Makeshift Rocket Stove for Maple Sugaring (video)

My family really enjoys make maple syrup right from the trees in the back yard.  We only make a little each year and so do not have any specialized equipment.  This year I employed an expedited version of a rocket stove made from cement blocks to boil the sap.  It was quite efficient.  We did not use much wood and produced something close to a quart of finished syrup.

Nothing I have ever purchased has tasted as good or been as satisfying as what we make in the back yard.


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

Maine Primitive Gathering 2013


This year at the Maine Primitive Gathering I only took a few pictures.  The Gathering has come to be so important to me, a chance to see so many special people and feel part of a community that shares a common interest.  My time there this year was abbreviated so I was not able to connect with as many of those special people as I wanted to.

The images here do not begin to do justice to the scope and dynamic nature of the Gathering.  I was too busy enjoying myself to take pictures that might express this better.  Dozens of instructors taught workshops about archery, bow and arrow making, friction fire of all types, tracking, survival skills, health and healing, and many other primitive and wilderness skills.  Many families attended, I saw a lot of little babies on their mothers hips and kids running everywhere.  What follows are a few examples of what went on.


Primitive Skills Experts

Some oldtimers and whippersnappers Mike, Al, Nick, Red and Bob, all experts in one field or another, there to share the knowledge.




Maine Primitive Gathering

One of many workshops.

Hide Tanning

Hide tanning.


Garlic Hawkers

Garlic Hawkers Rich, Gabby and Maple

Boys at the campfire

Some of the boys hanging out around the fire.

Fire Workshop

A  fire workshop on group friction fire.  Here they are teaming up on a giant hand drill.

Someone saw me looking around for my daughter and our friends and asked “Looking for your tribe?” and I thought, yeah I am, my tribe within a tribe.  In this place I am a member of the the Gathering Tribe, the Fire Clan, the Deneen, Andy, Gabby, Jace, Evan, Dena, Maple Tribe (my “extended” family) and the Long Time Instructor Society.

Pardon my sentimental words.  To be part of something meaningful is a great feeling and a tough thing to explain.

Poison Ivy in Winter

Poison Ivy in winter

I forget all about Poison Ivy after October and only think about it again when I see the new leaves in spring.  Of course it is still there, leafless and dormant.  Pictured above and below is the bud and a few remaining berries of a large vine.

Poison Ivy bud and berry's in winter poison ivy in winter

Below is the “trunk” of Poison Ivy climbing a tree.  Poison Ivy vines are often described as hairy, in this case the hair like rootlets that hold the vine to the tree are few and not obvious from a distance.

Poison Ivy growing up tree.

Spring Time

Sorry I have not been writing, its been a very busy spring working long hours at work and teaching a lot on the weekends. 

On a walk along the road the other day I saw a lot of great edible plants.  Did not have the camera but heres a list; Hog Peanut, Ground Nut, Sumac, Ramps, Burdock, Sweet Fern.  All within a short walk from my house. 

Here are some pictures of things I have seen around. 

Skunk tracks in the garden (and a dog)

skunk tracks in garden

Skunk poop (I think)

skunk poop

Dead fish found at White Memorial on shore of Bantam Lake near shore point where otter sign was found.  Otters chew tails off of fish upon catching them so they won’t swim away. 

dead fish white mem

Otter scat and muskrat skull and bones.

otter sign white mem

Open muscle shell right next to otter scat. This was a super cool place that had scat of multiple ages. 

more otter sign

A thrush in my back yard.  I am not sure if its a wood or hermit thrush.

thrush in back yard

Thrushes nest.  Female was also nearby.  They had divebombed some kids who were looking at the nest earlier. 

thrush nest



I took a gourd canteen making workshop with Cody Lundin at Winter Count this winter.  I brought back a lot of seeds from my gourd and some of my classmates and planted them this spring having started them in the house.  I did everything wrong from forgetting to water them to waiting to long to transpant them to the garden.  Despite my best efforts to kill them they proliferated much to my excitment.






Latest Firemaking

In the last week or so I got a coal from White Ash on White Ash bowdrill and several handrill coals with Horseweed on Basswood. The Horseweed is great, the best I have experience with the possible exeption of Yucca and Mule-fat but has the added bonus of growing around here.

My co-instructor Chris and I harvested a dozen or so Horseweed plants from along a railway this week as well. They are drying now.


This years bounty and eating a little Wild.

This year has been amazingly bountiful in New England as far as wild plant food goes. The nut trees have been dumping acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts by the bucketfull, so much in some places that I have watched people slip on them like so many marbles dropped on a floor. I have observed many other plants as well, such as Indian Cucumber, grapes, jewelweed, and more. Almost everything I am familiar with seems to be doing very well.

To take avantage of the excess I have been trying to eat more wild plant food. I boiled some acorns and had them for breakfast with an apple (which I picked from the old orchard at work). My intern made wonderfull acorn bread that she shared with us, and one of my co-instructors brought back a raccoon struck by a car after he eased its passing (ended its suffering, for the less squeemish). He cooked it up and we ate it for dinner.

My next step is to save some acorns for further use this winter and try to keep wild things in my diet. Not easy since my time is short and I anticipate some failure to keep it up but its worth a try.


Summer Day

Classic front and hind tracks, side by side of Raccoon ( hind on right side in picture below).

Skull of Great Horned Owl the kids found at work.

Owl feathers. We found the whole skeleton, what a great teaching oppertunity.
These are the small bones that surround the fixed eyes of owls.

Rattlesnake Plantain.


I have been very behind in posting so to get back in the habit here are some pictures of interesting things I have seen this summer.

Three pairs of similar looking plants I used for a lesson at work. Close up of one of those plants. I could not ID it for sure as it is already gone to seed but it is in the carrot/parsley family, if I am not mistaken ( which could be serious if we were thinking of eating it). Leaves of same plant. Again we were foiled in to identification due to the plants advanced age, all the leaves were ragged and torn.
Garter snake in a rock wall getting some sun.