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.

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The Calvert Cliffs


I forgot how much Maryland has to offer. It’s “America in miniature”, after all. An hour or so in any direction will put you in a completely different ecosystem. My favorite has always been the marshes here, especially the ones on the coast. That “in miniature” aspect of my home state is compressed even more in them, and I’ve never seen a better example of that than the cliffs of Calvert. 

Calvert cliffs are about two hours south of Baltimore, almost at the edge of the Chesapeake bay. I didn’t even know about them until my uncle sent me an article. I invited my grandfather along. He’s always had a camera in his hands, and since he retired that’s become even more true. I figured it’d be a nice outing with him, and a chance for him to snap a few shots along the hike. 


The trails aren’t long (none of them are more than two miles) but that’s sort of why I loved them. They compress the hardwood forests with the beach ecosystem and create a marsh of brackish water in between them. Beavers have dammed the stream that runs through the park and flooded the area until a wide, still pond was born. It’s been populated by all manner of wildlife and in most places enough water lilies to obscure the water itself from view. 

The park is a hotspot for fossil collecting. There were quite a few families on the beach sifting through the sand looking for shells and fossilized shark’s teeth. Gramps and I spent forty-five minutes or so meandering around the beach looking for driftwood for my grandmother, and enjoying the sound of the waves. I found a few fossilized scallop shells, and waded out into the sea (no matter how cool the weather, I can’t resist the chance to get into the water). 

The outlet of the stream into the ocean was my favorite part of the hike. Seeing the reeds and cattails give way to sand, stone and salt water just had something beautiful about it I’ve yet to find words for. 


The park itself seems to be a pretty popular place for people to visit, and that meant a scarcity of wildlife, but it was clear that life was there. Heron tracks ran along the small stream where fresh water turned to brine, and beaver dams and old lodges littered the ponds. I’d love to visit on a weekday, early in the morning and watch the herons Wade through the brackish water, capitalizing on the overlap of freshwater prey, and trapped crabs and fish from the ocean. 

The walk back to the car was a great chance to chat with my grandfather. I’ve always admired his quiet way of seeing the world. He lives in a family of talkative, argumentative folks, but he just sits and listens. He notices things that a lot of people wouldn’t, and takes his time forming opinions. He talks a lot about being proud of his children and grandchildren for being educated, but doesn’t consider himself to be “smart”. The truth is, he’s the wisest person I know, and it was good to just walk through the wild with a person who imparted the love of it to me, and talk about life, and the things we find beautiful in it. 

This may have been the last little weekend trip I take, and I’m glad I got to spend it with Gramps. I’m beyond excited to get back up north, but it’s going to be hard to leave my marshes and wetlands behind when the time comes. 

Eating The Red Berries


Spicy food is an odd thing. It’s an evolutionary attempt by plants to keep us and other animals from eating them. It makes sense, if you eat a pepper once and it hurts your mouth, you’re not likely to try it again right? 

Not our species though. We’re notoriously bad at learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of those around us. There’s a theory out there about”eating the red berries”. An older, more experienced ancestor would know from experience what berries were toxic, and avoid them. So a younger member of the tribe/group would learn by watching them and the knowledge of what’s safe to eat gets passed down this way. 

We’ve sort of lost this ability, or at least some of us have. We revel in attempting things that we know are impossible, or at least uncomfortable. To keep going with the food topic, think of the various”challenges” that show up every couple of months. Cinnamon was the challenge of choice when I was in highschool, and then I got to witness one of the most objectively intelligent people I know attempt the”Gatorade” challenge during a course in Maine, knowing factually that it would make him feel sick. 

Even after seeing plenty of examples of others failing these challenges, some of us still have this innate need to try them anyway. Food with kick to it has even become a cultural staple in some cases. We love the tingling burn it leaves on our lips, even if it’ll make us feel awful in a few hours. We all want to be the person to sample the red berries and come back to the group saying “look, this is ok”, and if we can ALL eat them as a group it becomes a bonding experience, and the natural end point of passing of knowledge. 

That skill has a purpose, but we live in a time where it isn’t necessarily required. The knowledge we’re hoping to acquire first hand already exists, and is easily accessible. So what is it in some of us that aches to attempt it anyway? Arrogance and ignorance, if you’re asking me. 

We can apply the same line of thinking to outdoor activities fairly easily. We go to “inhospitable” places, and for some reason bask in the glory we perceive we’re garnering by doing so, and that glory isn’t just from the outside. Society lifts up explorers and people who summit Everest etc, and it makes sense. They’ve eaten the berries. They’ve come back saying”look, we can do this. YOU can do this”. 

Look at Everest. We know the names of those that attempted the first summits, but now it’s something plenty of people do every year. That’s not to diminish the personal accomplishments of those who came after, but to point out that once something’s been shown to be doable, folks will do it without reservations. 

This has translated into a slew of modern day “adventures”. People who make their living by going out and having experiences in the natural world. They lead rough lives, lives that physically tax them to the extremes, and for no reason beside the experience. The map’s pretty much been drawn. They aren’t discovering new places, or climbing previously unsummited cliffs. 

If you ask me, thats pretty amazing. Breathtaking experiences aren’t only for the red berry eaters anymore. Or rather, we all get to be red berry eaters now. We all have the opportunity to be the tardiest of explorers, increasing the knowledge of a place for the group, but still having personal experiences that allow us to grow exponentially. 

There’s obviously problems that come along with this. Unprepared folks that end up injured, less than ecologically minded people who leave the places worse then they found it. Those are valid issues, that can only be remedied by education and understanding, and to an optimist like myself, the fact that these people are going to these remote places to begin with means they’re open to expansion of their understanding. (This optimism thing is likely to plant both feet firmly in my esophagus.) 

But, as far as I can tell those are the real issues of a societal shift towards personal exploration. There are plenty of complaints and think pieces naysaying those of us who crave this lifestyle. It’s understandable, and a lot of it comes from people who are caretakers of the wild places that are being explored. It’s a fair point, and paired with an appropriate educational plan for visitors will hopefully help. 

(Sharing what I know. Trying at least)

And that brings us back around to that”shared knowledge base” we talked about. Information is as easily accessible as the places we want to explore. While it’s tempting to go into them blind, assuming we can handle whatever it throws our way. That’s the wrong approach, or at the very least the arrogant one. 

All this knowledge has been gleaned by this that came before us. They are the red berries for us, and came back telling us we could too. They also came back telling us about which ones we shouldn’t. We’d be idiots not to listen. 

So by all means, eat the red berries, but when those who’ve come before us have given us  warning of what NOT to eat, we’re obligated to listen to that part as well. Enjoy your time in these beautiful places, but don’t assume you know better then others, and listen to them when they advise you. Not only are you helping preserve the places for others, you’re hopefully adding to the communal knowledge and helping those who come after you. You’re eating the red berries for the generation that comes after you. 

“Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away”

The song “northwest passage” is my favorite song by Stan Rogers, and the line that grew into the title of this piece is why. 

When those of us who’ve tasted the road and the wilds at either end of her,return to real life its jarring. We see old friends and enjoy ourselves, but there’s something different in our interactions with them. 

On my trip back to St. Louis for a friends wedding, I got to spend time with my best friend and former roommate. It was wonderful, but we’re on different paths now and it was glaringly obvious. He’s enjoying domestic bliss, working a good job that he enjoys and for all I could tell is really happy. It was wonderful to see, but afterwards I was even more certain that sort of life isn’t for me. It’s that “settled life” I was sliding into working for Governor Holden, and the exact life that was keeping me miserable. 

We trade things to live this life don’t we? Things we don’t even know we’re trading when we make the deal. We know them in an abstract sort of way, but as we get further down the road they get pointed out in a more realistic way. We see friends start families, and live in a way that seems alien to us. We try to stay in touch and keep up with them, but it gets harder and harder. Relationships of any kind take work, and maintenance, and that’s tough to achieve in a normal situation, let alone one that involves miles between and spotty cell service. 

It brings acorns to mind. Our friends and family have found a good patch to settle into, and have started laying roots. It’s good, it’s what acorns are supposed to do. It’s not a criticism of anyone to say they’ve settled down. The only people I’ve known who sling that phrase like mud are those that can’t find happiness in the joy of others, or that want to do the same thing but haven’t managed it yet. 

Then there’s acorns that drop into a stream and get carried a ways. Sure, most of them eventually find a mooring along the way and start putting down those roots. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to do that, but I’m not counting on it. For now I’m just enjoying the ride towards wherever this stream takes me. 

It’s what I’ve always wanted, and what I’ve known for a long time. The road, and the places along it are my loved ones, and it’s important to think of them that way. The road, and all it brings can be lonley things when you think of them as something in-between stages of life, instead of acknowledgeing that the road is an entity. More than that, it’s the entity you traded security, relationships and so much more to be with. She offers you something no other way of life could, and in return you’re expected to forego a lot of other aspects of life. I’ve seen people who can juggle both lifestyles, and I applaud them for it. I can’t, at least not right now. 

(I’ll take this over anything)

Its difficult not to think about the allegory of the cave here in some way. Except that it’s not that either party has reached a higher levof understanding. It’s more that they’ve exited the cave on opposite sides, and found something good on both, but have no frame of reference to explain it to the other. My experiences in Maine, and the goals I’ll be trying to accomplish with my next project are pretty counter intuitive to someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with existing in a city, or falling asleep to the constant sound of combustion engines.

(Attempting to bridge the gap between lifestyles)

 Just as difficult, is convincing me that the things that come along with their lifestyle is something I’d like to do outside of a visit. I’ve always had a bit of the zealot in me, and it’s a struggle to not be dogmatic about this life, especially when I’ve personally seen so much improvement in my life since I started the shift towards it. I would turn it into a crusade if I didn’t keep reminding myself that what works for me, won’t necessarily work for everyone else. 

That’s the toughest part of self discovery in life I think. You find something great, and you want to share it with people you care about. The danger arises from assuming they want to hear about it. 

 
So, what’s the point of this little scribbling? 

The truth is I don’t know. I was hoping that as I wrote my thoughts down an answer would appear between the phrases. All I got was observations, but at the very least they’re out of my head and on the page now. 

Hit the road, and hit it hard my friends. 

No More Pushing Limits. The most important thing I’ve learned at Jack Mountain.

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So the semester comes to an end.
I’ve been dreading trying to write this piece. There’s so much to address about the time I spent here. Countless off color  jokes that will come to mind (likely at inappropriate times, when they’ll get me into trouble) or the inevitable first time I wake up in a bed confused by the fact that I can’t hear the woods all around me. Leaving here is going to be hard. Getting back to a city will be harder. I’ve experienced so much up here, and it’s only the beginning of this new path I’ve found in life.
That’s the part I’m going to focus on for this bit of scribbling. I could write about individual experiences, or how much I’ve learned from Tim, Paul and every other student here. I think I’d do those subjects a disservice if I didn’t devote separate pieces to them, so stay tuned because they’ll be up here.

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Instead I’ll focus on this semester as a whole, and the closeness I’ve started to gain  with the natural world during it. I don’t by any means imply a spiritual connection, or anything of the sort. I mean the feeling of waking up every morning, and already being outdoors. Of hearing the woods wake up with me, and feeling that I was part of those woods. Some people go into the outdoors to challenge them. To confront the wilds and come away feeling superior. I wish them the best in that. However, I am not of that mindset. The longer I was here, the more I felt at home. Not only that I was comfortable in the woods, but that the woods were comfortable with us being there. This is evidenced by a few separate separate occasions over this course. The first happened early on, and involved a mated pair of Canada Jays or “whiskeyjacks” that hang around camp.
Tim had mentioned that you could get them to eat out of your hand with enough patience. I incorporated this into my daily sit spot, taking a handful of oats with me across the field to the massive white pine I spent my mornings under. The birds at first would only eat the oats if I tossed them, but over a few weeks they eventually warmed up enough to land on my knee and eat the food I’d placed there.

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The second, not chronologically but in level of effect, took place a few days ago. I woke up to rustling underneath my raised bed in the hoop house I’ve been sleeping in. As I leaned over to check, a snowshoe hare bolted out between the gap of the tarps. In the moment I was irritated, as anyone woken up unexpectedly would be, but in retrospect it was a sign that the wildlife around us had become accustomed to us. My hoophouse was such a staple of the landscape that a rabbit, one of the flightier animals around here felt comfortable coming in from the cold and rain. There isn’t any meaningful metaphysics behind this. The rabbit is not somehow bonded to me in any sense besides the fact that I was part of his landscape. That’s what being outdoors and watching is about. We do not go into the woods and simply exist in it, we become a part of it in a tangible way. We are simply a part of an ecosystem and it’s vital that when (read as “if”) we leave that ecosystem it should be able to keep going as it was. I’m confident that will be the case as we all pack up and leave “Moose Vegas”.

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The experience here that will most stick out in my mind has already had an article written about it. I don’t care. Camping on lake millimagassett changed me. It made me understand why people seek wilderness that is pristine and remote. Moose Vegas is a small, relatively contained environment, and while it is still an ecosystem of its own, it is drastically effected by its proximity to the field school and the nearby towns. The lake was different. We were small and at the behest the weather and water. Our days revolved around what it decided to do, and we had no ability to change that. That’s a powerful and beautiful thing to experience. To be out paddling the lake, feel the wind change and see the sky darken. Knowing this is a warning to get off the water, and that there will not be a second one. You do not challenge nature the way many of us think we can. You adapt yourself to its moods and hope for the best. Trust me, the best is there. As the rain cleared the next morning the rest of the world around us was taking advantage of the clear skies as well. Eagles fished, the Loons called back and forth letting their mates know where they were and providing us with a haunting soundtrack to exit the lake to.

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Moments like that are what I’ve enjoyed most about this course. It’s been hard. Learning new things in an unknown environment always is, but those moments of belonging will be what I remember. It only comes with competency and understanding. I still have and always will have plenty to learn about this world and this field of work I want to be in, but I will tell you one thing. The North Maine woods will always feel like a vacation home of sorts to me after this course. I’ve always been outdoors. Hiking, camping, out on the ocean. This course will forever change the way I do those things. None of the places ive been have brought that feeling, because I was just passing through and observing . I am no longer interested in being a voyeur of the woods. I want to feel that belonging anytime im outdoors. I think I probably will now. It’s no longer a place I go to visit. The outdoors will from here on out b a place I can go to feel that sense of belonging. That utter and total acceptance I’ve started to earn by knowing the limits of what the woods will allow me to do. I have no wish to ever push those limits, only to find new ways to exist within them and experience all they have to offer

I still have some interviews with students and teachers to write, and plenty of articles about the projects we did up here. Don’t worry, they’re coming. For today though I want to thank Tim Smith and his Wife Jennifer again for providing me this opportunity, Paul Sveum for and endless supply of energy in teaching us, as well as all the other students here. It’s been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to start planning expeditions with you guys in the future.
Slainte Maithe everyone. Go do something outside