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

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A Follow Up On Angie

Six months ago I was on my way north for what I now know was the most important course I’ve ever taken. I was wrapped up in my excitement and joy to be leaving St. Louis. At a small rest stop in Indiana I met Angie, and I was so struck by our conversation that I wrote about her on my site. It had nothing to do with the content of my usual work, but I was so profoundly heartbroken by this woman’s story that I couldn’t help it. It was something I simply had to do, because I couldn’t do much else. It’s since become the fourth most read article on primitiveaddictions.com

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And the truth is, it should be. If anything it should be the most read. Because the things touched on it will always be a part of our lives as human beings. People like Angie will always need our help, and we should be as forthright with that help as we can be.

 

But that’s another article. Today’s is in a much happier tone. A few weeks ago I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. The subject line simply read “Thank you”. Now, as the bleeding heart hippie I am, I’m subscribed to a lot of political/environmental awareness newsletters and almost didn’t open it, assuming it was another ad about some political victory that I had nothing to do with, but some organization thought I “needed” to know about. On this basis I didn’t open it.

 

Boy am I glad I did so later. It was from Angie.

It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t detailed, but in it she let me know that she had found work, and a place to stay, and was writing me from the library, where she had just read my article. She asked if she could pay me back for the cliff bars.

I’ll admit, I choked up when I read that particular line.

She explained that she’d kept my website’s name, and forgotten about it until she found it in the console of her car. Through the website she found my contact information and wanted to get in touch.

She ended the email with “thank you for the words.” That phrase will be the new bench mark for my writing, because it sums up why a lot of us write. Sure, sometimes it’s a simple exercise in expunging a thought, or a way to organize a stampede of them that we can’t wrangle otherwise. A lot of the time though, it’s an attempt to reach out. Not to anyone in particular, but to some unknown person or group. We put it down on paper or megabyte and say “look, this is what I’m thinking and I know it’s got to resonate with somebody out there.”

I can’t really put into words the feelings I have about her statement though. On the one hand I know cerebrally that I didn’t DO much of anything. I scribbled my thoughts down, put them up on the internet and then forgot about it. I did the least amount of work I could without actually affecting my life in anyway.

On the other, something I wrote touched someone’s life in a positive way. I don’t know how to explain what that feels like as a writer. I don’t even KNOW how to describe exactly what it feels like, but I wish more people could feel it.

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The truth is they can, and in bigger amounts than I did. By giving, by helping. As I said, I did next to nothing. I wrote. I didn’t help her get a place to stay for the night, or anything that really cost me a damn thing. I will do my best to make up for that in the future, and if you take anything away from this, or the previous article, I hope it’s a drive to pay attention to unimportant people. By that I mean people that you could walk by, look at and move on without the interaction having any effect on your life. My generation CRAVES meaning in our lives, and I think at the very least this is a good place to start. If you have excess of any kind (time, money, things) and are comfortable with having a bit less, look for people who need that little bit you’ll take off the top. I know a lot of young people read this, and I know that it’s hard just to get by right now for some of them. I’m not advocating giving away so much that you can’t take care of yourself.

 

What I am advocating is “a little off the top”. That weekend you planned on sleeping in till noon? Skip it. Find an opportunity to give that little off the top. There are volunteer organizations in every town, and they need help. I guarantee it. It doesn’t have to be a homeless shelter. (But I hope it is) Sure, you’ll miss those extra hours of sleep, but if at the end of the day you feel anything close to what I felt reading her response, and just knowing she was ok? It’ll be worth it. You’ve got ol’ cranky bones’ word on that.

Here’s a couple of links that I posted with the last one. You know, just to get you started.

http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org

http://www.salvationarmyusa.org

http://www.chicagohomeless.org

 

 

The Big Shift 

I have been a student all my life. I plan on continuing to be one for the remainder of it. However, starting next year, I’ll be making”the big shift” from student to instructor. I’ll be moving (again) to New Hampshire and helping the owner and head instructor of my school in Maine start a youth program

Now, in retrospect I’ve been helping with courses like this for a long time. Different subject matter, but similar formats. In highschool I worked for my fencing coach on occasion, going with him to fencing demos at schools, and teaching/performing at Renaissance Fair’s. Eventually, doing a few demo’s on my own when my coach couldn’t find the time. I helped facilitate groups attending Heifer international’s poverty courses in Arkansas, and organized youth programs for the Midwest-US China association. 

Its a big change in mindset though, to go from student to teacher. It takes a basic comfort in the subject, paired with an understanding that the people you teach may be completely oblivious to the little details of it that you take for granted. 

On top of that, it’s likely the most responsibility I’ve ever shouldered. The purpose of the courses I’ll be running is not just to inform, but to help young people find something that is missing from modern life. A closeness, and deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. I am of the mind that this is at the root of a lot of modern issues, and I’m not alone. In his book “Last child in the woods” author Richard Louv lays out a description of modern children and the way they are educated that lacks any real immersion in the outdoors. He refers to a “nature deficient” generation, that I was born into, but due to the choice of my parents to homeschool my siblings and I, observed from the outside. As Louv talks about all the things previous generations were able to partake in (Unstructured outdoor time, gardening, nature walks etc) that young people today simply don’t do, some mental and emotional puzzle pieces that have been irking me for a long time started to fall into place.  

I was lucky in my young life to have a school structure that encouraged me to be outdoors (this is all your fault Ma), it allowed curiosity to grow that was stifled in the one year I attended a regular grade school. Once I completed the scheduled curriculum content, that was it. Information and understanding was a step in a ladder that teachers would only allow me, and the rest of the class to climb so high on, because if we went to far ahead, what would they teach tomorrow? It created boredom, and a tendency to create problems for teachers. Which really meant I took time away from other students during some classes. To them I apologize wholeheartedly. 

So, the antithesis of this is the guiding factor as I create lesson plans in preparation for this new project. I want to have to say “I don’t know” in answer to questions on occasion, and follow it up with”why don’t we figure it out?” Not only does this mean that I’ll be learning as I teach, but hopefully it will help students to light that spark of curiosity and gently give it air, and fuel until it’s a roaring fire they can cook their ideas on.

Between that as my guide, and the fact that I’m also responsible for these kids safety. (Outdoor activities involve a few potentially dangerous tools, if not used properly, as well as the simple fact that kids fall a lot) the task can seem pretty daunting. However, when I remember all the time I’ve spent outdoors, and the training I received at Jack Mountain, and in all those other projects mentioned earlier, I know I’ve got a good set of skills to start with but plenty to learn as I go. 

So, that big shift? I pretty well stoked for it. Now I just have to ask my siblings about all the stupid things they remember us getting into when Ma took us hiking so that I can keep an eye out for students attempting them. 

And that’s another reason I’m excited for this. Some of my favorite memories involve my youngest siblings and being outside with them. When there’s six of you, there’s a pretty big age gap between the oldest and the youngest. Which meant that I could help them as problems arose, or answer questions if I knew them. 

In particular I remember going to Rockwood state park with my youngest brother, Pj. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time. Inside the visitor center was a row of terrariums, filled with local reptiles and amphibians. One of them contained a large, fat tiger salamander that Pj instantly became fascinated with. I don’t recall being particularly drawn to it, but I remember helping him read the placard below its tank. With every new bit of information his eyes hungered for another bit. At the time I remember mostly being annoyed that he couldn’t just read it himself, but in hindsight I see the beginnings of something that’s still a bit part of his life. PJ has had a whole menagerie of lizards, snakes, frogs, fish and anything else you can think of. With that comes a knowledge base that is entirely built on his own curiosity about them. 

Moments like that are what make being an instructor of young people so simultaneously daunting and exciting. If I had let my annoyance at his inability to read stop me from helping, maybe that curiosity would have had one less match lit under it. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to help light more matches along the way, and I likely won’t even know I’ve lit them most of the time, but I can tell you all this, I hope I help regardless. 

I’ll be sure to let you all know as things progress with the program, and as always if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. 

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.

“I’ve learned”

 

 

There was a man.

He couldn’t tell you much about himself.

Not for lack of trying mind,

He just always seemed to replace the pieces he’d shown you as soon as you’d seen them.

He’d say “I’m not really a sports sort of guy”

Next thing you’d know he’d be next to you at a ball game cheering as loudly as the rest.

I recall a conversation I’d had with him, common interests was the topic.

We’d been on the subject of things that brought us grief. Family we’d lost, friends we couldn’t trust.

And just like that, in the middle of this conversation,

he sluffed off his skin

Not like a snake, or a crustacean shedding it’s skin to get bigger.

He just shrugged, and sort of burrowed into himself,

turned inside out and responded to my latest complaint with a completely sincere

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”

I thought he meant the little things, that brought him grief, but I was wrong.

He meant himself, his entire being, the things that made him, him.

And it was in that phrase that I saw his secret,

I understood how I could envy and pity this man all at once.

I pitied him, for his lost friends

Not lost by error, but by giving them up, in a hope for newer cleaner ones.

I pitied his family

For having to deal with this shifting spectre of a son and brother.

And yet I envied him, for he stood in the center of all this mistrust

orbited by abandoned loved ones and betrayed, confused friends.

And he was happy, and when the happiness stopped?

 

He simply turned himself inside out and said

 

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”

 

Convergent Thought Evolution.

I’ve been going through a lot of my old scribblings over the last few days and found a short little thing I wrote that seemed like nothing at the time. However, reading it now I was surprised to see a lot of similar thoughts to those Robert Service transcribed in his poem “The men who don’t fit in”. Service’s work has quickly become a staple of mine, so it was an odd thing to see similar frames of mind between them. I hope you guys enjoy it, and if not go read Robert Service. I know you’ll enjoy that.

The more we learn, the harder life gets to navigate.

However, wisdom and knowledge are a less like a burden than I used to think.

I created this image of all the information I had ever learned tied

around my waist while I swam the length of a pool.

The rope was long enough to allow moments where the weight would help me.

As I turned at either end of the pool I could pull myself through the water

Until I passed over the burden. Then I had to start tugging it along again.

This was the wrong analogy.

It’s more like a map of an ancient broken maze that I keep seeing new paths through.

They all end up in the same place

but that’s the cruelty of the maze.

It keeps opening new paths as you head towards the destination.

Each path holds something you think you might want.

Or even just a different landscape to see while you walk.

Some can flow through paths making choices as they go,

not bothered by the plans they’d laid for the path before them.

Not me. I am one who succumbs to the wall’s cruelty.

I see paths sprouting up like weeds behind me,

In front,

below,

and to the right.

It crushes me, the weight of choice.

 

I stop and stare and see so many paths I can’t barrel down just one.

I head down the first for a bit, but I’m so curious about what lays down the others.

So I backtrack, and head down a different trail.

Sampling each of them for a while, then realizing some of them have started closing off,

and new one’s have opened.

This is the beauty and danger of living with an interest in all.

You accept that you will never be truly great at anything, only decent at all things,

but you will see more paths than most,

and that will make it all worth it.

You will die with your name unknown to the rest of the world.

No great paintings, no amassing of wealth.

But you will have seen more than they have,

And that is the cruelty of the maze,

but it is a gift to those of us who prize seeing more than the rest.

We wouldn’t trade it, but it’s going to remind us of the things we could trade it for.

It’ll be constant and keep things raw as long as it can by pointing them out to us

 

The friends that seem put together because they run down one path,

with the veracity and patience of bamboo.

The lovers who crave the stability we detest,

and they grow bored with our inability to sit still long enough to be bored.

Employers, who see something in us we refuse to look at,

for fear it’ll be the last thing we notice.

 

Towns we love and say to ourselves “I could live here”

but as soon as we visit the next one it wins us over,

it eclipses the memory of any other town we’ve seen.

 

So we live with the rawness, and salve it with a change in direction

it lasts for a while

But never long enough to heal.

We’d stop moving if it healed.

We find a new path and press the memories to the wall as we walk.

So they open up and we can treat them with the next twist in the maze.

“Pass It Around”

There’s a lot of good in this world. It can be easy to get caught up in all the daily minutia that seems determined to keep us from remembering that. It’s all we see on a day to day basis sometimes. That’s a good thing in itself sometimes. We’re part of an increasingly interconnected world and society, and we should pay our dues for the ease it affords us by helping out were we can.

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That’s another article though. This one is about the simple joy that comes from showing others that “good” we talked about. There’s something toxic in a lot of us modern western folk. Something that finds good things and wants to hoard them away for ourselves. I  don’t claim to know why we’re like that, or that it doesn’t exist in other cultures, but it’s incredibly prominent here.

And it’s a shame really, because the joy we find in things builds on it self exponentially when we pass it along. It’s a matter of seeing outside yourself for a moment. Your sense of personal happiness, or contentment may not grow in a tangible way when you share the things you love with people, but if you take a step back and see what it brings to those you’ve shared with the overall happiness is doubled.

This isn’t just a happy little think piece. I did begin it with a certain subject in mind. Teachers. We all know that old tired adage of “those that can’t do teach”, and we all know it’s probably one of the worst bits of “folk wisdom” that’s ever been spoken by a human being, correct? Good. As long as we’re on the same page.

I think we should all strive to be teachers in our day to day lives. If you know how to do something and can pass it on, not only are we affirming to ourselves that we have enough of a handle on our chosen subject that we can explain its workings, and show how it’s done concisely and effectively. We’re also giving someone else a chance to be infected with a passion for something . That’s not anything to balk at. People in my generation have more access to information than any of us monkey’s in shoes ever have, and that’s great. However, it’s one thing to read and watch pieces about a subject and another entirely to be doing them with someone who can guide you through it.

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The “Ghost Flower” or “Corpse Plant” One of the many plants I’ve had to research since I got back. 

Since I got back to Maryland a few weeks ago, I’ve been out hiking and swimming every chance I get. I’d been away from the land of pleasant living for so long, I felt I owed it to my home state to reacquaint myself with it. In my head a new outdoor environment is sort of like a dog you’ve never met before. It’s best to take the first bit slowly, get to know one another a bit before you start roughhousing (everyone here wrestles with all the dogs they meet right? No? Just me?). So when my cousin asked if she and her boyfriend could come along on one of my little sojourns I was initially hesitant. However, once we got out on trail I experienced what this article started off talking about. Like a lot of young people in our generation my cousin “like ,totally loves nature”, but it’s a one-dimensional relationship. People in our age group sometimes interact with nature the way they  interact with a movie. This has been true of other generations as well. To me the most accurate example of this is “national lampoon”. The family finally makes it to the grand canyon, and Chevy Chase says something along the lines of “well, there it is. Let’s go”.

That had been my cousin’s experience with the outdoors up to this point. Taking them out and telling them about each bird we saw that I knew, or showing them the basics of how to read the clouds (a skill I’m also still learning) made the experience three dimensional in a way none of us, I think, expected. The minutia of the trail replaced the minutia of everyday life for those few hours.

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I obviously used the outdoors as my example, because that’s what I love, and it’s the field I’m falling into, but the experience can be overlayed onto anything. So, if you’re good at something and you love doing it, I challenge you to take an hour this week and show someone who’s interested how to do it.

And I’ll leave you with the song that got my mind wandering down this little path. “Other Side Of Rainbow” by Gogol Bordello. There’s a particular line that started the thought process

“And if you hear of something good,
Don’t hold it back, pass it around.”

So take good old Eugene’s advice, go pass around whatever you’ve got that’s good.

 

Professor Paul? I’ve Got Another Question

The semester in Maine is over, but I’ve still got a few of these interviews to knock out.

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                                                 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.

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                                       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.

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                                                                                  Hurl it right at him.

 

Moving on.

 

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.

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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 already pushes water, why should it look nice?”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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              (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.

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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?

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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.

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                 (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.

The gospel of millimagassett

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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             (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.)

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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.