A Chestnut Bear

American Chestnut with Bear feeding

Digging through some old photos I came across this story I would like to share with you.  In preparation for a staff training I was running for Two Coyote Wilderness School a few years ago, I checked on one of my favorite trees in the forest we where occupying for the class.  It is an American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), and this little area has been home to the some of the largest American Chestnuts I know of (a mere 5 or 6 inches in diameter).  My grandfather had pointed one out to me 20 years ago and ever since they have grown, gotten sick and died of the chestnut blight in this tiny spot.  There are many little saplings in the nearby area, though this little patch seems to contain the most successful.

On this day I discovered I was not the only creature in the neighborhood who was interested in this tree.  As can be seen in the photo above something had damaged the tree while it still had leaves (leaves that die early cling to the be branch unlike naturally cast off leaves which, at least for most species, fall off on their own).

american chestnut blight
American Chestnut with bark damage from chestnut blight

american chestnut

There are only three animals I know of that would do this kind of damage to a tree (this assumes it was not weather related which was clearly not the case). One are people and I ruled that out pretty quickly.  Another are porcupines who often devastate trees, cutting their branches and eating the bark.  The branches were not cut and no bark was nibbled.  This left bears.

Damage to lower limbs caused by a black bear.
american chestnut bear
Claw marks from climbing bear.

Here in New England we have only black bears.  They are known to climb trees and break limbs to get at whatever food the tree provides, often sitting in the tree for some time.

All this is pretty obvious to a seasoned tracker.  What was not so obvious to me is what the bear was actually eating.  I have been led to believe that even a fruiting chestnut does not bare viable nuts.  I have found the spiky husks many times and sometime unopened ones.  Those I have opened contained a withered “nut” that had no real substance to it, certainly nothing to eat worth the trouble.  I have never found a healthy looking nut inside the husk.

More claw marks.

Below is a photo of bear scat I found very close to the tree.  It seems to contain remains of nut meat.  This area has a great deal of chestnut oak (Quercus montana) acorns (so named for the resemblance of the leaves to an actual chestnut tree though it is indeed and oak), which could account for the nutty scat. And yet still what was the bear eating from the tree?  Fully matured yet infertile nuts?  There were signs of nuts on the branches the bear broke off.  Or was it growing buds?  The tips of most of the branches where intact.

I resist the urge to make the assumption that it was indeed the nuts being consumed until I have proven to myself that they can have nutritional value. I am sure someone has the answer already and I am all ears.

I love these experiences that let me feel both competent and unsure, never running out of things to learn.

Bear scat
Bear scat very nearby chestnut tree.

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.

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.

Porcupines Porch

Porcupine sign, tracks


There is a steep rocky ridge near Mt Agamenticus in southern Maine where the Hemlock trees are thin and the Porcupines are thick.  Above and below you can see obvious sign of the damage Porcupines can cause as they feed on the bark of trees by nipping off branches to get at the tender ends.

porcupine damage to Hemlock tree


I came here knowing I might run into the creatures and hoping to see other creatures as well.  After wandering around for a few hours and seeing a lot of porky tracks and not much more I returned to the rocky ridge hoping for some bobcat sign.  This spot is known for bobcat.  They like to den and lay up in the same bouldery places as porcupines.

Porcupine tracks in snow

By now I had been out for quite some time and my body had relaxed and slowed.  I climbed up the jumbled boulders toward a likely spot.  I have been told it is better to hold no agenda in the wild, that it can be sensed by other animals and cause them to flee or that an agenda narrows one’s focus and other things can be missed.  I had an agenda to get to a certain spot likely for Bobcat sign.  Maybe I held it loosely enough because as I moved up I was a bit startled by this sleeping Porcupine beside me, napping on the porch of its den.


Porcupine in Den


Porcupine, I soppose can afford to sleep more soundly than other animals having quills to protect them.  I managed to maneuver around a little and take many pictures with a noisy shutter without waking it.

Sleeping Porcupine


Sleeping Porcupine in den




Eventually I got greedy and disturbed this cool creature.  A good tracker gets in and out without the animals knowing, I have some learning still to do here.  It clicked its teeth and moved slowly back to the deepest gap between rocks.  I left slowly too, as not to disturb further.

Pitch Pine

Pitch Pine Tree

We don’t have many Pitch Pine where I live in Connecticut.  This one is in Southern Maine in an area that is essentially a tiny  sand barrens.  They are a great bushcraft/primitive skills tree for many reasons.  One can use them for tea or medicine the same way as any other pine (though the taste may be less appealing) and, as their name suggests they produce an abundance of “pitch” or more accurately sap.  Pine sap becomes pitch once it is mixed with another substance like wax, fat, or charcoal to make it more useful as glue, a lubricant or preservative.

Some people may not see this tree as beautiful in the same way the stately White Pine is.  Thriving in a difficult environment of sandy soil and adaptations to forest fire give it its own kind of elegance I suppose.

Pitch Pine cones and needles

Above and below show the needles and old female cones.  The needles are twisted and in groups of 3.

Pitch Pine Cone


Pitch Pine Male Pollen Cones

Above are male cones and below a partially formed female cone.  I am not sure if this cone is brand new or an unfertilized cone from last year.  These picture were taken in Feb and neither male or female cones start to grow until spring.  I saw many male cones and several female cones on the trees.

Pitch Pine growing cone

Goldfinch Nest

bird nest

Birds nest identification turns out to be tricky.  This nest was about 10 or 12 feet up in a Quaking Aspen sapling.

Goldfinch nest

As you can see it was beautifully crafted by what we came to conclude where Goldfinches, out of strips of bark and thistle or milkweed down (both where abundant).  It was in a managed successional field with nearby wetland and forest, prime habitat for Goldfinches.  The other possibility we considered was Yellow Warbler but it seemed to far from the water.

We took this nest down to get a better look.  The tree we cut the branches from was doomed to the brush cutter as the area is kept clear to create a specific habitat.  Collecting birds nests is illegal without a permit.

Goldfinch nest