A Year In Review

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

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

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

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

1. Seeds of School Of The Forest

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

2. Homecoming

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

3. A community on the outskirts of the norm

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

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

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

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

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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.

“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.

“Don’t try to eat six large ice creams.” A chat with Raifebowmanbushcraft247.

Raife Bowman is an asshole.

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Those are his words, although not his exclusively. The first interaction I had with Raife involved him labeling me camp hippie. He’s outspoken, and doesn’t suffer other people’s willful ignorance well. He’s also got a mischievous streak, which when mixed with his seeming invulnerability, and size (he jokes on a regular basis about being able to throw me like a “hippie javelin”, and I honestly believe he could) make for some almost unbelievable hijinks. At a local all you can eat wing night, he put twenty dollars into the juke box and played and sang nothing but eighties love anthems, replacing “love” with “Doug” ,his dog’s name. You don’t know joy until you see a giant man belt out “what about Doug? “ at the top of his lungs. Needles to say a few of the locals were thrown off by the forty five minutes of Heart and Meatloaf that replaced the country music they had been listening to. Raife revels in it though. A person who “started smoking just to be an asshole to someone” and subsequently quit for the same reason.
He doesn’t sound like the sort of person you’d like to spend day after day with, and I felt the same after meeting him. The first three days consisted of Raife mocking everything from my pants, to my penchant for reading. I’d almost written him off as something I’d simply have to deal with for the semester. Then I started paying attention to the actions he took when interacting with the other students. Raife is always the first person to offer help if someone’s struggling. On top of that the mocking and joking around instantly disappears during those interactions. He doesn’t force the help, or make fun of the way you’re going about whatever task or skill you’re having trouble with. It’s almost a guarantee that if, for example a bowdrill fire isn’t lighting after ten minutes of trying, you’ll hear “would you like to know how to do that better/easier/another way?”. Raife may be a self proclaimed asshole, but if you let his jibes and verbal barbs convince you that’s all there is to him, you’d miss out.
Raife hails from. Anchorage Alaska, and attributes his common statement “Bowman ain’t no bitch” to that environment and his inherent stubbornness. For example, Jack Mountain has a challenge called the “iron spoon”.

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There’s  local ice cream shop in Ashland Maine, that’s about a fifteen minute drive from camp. Every year people try to beat the record for most large ice creams eaten.  Each large is three softball sized scoops, and previous record holders include Paul, another instructor here who ate four. When Raife heard about the challenge during his time here on the winter course, he not only said he would beat it, but carved a wooden spoon to beat it with. The reason he did it? Just so the term “iron spoon “ would be inaccurate. “That’s the only thing that kept me eating” he explains, “just so the iron spoon would be made of wood”. There’s a touch of the gadfly in Bowman, but the difference is that he backs up any talking he does. A week ago, we all finished canoeing and went to witness Raife attempt the challenge. After four larges, it was obvious he wasn’t feeling well, but the man does not lack the courage to back up his convictions. Not only did he beat the record of five larges set last year, but he did it in an hour and a half. The student who set the record originally? He took seven hours.

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(Raife and I doing caber tossing in kilts. I wasn’t kidding when I said he could toss me)

Raife found Jack Mountain the way most of us did. Google. “its pretty much the only way to look at a lot of options and compare them. Except those other things. You know, pages? Books. Yeah. Those.” He says, still busting my chops as only Bowman can. After he finishes with the rest of the courses here he’s attending an outdoor leadership program in Valdez Alaska. “I hate college, and I hate school “ he sighs, shifting from side to side to calm his stomach. (I recorded this interview an hour after he’d beaten the ice cream record) “ but I’ll put up with it for a little bit to do stuff like this.”
When I ask what advice he has for incoming or prospective students, he immediately says that everyone should take a course like this, even if they aren’t interested in getting into the industry. He explains that these skills that most people used to need to know to get through life are still worth learning, and pokes fun at some of the “survival” shows that have become rampant lately. Survival is sort of a dirty word around here, and the onslaught of YouTube “experts” is a constant source of satire, exemplified by Raife’s alter ego “Raifebowmanbushcraft247”. The truth is the skills we’re learning are simple, but necessary for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. There’s no product or piece of gear that will save you or your clients on its own. Having knowledge of the world you’re showing them, and an understanding of necessary human requirements and how to meet them is much more important than buying Raifebowmanbushcraft247’s latest piece of gear.
He goes on to say that his advice for preparing for the course is simple. Don’t. “everyone knows it’s a lot harder to unlearn a bad habit you picked up watching a stupid youtube video, than to learn a new skill. Come ready to work, and they’ll teach you what you need to know.” It’s solid advice, especially for someone with no experience, but the drive to invest time in the outdoors.
As we finish our conversation, I ask him if there’s any final thoughts bouncing around his brain. Without missing a beat he responds “yeah, don’t try to eat six large ice creams from the quick stop II “

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That’ll do you god of lactose consumption, that’ll do.
As always, if there are questions, or comments feel free to email me. Or just comment below and I’ll be happy to answer them.