Saturday, May 12, 2012

Canadian Bushcraft's Basic Hunter-Gatherer Workshop

Last weekend I attended Canadian Bushcraft's last running of it's Basic Hunter-Gatherer program.  I missed the Advanced version of the course that ran this past November, so I made sure to catch this one.  The "basic" in the title is something of a misnomer, as it was not a prerequisite for the Advanced course that I had missed, but rather focused on more "basic" skills.  More primitive skills.  More primary skills.

Friday night we arrive and set up our sleeping arrangements and made dinner.  It was a night to relax by the fire and be briefed on what we were up for in the coming days.  Caleb started by giving us a quick and dirty explanation of the tools and skill of North American Indigenous people.  He explained from an archeological viewpoint, the history of indigenous people could be broken down into three eras
  • Paleo
  • Archaic
  • Woodland
A very high level explanation of the type of tools use during each eras gave us an understanding of how they developed and which ones we were more likely to be able to produce in the event we needed to make them.

The people of the Paleo period developed tools closer to the end of the last ice age.  The hunting tools they used were very large and very specialized for the type of game that they were hunting, specifically Mega-fauna.  The tools created were used to hunt animals the size of Mammoths and required spear points such as the Clovis (which would easily be 8 inches long) to penetrating the thick hides.

As the Ice began to recede and the mega fauna began to die out, there was a shift in the type of tools used.  In this Archaic period no longer could people rely on having large kills that would feed them for a long period of time, and there was a shift to more opportunistic hunting.  Gone were the specialized tools and more generic variants began to emerge, which could take a wider variety of game that would be encountered more frequently.

As time passed, hunters began adapting better technologies through a better understanding of the materials they had and the game they were pursuing.  More finely crafted stone and bone tools were created in this Woodland period and it is here we saw the emergence of the famous bow and arrow.

It was at this point that Caleb posed the question...if we were in a situation where we lost our modern equipment and had to fashion tools to survive long term, which era would the tools we needed most represent?  The highly specialized tools of the Paleo?  The one tool, many uses mentality of the Archaic?  Or perhaps the more technically advanced tools of the Woodland period?

The answer of course, was the "swiss-army" style stone, wood and bone tools of the Archaic period.

The next point that was brought up was the need for food.  Very often we talk about survival scenarios where food is very low on the priority list.  This is a very good point, because depending on who you are, you might easily be able to spend 4-5 weeks survival on stored calories from your fat cells.  Of course with proper preparation, you might very well be rescued before you ever need to take in any extra calories, which is why survival is very different from long term living.

There may however, come a point where you need to transitions from survival to more "self reliance". Allusions were drawn to the outdoorsmen of 100 years ago, George W. Sears and Colonel Townsend Whelen who took with them modern tools to acquire food, fishing rods and firearms.  They spent weeks living in the bush, and were never caught using "pocket fishing kits" or survival style bows. Acquiring food was a big deal to them, and it showed through the type of gear they would take. Shelter items might be reduced to a simple canvas tarp, but a rifle, shotgun and fishing rod for acquiring food was always taken along.

The lesson?  Learn how to use primitive techniques, but never rely soley on them.  (Interesting point, Les Stroud in his Survivorman series tried endlessly to catch fish over many of his episodes.  His only real success?  When he brought a rod and reel.

The next morning we began our day stripping Willow saplings that would become our fishing spears.  We used stone blades to separate the bark from the wood and and did our best to keep the strips as long as possible.  The Willow was harvested the day before, which allowed the bark to come away cleanly and with ease, a trick I'm going to remember for future reference.

With the staves stripped and drying the in shade, we began to process the bark by separating the inner and outer bark.  Being primitive, this was of course done with a stone knife flaked off from a piece of chert.  To process the inner bark it was boiled in weak lye solution using a tin can.  Traditionally this would be done by hot rock boiling, but for the sake of time we used a tin can in the fire.   After an hour boiling, the bark was removed, split into fibers and left to dry.

With the cordage prepared we turned back to the staves which were now sufficiently dry to work with.  The tip was sharpened, split and then buried in the ash of the fire pit to fire harden.  We carved a third prone to be inserted into the split and create the trident. For my prong I used was Buckthorn because of it's resiliency (and why not harvest an invasive species?). I  specifically carved away all the sapwood to reveal the super tough heartwood which would be my spear tip.  Securing the middle prong was a matter of inserting the third prong, sealing with pine pitch, binding and sealing once again with more pitch.

At some point during all of this, I opened the split in my stave and almost created a crack that separated off the top prone from the rest of the spear.  The fix for this was to bind above and below the crack where I wanted to keep the material together, and seal with pine pitch.

I took extra time to make sure my spear was complete because of the long split I made.

We broke for lunch, and after eating picked up our spears and began to head to the marsh.  During this time Caleb suggested we take on the mindset of our hunter-gatherer, and stay focused on potential opportunities. Any animal, track, wild edible or medicinal plant presented an opportunity.  You walked with all of your hunting and gathering tools because you never knew when you would spot a plant you needed or animal to catch.  These tools included the digging stick, the fishing spear, the sharpened spear, throwing stick and "swatting stick" (a long forked stick which could be used to swat birds out of the sky, slap ground animals or even pin a snake to the ground).

I had particular trouble with the level focus required and attention to detail.  Maybe my modern city dweller mind couldn't pick up on the minute details but this is something that need to work on in the future.

Harvesting Burdock root

After short walk, where we managed to identify and collect some burdock root and garlic mustard greens, we stopped by an entrance to the marsh that Caleb dubbed "ratroot road".  In here he had found a patch of sweetflag (rat root) that had been forgotten about and likely not harvested from for 100 years.  Picking some, and comparing it to Blue Iris, it is easy to see how closely related they are in appearance at this time of year.  Our ancestors needed to know a high level of detail about the plants they used, this being an one is medicinal and the other highly toxic (The blue iris can kill you).

Pink roots on the left is sweet flag, purple stalk on the right indicates toxic blue iris

We entered into the marsh and collected cattail shoots and roots, being mindful of where we were stepping as this was prime snapping turtle territory.  Cattail shoots are in their prime at this time, as they're still quite tender and taste very much like a cross between cucumber and celery.  The roots require some roasting, and are almost like sweet potato when cooked.

As an aside, Caleb mentioned that while turtle and frogs were fair game to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in current day Ontario these reptiles are having a hard time propagating their species.  As such, he usually leaves them alone to give them a better chance to continue the species, otherwise we would have had our bellies full of frog legs that night.

We continued on towards the lake, but not before stopping by a wood ant nest.  Our ancestors were not above eating insects and larvae and we began breaking open the nest in search of larvae.  Unfortunately it was either too early or these was no queen in this particular nest as we found no larvae, however the ants themselves tasted pleasantly like cider vinegar due to the formic acid they contained.  A nest can be harvested twice a year like this without disrupting the colony beyond recovery.

As we continued along to the lake, we cut Alder and dogwood as materials for a fish weir.  Traps like these were extremely beneficial to the primitive hunter-gatherer as they continue working without supervision.  The weir in particular was a great tool as it left the fish alive within it until you came by to empty it.

As we reached the water I had a close call and a very real reminder of how important it is to remain attentive to my surroundings.  Walking over to a Basswood tree to harvest some young leaves to snack on, Caleb pointed out that I had just walked barefoot through a patch of poison ivy.  Guess who didn't know poison ivy was red at this time of the year?  Yeah..that's  Luckily he noticed my error and we were able to treat it immediately with some crushed Jewelweed and Yarrow which were growing nearby.  A note on the potency of the ivy, I didn't notice it until I got home and took off my boots but my feet were slightly irritated up to 3 days after this had happened...even after treating it within minutes of noticing.

We entered the water to construct the fish weir and I was surprised at how much material was actually required for properly constructing it.  We used the Alder as fence posts and weaved a dogwood mesh in between.  What the illustrations in survival books don't show you is the intricate weave you need to make through the fence posts in order to maximize the likelihood that your fish don't just swim away.

With the weir completed we began to have some fun with out spears.  A little background, Caleb isn't all that impressed with armchair survivalists. He actually really, really doesn't like them.  So part of making a tool of weapon with him means using it.  The problem with a fish spear is that it isn't all that legal to use in Ontario.  The solution?  He carved a Basswood fish and weighed it down with a rock.  This faux fish would "swim" and follow the directions of the waves coming in, very much like a real one would do when resting outside of the current...the exact situation you would use a fish spear to get one.  The exercise was to slowly stalk the fish, circle it until you had a clear shot, and thrust into it with the spear, taking into account the refractive index of the water.  Easier said than done.  Stalking a fish, knee deep in water with the waves coming in on you and sand shifting under each step is no easy feat.  If this wooden fish were real, it would have swam away countless times, a humbling reminder to take what you see on YouTube with a grain of salt.

I'm going to be honest here, I didn't have high hopes for this spear.  I was doubtful it was going to work on a real fish, much less one made of wood.  I was wrong.  I lined up, took aim and thrust my spear into the water with so much force that the spear penetrated right into the Bass(wood) fish.  I lifted my spear out of the water and attached to the end was the wooden fish, impaled by willow prongs.  I was slightly in disbelief of what just happened and completely changed my opinion.  With practice and knowledge, this was a viable way to get food.

After spending some time playing with the wooden fish, we finished up with Caleb explaining some other primitive fishing techniques.  This included using natural fish toxins such as juglone (very illegal) and primitive fish hooks made from black locust and basswood fiber cordage.

We headed back to camp and rested up, roasting our cattail roots and had dinner.    The night was spent by the fire talking bushcraft and outdoors related topic and at one point we even had surprise guests show up for a little while.  One of the coolest things about being in the woods this particular weekend was that it coincided with the "super moon".  The moon happened to be the closest to the Earth that it has been for decades appeared approximately 14% larger than normal, and the amount of light that the moon emitted illuminated the woods beautifully.

The next morning after breakfast our first lesson was the slingshot.  While not primitive, the bands used can easily be bought and carried in a backpack, taken out only when needed.  The lesson here was that for such an important item, it's a case where it simply just makes sense to bring a modern item with you rather than trying to replicate it with natural materials.  We collected stones and spent the morning target practicing with a 12x12 target.  Standing 50ft away, it was hard enough hitting the stationary target, never mind a rodent sized animal which was moving.  Many times you have one opportunity to spot, sight and fire on animal before it is gone and if you don't have hours of practice in, you're going hungry.

With target practice over we headed back to camp to do some netting.  As some of us have previously carved a needle and made tradition nets, Caleb felt it was a good idea for use to pass on some of the knowledge we had gained.  His reason being that you don't really know something until you know it well enough to teach.  Well, I tried.  Teaching is hard and that is exactly why I don't do it.  You need to take all the ideas and concepts floating around in your head and boil them down to a few concise words that describe exactly what you're trying to convey.  Trying to describe how to carve a netting needle I found myself tripping over my words and using 50 where 10 might do if explained by a more experienced person.  As a result, the person I was trying to teach didn't end up completing the needle before we broke for lunch.

As we ate Caleb took the opportunity to show us a number of different deadfall trap configurations that he preferred to the tradition figure 4.  The traditional approach to the figure 4 is time consuming and takes a lot of carving to make the pieces, a luxury you don't have if you haven't got a steel knife and are trying to do it with stone.
 The promontory peg, Sami figure-4 and Asian inverted figure-4

With lunch over the group split, half to learn the traditional netting techniques using a needle and the rest using modern materials to make the overhand knot survival net.  While the technique is easier to remember, I found that it was a lot harder to find a rhythm to continue working, since without an easy way to set the knot to the gauge, you needed to focus more when putting in the knots.

After spending time on the nets we got a quick primer on the use of shaping bone tools.  As Caleb explained it, he could spend a whole day teaching flint knapping one tool, but that same day showing multiple different bone tools.  Working the bone and fracturing it along the cracks I wanted was dead simple.  It took time, and patience, but there was no specialized skill involved, which made me very optimistic about using it.

Score, fracture, grind to shape.  The entire process was as easy as that, however it took patience and attention to detail.  The hardest part for me was identifying what kind of tool to make each shard of bone into, but that I think will come with practice and familiarity with the tools I would need.  Spearheads, arrow points, needles and awls all come to mind.  An interesting point for me was that the arrowheads needed to take down game are actually quite small.  The large 1-2" peices typically associated with an arrowhead are actually broken spearheads, with true arrowheads being thumbnail sized.  That for me was an interesting fact.

As the afternoon crept up the course was over, and after we packed up Caleb threw this to me:

A primitive spear he just made, utilizing the very skills he had taught us over the course of the weekend.  This spear is meaningful to me not only because it was a gift, but because of what it also represents. I can now make this.  I can identify all the materials, the steps required to process them, and how to assemble them into this final working tool.  While it would take me longer to reproduce, I can do it...and that is knowledge I did not have before coming into this course.

Walking away with the spear was something tangible to remind me of what I had gained.

That is pretty awesome.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyable read!
    I've always been skeptical as well about the actual use of a spear for fish. They're illegal here in Georgia too, and I'd never thought of a wood substitute, so your experience with it is good to hear.