Boreal Snowshoe Expedition Pt. I

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   I just finished attending the Boreal Snowshoe Expedition offered by Jack Mountain. As learning experiences go, this was a great one. Not only for technical skills used on trail, but also for all the teacher/guide skills that go on in the background of trips. I got to help Tim out with the preparation for the trip before and after we got on trail, and that’s as important a job as all the minutiae that happens once everyone is out in the woods.
A lot goes into these trips, and that requires careful planning and a sixth sense for possible issues that’s born of experience. Seeing all the back end work of planning meals and buying supplies for them, going over group kit to make sure everything is working etc. and getting to help with it added something to the trip that would never have happened otherwise. Seeing all the gear and preparation get employed as we went really hammered home the necessity of having a well thought out schedule, organization of gear, and a knowledge base to cope with problems as they arise.
  We left the folk school in New Hampshire the day before the course started, and took an evening of relative “luxury” in a small hotel in Presque Isle Maine. This was oddly another moment of insight into how experience teaches about how to best plan out these trips. In the past, the classes met at the entrance point to Squapan (The lake we’d be trekking across), and invariably people were late, or couldn’t find the spot etc. With this slight adjustment, we could convoy over to the lake and all arrive at the same time.
Arriving at the lake, we unloaded all our gear and the group kit and went over the methods of securing it on our toboggans, and Tim’s approach to snowshoe bindings. We used a simple binding of one rope, looped and knotted in a way that allows for quick, hands-free removal, rather than some of the modern bindings with clips and straps. As we loaded up the gear, each of us was given a piece or to of group gear to haul with our personal kit. This included our twelve-foot wall tent, all of our food for the trip, chisels for breaking holes in the ice for water, and all the other little things I’d seen Tim methodically check off the list while we were packing up.
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Toboggan, loaded and ready to be hauled.
Once the gear was loaded, and the harness explained (they go over one shoulder like a bandolier, NOT around your waist like a belt. My first mistake of the course) we started the trek out onto the lake. The day was beautiful, and the walking easy when aided by snowshoes. In retrospect, the warmth should have been an indication of future issues, but we were all too excited to be out on trail to pay attention.
We found a location for our camp site, our first steps were unloading gear and setting up the tent. Again, this proved to be a finely tuned process that required a certain amount of foresight and attention to detail. Winter camping is much less forgiving than other seasons. The cold, combined with the deep snow creates an environment that demands a procedural approach to site selection and development. You need access to the lake in order to chip a hole to pull water out of, a location for the canvas tent with plenty of tie off points (our tent was eight sided and included a fly with its own eight separate tie offs), as well as an investment of time to stamp around the snow sintering down the ground to create a level spot for the tent and cooking area.
 Once camp was set up, we settled in for dinner and talked about the skills and experiences that the course would cover. Meals on trail are always a high point, they go in for calorie content and replenishing lost nutrients of the day. That’s not to say they aren’t delicious, just that I remember wolfing them down too fast to recall anything in regards to “flavor”. As darkness snuck in around us and we piled into the tent, nothing but joy at being back on trail, and revelry at the feel of once again aching muscles and a calm, tired feeling filled my head.
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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.

Little sisters and Feathersticking.

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I’m back in St. Louis for an old friends wedding and a quick visit. Stu and Morgan’s wedding was wonderful, and filled with Halloween decor. I’m lucky to have such interesting friends, that’s the truth. It’s been great seeing family and friends as well as explaining my new world to them.

One of the nights here I went to a housewarming party with some friends. While there I watched someone struggle to light a fire for smores and to ward off the increasingly crisp October air. It was a mirror into how much I’ve learned over the last year, and an opportunity to practice. Not only the act of lighting a fire, but explaining the process to as I went. A golden chance to prove to myself that I had a good grasp of the concepts, and could explain them in a way that made sense. That’s the mark of knowing something isn’t it?

And you know what I did? I let it slip past. I simply sat and mentally disparaged this man while he soaked a log in lighter fluid, and became more and more frustrated trying to get a flame going steadily in the fire pit. I sat drinking my beer and chatting with friends instead of stepping up and offering to help.

Not a lot of things make me ashamed, but that did. So how do you deal with a missed opportunity like that?Approach A. Beat

Approach A. Beat yourself up in the hopes that it’ll somehow fix it.

Approach B. Penitent actions. 

I’ll take option B, thanks.

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So, I assigned myself a penance of practicing feather sticking and one match fires. I woke up early, walked out to my parents woodpile and grabbed a few logs and got to work. After ten of them, my sisters walked out to see what I was up to. Eventually they decided to try their hand at it. I’ve got to say, it felt really good to sit and watch them go through the learning process. Feather sticks are a fairly simple concept, but the execution is tough, and only gets easier through practice and trial and error. It helps immensly to understand not only how to make a featherstick, but what you need it to do once a flame is set to it. They don’t have that connection, so it was slow going at first.

That’s something I hadn’t thought about. In college and traditional school classes you bounce from subject to subject each hour, and the information in each of them doesn’t ever need to cross over in most cases. Sure, the things you learn in an algebra class, will be important for the next math class and some sciences, but you’ll never need to apply it to language arts, or history. In the outdoor education world, everything is connected, and in some cases the understanding of a specific craft, or task is dependent on a broad understanding of other ones. Sure, you can make a featherstick without using it as tinder, but if you don’t understand how the curls hold a flame and allow the flame to breathe, there’s a good chance it will just be a pretty piece of wood. It’ll burn at first, but likely won’t catch enough to start a serviceable fire.

 

Those connections are hard to explain, and not neccesary to the actual act of making a feather stick, no matter how important they are. So we just sat and made them. It was a nice, quiet exercise, interrupted by the occasional question. Eventually Julia exclaimed and held up her stick to show me a small, but beautiful curl she’d managed to produce. It wasn’t much, but it was clear she’d gotten the general concept. That little start made up for the missed opportunity of the previous night. Sure, her featherstick wouldn’t start a raging inferno, but it was the closest I’d felt to them this whole trip. Just little quiet moments, doing a menial task, was better than the previous few days of filling each other in on the changes in our lives.

It was also a moment of realizing that I have a really good handle on a skill that eluded me at first. Not only feathersticking, (Most of my first ones ended up looking like Christmas trees, with not a curl to be seen) but also understanding of how to ignite them efficiantly. Fire, believe it or not was the hardest part of my Jack Mountain semester. I’d grown used to gas powered camp stoves, and lighter fluid. So what I thought of as simply practicing, ended up being really self-gratifying. I knew the answers to all their questions, I turned tight curls that made my old christmas trees look even worse, and I knew exactly how I’d lay each of the feather sticks to build a fire.

Christopher make fire. Christopher lord of flame.

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Those little moments like the man trying to light a fire are chances to teach, and they slip by pretty quickly. I’m glad I got a second one with my little sisters, but I’ll be keeping a better eye out for them from here on out. They sneak up on us, but if we’re obserbvent, we can snag them and not only help the person, but improve on our own abilities as well.

So in the future I’ll be paying more attention to how all these skills slot together when being used, and be keeping an eye out for opportunites to pass them on, or employ them to the benifit of those around me. Sure, it’s not an action I’ll take out of anything but self interest, but it’s got some great by products. I’ll be learning to be a better teacher as I teach, and at the very least won’t sit for twenty minutes smelling lighter fluid in the air because somebody thinks that’s the easiest way to get a fire going.

 

 

Plus, now my sisters can show up my dad when he’s starting a fire. That thought will give me a nice little chuckle whenever I have it.

 

 

“This Is My Church” Derek Maclearn; licensed Maine guide.

If you had never heard the term “outdoor guide” before, and then passed by someone on the street as they uttered the term I’m pretty sure Derek Maclearn would be the image that appeared in your imagination.
Derek is the only native Mainer in our course this semester, and he’s been living this lifestyle as long as he can remember.

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      Derek Fishing on munsungan lake

He’s worked as a mechanic both in and out of the military, but throughout all of that time has spent any extra time he has fishing, hunting or simply being outdoors. After getting his guide license, he made a decision to be the most well rounded guide he could be.

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          Happiest man in all the land

“Anything people want to do, I’ll take ’em.” Derek has already gotten his fishing and hunting guide certifications, but plans on getting his recreation and sea kayak licenses in order to really make that statement true. He goes onto say that his idea of guiding isn’t just staying at a lodge or going out for a day. It’s a lifestyle that he wants to share with clients. “I want to bring people out into the wilderness and have them live the actual experience.”. It says something about Derek’s passion for the outdoors that this is the style of guiding he’d like to share with his clients. It isn’t  about going out for a day, and bringing along all your gadgets and gear that keep you updated on the world the whole time.

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Derek is ,simply put, an all around solid person. When asked about the “soft skills” that a good guide should have in order to best lead clients, as well as deal with interpersonal tension that’s bound to show up on trail and at camp when the weather/fishing etc is bad, Derek has a simple answer. He explains that most days he views each of the other students as potential clients. “I try to help. If I see someone’s lacking, or not getting something I just try to help, and I’m hoping that if something comes up where I’m lacking, someone else helps me.” That’s sort of how things have to work around here, or around any long-term camp. If someone’s struggling, jump in and help out. The work needs to get done anyway, so at the very least you’re saving yourself a headache down the road. At best, you’re helping someone wrap their brains around a skill they’ll need  in our field.
We’re all here to learn, but we’ve all also brought certain things we’re already good at. For Derek, it’s fishing. On our canoe trip, he felt so bad for being the only one catching fish that he told me he wasn’t putting another line in until someone else got one. (We all know how superstitious avid anglers are about fishing.) The mark of a real fisherman though is devotion. This was exemplified by the fact that about two minutes after making his statement about refraining from fishing, it started to rain. Derek got “that feeling” and I saw him forgo his oath and head down to cast a few lures. He came back up with a small chub and a sheepish grin on his face. Like I said, he’s good at what he does, and between the fish he shared with us, and his famous “high pour coffee” he helped keep everyone fat and happy.

He doesn’t just apply the “actual experience” mindset to his clients, but to his personal life as well. As the only native “maineiac” in the course, he invited us down to his homestead for a long weekend. I use the term homestead in a completely honest sense of the word. When I pulled in I was greeted by the sounds of his hound dogs baying, the pitter patter of chickens racing away from the driveway, and the laughter of Derek and his children. Derek and his wife, Sarah truly live every aspect of this lifestyle they can. They’ve had almost every animal you can think of at some point, are building a green house to go along with the gardens they already have.  I have to say, sleeping in a hammock in their back yard and waking up to their rooster made for some of the most comfortable nights of “roughing it” so far.

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When I ask about his experience so far at Jack Mountain, and how his enthusiasm has changed since day one, Derek responds quickly, and without hesitation. “Its growing every day. Every day we’re out here I feel more human.” As we continue to talk about this aspect of our experience, the side I’ve come to admire most about Derek shows through. “This really is an almost spiritual experience for me. This is my church.” He’s voicing something a lot of us have felt up here I think, and that many people who feel they need the wild to remain sane have tried to put down in ink, paint and song. (The fifth day here I was turned on the the poem “the men that don’t fit it” by Robert Service, and couldn’t help but think about it while talking to Derek and about this.) If days in the woods, count as time spent in prayer at church, Derek’s a regular alter boy.

Derek’s respect for the outdoors, and the life in them isn’t just shown by his drive to be in it, but also in his devotion to utilize anything he takes out of it to the fullest. While we were visiting with his family, Sarah and Derek joked back and forth constantly about rendering bear fat, all the permaculture projects he’s always working on, and cleaning out beaver pelts. They both seem fully committed to making every bit of the natural world count, and not wasting anything if they can help it.  I’ve never hunted in my life, but have met a lot of hunters, and I can’t say I know many who devote as much respect and even compassion to the animals they harvest. Hunting can get a bad rap, and I think a large part of that has to do with the “trophy” mentality that can seem to go along with it. If more of them had the mindset Derek has, I think wed all be better off.

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The most beautiful sight you can wake up to in the woods.

In the month we’ve been here I’ve learned something from all the other students, but Derek has hands down taught me the most. Not just about the hands-on aspect’s (lighting fires was decidedly NOT my strong point) but also just about how to interact with the wild and the people you’re in it with. Derek makes sure everyone is taken care of, without hesitation, and that’s what being a guide is about. Having the knowledge to do what needs to get done, and passing it on in ways that make others experience in the outdoors more meaningful by leaps and bounds. If you’re  looking for any kind of outdoor experience in Maine (and as Derek said, ANY KIND) Derek Maclearn is your man. Hell, he’s even your man if all you want is a kind person, pouring you the best damned cup of coffee you’ve ever had. I look forward to you showing me more of the state you call home for years my friend.

If you’re in Maine, and would like to hire somebody who knows the state to take you out and show you this beautiful place, you can email Derek at Wolf33.derek@outlook.com

Any other questions? Jus comment below or email me at primitiveaddictions@gmail