Camping with Bears

As I write this the ground is covered in heavy snow.  The story I am about to share took place a few months ago during a particularly hot and buggy August.

My friend Justin and I went into the woods here in New England to do some primitive camping.

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We made the fire by friction and used the landscape to protect us from the worst of the heat and bugs.

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Water guard, a bark bucket and twined basket I made and brought along. Justin stuck much closer to the old ways with his food and gear than I was able with buckskin clothing, dried deer meat and a buffalo hide as blanket.

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There was a fair amount of plant food in this upland wood to supplement what we had brought along.  Here Justin is harvesting wild grapes.  They were some of the sweetest I have ever had.

After setting up camp, gathering some food and firewood we spent the night on the ground by the fire.  The next morning we went down to the meadow to practice with our bows.  Once there we decided some time sitting on the edge of the meadow to watch the squirrels was the thing to do.  It was hot and buggy again and a bit challenging to be still. Justin had found a spot somewhere behind me and after a rather short time I heard quiet intermittent movement from his direction.  This annoyed me as it would scare away the animals.  I heard it again and considered that maybe he had spotted a squirrel or something and was repositioning to get a better vantage point.

After the gentle crackling of sticks a dead leaves persisted beyond tolerating I finally turned to look.  It was a huge  black bear, 300 plus pounds walking slowly between us.  Over the bears shoulder I could see Justin sitting against a tree with wide eyes.  It had walked rather slowly through the woods behind him and come up between us about 15 or 20 yards from us both.

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I was a little slow to get out the camera so the images are after it had passed between us and had gotten far off.  Here it is in video and still photo walking away through the meadow.

What seemed remarkable to me was that it did not once turn to look at either of us.  I had turned out into the meadow in easy view and Justin even broke a stick to get its attention and not even a twitching ear as it ambled through the meadow. It even stopped to scratch its ear.

My hypothesis is it knew where we were and chose not to look at us.  Maybe this is what bears do to prevent unwanted confrontation as eye contact is menacing in the animal world.  I like this idea as it hints at a mutual respect between large predators, the bear respected us by not displaying any challenging behavior and we reciprocated by keeping our distance.

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After a time we looked over the big animals tracks.  Above is where he (I assume male due to the bears size) passed through some ferns to get back onto a trail near some mushrooms we had harvested.  Below are the tracks left in the meadow as we watched him go by.  They go from back right to center foreground.  On back tracking him a ways we surmised he may have come from the spot we had gathered grapes the day before.

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Justin and I had eaten grapes and mushrooms, slept on the ground, felt the heat and insect bites all same as the bear.  He felt the master of the forest with his easy power and patience of movement.  To be as connected to the land as that big bear would be a great blessing indeed.

Little Spoons

hand carved spoons

I made these two little eating spoons out of the same black birch log.  It’s amazing to me how complex a thing trees are.  The darker of the two was from the heart wood and the lighter the sapwood.  And they are quite thin, not much more than a millimeter in the bowl and end of the handle, and still plenty strong enough to do their job. Birches are flexible, strong trees that can bend a great deal under the weight of snow and not break.  I often see small birches with their tops bent all the way to the ground under a heavy snow.

These spoons are the smallest I have made and took just as long as the biggest ladle due to the complexity of the design necessary for a good eating spoon (the picture does not show this well as you cannot see the profile, I’ll do better next time) and their thinness.

Working with natural material that are harvested personally is one of the best ways I know to connect with ones local landscape.

Belated Bark Berry Bucket

July is bark peeling season here in Southern New England. Tree bark is an important resource for anyone living close to the land as it supplies the raw materials for many things; coverings for dwellings and canoes, string and rope and containers of all kinds.

Many species of trees bark share exceptional properties that make it so useful.  Many become pliable when wet and ridged when dry. Many contain strong fibers and some oils that lend to flammability and rot resistance.

One of my favorite things to make during this time are bark berry buckets. This July I peeled some bark for this purpose.

Gabby making stiching holes in bark bucket

Here are some images of my daughter making a berry bucket. In the future I may do a full tutorial on how to do this. For now I will hit the high points.

The bark (in this case of tulip poplar) is folded in half at the bottom in a certain way to create an elliptical cross section. Then the edges are stitched together. Gabby used a bone awl to make the holes and then stitched with hickory bark. I prefer hickory bark taken from saplings or branches (any species of hickory seems to work similarly), it is very strong and drys to a wood-like hardness).

Stiching bark bucket sides

A rim is then stitched on, in this case Gabby wanted to leave one side of the bark proud above the rim for “style”.

Finished bark bucket

We had a fun time together working on this. My daughter went right out and picked blueberries with it, nearly filling it. This and other bark projects are great for kids and beginners to woodcrafting or wilderness skills.

Coiled Basket How To Video Part Two

Part two of three how to video on make a coiled basket out of grass.  I begin the sides, and even out the shape.  In the third part I will show several ways to make a handle depending on materials, tools and time available.

Coiled Basket How To Video

Basketry is an art form with many variations. One form found in many parts of the world for hundreds and maybe thousands of years is coiled basketry. In this country (the U.S.) the most recognized form would be the pine needle baskets made by Native American groups in the Southeast and possibly elsewhere. Many materials have been used in the past and today.

In this video I demonstrate how to make a simple and expedient coiled basket out of dead grass and string. This will be a three part video so I can show all aspects of the process.  Many other suitable materials could be used in the same way.  This is one of the few basket weaving techniques that could be applied as a survival skill because it is immediate with no need for soaking or lengthy processing of materials (willow shoot weaving would be another).

If you enjoy this video please subscribe to my Youtube channel to be sure to see the next two installments in the coiled basket series.

knife making

Put a handle on this carving knife and finished the sheath for it recently.  I learned a lot from this one.  A large handle is often used with whittling or carving knives to help with hand fatigue.  The shape of the handle made for unique challenges with the sheath.

wooden Knife handle

This piece of maple was given to me by another craftsman.  It has the most beautiful figure in it, the photo does not even do t justice.

maple knife handle

The red bands are from another gift piece, I do not recall anymore what type of wood it is unfortunately.  I used it for the three red bands I reserve for knives for myself, Deneen or others close to the school.

Knife and sheath with strap

I did not do a very good mockup before I made the sheath and therefor did not predict that the knife would not sit strait or that the bulge just below the three lines was unnecessarily exaggerated.  I have a more elegant design in mind for the future.  I often experiment on the things I make for myself, sometimes leaving me with the “factory seconds”

The tapered shape of the handle meant a good friction fit would not work so I created the loop to hold the knife in.  No belt loop on this one, it stays in the pack or pocket until it is needed since it is for specialty use.

I haven’t named this one yet.  If you have any ideas let me know.

 

Modification of a New Mora Blade

I make custom knife handles for Mora and Helle blades.  I also have many Mora of the Mora Clipper knives that I use at work.  They come from the factory with a flat grind bevel at an angle I find too acute.  With the first few uses the edge often turns or is chipped.  To deal with this I put a slight convex bevel on new blades.  Here how.

 

Making Birch Tar

grey birch tree

The bark of Grey, Paper and to some extent yellow birch are well known for their flamibility and rot resistance.  These birches have a high amount of oil in their bark that we can use the same way the birch tree does.

In researching this I found that betulin, the substance often distilled from birches for medicinal uses, which is the wintergreen compound also found in the plant known by that name, may not be the same thing as birch tar.   They are, though, both known as birch oil.  The more rot resistant birches that we will be using here are know for having a lack of this wintergreen oil in their bark, which is readily detected by smell.  Wikipedia tells me  birch tar, “… is compounded of phenols such as guaiacol, cresol, xylenol and creosol.”  My friend and colleague Jamie from White Memorial Conservation Center and I set out to make the latter, birch tar.

Birch tar has many uses.  It was once used in Russia to treat leather, making it water resistant and rot resistant, it can be used similarly to finish wood.  Neanderthals and early humans used it as glue for projectiles (when the oil is reduced further it becomes a thermo-plastic, epoxy like substance).

dead grey birch tree

To distill tar from the bark the bark must be heated without it burning, allowing the liquid oil to seperate from the solids in the bark.  The oil, which changes viscosity with heat, runs out.

Here’s how we did it;

I collected birch bark from dead grey birch trees, I have an abundance of them in my neighborhood.

birch oil, russian oil

I filled this tin Deneen got from goodwill with the bark.  There is a multitool on the edge for scale.  I had previously poked a hole in the center of the bottom of the tin to allow the tar to run out.  It also has a tight fitting lid to keep oxygen out so the bark doesn’t just burn.  Buried in the fire pit is another tin can to catch the oil as it drips out.

lighting the fire for birch tar distilation

After placing the tin full of bark directly over the can, we surrounded the container with firewood and lit it.  I didn’t get a picture of the fire as it burned which would have been cool.

cooling off

After about 2 hours we removed the remaining firewood and put out the fire.   I enjoyed the anticipation of what we might find.

birch oil, birch tar,

After carefully removing all components we found a significant amount of oil in the can!  Well over a cup.  It was similar in consistency and color to motor oil, had a strong, unique smell and felt tacky.

distilled birch oil

The bark was reduced to this almost glass like material that reminded me of “scale” found on steel after heating.  It would not burn.  When crushed it was brittle and easily reduced to powder.

waste produced from birch oil making

birch oil

We later put the oil in a jar.  It continued to thicken as it cooled.  I tried it on wood and some leather, it remained somewhat tacky even after some time, darkening the material significantly and adding its characteristic odor.  In the future I will reduce it further to make glue for hafting stone points.

It is very cool stuff, and not difficult to make.  I have spoken to another colleague who experimented with producing birch tar with only the materials available to neanderthals and early man.  I intend to try this myself.

birch oil final product