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.

“The Most Penetrating Of Preachers”

 

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

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

It got me thinking though, about this last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Stoicism and Empathy

Stoicism is the closest thing I have to a set “world view”. It’s a big part of my personal identity, and that’s part of why I’ve had so much trouble writing this piece.

Stoicism, in the basic sense revolves around not allowing anything outside of yourself to affect your thoughts or actions, unless it’s an influence that helps the practitioner become a more rational person. It’s been compared to Buddhism by some, in that the practitioner is trying to achieve some sort of enlightenment via detachment and the performing of actions that benefit society as a whole.

Lately,  I’ve hit a stumbling block with it though. The thing that keeps tripping me up is how little room it seems to leave for empathy on an interpersonal level if you focus on the dogma of detachment instead of the philosophy as a whole. A friend of mine, who’s one of the most empathetic people I know, and I had a bit of an argument about something I’d done that upset her. It spiraled into an overall assessment of our friendship in general. The discussion eventually reached an impasse of sorts. With one of us needing more understanding and communication, and the other (myself) being pig headed and stubborn in the way only someone trying to detach themselves can accomplish. All she was asking what that I voice concerns and complaints so that they could be discussed. All I wanted was to let the anger I felt about the situation go, and get on with it. (If my mother’s side of the family had a motto, it’d be “Just shut up and do something”. Not a talkative bunch when it comes to complaining about personal things)

Here’s the thing. When I finally “let things go”, for the most part, they really go. Some of the bigger things take a while (Still haven’t forgiven my brother Joe for pushing me off our bunkbeds years ago). Otherwise I’ve gotten pretty good at detaching myself from the outcome of things, especially over the last couple of years. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It shows that I’ve been too focused on the detachment side of the stoic philosophy, and not enough on the “grow into a more rational human being” side of it.

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

~Marcus Aurelius

It’s easy to fall into that “Self-deception” aspect, especially with personal beliefs that we hold dear. I’m particularly guilty of it in interpersonal interactions. The politician and debater in me wants to come out on “top”, rather than accept criticism of my stance on a subject. It’s part of the reason I left that field of study. I saw the traits and habits I used in my work start to bleed over into my personal life, and the relationships I had suffered for it.

Sometimes in killing one aspect of ourselves we find superfluous, we allow room for something else to grow. In this case, it was apathy. Apathy is actually one of the goals of stoicism, but only towards suffering and discomfort the person practicing it experiences. I’ve gotten a good handle on that, but I let it encompass a lot of other aspects of life it shouldn’t.

It’s taken me weeks to work out a solution to this. Not because it’s a hard answer, but because I’m stubborn and proud. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been wrong, but I take that distaste to a level that’s probably analogous to a “Scorched earth policy”. So I’ve come to realize the answer is to only use ONE can of gasoline on friendships that are difficult.

 

Kidding.

 

A big part of the solution for me personally is just to listen, and listen well, to what someone else is telling me. It’s not an easy thing to do. My mind automatically looks for openings and weaknesses in their “Argument” instead of just boiling down what their saying to the root of their personal grievance and figuring out, “Is this something I can fix and by doing so improve myself as a person? If not, what is the most appropriate way of explaining why I won’t or can’t change my behavior? ”

Easier said than done. That big ol’ bit of pride in my belly is going to rear it’s head over and over. Maybe I’ll hold onto that can of gasoline. I’m not how you burn a character flaw (probably involves some sort of unholy ritual, I’d guess) but I’m certainly going to try. I’m not big on mantras, but if there’s one that’ll be bobbling around my head while I work on this it will be this.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Fix yourself, not the people around you. If they bring you a valid concern over your actions, take it to heart instead of trying to rationalize it. If it is valid, and they’ve brought it to your attention, they’ve done you a favor. Be grateful for it, and do your best to improve on the problem. That’s not to say that you should accept any criticism as gospel, down that path lies a personality akin to a damp towel. If you can see that what you did produced more harm than good, start to work on cutting that habit out of your daily life. It’ll take time. Rome wasn’t burned in a day.

Oh wait. Yes it was. Maybe there’s more to the scorched earth policy than I thought.

Kidding. Again.

 

Six weeks (or, Christopher gets his head on straight)

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Hey everyone. We’ve got about three weeks left in the course, so I sat down with Tim Smith again to chat about it so far, but mostly because he offered me coffee.
There will be a podcast of our discussion in the future, but for now I’d like to just compile my own thoughts on the semester so far. The truth is, I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am to Tim and his wife, Jennifer for awarding me the semester scholarship. I have not only found an industry I have a passion about working in during my time here. The truth is, I’ve found the first modicum of peace I’ve had inside myself since I can remember. Not only has that come about simply by being outdoors for an extended period, but also from talking with Paul and Tim about their philosophical stances on life. They have turned me on to books and trains of thought that solidified a mess of internal inklings into a solid foundation of values for me to use moving forward. While all of the skills learned here have been incredible, the most shattering experience I had was reading a pair books recommended by Tim and Paul. These are “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, and “the Chalice and the Blade” by Raine Eisler. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend it. They have affected how I see the world around me in a way I can’t quite bring into words  as of yet. I’ll be sure to once I’ve unjammed the thoughts in my mind.

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We’ve come a long way in the six weeks we’ve been here. Everyone comes with different goals for the course, and that takes a while to homogenize into a workable group dynamic. It’s feasible that a group could be entirely independent of each other on a course like this, and to an extent each of us need to be if we plan on going forward in this industry. We aren’t training as people who join a group and contribute. We’re training to be the person those groups turn to when they run into roadblocks, or have no knowledge of a situation out on an expedition or trip.

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(Paul’s teaching style is unorthodox at the very least)

However, camp life is simply easier when all of us are on the same page. By the third week, we’d sort of hit that stride. Everyone had their particular chores, and did them. We helped each other out where we could when people struggled with a certain task. Once that synchronization happened, is when we (or at least myself) started to get the most out of the experience.
And really, what I’m garnering from it is something I’ve always known about myself in some sense. I need to be near or on the water. Going forward in this industry I plan on gravitating towards river or ocean based guiding. It was already in my head, and then during my conversation with Tim he asked what I’d gotten out of the course, or what skill I’d enjoyed learning most. In that instant my mind connected the joy I’d felt canoeing with that ache I’d felt all those years trapped in the Midwest. I’ve been away from water too long. I’ve got a lot of catch up to do.
That’s sort of the incredible part about this course. What seemed like an overwhelming and slapdash mix of content that Paul and Tim threw at us isn’t just an attempt to make us well rounded. It’s a way of letting us find the aspects of this industry and lifestyle that appeal to something in each of us individually. As well as giving us a solid base of skills that allow us to take care of a group we’ve taken out in our chosen environment for guiding. I look forward to paddling out with people, showing them the rivers , lakes and oceans that have always called me towards them and being able to talk to them knowledgeably about the experience while I make them Bannock over a fire.

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(Tim also has a teaching style that is hard to put a clear definition on)

I realize that I’m romanticizing the experience, and that’s even more true when it comes to the idea of canoe trips. There’s nothing sleeping under a canoe and tarp provides that you can’t get from setting up a simple “a-frame” with the tarp. I’m well aware of this , but there’s something I can’t quite put into words about the sense of simplicity that I got from pulling out my canoe at the end of a long day of paddling, flipping her over and sleeping underneath. It brings to mind the idea of only owning what you can carry on your back, but with a lean towards a coastal lifestyle. Everything you have helps you in multiple ways, and nothing is superfluous.

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As I said, it’s a romantic idea, but I have no problem with living that sense of romance. Especially when it means waking up to a view of the water that you traveled on the day before, from under the bilge of the craft that carried you down it.
I thought my Jeep gave me freedom, and it did to an extent. However, it couldn’t compare to the smell of pine and water I woke to under that canoe. I woke up with a reminder of the days purpose from each of my senses. If you find a job that does that for you, pursue it until your body breaks from the effort. It won’t be a monetary goldmine, but it will give you a sense of purpose I haven’t experienced before.
I’ll be sure to post the interview with Tim, as well as a brief summary of it as soon as it’s available. For today, this needed to be put to the page while it’s still fresh in my brain, and the rivers and lakes I plan on being on wash it out and leave it behind me.

So thank you. Thank you Tim and Jennifer for helping me experience this. Thank you Paul for your patience as we all learn these skills. Thank you to my fellow students for being such a wonderfully wild bunch of pine tarbarians and of course, thank all of you for reading my scribblings.