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.

The Cattail Gathering

June 9th and 10th this year I will be hosting the 3rd annual Cattail Gathering in Litchfield CT.  It’s a wonderful gathering of people taking workshops in many different Nature related skills like wildlife tracking, wild edible plants, yoga, basket making and many others.  If you are interested in this kind of thing, and if you read my blog you must be, than take a look at the website for more information.

The Cattail Gathering

Atlatl and Darts; Quiet, I am Hunting Mammoths

When I first met my wife Deneen we were taking a workshop on how to put together an atlatl and dart kit.  A few weeks later when we where courting over email I told her I had already killed a mammoth with mine, how was hers coming along?

My attempt at charm aside, atlatls and darts (spears) were what ancient man used to hunt mammoths and other very large animals.  Australian Aboriginal people used them up into historical times.  Much simpler that bows, they are relatively easy to make and fun to use.

This is a video exploration of a couple sets I have made.

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.

Bow Drill Basics Video

Fire by friction is a defining skill of wilderness survival and primitive living.  Here is the first in a series of videos to help people  learning the bow drill method.  Future videos and articles will cover the construction, from scratch, of a friction fire set and the ultimate skill of harvesting all materials from the landscape using stone tools also gathered on the spot.  Thanks for watching.

 

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.

Holmegaard Bow

holmegaard bow, self bow

My friend Greg, a great bower, helped me out making this Holmegaard style bow.  Its is make of Sugar Maple and shoots smooth and sweet.

Holmegaard is an area in Denmark where the first of these ancient bows was found preserved in a bog.  Holmegaard’s have certain features that I have replicated, though not precisely, in this bow.  I used a wider belly than back, narrow non-bending handle, and narrow tips.

Holmegaard bow handle

A more true example would have been shorter, mine is over 6 foot, bent little in the narrow tips and been a little wider in the rest of the limb.  I prefer a longer bow and therefor a narrower limb. Replication of history is also not my aim.  My aim, so to speak, its to make good bows and learn to hunt with them.  The second part is a longer journey than the first.

holmegaard bow

Primitive Protection From Sun Glare

Primitive sun visor

My wife Deneen has beautiful blue eyes.  They are very sensitive to bright sunlight causing her to squint and get headaches when exposed to a sunny day in the snow.  The Inuit made wonderfully crafted visors to protect their eyes from snow blindness on the brilliant tundra and ice pack of the far north.  Deneen forgot her sunglasses on a tracking day so created these little shades from hemlock twigs.  They proved very effective in cutting the glare, quick to fashion and totally biodegradable.  Patent pending.