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.