinated with trip prep over the years. It’s not something we see a lot of in books, movies and stories about expeditions, but it’s probably the only reason those expeditions could happen. Folks planning long periods of time away from the conveniences of life have to think of every factor possible. That’s hard enough to do for yourself, let alone a large group of people. In the stories of glory and adventure we tend to see in fiction of any kind about the outdoors, it gets left out. No body wants to see fourty five minutes of a movie in which the two main characters argue about whether or not to bring the extra tarp. (An actual experience I’ve had. I still stand by the fact that we needed the extra tarp.)

Almost all of the books I’ve read on guiding stress the importance of checklists, gear checks etc. That goes without saying. What hammers it home is hearing anecdotes from others about some vital piece of gear, or seemingly obvious part of the list that was left sitting on the kitchen table, or countertop when everyone piles into the truck. People are excited to get out on their trek. Of course, as a guide you are too. That doesn’t excuse your responsibility to the group to make sure every knot is tied correctly, and every ingredient of the meals has been measured and packed.

One of my favorite exercises at Jack Mountain was writing up meal plans for our expeditions. It was a mundane, necessary, and albeit somewhat tedious task. You keep track of your food intake over the week, then use that data to plan for the trip appropriately. This method of planning takes a bit of forethought, and an understanding of what you really need. Not to “survive”, but to be comfortable enough that being on trail is what it should be. Relaxing, and an experience that you’ll remember fondly instead of looking back on it as “that time I didn’t bring enough flour and was miserable the last two days of hiking.

It doesn’t just apply to food. I’m a natural “but what if I really NEED these twelve extra axes?” sort of packer. It can be a problem if you don’t really step back and look at your habits on trail and make sure that what you pack is what you need. Sure, bring along an extra item or two, if you think it’ll bring something to the experience.

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                             (You know, like a shield. That you need. For obvious reasons)

In some downtime during courses, I read a book called “New York to Nome” by Rick Steber. It’s an account of the experiences of Shell Taylor and Geoffrey Pope paddling from the Hudson bay, across North America, all the way to nome, Alaska. In it they see all sorts of incredible things, but they also go into details about how they set up food and gear drops, rationed out food when necessary etc. That makes it all seem pretty well plotted out. I’ll let you read the book yourself and see why it was decidedly not that.

 

It’s tempting to fly by the seat of your pants when you go on a vacation, or even just an over night trip somewhere. In most modern getaways, you can do that and be just fine. It’s important for either solo outdoors folks, guides, or even parents taking their family out for a weekend to keep in mind the limitations of being out and away from the conveniences of life, and plan for them accordingly. Hell, even if you’re just going with a group of friends, it can’t hurt to plan for the inevitable “Oh geez, I didn’t even THINK about bringing a sleeping bag” friend (We’ve all got one) and toss an extra blanket in the trunk.

This article is sort of short, as I’m putting the final touches on little details for the next coming months of school and snowshoeing with the Cree in northern Quebec. As well as hammering out little nagging thoughts about the project that’s coming afterward.

Oh, and it’s the holidays? Whoops. Knew I was missing something.

 

Watch this space. Big stuff coming.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

The Calvert Cliffs


I forgot how much Maryland has to offer. It’s “America in miniature”, after all. An hour or so in any direction will put you in a completely different ecosystem. My favorite has always been the marshes here, especially the ones on the coast. That “in miniature” aspect of my home state is compressed even more in them, and I’ve never seen a better example of that than the cliffs of Calvert. 

Calvert cliffs are about two hours south of Baltimore, almost at the edge of the Chesapeake bay. I didn’t even know about them until my uncle sent me an article. I invited my grandfather along. He’s always had a camera in his hands, and since he retired that’s become even more true. I figured it’d be a nice outing with him, and a chance for him to snap a few shots along the hike. 


The trails aren’t long (none of them are more than two miles) but that’s sort of why I loved them. They compress the hardwood forests with the beach ecosystem and create a marsh of brackish water in between them. Beavers have dammed the stream that runs through the park and flooded the area until a wide, still pond was born. It’s been populated by all manner of wildlife and in most places enough water lilies to obscure the water itself from view. 

The park is a hotspot for fossil collecting. There were quite a few families on the beach sifting through the sand looking for shells and fossilized shark’s teeth. Gramps and I spent forty-five minutes or so meandering around the beach looking for driftwood for my grandmother, and enjoying the sound of the waves. I found a few fossilized scallop shells, and waded out into the sea (no matter how cool the weather, I can’t resist the chance to get into the water). 

The outlet of the stream into the ocean was my favorite part of the hike. Seeing the reeds and cattails give way to sand, stone and salt water just had something beautiful about it I’ve yet to find words for. 


The park itself seems to be a pretty popular place for people to visit, and that meant a scarcity of wildlife, but it was clear that life was there. Heron tracks ran along the small stream where fresh water turned to brine, and beaver dams and old lodges littered the ponds. I’d love to visit on a weekday, early in the morning and watch the herons Wade through the brackish water, capitalizing on the overlap of freshwater prey, and trapped crabs and fish from the ocean. 

The walk back to the car was a great chance to chat with my grandfather. I’ve always admired his quiet way of seeing the world. He lives in a family of talkative, argumentative folks, but he just sits and listens. He notices things that a lot of people wouldn’t, and takes his time forming opinions. He talks a lot about being proud of his children and grandchildren for being educated, but doesn’t consider himself to be “smart”. The truth is, he’s the wisest person I know, and it was good to just walk through the wild with a person who imparted the love of it to me, and talk about life, and the things we find beautiful in it. 

This may have been the last little weekend trip I take, and I’m glad I got to spend it with Gramps. I’m beyond excited to get back up north, but it’s going to be hard to leave my marshes and wetlands behind when the time comes. 

Eating The Red Berries


Spicy food is an odd thing. It’s an evolutionary attempt by plants to keep us and other animals from eating them. It makes sense, if you eat a pepper once and it hurts your mouth, you’re not likely to try it again right? 

Not our species though. We’re notoriously bad at learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of those around us. There’s a theory out there about”eating the red berries”. An older, more experienced ancestor would know from experience what berries were toxic, and avoid them. So a younger member of the tribe/group would learn by watching them and the knowledge of what’s safe to eat gets passed down this way. 

We’ve sort of lost this ability, or at least some of us have. We revel in attempting things that we know are impossible, or at least uncomfortable. To keep going with the food topic, think of the various”challenges” that show up every couple of months. Cinnamon was the challenge of choice when I was in highschool, and then I got to witness one of the most objectively intelligent people I know attempt the”Gatorade” challenge during a course in Maine, knowing factually that it would make him feel sick. 

Even after seeing plenty of examples of others failing these challenges, some of us still have this innate need to try them anyway. Food with kick to it has even become a cultural staple in some cases. We love the tingling burn it leaves on our lips, even if it’ll make us feel awful in a few hours. We all want to be the person to sample the red berries and come back to the group saying “look, this is ok”, and if we can ALL eat them as a group it becomes a bonding experience, and the natural end point of passing of knowledge. 

That skill has a purpose, but we live in a time where it isn’t necessarily required. The knowledge we’re hoping to acquire first hand already exists, and is easily accessible. So what is it in some of us that aches to attempt it anyway? Arrogance and ignorance, if you’re asking me. 

We can apply the same line of thinking to outdoor activities fairly easily. We go to “inhospitable” places, and for some reason bask in the glory we perceive we’re garnering by doing so, and that glory isn’t just from the outside. Society lifts up explorers and people who summit Everest etc, and it makes sense. They’ve eaten the berries. They’ve come back saying”look, we can do this. YOU can do this”. 

Look at Everest. We know the names of those that attempted the first summits, but now it’s something plenty of people do every year. That’s not to diminish the personal accomplishments of those who came after, but to point out that once something’s been shown to be doable, folks will do it without reservations. 

This has translated into a slew of modern day “adventures”. People who make their living by going out and having experiences in the natural world. They lead rough lives, lives that physically tax them to the extremes, and for no reason beside the experience. The map’s pretty much been drawn. They aren’t discovering new places, or climbing previously unsummited cliffs. 

If you ask me, thats pretty amazing. Breathtaking experiences aren’t only for the red berry eaters anymore. Or rather, we all get to be red berry eaters now. We all have the opportunity to be the tardiest of explorers, increasing the knowledge of a place for the group, but still having personal experiences that allow us to grow exponentially. 

There’s obviously problems that come along with this. Unprepared folks that end up injured, less than ecologically minded people who leave the places worse then they found it. Those are valid issues, that can only be remedied by education and understanding, and to an optimist like myself, the fact that these people are going to these remote places to begin with means they’re open to expansion of their understanding. (This optimism thing is likely to plant both feet firmly in my esophagus.) 

But, as far as I can tell those are the real issues of a societal shift towards personal exploration. There are plenty of complaints and think pieces naysaying those of us who crave this lifestyle. It’s understandable, and a lot of it comes from people who are caretakers of the wild places that are being explored. It’s a fair point, and paired with an appropriate educational plan for visitors will hopefully help. 

(Sharing what I know. Trying at least)

And that brings us back around to that”shared knowledge base” we talked about. Information is as easily accessible as the places we want to explore. While it’s tempting to go into them blind, assuming we can handle whatever it throws our way. That’s the wrong approach, or at the very least the arrogant one. 

All this knowledge has been gleaned by this that came before us. They are the red berries for us, and came back telling us we could too. They also came back telling us about which ones we shouldn’t. We’d be idiots not to listen. 

So by all means, eat the red berries, but when those who’ve come before us have given us  warning of what NOT to eat, we’re obligated to listen to that part as well. Enjoy your time in these beautiful places, but don’t assume you know better then others, and listen to them when they advise you. Not only are you helping preserve the places for others, you’re hopefully adding to the communal knowledge and helping those who come after you. You’re eating the red berries for the generation that comes after you. 

Three hundred thousand miles 

I just went on a road trip back to the Midwest, and that road trip ticked my odometer over the 300k mark. 

(Admittedly, I replaced my engine two years ago. Otherwise Jeep Prime would be dead by now)

Now, this isn’t a review of Jeeps, or a love letter too cars. This is about mileage.

I think of that mileage the way a geologist would think of digging down through layers of rock. As they go down they find different indicators. Stone that was probably carried by melting glaciers, volcanic rock from long dead magma. 

That’s what the miles on my Jeep mean to me. I can look at a certain stretch of miles and remember the places I was. From 299k to 300k, will always bring to mind this last trip. Stu and Morgan’s wedding, where I got to see two lovely people celebrate how happy they are, and will be as long as they’re with each other, and catch up with people I haven’t seen in years. Time spent with my closest friends in Stl, writing Tom Wait’s style songs about a woman who smells of Potato salad on a warm day, and time with the Chicago gang, building them a fire, having a few beers and reminiscing on life, and the paths we’ve all been taking. 

Somewhere around 250k I was on my way to Georgia, to start my attempt at the Appalachian trail. I only made it halfway through that hike, but it was still the moment when what I wanted became clearer. When I knew the outdoors was where I needed to be. That wouldn’t come to fruition for a few years, but it started there. 

Or the miles could bring to mind a drive to new Orleans with my other universal movie monsters. A week of revelry and excess. Getting to experience new Orleans away from bourbon street, meeting fellow Baltimoreans and loving the surprising common thread. 

The further back I go with this, the more nostalgic it becomes. Road trips with former girlfriends, driving back home to Maryland to see family. Cavorting around st. Louis with my friends (that last one is a phrase my father used to describe my wayward ways during college. In retrospect he’s right. I should have been studying instead of driving to parks and bars)

And that’s what I like so much about this method of memory. Jeep Prime (yup, that’s still his name) has been the biggest constant in my life, and due to that, can be linked to all the events. Bringing Rep home for the first time, getting rear ended by an old woman who was more concerned with the tiny dent in my bumper than the folded up hood on her little Prius. 

The mileage thing might not work for everything, but it’s important to find something like this to attach memory to. Sure, journaling is a great option, but words don’t bring back sensory memories the way other forms do. When I remember miles 299k-301k, I’ll be flooded with the smells of fire, and gin buckets. The sounds of Morgan and Stu laughing during their first dance, and everyone cheering for them as they start their new life. The ache of my ribs after laughing long into the night with the guys in Chicago. 

So find something you can make little mental notches in. Boots are good, if you’re a hiker. Or a collection of playlists, each one reminding you of a period of time. 

For me though, nothing’s going to beat Jeep Prime as a reminder of all the places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. 

Cranky bones, transform and roll out.