Thursday, December 15, 2005

Tracks and Cordage

A couple weeks ago we processed nettles that we had collected earlier in the term and used them to make cordage. It was surprisingly easy. To process the nettle we split the dried stalk and flattened it a bit, then snapped and pulled off small (an inch or three) sections of the inner wall from the fiberous outer material, working up the plant until all that's left are the fibers (being particularly careful around the joints of the stalk). Then we buffed the fibers a bit by rubbing it back and forth in our hands and carefully removed the chunky bits that tend to occur around the joints.

With the fibers processed we were ready to make cordage. The technique we used is called the reverse wrap. Taking two groups of strands you hold them from the end (or fold a group of strands in the middle and use the two halves), take the top bundle and twist it away from you than wrap it under the bottom bundle and repeat (now with the bundle that was originally on the bottom). The idea is that the twisted fibers are going against the direction of the wrapping so they won't unravel on their own very easily. You can also do reverse wrap with more than two bunches using the same process of taking the top one, twisting it and moving it to the bottom.

I made the top cord with some arts and crafts grass that the instructors gave us to practice with, the second cord is out of a stalk of nettle I processed and the third is a triple reverse wrap using strands of cattail. I was able to break the cattail cord with a fairly strong pull. Pulling as hard as I could, I was unable to break the grass or the nettle cord, though with two of us pulling pretty hard we managed to break the nettle (we didn't try that with the grass).

The top/left track is from the cougar that I was wrote about on the first. The bottom/right track is from the dog we were out with (a medium-large mutt). Though the picture isn't great for details, I can clearly see two of the major cougar vs. dog differentiators and can sort of see two others.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On Fire

I've pretty much stopped counting how many friction fires I have achieved, but I haven't stopped practicing. The other day I tried out a new technique - I spun the hand drill while my roommate applied pressure with a handhold. We got a coal in no time. On the other hand I tried this morning at school (where we were basically outside so the temperature and humidity were less favorable than in the house where I'd done it before) and got some smoke but broke two spindles without getting a coal. So more work to be done before deciding how useful the technique is.

A while ago my brother asked me how it was that I was struggling with starting a fire by lighter but was being successful with friction fires. There are a couple of parts to the explanation. First is that I've mostly practiced friction fires inside with nice dry tinder bundles and kindling, while my attempts at lighter fires are outside - generally with damp everything. The second part is that in some ways it is easier to get a fire started from a coal than from a lighter because a good coal can dry out damp material around it and continue to supply heat until it flames up (though obviously the dryer the material the better.) With a lighter it can be difficult to apply even heat for long periods (I've had a couple lighters break on me because I kept the flame going for too long).

During the trip described in my last post Matt and I decided to try making a fire while out on our bike ride. He was skeptical that we could get a friction fire going, but I took that as a challenge and we scavanged a kit together. We even scavanged some twine to use as the bowdrill cord although it didn't take too long before we replaced it with some that he had brought with him (the twine had a strong fraying tendency). We tried the partner bowdrill method with big leaf maple on big leaf maple and later with doug-fir on big leaf maple (both of which I've had success with at home). We didn't manage to get a coal with the partner method, I think that the bow was a bit too long an unwieldy (I'd chosen a long one with the partner method in mind, but I guess should have stuck with a normal length bow). We tried for quite awhile, but eventually gave up as our arms got tired, our feet and hands continued to get colder, and our cord broke. We then tried for awhile to get a lighter fire started. We began by trying shavings from the big leaf maple. Matt was able to get single shavings burning, but never managed to get a critical mass going. While messing around with the big leaf maple sticks we had I noticed that I was able to pull off good strips of thin inner bark, much of which had remained dry (though only on some of the branches). That seemed like it would make good tinder, so I got as much of it as I could and split it up a bit into narrower strips. Matt was getting ready to start back because of the cold, but I wanted to make one good try with the inner bark, and sure enough it lit and started burning well. It did the second time anyway. The first time the flame was too close to my fingers so I dropped the bundle and it spread apart too much. The second time I held the bundle together with one of the longer shavings. We then used the shavings and some twigs to get the fire going and ended up staying there for another hour or so enjoying the fire and eating lunch.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cougar Tracks

It's snowed a couple of nights in the past few days. On Wednesday morning I went biking with a friend from school. We were interested in checking some trails out that we'd hiked on previously and figured we'd cover more ground on bikes. Part of the way through we ran into a community schooler (Wilderness Awareness School's high school age program) and shortly after that we came upon some cougar tracks (from the previous night or the morning) with a bunch of community school tracks next to them. We trailed the tracks for a couple of miles along a logging road before running into a new group of kids and their leader. They had taken a break from trailing the cougar to try and build a fire in the wet woods. We talked to them for a bit and they told us that they had just heard on the handheld radio that one of the other groups had found something really cool, but it wasn't clear what. We continued on up the hill a short ways before seeing another bigger set of mountain lion tracks coming across the road. We looked up in the woods to see if we could trail that cat, but it was difficult in the duff. I did find a bird kill though, it was laying there - a bunch of feathers with a gut pile sitting on top. I'd never seen a kill site with a gut pile before, so that was interesting. I'm not sure what the bird was but I would guess it was around grouse size. After that we kept on up the road and didn't watch as closely for the cougar tracks and the next time we stopped to look for them they were gone. We thought that maybe the first one had left the road around the same place where the second one crossed. A couple miles later we stopped and built a fire (but that's another story), then headed back for home.

The friend lives with two of the community school intructors so after we got back home he called me to let me know what the cool thing was that they had found. Turns out some of the students had backtracked the cougar a short distance from where we picked up the trail and found a dead buck that the cougar had been eating on.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Shelter Overnight

On Thursday we had a brief lecture on constructing shelters, we then went off into the woods and built some. This year, each clan chose to construct a "debris-pi" - sort of a tipi constructed with debris. We started construction probably around 11am and it gets dark around 5pm so we had time, but not an abundance of it. The basic format of the debris-pi was to build a sturdy frame out of sticks and then dump a bunch of debris on top, in this case mainly maple leaves that were in abundance and some sword fern that is also quite common there. Though it didn't rain much during the night, there was a moderate rain most of the day so it was challenging at times to keep energy up, but we soldiered on and by the time it was dark we were tired and wet but had a serviceable shelter. After the shelter had it's basic form complete we started a fire inside to start drying things out a little and to make sure that we had one before it got dark, we then continued to pile on more leaves and collect firewood to last us for the night.

The shelter was kind of tight with seven of us stuffed in, but there was enough room for us to all lay down as long as nobody minded having somebody else laying on top of them. Clayton had asked around the day before and got the good idea to store as much firewood as we could in the shelter and rafters with us. That worked out really well, helping to dry the wood and making it so we didn't have to keep going outside. It was also fortunate that everyone was interested in minimizing bathroom breaks, so we all tried to hold things in as long as possible and managed with only two mass excursions outside to take care of business. Other clans took bathroom breaks piecemeal and some used bottles so that they wouldn't have to go outside.

It took a little while to get a good blaze in the fire pit. With the wood so damp we needed it pretty hot to burn cleanly - smoke was something we constantly had to guard against. The fire kept everyone reasonably warm, although the person by the door was a little cold due to drafts, and if you had some part of yourself behind someone else (such as head or feet when trying to lay down) they would get chilled. The fire required constant vigilance since it would continually encroach upon the borders of the pit and would regularly catch some of the floor insulation (mainly sword fern fronds) on fire which we would then have to beat out.

It was difficult to sleep in the arrangement, some people didn't sleep at all a couple managed as much as two or three hours, I got probably between 15 and 30 minutes. We didn't really try to sleep for the first half of the night though, we realized how difficult it would be and instead stayed up singing songs and telling stories. I think that if we had stayed another night in the shelter it would have been easier to get more sleep. Probably some sleeping would be done during the day since the only urgent thing to do would be collection of firewood, and with the tiredness from the previous night we would probably be a lot more inclined to get down to the business of sleeping that night.

The bottom picture is of our clan in the morning, from left to right: Dave, Roy, Clayton, Emily (normally in a differnt clan, she joined ours for this activity), Me, Sean, Barbara

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sit Spot and Birds

Last week Jon Young came and spent a couple of days with our program. It was inspirational, but a lot to process all at once.

While he was there we went out to our bird sit spots for awhile and were supposed to come back with a question. I ended up having a lot of fun looking around my place and noticing a lot of things that I hadn't seen before.

In the past I haven't usually had much fun at my sit spot. Mostly I would try and concentrate more on what I was "supposed" to do, or start thinking about various internal distractions. After my experience above I decided to try and rekindle a sense of fun while at my spot. Instead of just going and doing what I was supposed to I went and paid attention to what caught my fancy. I explored around and watched birds, I ended up finding about five plants that I hadn't realized were in my area before (despite having previously cataloged all the ones that I was aware of). I still did what I had been focusing on in the past, but incorporated it into my fun.

One thing that Jon Young mentioned was the routine "owl entering the forest." Basically it entails taking a lot of care to avoid disturbing birds even before you start to leave your house for your sit spot. It takes a lot more time to get to my spot that way, so it's not something I'm likely to do everyday, but apparently the more you do it the less the birds will react to you even when you don't do it. I did it on Sunday and found it to be quite enjoyable. I noticed much more bird language than I had on probably any other day in my life. I think that's a mix of the exercise and my increasing awareness of birds in general. It makes me happy to realize how much more I recognize of birds now than I did at the beginning of the program. I still feel like I'm a beginner, but now I can distinguish several additional birds by their calls as well as being more aware of whether they are alarming.

Tomorrow we are going on to camp overnight in group shelters.

(BD: 17, HD: 7)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Rock Work

On Friday we made rock tools in class. First we learned the bipolar technique - basically you put a small (relatively) rock on a big rock (the anvil) and hit it on the other end with another big rock (the hammer). Hopefully large pieces with sharp edges will split off. Small pieces with sharp edges are also useful - though not as convenient to hold on to.

After making a bunch of stone tools (the sharp rock fragments) we were instructed to gather a segment of vine maple for a knife handle using only our stone tools to cut it to appropriate size. After an hour or two of working at it I finally got one end of the handle cut down appropriately and have made it part way through evening out the other end. It is quite arduous and definitely has given me much more appreciation for steel tools.

The next rockworking technique we learned was percussion flaking. Basically you take a hammer rock and hit it downward against the edge of the rock you are trying to shape, and if all is successful a largish flake will come off the bottom from where you hit it. To make an edge you can alternate sides you are flaking off - after you get your first flake turn the rock over and strike near the edge of that flake to knock a flake off the other side. Repeat around the rock as desired. After fleshing out the edge you can repeat the process on the larger protrusions to sharpen it up. Apparently thin, smooth looking rocks and/or rocks with fine grain are desirable for use as the stone being shaped. (Oh and you can use the flakes that come off as little tools as well.) Most of the rocks we were trying with (and had collected ourselves before we knew too much about what we were looking for) were not particularly desirable for use in tool making.

Between banging my fingers between rocks, holding rocks while banging them, and sawing at wood with little sharp rocks my hands took more damage that day than they have in a long time (including the abuse I give them while practicing handdrill). But it was still fun to make tools with such readily available material.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wild Foods

Today the class split into two groups. My group made a fancy wild foods meal, tomorrow we will do some napping of rocks.

With a group of 18 people we were able to prepare quite a bit of stuff over the course of the day. We prepared wild greens salad (predominantly dandelions with plantain, sorrel, and prunella mixed in), salad dressing with rose hips, dandelion pesto over pasta, dock seed chips, acorn pancakes, rose hip infused honey, and douglas-fir tea. It was pretty tasty and there was plenty to go around.

(BD: 13, HD: 5)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Friction Fire Surprises

Last week my friend Dave was in town for a wedding. While he was here I thought it might be fun to teach him how to make a bowdrill fire. I didn't particularly expect him to get a coal, though I knew it was a real possibility, I just hoped for him to begin to get a handle on the process and maybe get excited when he realized how easy it was to get things smoking. He surprised me though. He got the form down quite quickly and with only a couple of tries managed to get a coal. Using some spare tinder I had he  blew the coal into flame. Twice. The first time it flamed up into his face which incited him to drop the bundle, causing it to go out. Being a little more careful to avoid getting singed, he was able to coax it back into flames.

After that I thought I would demonstrate the handdrill. My hands were a bit tender and my consistency is still quite bad, so I didn't expect to get a coal. But I thought it might be interesting to show him how it goes - get some good smoke and char. So I was drilling away when, lo and behold, I had a coal. The coal had fallen off my collection board and I didn't have a tinder bundle left so I just piled on some of the dead conifer needles that were on the ground as well as a piece or two of dead grass and was a little surprised when, after sufficient coaxing, it burst into flame.

I had another surprise last Monday. I have some mullein stalks I collected on my way back from Idaho last August. They are what I mostly practiced handdrill with in the beginning (now I've mostly been using big leaf maple), but I never managed to get any coals with them. But on Monday there was a group of us practicing fire and I hauled out my favorite mullein stalk to show people. Roy suggested that he and I take turns with it and I agreed. My expectations were low given my previous lack of success with mullein and my difficulty with taking turns (I'd tried it only a couple of times before with a shortish big leaf maple spindle and felt that we would have been more likely to get a coal doing it individually, though practice might change that). The mullein's length (probably around 3 feet) made partnering more efficient than with a shorter stalk, and it only took us about 3 passes down the stalk each before a coal popped out. The next night we repeated the experiment with equal facility.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Fungus and Owls

Plenty of interesting stuff has been happening lately. I haven't had so much time to post about it though. Figured I could post a quick one before I get some kamana journaling done and go to bed.

I found this fungus(?) growing around the hemlock tree that is spread out above my tracking mud. There were numerous clumps of it growing in kind of circular shape. I wonder if fungus does that because it is radiating out from some central original growth.

Oh, I heard the owls again last night (and tonight). There are a couple of barred owls that we heard quite frequently for a couple of weeks around the time we moved into the house. I didn't hear them for another couple of weeks and now they seem to be back again.

(Bowdrill: 11 Handdrill: 4)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Of a Hole in the Sand

Today I will relate a story from a field trip to the Oregon sand dunes our class took a couple of weeks ago:

Early on in the trip one of our fellow students warned us about holes in the dunes from trees that had been engulfed by the sand long ago and since rotted out. While out exploring the dunes for tracks my group happened upon such a hole (probably around 10 inches across) and of course wondered how deep it was. After one of the original discoverers of the hole managed to get her whole leg down it, it was my turn being the longest legged in the group. When my leg didn't reach the bottom we tied some line to a water bottle and dropped it down. We were astounded when the 25 or so feet of that setup didn't land on anything. How could we stop at such a mystery? But what was left to do? Clothes! Most of us had some extra clothes as the day had warmed up since when we started early in the morning. So we tied shirts, bandanas, and jackets on to the end of the line, about 50 feet long now. It was a bit more difficult to judge if we hit bottom now, with all the weight of the clothes and the drag of them against the walls of the hole, but it definitely seemed that our make shift line went all the way down without grounding yet again. We pulled it back up and were about to give up and move on when somebody decided that we could drum up a few more clothes and make another go of it. I ended up tying on my t-shirt, bandana, and wool pants on this time, all of the extra additions made it around 75 feet. This time there was some question as to whether we had reached bottom. The person feeding the line down thought it had stopped, to demonstrate he lifted some of the line back out of the hole and dropped it only have it to continue quickly on dragging more of the pile in behind it (in retrospect, it is possible that it was at the bottom and that it was just the weight of the line that provided the momentum). So, once again we had the whole line in the hole without discernably hitting bottom. Having wasted enough time we decided to give up on figuring it out for the time being. As one of the other students was pulling up the line he started tugging a little without anything coming up "It's stuck". Now everyone's tenses up a little bit. Having the longest arms, I figure I might as well reach down in as far as I can and try and get it to come up. There was a stretchy shirt in there that was making things a little more difficult, but finally the line came free and I pulled the rest of it out. Or at least the rest of it that was above the knot that came loose. There were gasps and "No way!"s of astonishment, then a lot of laughter at what had happened. Only the instructor and one of the apprentices avoided losing anything to the hole, while one person lost a couple of shirts, a belt, and a bandana. I won't say whose knot it was that came apart, but I did end up with a bandana on the free end of the line and a shirt on the lost end of the lind (and fortunately my pants were safely out as well).

Early the next morning I went back with Matt to try and fish the clothes out. Someone donated some fish hooks to the cause and we used the line for tying things onto the van. We got to the hole (probably between a half mile and a mile away from camp) and I realized that the fish hooks were in my other jacket. So we jogged back to camp and I got the hooks and we headed back out to the hole. We tied up a bag of sand to weight the line down and arranged the hooks so they would hang beneath the bag. Not too surprisingly we didn't have any luck, though the clothes were stuck only about 30 feet down now. We figured that there was probably a decent layer of sand that had fallen in ontop of the clothes by now and something pretty substantial would be necessary to pierce the sand and grab the clothes.

Lacking appropriate retrieval tools we just resigned ourselves to having lost a bunch of clothes in exchange for a story. As a post script, the next day we were split up into different groups and on our way back at the end of the day I came back by with this group. Following the comment of one of the instructors on hearing the previous day's story we dropped matches and other burnables down the hole and watched excitedly as they swirled down out of sight. As it turns out, we weren't the first group to have done so, the instructors were wondering around together and had also come by the hole and dropped matches down before us.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you find a hole in the ground and want to see how far down it goes, get your stuff tied on as far back in the line as possible.

On an unrelated note, I finally managed to get a fire going in the "wild" using gathered materials and a lighter. This time I used hemlock twigs which I noticed got noticeably skinnier than the twigs I had been trying with before, so between that and going with the bigger is better method suggested in the last post I succeeded.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Coal and Fire

I've been practicing fire skills quite a bit the last few weeks. Along with the handdrill and bowdrill I've been working at getting fires with a lighter. The added difficulty being that I am out in the (damp Pacific Northwest) woods. To date I haven't managed one, but I've also not been trying to full heartedly; mostly I've just been messing around with different things to see what works. That doesn't mean it's not frustrating when I don't get a fire going though. I've tried sap and twigs, a bit of dried grass and other things the worked less well. I've been trying for a small fire, but today after some initial discoveries and frustrations I decided to go bigger. To start out with I tried burning a pitch blister (on young Douglas-Firs pitch will well up in lots of little blisters in the bark) and it worked quite well so I gathered up a bunch of it and lit it on fire on a bigger piece of bark. Unfortunately by that time my hands were pretty sticky so I was pretty clumsy in my attempts to arrange twigs on top of it and never got more than a few twigs burning at a time, and they didn't last. I gave up on that for the time being and for some reason decided to gather a bigger group of twigs (not bothering too much with how damp they were as long as they weren't obviously damp) into a bunch and held the lighter under one end and was able to get them burning together pretty well - particularly when I angled them so the fire was going up the bunch. Of course I didn't do that for long because I'm not that interested in burning all the hair off my knuckles. I didn't continue to try and get a fire going for real, but I definitely feel like I made a big step in the right direction. At least for now. When I get good at getting a fire going I want to practice until I can get a small fire going, but I guess I've got to learn to walk before I can crawl.

After I got home from my sitspot, I decided to practice handdrill while waiting for potatos to bake. I had read an additional technique on the Internet recently and wanted to try it. The technique is pretty simple: go pretty hard and fast to build up a pile of dust, then go fast but with little pressure for awhile to warm and dry things out more, then go hard and fast again a few passes down and hopefully there'll be a coal afterwards. Pretty much the first try I surprised myself by popping a coal out. I got some toilet paper for tinder and dropped it in, but was unsuccessful at coaxing it into flame. So I went back to the board and tried several more times before again managing a coal which I again failed to get into flame. I tried a few more times before getting concerned about my potatos, so instead I busted out a bowdrill coal and finally got a fire started. I think the reason I was unsuccessful with the handdrill coals is both because the coal tends to be smaller as well as having less dust to extend the coal with and also I think I blew on it too much. While blowing the bowdrill coal into flame I thought that I had fouled it up as well, but instead I let it sit in the toilet paper a while and then began blowing it again and got it to flame up.

Bowdrill: 7 Handdrill: 3

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Beginning

I am currently a student in the Wilderness Awareness School residential program (they also have a correspondence program called Kamana which is also incorprated into the residential program). While here I thought it would be fun to start a blog journaling some of the activities, skills, and mysteries that are a part of my life.

One of the core routines of WAS is the sit spot (or secret spot). The idea is that if you spend some time (preferably 15 minutes to an hour) almost every day at your spot you will learn a lot about the nature there, and that knowledge will generalize well to the whole world around you. Actually the sitspot is more of an area, 100 paces in any direction from the anchor point (the place you sit for some amount of time when you go to your sitspot).

This evening when I went to my sitspot I first visited a little muddy patch on the outskirts of my area. While exploring the animal trails around my spot as part of a mapping assignment, I found this patch which seems to be the convergence of several animal trails. Unfortunately, when I found it it was getting dark so I couldn't make out the tracks very well. Today it was also getting dark, but this time I had a flashlight. There were black bear tracks (of at least two different ages), deer tracks, and some others. I think it's pretty exciting to think of those big animals hanging out so close to where I spend time regularly and quite close to where I live (less than five minute's walk away).