Woodsman for Survival

So I have been contemplating putting this out there for some time now, and have finally decided, why not? I have used this personally over other acronyms that exist for quite a while, and have just introduced it at my last class. I will be continuing to do so from here on out as well.

There are many acronyms out there, and I guess they are all good in their own regard. I don’t consider mine better than any other, but it is mine, and I like it. I thought others may enjoy it as well and find it easy to use and remember.

Here is a quick first look at it, but I am planning a short video series on my youtube channel to cover this, as well as some other key points and discussions with regards to “Survival”.

WHATS THE SITUATION?

OPTIONS?

ORDER OF PRIORITIES

DONT DEVIATE FROM PLAN

SENSIBLE SKILLS

MANAGE RESOURCES

ATTITUDE

NEVER QUIT

Again, more to come on this as this is just a quick first look.

A Snowshoe Primer (Tim Smith, 2014)

 

A Snowshoe Primer

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I was a boy when I received my first pair of snowshoes, a wood-framed, rawhide-laced (the rawhide was traditionally made from moose hide and known as babiche, pronounced “bab-eesh”) pair made in Maine that took me on countless boyhood journeys through the winter woods. Since then, I’ve snowshoed all over Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Quebec and Alaska. A few years ago I did a rough estimation of how far I’ve walked on snowshoes, and it was more than a few thousand miles.

The aboriginal people of Europe and Asia developed skis for moving on deep snow. In North America, they developed snowshoes. Both are ways to walk on deep snow and not sink. They function by spreading your weight across a larger surface area of snow, allowing you to walk on top of the snow instead of “post holing”, or sinking down to the ground with each step. This saves energy and allows you to move much faster. The bigger the frame and the tighter the weave, the more flotation it provides. In waist-deep snow, covering 50 meters with no snowshoes has taken me more than ten minutes; wearing snowshoes, I walked right across it like I was walking down a sidewalk.

Snowshoe Design

Despite our modern homogenization of outdoor gear (ie. the greatest knife for all environments!), snowshoes size and shape evolved with distinct regional differences. In open areas with deep, dry snow and few trees such as Alaska, the shoe that developed was long and narrow. On the other end of North America in northern Quebec, where the snow is deep and the bush is thick, a short, rounded shoe was developed. The important point is that the land and the local snow conditions influenced the size and shape.

Two Pairs

The weather is never static, and as a result there isn’t one perfect pair for any location. The large-framed, finely-woven shoes needed for the deep, dry snow of midwinter wouldn’t last long in the icy, sharp-edged conditions of the shoulder seasons. A smaller, more coarsely-woven pair was kept for such conditions. These late-season conditions are also when an improvised pair such as Kochanski’s ski shoe perform their best.

Keeping a second pair handy isn’t just for the shoulder season. My Cree friends of northern Quebec bring two pairs even in the dry snows of midwinter. The first pair is for covering distances on the trail. They’re longer and narrower. The second pair is for maneuvering in thick bush. They’re shorter and rounder. As with all aspects of outdoor gear, there isn’t that one perfect pair that will do it all.

Cree Snowshoes

Choosing Your First Pair Of Snowshoes

If you’ve never used snowshoes before, the choices can be bewildering. But there’s a simple piece of advice I give to people coming on our winter trips. Get the biggest pair you can walk in without having to walk bowlegged. If they are of the short and wide variety, you’ll have to take longer than normal steps. When the snowshoe is the right size and the bindings are well-adjusted, you should forget you’re wearing it when walking straight ahead. There can be a slight extension of the forward stride, but ideally you walk with a normal gait, toes forward. There is a painful condition the voyageurs referred to as “Mal de raquette”, which is a straining of the muscles and tendons of the legs as a result of walking bowlegged. I’ve read about it, but thankfully never had it, but I’m told it’s quite painful. Avoid getting it by walking normally.

Axe Or Tapping Stick

Snow will accumulate on the top of the lacing. In a perfect world, the spacing of the weave would allow it to fall through so you’re never lifting the extra snow when you lift your foot. I’ve heard a lot about this perfect world and would like to visit there sometime, but where I’m at snow builds up on top of the shoe. In heavy snow, it adds significant weight to each step. I like to carry my axe or similarly sized stick in my hand to tap the side of the frame, which knocks off most of the snow. In cold, dry snow, I will tap whenever snow starts to build. In wet, heavy snow, I tap much more frequently. I also use the stick to push down on the toes of my snowshoes if I want to back up. Lastly, it’s useful for knocking the snow off of evergreen branches before I walk under them, keeping the snow off of my clothing.

Snowshoe Technique

Unlike skiing, where you can be refining your technique years after you begin, with snowshoeing the vast majority of the techniques are learned in the first few hours. Walking forward in a straight line is simple. If you put them on and try it, you’ll get it quickly. You may fall a few times, but most people pick it up within a few minutes. However, there are four points on technique that aren’t so intuitive.

First on this list is turning. This is where the majority of the falls occur because you can’t simply turn like when you’re walking. To turn with a wide radius, take a series of shuffling baby steps where your snowshoes never travel over one another. Lead with the foot in the direction you want to turn, and the other foot follows. Turning with a tight radius is more of a challenge. Lift up one shoe and rotate it 180 degrees in the air. When you place it down, your feet are roughly parallel, but your toes are facing in opposite directions and you resemble a sort of backwoods ballerina. When your foot is firmly planted, lift up the other foot and swing it around.

Second is backing up. Snowshoes don’t have a reverse, at least not when using traditional bindings. Because they’re weighted so that the back end is heavier, when you try to back up the rear of the snowshoe buries itself in the snow. There are two ways to deal with this. The first I already mentioned; carry a stick and push down on the toe of the shoe while backing up. The other way is to lift the shoe clear of the snow, then flex your hamstring and ankle at the same time to flip the tail up. While it’s flipping up, take a quick step backward. It takes some practice, but not that much.

Third is getting up after you fall. If the snow is deep and powdery, it can be very difficult to get back on your feet after you’ve fallen. It’s also a challenge if you’ve fallen backwards. A solution is to roll until you’re on your stomach, then get your shoes under you before trying to stand. Sometimes this will require you to take off the shoes in order to use them as a platform. This is another instance where carrying a stick can be helpful.

Lastly is something few people think of before hitting the trail; how to poop with your snowshoes on. The goal is to take care of your body’s needs without bringing any of it back to camp. First, pack down a small area so that the deep snow doesn’t touch you in unwanted places. Before attending to your duty, point the toes of your snowshoes together and widely splay the tails. If you’re unable to perform such functions in a squat, take the shoes off and stand on one while holding onto a tree. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but there have been many occasions where people have brought unwanted evidence back into camp, frozen to the tail of their snowshoe. Don’t let it happen to you!

Snowshoe Bindings

Bindings need to hold your toe securely to the shoe and wrap around your heel to keep the shoe from coming off, while at the same time allowing your heel to move. This single pivot design is common to all bindings. Modern bindings are made of rigid materials and fasteners that require your hands to open and close. Traditional bindings, as I define them are flexible and non-rigid, and are thus easily made of of a variety of materials. I’ve always used a traditional binding because that’s what I find the most versatile and comfortable. That they are simple and homemade is just a bonus. On a cold day when those with modern bindings are bending over and taking off their mitts, I can take off and put on my snowshoes with no hands and a turn of the ankle. And I’m not even a magician!

There’s a statistic I’ve heard that 50 people in North America die each year as a result of such modern bindings; mostly ice fisherman whose feet go through the ice, but are unable to get their hands down to release their snowshoe. I don’t know where it comes from or if it’s true, but it makes sense.

Old books on snowshoeing describe native bindings as made out of a thong of braintanned moose hide (buckskin). Traditional woodcraft books describe them made from cotton lamp wick. I’ve tried both of these, but my preference is for nylon cord, reverse wrapped to the proper thickness so it doesn’t chew through my boots. The reason I opt for the nylon is that it doesn’t absorb water like the cotton or buckskin. When you’re on an extended trip and you get spell of weather near or above freezing, cotton or buckskin absorb moisture. When it gets cold again, they freeze solid, making it very difficult to adjust the binding if you want to change from mukluks to rubber boots. The nylon, even when frozen, can usually be thawed by grasping it tightly in your hand for a few seconds. If that doesn’t do it, a few minutes by the wood stove or fire and it’s dry enough to manipulate. In my experience, it takes much, much longer to dry both lamp wick or buckskin. Traditional snowshoe bindings are low tech and can be made out of anything. For several years in the mid 1990’s, my bindings were made from a section of 20 year old water ski rope. Use what you’ve got.

Snowshoe Bindings

Other Uses For Snowshoes

In addition to walking on them, I’ve used snowshoes as a snow shovel, chair, back rest and pot suspension system. Some have even used them as a trap to catch small birds (I haven’t, I enjoy their cheerful company too much). Improvised snowshoes can even be used as part of a mattress. And there are probably at least 1000 other ways they’ve been used throughout history.

We like to think that technological advances are intuitive, and that we’d figure them out on our own were we to be somehow transported back in time before they were the norm. It’s part of our hubris as a culture. But shrouded in the mists of prehistory there was that first person to make a pair of functional snowshoes, put them on, and walk on top of the snow. Now all these years later we’re still doing it. They, and all who came after and refined the craft deserve our gratitude. Snowshoeing has added immensely to my enjoyment of the natural world. Both exploring the local woods, and on remote expeditions, it is the gateway to a world of winter wonder that can’t be explained, only experienced.

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Take a look at Tim’s website for tons of information and cool stories. He is a great writer and has a bunch of other blogs that are very enjoyable as well. If you are into the out of doors, I would say it is worth your time to check out.

http://www.jackmtn.com/

 

Another Successful Class Complete

 

It always a bummer to have a class come to an end, but of course there is always the upside. There is no better feeling, at least for me, to have happy satisfied students leave here with a better understanding of how to interact with the wilderness in a more meaningful way. To see them learn new skills as they go, and apply and understand what we have been sharing with them is simply awesome.

So as this door closes, we look forward to the next one opening, and we begin to prepare to do it all over again. We will enjoy the time when it comes and have fun while we do it, and then again experience the drag of seeing it come to an end.

We are thankful for our students, and/or the opportunity folks provide us with sharing our knowledge with them.

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Some Woodsman School Alumni stopped by during the class for some Dutch Over dinner, and we shared in some Woodsman Time as usual.

 

 

White Pine Burl and Harvesting for a Wood Bowl

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Had a visit yesterday by our good friend Tim Smith from Jack Mountain Bushcraft. Was our second day of constant rain here at the Wilderness Living Course, but we shared lots of laughs by the fire and checked out some things around camp.

See blog on the Jack Mountain link below.

http://www.jackmtn.com/simplog/white-pine-burl-at-the-woodsman-school/

St Croix River Canoe Trip 11-14 June 15

Our very first Guided canoe trip started on the afternoon of June 10th.  We had folks showing up at the school as early as about 4pm, and coming in until about 2am of the 11th (one late arrival from NY).  We would have a group of 8 folks, including myself, my instructor Dan Moore and 6 guests.  We met the night before to make sure we were well rested for our 5 hour trip to Maine the next morning.  This would be a 4 day guided canoe trip, and I was excited!

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We started off the evening with the filling out of forms (standard practice), and then moved into some brief instruction in the classroom.  Dan covered a lot on the anatomy of the canoe, different paddling techniques and strokes, how to read the river and the likes.  We always give our guests the formal classroom instruction so when we finally get to the water, everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises.

After the 5 hour trip to Vanceboro, ME….we met up with the outfitter to get our canoes, paddles and vests.  There would be four boats, each running tandem.  As I recall, it was a perfect early afternoon, with the sun glistening off of the water that was passing us by ever so swiftly in the river.  What a gorgeous area, with Canada just on the other side of the river from us!

So being New England, and more specifically, Maine…..we were on the water about 10-15 minutes when a storm rolled in.  It came in from the distance and we could see the clouds, hear the thunder rumbling and even a couple of flashes were noted.  Because we had to make time to reach our first camp before dark, I decided we would continue paddling along close to the shoreline in case we needed to leave the water.  Within the next 20-30 minutes or so, I believe we were all soaked from the downpour.  The sun immediately came back out as it was just a passing thunderstorm, so spirits were still high and we dried out relatively quick as we continued toward our first camp.  While paddling we went over the paddling techniques and most of the other information from the previous day, so that the guests could see what that looked like in real time.  We hit several sections of rips on this day, but nothing too serious.

Finally we arrive at camp, pull all of the canoes out of the water, start unpacking and going over camp.  The first line of business was to gather enough firewood for cooking dinner as well as for the night.  Everyone pitched in and worked as a team. Its always good to see that.  Once the firewood gathering was complete, the guests were able to set up their tents, while I started preparing dinner.  As the guests finished setting their camps, they helped get a tripod built, complete with a galley pole for suspending our pots from.

IMG_0334 (Very nice camp along the river)

IMG_0337 (Good food and even some dessert goes a long way after a days paddle)

After dinner we all hung around and shared in some Woodsman Time. This is always one of my favorite times at any of our classes. We share stories, laughs and talk about things to come the next day….much like the stories you read about in the O’l wilderness books. The difference here, is we are living it and telling the stories.

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The next day, after a delightful breakfast, we started back on the water. So load the boats back up and get to paddling. We seen a couple of Bald Eagles if I recall. They are prevalent along this trip and such a beautiful sight to see. Flying effortlessly from the tree tops and at times swooping down to get a closer look at us. There is an abundance of wildlife in Maine, and even when you cant see them, they usually leave something behind to let you know they are sharing the forest with you.

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IMG_0363We found several areas with Moose scat by camp.

During the trip we often would throw a line in and try our luck. There were several fish caught during the four days, some by regular rod and reel and others by way of the fly rod.

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Setting up camps and taking them down become effortless to a degree, and act more as a way of woods life. The tasks that make it daunting for a lot of folks in the wilderness become easier and appreciated when you live it.

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The other times during the day, and at night, become more enjoyable as you spend the time out. Friendships are begun or strengthened. Teamwork is a byproduct of what we all know has to be accomplished to enjoy natures beauties and our time there. There is not much better than a pristine waterway to paddle on after a good meal and some labor packing your group and personal gear back up.

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So there are many of good times out in the woods and on the water, but this usually doesn’t come without some mishaps. There are times when folks don’t communicate well, the river is just against you…..or simply put, things just happen. Here is an example of what can happen in some rapids if you are not giving them your undivided attention.

IMG_0352 IMG_0353 IMG_0354 IMG_0355(You and your stuff get wet!)

IMG_0356So on this trip I got to add two river rescues under my belt. Nothing serious, and even fun I might add…..but you surely want to avoid this if possible.

We hope you enjoyed this blog, and look forward to having you out with us on a trip in the future….be it a canoe trip or a snowshoe trip. Until then, please enjoy your time in the woods, on the water or otherwise. Safe travels friends.

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