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.

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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 Most Penetrating Of Preachers”

 

If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of Hermann Hesse’s work. I recently found a piece by him that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. “Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte” is a collection of poetry about trees, and Hesse has a piece in it. Stumbling upon that was like finding out a Christmas stocking had a secret compartment in the toe, with a sampler of scotch stored away in it. Talk about a good day.

The piece is phenomenal, and if you have the time there’s a wonderful reading of it here.

It got me thinking though, about this last year.

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I had some rough patches. I’m not going to bore you with the details of that, because those rough patches were eclipsed by finally finding something I can throw myself into completely. I found that thing that calms that indefinable lust for something larger than myself that I’ve ached for as long as I can remember. I had a lot of false starts ( considered the priesthood, political work, botched attempts at romantic relationships, etc) but the answer came during a moment of frustration in the north Maine woods.

I do not cope well with blowhards and people that take themselves too seriously. I worked with enough of them in my time with Governor Holden. In the world I’m getting into, there’s a lot of that it seems. During some of our downtime on a canoe trip, I eventually got fed up with a conversation that was essentially a pissing contest and wandered off for a little quiet time. (If I keep up this “disappear as a coping mechanism schtick, I’m going to be that old man who people have to ‘keep an eye on’)

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I took a book, and just found a spot a few hundred yards away from camp, sat cross-legged under a pine and started to leaf through the book and the scribblings in my notebook. That lasted for about a minute before the landscape in front of me stole my attention. I was sitting at the edge of clearcut, where tire tracks were still visible. It was sort of a sad sight, but the more I watched the more I saw bits of life creaking their way through. In the middle of this clear cut, was a pine sapling, green as the woods on either side of the cut and probably only able to grow because the larger trees around it had been removed. It had free reign of the sun, water, and nutrients from the ground. I’ve got the campsite’s location written down, and I plan on going back to see that sapling every few years or so once I’m up north for good.

Now, at this point, Tim and I hadn’t even talked about School of the forest, but I already planned on doing outdoors work with youth. My vague plan was to get involved with Outward Bound, or something similar. The sight of that sapling sort of drove it home, in exactly the sort of sappy sentimental metaphor I’m susceptible to. I saw something new, and promising growing from the remains of something old. What could possibly be more important in life, than helping that metaphor happen in young people’s lives? If the work I do in the future, helps bring this passion and peace found in the outdoors to others then I’ll be proud to have done it.

That moment didn’t come from “adventure” or “challenging myself”, the way a lot of the outdoor industry seems to be geared towards. It came from just existing in that ecosystem and seeing a “restart” button having been pressed, instead of just destruction of the land. Call it hope, call it optimism. I’m a big fan of both of those. It isn’t either of these things though. It came from an inkling of understanding of the life cycle of a forest, and observation.  I didn’t have a good handle on the term at the time, but it came from a sense of “frilustliv”.

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So going forward with school of the forest, that idea will be baked into the bones of every course I run. This idea of simply being in nature, and being at peace with your place in it. As I’ve said before, if I’d stuck with the path towards the priesthood, I’ve no doubt I’d be as evangelical about it as anyone. I’m hoping to bring a bit of that fire to this project. Not because I think it’s right and everyone should think the same, but because the peace I found through experiencing “free air life”, and then studying it and seeing the correlations between what I’d experienced and the benefits others had reported were so compelling that I have a need to pass this on. To anyone, but especially to youth with too much energy, and minds that move too quick for them to harness and ride. I’ve been there. Hell, I’m still there some days, but this lifestyle has helped immensely. I’d be selfish not to hope that I can show others this peace, and earlier in life than I found it.

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This has been your monthly “Christopher lets the preacher out of his cage” broadcast.

I’ll leave you with the bit from Hesse’s piece that struck me. it’s the final few lines.

But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Now get of your phone/computer/ machine with the magic buttons, and go outside.

 

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Mushrooms (Not a badger to be seen)

You never know what’s going to catch your interest on a hike. If nature’s feeling paticulalry riled up it’ll be a day filled with deer leaping across the path, or a family of jays you’ve disturbed from their daily habits of disturbing everything else around with their shrieking.

Other days it’s something simple and slow. In the mornings it might be spiders in thier webs that catch the light as it breaks silently through the overhead leaves, or the chourus of frogs and insects as they wake up and start to avoid/pursue one another.

In this case, the morning was a quiet friday, around seven AM. I’d been busy all week getting stuff together for my time in Canada and Maine this coming winter, as well as working. So I hadn’t had much time to spend outdoors. Somedays I like to set a distance, and knock it out. It’s about the excercise. That morning wasn’t like this. It was slow, meandering. I don’t know if people regularly saunter through the woods, but that’s certainly what I felt I was doing.

For whatever reason the theme of this hike was fungi. Now, I’m as big a fan of mushrooms as the next person. That is to say, I like the one’s I can eat, and know jack diddleyumpkiss about the rest of them.

How many of us would wander past the scene above and see it only as part of the view? It doesn’t have to be mushrooms. It could be moss, or the variety of grasses that brush against your legs. How much do you really know about them? How easy is it to change that?

It’s pretty simple. The internet and your own curiousity are probably the best tools you’ll ever have access to. Sure, field guides are wicked helpful, but if it’s a new topic for your personal study you likely don’t have eight books on mushroom identification. (Just another reason I miss the library at Jack Mountain) So, punch it into google and start the search.

The first little cluster I found was on a fallen log. They’d either started growing after it fell, or had adapted afterwards to lay out horizontally with the ground.

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The large white ones, I beleive, are Cerrena unicolor. Sometimes called “Turkey Tails”.  Now, I spent an unbeleiveable amount of time trying to identify these suckers because I was looking for something green. What I hadn’t realized, and what a real fungi fanatic would have told me is that I’m not only looking at two fungi here, but another living thing. Algea. In the words of th outdoorsman we all aspire to. “that’s pretty neat”

The orange goop, is some sort of Jelly fungus. I’m still trying to sort that one out, and will update once I know more. To be honest, I’m pretty happy with “Jelly fungus” as a name. Common names always entertain me. They’re often a version of “does what it says on the box”. Some person, who knows how long ago, looked at these weird squishy orange things and thought “Yeah, that’s jelly. I bet bears use it on their toast”. Or something along those lines. I may be assuming this hypothetical person has the same idiotic thought process as I do.

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Look at it. It can be anything you want. I see a rough sea, with a few sharks circling, you might see something different. I’m a big fan of these close up shots. Sure, you could take a photograph of the whole speciemin, and that’d probably be a better identifier. You wouldn’t get to see the little details though. You’d see a white, toadstool looking mushroom, and if you knew the ecosystem well enough, that might tell you what it is.

As far as the enviroments of fungus goes though? I don’t. Ask me just about anything about birds or fish in maryland, and I’m pretty comfortable giving you a description. Thats half the point of making your hikes into these kind of excercises though isn’t it? I’m researching in the hopes that somewhere down the line, some client is going to point at one of these and ask the dreaded “What is that” or “Can I eat it?”, and I’ll be able to say “Knock yourself out, just wait till I lay down some tarps and turn on some Zepplin, because buddy? You’re about to see the face of god”. Or more than likely I’ll be able to give a simple “Nope”.

In this case, I learned something equally as important as whether or not this big ol’ fellah is edible. I found that mushrooms, and fungi in general can be pretty hard to identify to a beginner. There’s a lot of look alikes, and when you’re dealing with something that’s possibly toxic, that’s a gamble I’m not willing to take. I believe what I’ve found is a “Shaggy Parasol”, which is edible. Now that’s where the danger starts. I could be completly wrong. I’m going off of sight, a photogrph, and a few field guids (Online and hard copies.) I figured, “Sure I’ll just type in ‘large white mushroom maryland” and that’ll be that.

Christopher you ignorant lumox. You’re going to get somebody killed.

 

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So, the take away from my adventure with mushrooms? I’m picking up on the traits used to identify them in the field. Cap size and shape, color of the various parts, as well as the environment they grow in. That’s a good start, and it’s opened up a whole world in the undergrowth for me to pay attention to when I hike. Plus, mushrooms don’t run away or bite the way the subjects of some of my other self motivated “collections” have.

 

Chalk that up as a win right?

 

If you happen to know more about mushrooms than I do, and can fill me in before I have the chance indentify any of these past the point of doubt, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email, or comment below.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Patience and Cicadas 

We’re all bad at it.

As I settle into the routine that I’ll have for the next half a year or so it’s hard not to dwell on the stretch of time in front of me before I finish up more of the training that will let me work in the industry that’s my calling. That’s not a bad thing.

I am intrinsically poor at having to wait for things. People, the sun to come up, etc. It’s why I don’t like going on road trips with other people, or traveling with them in general. When I decide I want to go, I go. So when there isn’t something to wait on, other than time itself to pass I try to take it as an embuggerence,put my head down and keep busy. Which is a shame, because there’s so much else I could be doing.

My summer and fall of just waiting in Baltimore happen to coincide with the hatch of the seventeen year Cicadas here in Maryland. These insect have always fascinated me. The year after I moved to St. Louis I got to experience the seven year swarm and it confounded my childish mind. Why did these things wait so long to emerge, only to die within a few weeks? Other insects didn’t do this, at least not to my young eyes. They came back every year when it was their time then faded away as the weather started to chill the air. This was the order I had seen, and it meshed with my high energy levels and penchant for always moving.

As with everything I didn’t understand as a child, my mother gave me leaflets and books to read about them. I became enthralled with the cicada lifecycle. It was fascinating, and in my view at the time obscene. Taking all that time to grow and develop, to me seemed like wast of the highest order.

It isn’t though. It’s a great strategy for a species and allows them to fill niches that are relatively safe. For the time they’re developing the Cicadas live underground, away from the elements and most predators. They slowly store up energy (and seventeen years is definitely slow) until some internal stimuli tells them “go”. Then they emerge in such numbers that no predator, no matter how large the population could possibly hope to devour them before the majority can breed and die. It even seems to my (admittedly under informed) eye that they’ve attempted to leave the predator/prey arms race of evolution entirely by waiting so long. Anything that adapted to prey on them specifically would have to already be on that seventeen year cycle, or something similar.

However, in all my research, I was missing a metaphor in the slow growth of these creatures. We all have periods in our lives of forced sedation. We’re working towards something different maybe, or waiting for an opportunity to arise that interests us. So it’s easy to waste the time that isn’t devoted to those goals. We go out, or something similar. Classic time wasting activities. I’m incredibly guilty of this, and maybe some of you are as well. We fall into easy patterns in order to make the time go faster.

That isn’t what our little Cicadoidea friends are doing. They’re going through molts as they feed on sap underground, slowly but surely getting closer to the stage of nymphhood that will allow them to crawl out of the ground, up a tree and emerge, winged and ready to start supplying the woods with their signature song.

Molting is something we as humans do over and over in our lives. Our lifespans are filled with what can feel like false starts, or failed attempts. It’s taken me years, and a few false starts of my own to realize the importance of those steps in my life. If I hadn’t spent four years in college, working in the political field, I’d have spent the rest of my life wondering if I’d missed a chance to do something good. Instead, I get to know for certain I wasn’t equipped for that sort of work, and luckily the next thing I fell into happened to be something that I’m certain will allow me to supply my “signature song” to the world.

Enjoy each little phase of your life, is what I’m getting at here. Even if it feels like you’re slogging through to get to the next one. If you’re lucky enough to know what that next phase is, you’re already off to a start. The trick is to capture that time in between and use it to improve yourself in preparation. Practice and constantly being on the lookout for new skills and information that will help you out. That’s our version of the cicada nymph’s sap. Gorge yourself on it. Let it help you grow until that shell your stuck in sluffs off of its own accord.

Patience is hard, and some scrawny woodsman in training waxing poetic about bugs (I have a few biologist friends who are going to be up in arms about “Cicadas aren’t true bugs”. If they mention it, I hope a cicada flies into their hair) isn’t going to make you better at it. The drive you foster in yourself by seeing your life in necessary stages might. Make them all count. I’m certainly going to try.

If you want to know more about Cicadas just ask (I get weird thrills from doing research) or check out this site. I don’t know who runs it but they goddamn love these little critters.

Now get off your computer, go sit outside till it’s dark and listen to these beautiful little alien eyed critters while you can