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.

Wild Edible Plant Walk With The Forest Wolf

coltsfoot

I will be leading a plant walk at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington CT May 14th (Mothers Day) from 12:30 to 3:30.  So instead of buying your mom flowers take her for a nice walk in the woods to learn about wild ones together.

You will have to register with the Institute ahead of time to be sure there is room.

With thanks

The Forest Wolf

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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.

 

Tracks and Scat. Up to my elbows in it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quabin Reservoir

A few friends, Deneen and I had a great day out in the woods and by the water recently.  It was cold, clear and the snow was pretty good for tracking, revealing some obvious stories and some quite challenging mysteries to us.

Grouse tracks in snow

I’ll start with the more obvious stories.  In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,

Black-cappedChickadee Tracks

Black-capped Chickadee,

Coyote Tracks

big Eastern Coyote tracks,

Otter Tracks

and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer).  More on the otters later.

Otter slide

Indian pipe skeletons

These Indian Pipe Skeletons (Monotropa uniflora or similar) when shook, dropped this very fine material (magnified below).  We never did figure out if the longer fibers are the seed or the larger black object is.  Only a few of those fell out and many of the fibers creating a fine dust in the hand.

Indian pipe seed

Ice on the water, hoarfrost

By the water we admired the ice and open water on the northern edge, warmed by the southern sun.  Sitting in the sun ourselves we snacked on the wild cranberries freed from the snow by this amazing micro-climate.  They had a very very strong flavor that puckered my mouth. Great thing to find in a frozen place.

Wild cranberry

Otter haul out and scatt

Back to the otters sign.  It was in abundance, tracks and scat in many places, particularly where there was open water, even just a little along the edge like the photo above.

Otter Tracks

The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.

Otter scat

The most intriguing mystery came in the contents of the otter scats.  One of which, pictured above contained these globs pictured magnified below (sorry no scale).  They were frozen so we could not determine their consistency.  Otter do secrete a yellowish white mucus-like substance for scent marking which could be what this is.  I have seen that before and it was not so chunky as this.

Otter scat contents

Otter scat

 

Crayfish scat contents

Even weirder, though with some help we were able to determine what the are, were these hard, somewhat hemispherical objects found in a different Otter scat.  There were several of them, some different sizes and we spent quite a while trying to figure it out, trading hypotheses from fish eyes, to a strangely adapted fish scale or seed shell and many other ideas.  It was fun and challenging and one of my favorite aspects of tracking.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Above and below are both sides of same object.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Turns out they are gastroliths, a deposit of calcium carbonate in crayfish that they build up in order to get a jump on growing a new exoskeleton once they molt.  Another tracker Connor O’Malley let us in on this secret.  Apparently they are common in Otter scat though I had not noticed them before.

Grey Fox Tracks

And a final tracking blessing, Grey Fox tracks; a rare treat.  Some of the group had never seen Grey Fox tracks before.  They only showed up in one spot where the snow was just right.  Round, symmetrical, small metatarsal and metacarpal pads (heel) and no nails showing, it ghosted in and out like they so often do.  I have had the great honor of spending a little time with a juvenile and it was friendly and gentle, always moving, darting about curiously.

Grey Fox Tracks

Our day was filled with other experiences too.  We listened to our echos on the lake, slid on the ice, rested in the sun, watched birds and talked to ravens.  On the way home we stopped to eat in the city, had to walk through a mall.  It was intense, nothing subtle, no delicate mystery, just bustle and noise.  At the restaurant the food was great the the company better.

Still, the best part of the day was standing huddled over a pile of shit wondering what was inside.

 

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.

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)

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Skunk poop (I think)

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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. 

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Otter scat and muskrat skull and bones.

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

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

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

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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.

Andy