Monday, March 30, 2015

THE LAND OF THE MACHETE

This is a busy time of year around the house.  The winter was quite pleasant with a few days dipping into the mid-30s.  I realize that for a lot of folks a winter without freezing temperatures sounds too good to be true but that’s the norm in these parts.  Just remember, however, that come summertime we’ll have heatwaves with an unrelenting sun bringing temperatures into the triple digits.  It’s not uncommon for the heat index to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Heat exhaustion is a frequent occurrence and every year a few poor souls succumb to heat stroke.  Last summer a fellow wandered into a backyard about seventy miles south of us and collapsed.  The residence is just north of the Rio Grande and this fellow had swum the river the day before.  Like most people who enter this country clandestinely he was from a large city in Central America and had no bushcraft experience.  Of course, he was unaccustomed to the temps we see in Deep South Texas.  By the time paramedics arrived the man had slipped into the long goodbye.  The news reported his body temperature was 109 degrees at the time of death.  With that said, you’ll understand why we approach any sort of outdoor work with a degree of caution.  Some of the most intense exertion is with the machete; and yet, the machete is the most commonly used tool in the ranchlands.  I’ll drive down a dirt road and spot someone cleaning the brush along a fenceline.  In his hand will be a machete.  I stopped to visit a relative and when he reached into his pickup toolbox I spotted a couple of well-used machetes.  The dogs started barking furiously a few days ago and my son looked out his bedroom window and spotted a large rattlesnake slithering onto the front porch.  He grabbed a Taurus Judge stoked with #6s and a machete.  The Judge stopped the rattler before he knocked on the front door and the machete removed sixteen rattlers for the coffee can.  (We have a coffee can filled with rattlers.)  Every March I have to whack the large sunflowers around the graywater pond.  I use a machete.  I’ll walk into the farm & ranch store or perhaps one of the hardware stores in the towns sixty miles south of us and the first thing I’ll check are the machetes.  You can never own too many machetes.  When they get worn out you just bring them back to life with various modifications and start things anew.  I’ve posted a number of articles on machete modifications and over the next week or two I’m going to post another couple of articles on more mods.


 What makes a knife-man a knife-man is hard to say but I attribute it to untold generations of males living or dying by the quality of their cutting tools be they rock, bone, tooth, copper, bronze, iron or steel.  So I imagine that somewhere within a multitude of sinuous cerebral sulci lays buried that collective knowledge shared from one generation to another that the knife is a key to survival.

There are scores of machete styles and it seems that geographical regions around the globe have spawned their own preferred designs be they the Malaysian parang, the Philippine bolo, the African panga, or the quintessential Latin hoja.  But even within the geographical areas variations occur.  In Latin America, for example, the machete has as many morphs and mutations as does the tulip.  And yet, when one thinks of a Latin American machete what comes to mind is a carbon steel tool with a thin blade between 22 inches and 24 inches long with a wooden handle measuring about five inches.  There is a gentle upsweep of the blade near the point and the numbers 1070, 1074, 1075 come to mind when calculating the percentage of carbon mixed with iron to form the steel.  And this, my friends, is the preferred machete style in South Texas.  You see, South Texas is a land made for the machete.  Long ago the Great Spirit looked down on the earth and said I will make a place for the beloved machete and so South Texas was created.  Nearly every plant is blessed with thorns and in between is cacti of a few dozen motifs and patterns.  Outsiders call the region The Thorn Forest stricken as they are—both literally and figuratively—by what seems to them a nightmare of hypodermic interruptions.  But to the people who grew up in this land of varied plant diversity and a stark and yet unruly magnificence it is called The Brushlands or when a great deal of love is attached, El Monte.

Top to Bottom: Tramontina 24" Imacasa 24" and Incolma Gavilan 22"

So it is then that the machete plays a starring role in that saga called Living in the Brushlands.  No one ever asks, “Do you have a machete?”  Instead they say, “Where’s your machete?”  You’ll find them hanging from nails in barns or lying on a bench in the workshop.  You’ll find them tucked behind the seat of a pickup or in the truck’s toolbox.  You’ll walk into hardware stores and find piles of machetes waiting to be adopted.  Or you can just saunter into Mexico a few miles on down the road and buy El Salvadorian, Columbian, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan and Brazilian machetes for pennies on the dollar.  It’s not unusual to buy ten or more at a time then go home only to return a year later and buy ten more.  Machetes see a lot of work in this land and unfortunately they receive a lot of abuse from ranch hands and farmworkers.  A couple of years ago I was walking in the woods about a quarter mile from the house and I saw something leaning against a mesquite tree.  I ambled over to the object and was presented with a gift: An Imacasa 24 inch machete in very good condition.  I figure some long-distance-traveler had lifted it from a barn somewhere along the line and then either abandoned it next to the mesquite tree or forgotten it when he had to skedaddle in the middle of the night.


 So how do the various popular brands of machete compare?  Looking at forums and other websites I take it that in the heartland the three most widely available machete brands are Tramontina, Imacasa and Gavilan.  Other brands are available but I don’t see a lot of reference to them on forums so for this post I’ll stick to the three brands mentioned above.  Besides, brands like Condor have, in my opinion, gotten too expensive and thus are at the upper edges of what your typical machete ought to be.  Nonetheless, in later posts I’ll examine additional brands including the Condor.  Let’s make it clear at the outset that I do not favor machetes made of stainless steel since invariably the steel is of poor quality.  Cheap stainless steel like 420 or 440A will take an edge but will lose that edge even faster.  I am so prejudiced against stainless that I will not even consider 420 HC or 440C.  Others may argue that those incarnations are alright but I have chosen to have nothing to do with them.  And one more thing: Whenever somebody tells you that stainless steel machetes are better than carbon steel machetes then just turn the page confident in the knowledge that the writer is a neophyte without much experience using machetes.  By far the best machete blades are carbon steel ranging from 1070 to 1075.  Tramontina is 1070, for example, and Imacasa is 1074 so it is slightly stronger steel.  The Incolma Gavilan produced in Colombia is also carbon steel but I do not know the grade.  I imagine its numbers fall in the same range as the other two machete makes mentioned above.  All three machetes pictured have the traditional thin blades measuring about 1.5 mm near the handle tapering to about one millimeter at the tip.  The blades are springy and that means they’re designed for whacking light material like herbaceous and woody shrubs as well as small branches or slicing cactus pads.  WARNING: I understand that bushcrafters living north of the 36th Parallel want to mess around with machetes and that’s a good thing…but I’ve seen too many YouTube videos where some reviewer living to the north will buy a machete and then look around for something to whack.  “Whoa!” he says.  “There’s a fallen birch tree yonder.”  So he adjusts his camera and starts whacking.  “Wow!” he gasps breathing hard and sweating.  “This machete can even chop through this birch tree (or elm, pine, maple etc.) and it only took me six-hundred whacks to penetrate….”  But folks, don’t try it.  Get an axe for crying out loud.  Don’t indulge in such frivolous behavior.  God gave us brains to know what tool to use and for tree trunks and mega-branches He gave us an axe.  The machete is for thorn scrub and vines and bamboo and cacti and finger-sized limbs and rattlesnake rattlers.  An axe is for tree trunks and mega-branches.  Besides, you don’t want to destroy the tendons and ligaments in your wrist and elbow and even in your shoulder and that can happen (and probably will happen) if you try the YouTube silliness and whack a tree trunk to death with a 1.5 mm thick blade.  By the way, shoulder bursitis is common when using a machete of improper length.  Machetes blades measure from about 12 inches to 30 inches.  As noted above, the most common machete blade length in South Texas is 24 inches though occasionally you’ll find someone using a 22 inch blade.  The length is especially important for reaching in to thorny shrubs and branches without getting the pin-cushion treatment.  But the 24 inch blade also aids in whacking weedy shrubs where the stem must be severed clean.  If the user has to constantly bend down to whack stems then he’ll become fatigued and that will lead to improper cutting technique.  As a result the user will most likely develop bursitis.  Shorter blades are popular for less strenuous tasks and for use in places where the plants don’t bite back.  They also make good survival tools but that’s another subject we’ll tackle in a few weeks.  ONE MORE NOTE: Wear eye protection!  Don’t think you can whack away and never suffer any sort of eye injury.  One day you’ll be listlessly swinging the blade and WHAM you’ll get a searing pain in your eye or on your eyelid and it will occur to you that you’ve been wounded.  An hour later at the doctor’s office the thought will creep into your mind that had you just been wearing eye protectors this wouldn’t have happened.  So don’t be foolish thinking you are immune to such events.  It can and will happen if you use a machete long enough.  So wear eye protection!


Do I have a favorite machete brand?  Allow me to say it this way: For general work around the ranch I want a carbon steel blade either 22 or 24 inches long with either a wooden or plastic handle that is not too thick or cumbersome.  I want springy steel that’s about 1.5 mm near the handle and about 1 mm thick at the blade tip.  I don’t want the blade too heavily weighted at the tip as seen on some makes.  A rather straight blade is preferred in my opinion.  I want steel that has been properly tempered so that it will hold its edge and yet reasonably easy to sharpen with a file or diamond stone.  I prefer darkened blades to shiny blades but that is not of major importance.  A blade that has a nice ring to it when struck hard with your fingernail usually indicates well-tempered steel of adequate carbon content.  I do not like 1045 carbon steel nor am I that enamored with 1060 steel though I like 5160 steel and if the new Ontario Knife & Tool Bushcraft machete made from 5160 steel did not require a customer take out a new mortgage on his house and raffle off his wife I’d consider buying one.  Only in America do people go bonkers over buying things and they spend and spend and spend and truth be known they don’t need most of the things they buy.  The Gavilan 22 inch machete I bought brand new a few weeks ago cost me $10.00 total.  I dare say it will do just about anything the new Ontario Bushcraft machete will do and I saved over a hundred bucks.  I think it pays to be frugal.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

HARVESTING ESTRAPAJO GOURDS WITH A PELLET RIFLE

In South Texas luffa or loofah is called estrapajo (es-trah-pa-ho).  Estrapajo grows well in warm climates and as such is perfect for the area.  Here at the house we grow estrapajo at the base of a couple of mesquite trees where the vines climb the branches into the upper canopies and when in bloom the trees are studded with bright yellow blossoms.  Over time the vines produce the long corpulent estrapajos we use for washing as has been done for centuries in many places.  The problem however is in harvesting each estrapajo from atop the trees.  This is where a pellet rifle comes in handy.


We’ve got an old .177 caliber pellet rifle here at the house and a couple of tins full of pellets so of course this gave the Old Woods Roamer a chance to hone his shooting skills and collect some estrapajo at the same time.


Each estrapajo dangles about 20 feet overhead and provides a moving target since nothing holds still around here in the persistent wind.  Compounding the problem is that estrapajo vines are fibrous and so when a pellet strikes a dried vine it simply breaks into many dangling fibers that continue to hold each desiccated fruit.  It then becomes a matter of splitting each fiber individually and that requires some precise shooting.

In about 30 minutes and around 50 pellets later I’d collected a couple of estrapajo.

Note the fibers that separate when struck by a pellet.  Each fiber needs to be severed before the fruit falls to the ground.


An estrapajo flower on the vine.

Monday, January 19, 2015

BOB PATTERSON KNIFE SHEATHS


I’ve never cared much for noise of any sort.  Things like the incessant beeping of trucks and heavy machinery backing up drives me crazy.  Loud motorcycles, blaring music, honking horns, jackhammers and all the other assorted assaults on the eardrums and nervous system reduce me to a state of shock.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love the woods.  I enjoy the natural sounds of birds and other animals or the breeze blowing through the trees.  Every step is measured to ensure quiet.  We never talk above a whisper and try to keep from wearing anything that’s going to jingle or jangle or make scraping or grating sounds.  So we shy away from plastics, metal and nylon because that sort of stuff is often noisy and besides, rattling accouterments destroy the peace.  That’s why I prefer leather knife sheaths.  Granted, I’ve made temporary sheaths out of cardboard reinforced with duct tape and from tow straps folded over and strengthened with a strip of leather from a welder’s apron.  But those aren’t proper sheaths by any means because the knife sheath in its ultimate form is made of top grade leather.  Pictured here are a couple of knife sheaths I received a few days ago from a fellow out in California named Bob Patterson.  Bob and I have corresponded now and then and like most people who visit this blog he is a man of the woods.  The folks who come to this site are independent sorts who enjoy making their own gear and learning as much as they can about the land surrounding them.  Bob’s been making knife sheaths for a while and he said he wanted to build a proper sheath or two for my camp choppers.  I sent him the specs and a tracing of one of my knives and about ten days later the two sheaths arrived.


These are extremely well-made sheaths, robust and built for heavy use.  Made of top quality cowhide, the finish is pure beeswax so the leather can be touched up as needed.  Traditional in every sense of the word, these are the kind of sheaths that add a nostalgic element to woods roaming.  Bob told me he’s always enjoyed working with leather musing that his granddad was a shoemaker and though he never met him perhaps an affinity for leatherwork was passed down through the generations.


I decided to try out several of my knives using the two sheaths Bob sent me.  My son, Matthew, was looking on and said, “Dad, I think this one will be just about perfect for that little chopper you made a couple of months ago.”  So Matthew dug through one of the boxes containing some of my knives and found the chopper he was referring to and then tried it on for fit.  “This is just right,” he said.

Near sunset we set out down a trail packing the chopper in its sheath snug in my possibles bag.  The proper knife sheath serves two purposes: It protects the blade and it protects the man carrying the knife.  No problems in either department and in addition it provided me with the other thing I obsess over: It was absolutely quiet.




Above are three additional photos of other sheaths Bob made.

As we walked we discussed what knife to place in the second sheath.  Matthew said, “Dad, you know this just gives you an excuse to make a new knife.”  I smiled and replied, “I’ve got a couple of blanks in the barn I want to show you.”  So when we got back to the house we walked over to the barn, sheath in hand, and looked at the two blanks I’d given an initial forging a few months back.  “This one,” Matthew said.  So as time permits I’ll do something that is rarely done: I’ll build a knife for a sheath instead of the other way around.  As if I really needed an excuse to make another knife.

I seldom endorse products but in this case I’m going to make an exception.  These are damn fine knife sheaths and by the way, Bob is also into muzzle loading and sells all sorts of shooting supplies.  If you’d care to contact Bob here’s the info you need:
Bob Patterson
PO Box 35646
Monte Sereno, CA 95030

Phone: 408-256-1894

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A TRIBUTE TO ALL THE HARDWORKING PEOPLE

I’ve got a buddy who spent his career safeguarding the Southern Border working first with the US Border Patrol and then US Customs.  When he retired he didn’t sit on his laurels and fade away but instead spent several years working as a hunting guide in West Texas.  After that he drove an 18-wheeler for a year crisscrossing the country in all sorts of weather.  He told me he just had to give it a try.  At the time he was already in his sixties and how he was able to accomplish that feat driving in blizzards and big cities and on crazy freeways is beyond me.  I’ve determined he’s at least twice the man I could ever hope to be and I admire him greatly.  The way I see it my old friend represents what makes this country great because like many others he perseveres no matter what the challenge.  There are hundreds of thousands of people like my friend and I consider them the backbone of America.  These are folks who go to work everyday rain or snow or blistering heat and who never give up and who love the land and will fight to preserve it.  My old friend has a heart of gold and an inner strength that leaves me in awe.  I first met him over thirty years ago when I was traveling a back road heading to a little town called Brackettville in Southwest Texas.  When I stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint this slender fellow walked out and just as he approached my truck I said, “How does my canoe look?”  I was toting a Sportspal canoe and he seemed a bit surprised by my question.   I opened the truck’s door and stepped out and for a moment he looked startled.  “Will you let me check the ropes?” I asked.  He smiled and said, “Sure, why not?  And by the way,” he added, “I’ve got a Sportspal canoe too.”  We spent a few minutes talking about those great little aluminum canoes, perfect for fishing small lakes.  The conversation was far too short but I liked the guy right off.  A few years later I too was working the border but in a different capacity and I ran into the fellow I’d met years before at the checkpoint.  He had since transferred to US Customs and was busy pursuing smuggling cases.  He was a no nonsense guy.  All business, dedicated to his job and willing to work long hours if need be.  We kept close until he was transferred for a two year stint in Washington DC where he pushed paper and stayed miserable.  You see my buddy was of the sort who just wanted to be in the woods.  In fact, he’d garnered a reputation as a master sign cutter and tenacious tracker.  I was the naturalist woods roamer journalist and he was the tracker and federal agent—two unlikely sorts who needed the woods to survive.  But after the two year stint in DC we sort of drifted apart.  He’d call me now and then saying how much he hated working in the big (congested, over-crowded) city but all I could think of was how much I admired him for never giving up—even in a situation that was decidedly not his “bag.”
          At last he returned to South Texas but by that time I was living in the Hill Country about 340 miles to the northwest.  After a while I returned to the Brushlands and we did our best to stay in contact.  A few years before he was transferred to DC my family and I were living in a little casita in the woods, a place we called The Good Earth Cabin.  My buddy would drive out to the cabin as often as possible and then go woods roaming on his own.  He wasn’t the kind of guy who needed any sort of assistance in the brush.  He could read sign a week old and could stand in one spot like a statue watching a deer or a long-distance-traveler and neither the deer nor the campesino would ever see him.  One night we were trekking along a sendero and it was pitch black and I spotted something on the ground in front of us.  I held out my hand and motioned for him to stop.  “What is it?” he asked.  “Snake,” I said.  And sure enough it was a snake crossing the trail.  He said, “How in the world did you ever see that snake?”  Of course I was proud as hell having spotted the snake and even prouder he’d recognized the Old Woods Roamer’s talents.
          When my old friend went to work as a hunting guide it was not so much for the job but to be in the wilds.  He needed the brushlands and the desert as much as he needed air to breath.  I more than anyone he knows can relate to that feeling.  We communicated as often as possible but each was busy with things related to family and work.  Then not too long ago he and his wife moved to the Big Bend region in West Texas which is about as out of the way as one can get in the state.  Still, not a day goes by that we don’t send text messages that invariably end up in ferocious arguments over who exactly is destroying this country.  We agree more than we disagree but the bottom line is to communicate and to know that neither one will ever reject the other.
          These days I seldom get to see my old pal but we always stay in touch.  Just a few minutes ago he sent me a couple of photos of the snow covering parts of the West Texas desert.  To me he serves as a near perfect example of a man who has been through the fire and come out the finest steel.  His strength, both mental and physical, astounds me.  He’s seen it all from firefights along the Rio Grande to arduous pursuits after bad guys in the Arizona desert and West Texas.  But of course there are tens of thousands of others in this country just like my longtime friend.  Just like my buddy they are men (and women) who never shy away from work.  By the way, before my friend joined the Border Patrol he spent a number of years on a nuclear submarine working for the United States Navy.  Folks, I’m here to tell you they don’t get much tougher than that.  The Old Woods Roamer could never spend days, weeks, months shut off from the sun and trees and birds and the land.  But my pal somehow managed.  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter whether they call themselves Conservatives or Liberals or Independent As Hell they keep this country going.  It’s not the billionaire aristocracy nor is it the politicians or the spin doctors who spew hate and assorted BS everyday on AM radio or through the television.  No, the real heroes are the common folk; those who just go out and do their job without whining or bellyaching.  As far as I'm concerned you're the real America.  And I salute you.


Andy in years gone by working the Southern Border

Friday, January 9, 2015

HOW TO MAKE A CUTLASS MACHETE


A few months back I converted a bolo machete into a survival/fighting knife.  You can read that post here.  The modification was on one of two much used machetes.   A few weeks ago I decided to modify the second bolo machete into a cutlass design replete with both re-contoured blade and a different handle.  It’s a simple project and the only tools required are an angle grinder, saw, sandpaper, and a small mallet.  You’ll also need some epoxy glue and a couple of nails.


A once over with an abrasive disk on my angle grinder polished the blades.  Afterward it became a matter of reshaping the bolo’s tip and adding the new handle. I used a metal cutting disk on my angle grinder to reshape both the blade tip and tang.


The reshaped tang allows for a sloping handle and thus a more ergonomic design.


NOTE: I used old and tarnished bolo machetes and I don’t think I would have made these modifications on brand new knives.  The polishing with the angle grinder as well as the reshaping of the machete’s tip heats the steel and therefore care must be taken to ensure it does not overheat.


The original blade length remained the same in this cutlass modification.  The new handle shape gives the machete a decidedly better “feel” and I think improves the work ability of the knife.

The scales are made from mesquite sap wood taken from a branch that was shaped perfectly for the project.  May I suggest that if you attempt this conversion you save yourself some time and energy and look for a branch that is already properly shaped.


The two bolo machete conversions are pictured above.  The smaller “survival knife” makes a dandy packing tool but then so does the bolo cutlass.  The advantage the cutlass has over the survival knife is that its length allows the user to whack woody thorn shrubs without concerns for getting pricked.  In the Thorn Forest regions of the Southwest this is an important consideration.  With that said, any 14-24 inch machete will work equally well although the point at the end of both the cutlass and survival knife allows the woodsman to use the blade as an auger of sorts for bow-drills and other camp chores.

I pinned the scales on the cutlass machete with heavy gauge copper/steel wire and then epoxied the two pieces of mesquite together to enhance the bond.  If nothing else, you’ll have hombres walking up to you saying, “Hey, that’s neat.  Where’d you buy that?”

Saturday, December 27, 2014

BRUSHLAND SLEEPING PLATFORMS

Years ago I discovered a Long Distance Traveler living in one of my old deer towers.  I’d built the “blind” for the kids but after a decade it began falling apart so I decided to tear it down.  Approaching from a distance I saw someone climb down and scoot into the brush.  I slowed keeping an eye out for the woods ahead of me but when I examined the blind I saw where someone had set up his casita replete with a bed made from sticks and his gear stored in one corner.  I proceeded to knock the old tower down and then built a bonfire.  Later on I learned someone had been raiding hunting trailers a couple of miles away and I figured it was this same fellow.  Anyway, he disappeared and nothing marks that spot now but a few herbaceous shrubs and a matt of needle grass.  Whoever that fellow was he knew a thing or two about sleeping in the Brushlands.  The same goes for the deserts to the west.  Despite what you’ve seen in Hollywood westerns nobody with any sense sleeps on the ground around these parts.  Scorpions, centipedes, black widow spiders, pamorana ants, velvet ants, and the mean tempered Western Diamondback rattlesnake.  By the way, we’ve also got coral snakes slithering around at night.

About thirty-five years ago I ran into a Boy Scouts troop and their leader at my uncle’s place.  Some of the boys were working on merit badges and they’d made three wickiups with the intention of sleeping in them.  With as much finesse as possible I urged the Scout leader not to let his boys sleep in those upturned bushel baskets even if Indian lore said they’d bib wacked in them back in the old days.  “You don’t want to get one of your Scouts scorpion bit or even worse,” I said.

When I was a boy we’d travel down to my Dad’s ranch east of the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico.  That was wild country back then.  Before my dad built a stone cabin we’d sleep under a feeble covering of sticks and branches set atop four mesquite posts propped up with boulders.  Now and then my Dad’s brother and his sons would join us but they were city slickers and refused to sleep under the stars.  They’d hide themselves in the back of an old truck with a tarp over them scared to death and constantly complaining about one thing or another.  My dad’s brother worked for my dad so there wasn’t much I could say or do other than keep to myself and away from them.  I was maybe ten years old at the time and one afternoon my dad took me aside and said, “The vaqueros admire you for sleeping with them out in the open.”  They constructed simple cots made from baretta limbs but my dad had an old Army cot for me to use.

I’ve never been much for tents.  Even when I’d camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I’d build a simple lean-to covered with pine boughs in near zero degree weather.  Here in the Brushlands I sometimes build a bed frame reminiscent of what those campesinos made long ago.  It’s basically a typical cot with two Xs on either end and reinforced with cross beams to keep the Xs from expanding.  Of course, it all depends on the available wood and sometimes it’s best to sling a hammock and be done with it.

In some places where I’ve camped there were thousands of vampire bats and lots of jaguars and so the shelter design had to accommodate both the bats and cats.  No one ever slept deeply in jaguar country.  Besides, you’re constantly making sure your legs aren’t touching the mosquito netting since Desmodus rotundus will suck your blood through the net.

I knew a fellow who built his own portable lightweight hammock frame using ¾ inch PVC pipe.  He’d attach the pieces into two small tripods then hang a hammock between the two pods.  Except the hammock always rode too close to the ground and though it would keep him safe from scorpions and other stinging critters it did little to protect him from rattlesnakes.  A large rattler can rear its head up to nearly knee height and so I like to be at least three feet off the ground.

The hard part in making a makeshift cot is finding the six foot (or longer) poles onto which you’ll slip a sock to sleep on.  Most campesinos huddle up and sleep fetus-like in order to save finding long poles which usually aren’t available.  It’s not all that uncomfortable and one gets used to it.  It’s a compromise and I always save the poles to make walking sticks or some other piece of camping equipment.  I reinforce the cross-members with parachute cord, jute or even twine and sometimes peg the frame to the ground.  You don’t need to use para cord for everything.  Besides, that gets expensive.  You only need two tools to do the job: A machete and a pruning saw.  The pruning saw makes the work easier but you can get by with only a machete.  Remember this if you forget everything else: A machete is the one tool in desert, brushlands and jungle regions that you absolutely need if you plan to build a comfortable camp.  All other cutting tools are secondary.  I carry a pocket knife but I’ve never had much use for the typical “classic” bushcraft knife with its Scandinavian four-inch blade.  That’s fine for softer climes but in the desert, thorn forests and jungles you’re better off carrying a machete.  I should add that hammocks are sold in every market throughout Mexico and Central America and so you’ll see people carrying a hammock over their shoulders with a few supplies wrapped within.  When it’s time to sleep they set up their hammock and tuck in for the night.

One thing to remember is never leave your shoes on the ground.  Hang your shoes from the frame or from a branch and keep a small flashlight close by (usually next to you) so you can scan the ground around you in case nature calls during the night.  Also, consider bringing a mosquito net along even if there aren’t any mosquitoes around.  Chagas beetles are appearing more and more in the American Southwest and those bugs can carry Chagas Disease.  In cold weather you need not worry as much about scorpions and other stinging critters unless you’re sleeping on gravely or rocky terrain.  Scorpions will hunker under a rock for warmth and when you set your bedding on the ground they’ll come out from under the rock and join you.  Hammocks aren’t comfortable in cold weather.  Sometimes people will place a pad (a silver vehicle sunscreen or a horse blanket) over the hammock and then set a sleeping bag on top.  Other people will attach an under-pad that affixes beneath the hammock.  But it’s never really all that comfortable when temps plunge below 40 degrees so a small tent is prudent.

Hanging a hammock becomes a problem in places where there aren’t many trees.  In that case you’re probably better off climbing into a tent.  I always look for shade but sometimes there’s none around so you’d best bring along a tarp for cover and a good ground cloth to protect your tent.  Weight, of course, becomes a problem if you plan on walking far.  I’ve seen people so burdened by their pack they trudge around like zombies.

Water is the most important thing to carry in the desert and thorn forests.  Bring along as much water as you can tote and add a water filter to your gear—and pray you find water along the way.  If you run out of water you’re dead!  Next in line is food and shelter.  If you want to be macho and make a bow-drill then that’s up to you but don’t be foolish and leave your ferro rod or butane lighter at home.  I like to make hidden camps where I can bird watch and keep to myself.  Crowds just complicate things as far as I’m concerned but to each his own.

Camping in the brushlands or Southwestern deserts takes forethought.  I always told my sons to “think.”  Don’t pick up rocks or rotting branches without first checking underneath.  Never take a step until you know there’s nothing coiled on the ground in front of you.  Desert Rats do these things automatically just like urban dwellers look both ways before crossing a busy street.


A cool weather hammock from Mexico.

Friday, December 19, 2014

MINI WOODCRAFT TOOLS

There’s a sheltered trail my son made where I sit on a wooden chair beneath sprawling mesquites and brasil trees and engage in a bit of woodcarving.  This is utilitarian carving for spoons, ladles, scoops and even small bowls.  Practical carving, I call it having never been much for trinkets and the like.  There are other places nearby to sit and carve.  Shade helps as does an abundance of quiet.  I bring along a hatchet or Woods Roamer knife as well as a couple of small crooked knives.  You’ve probably seen pictures of the woodcarving tools I make.  I’ll add a pocket knife to the mix and a little pruning saw I made years ago.  If I walk a ways I prefer keeping the pouch carrying my tools as light as possible.  Back at the cabin axes and chopping knives are heavier, hook knives longer, a bigger saw.  But for the deep woods there’s satisfaction in totting the essentials in a bundle that takes little space in my shoulder bag.  In fact, I’ll leave the pouch in my bag just in case I decide to do some carving.


It begins with the saw.  The one pictured above is feather light.  There’s little need to carry an expensive folding saw when a portable double toothed saw can be made for only a few nickels and it takes up much less room and makes your pack infinitely lighter.  I’m not sure where the original blade came from—something I picked up at the hardware store a decade back.  From the original blade I made two little saws and thus the venture turned out even less expensive than originally anticipated.  The blade measures 5 ½  inches long with a 3 ½  inch handle wrapped in clothes line sealed with 5-minute epoxy.  Simple, practical, feather-light; I made the sheath from the pocket of a Harbor Freight welding apron wrapped with duct tape.  I’ve used it to make everything from camping bed frames to pot holders, spoon blanks and tent pegs as well as cut selfbow staves for the tillering tree.  If I ever wear it out I’ll make another one for a couple of bucks smiling every time I see yonder bushcraft dude take out his official forty dollar folding contraption he saw recommended on YouTube and read about in Bushy Crafty World, “Because you just ain’t no bona fide bushcrafter unless you’re using this and wearing that….”


There’s a story behind the mini axe pictured above.  When I bought it I’d never heard of a Gransfors Bruks axe and had no idea they were considered holy or something like that in bushcraft circles.  In fact at the time I’d only heard the word bushcraft a couple of decades before and that was from a college buddy who applied the term to a completely different endeavor.  Anyway, around these parts there’re people called “Old Time Woodsmen” and then everyone else.  The genuine articles grew up in the ranchlands learning the ways of the woods (el monte) from about the age of five or six.  By the time they reach their fifties they’re experts like none other.  Give them a pocket knife and maybe a machete and they’ll build you a camp, trap you some food, fix you a meal and then slip into the woods like ghosts to reappear in some other place far away.  Funny now to hear thirty and forty something’s referring to themselves as “bushcraft experts.”  But the story goes like this: I bought the curious little axe (I called it a “baby axe”) at a store where a fellow had brought it in as part of a trade for a used Winchester model 63 .22 Long Rifle.  I paid $25 for the baby axe which meant the store owner probably had no more than about ten bucks in the deal.  The baby axe sat in a drawer for a year or two then one day I re-found it and started using it.  Is it a good little axe?  Yes it is.  Is it worth a pile of twenty dollar bills, your oldest daughter, and your favorite dog?  No, not even close and neither is any other Gransfors Bruks axe.  And please don’t lecture me about steel quality and grind and profile and that sort of thing.  I know a thing or two about metallurgy and grinds and profiles and wood sectional densities and about marketing hysteria as well.  Regardless, my hat’s off to Gransfors Bruks or anyone else who can persuade the easily convinced (those 20, 30 and 40 something’s) that if they don’t use their products and pay their outrageous prices they’ll go prematurely bald, will start speaking with a lisp, and have to start using Cialis®.  Well, the baby axe is a good one but not as good as the two knives pictured below.



No heavier and yet substantially more versatile than the mini-axe, the Woods Roamer knife was designed for woodcraft and woodcarving.  Yes, I’m prejudiced.  Enough said.




Maybe you’ve seen pictures of my crooked knives and hook knives.  The two knives pictured above are miniature versions and the centerpiece of my deep woods woodcarving kit.  They are essentially modified or hybrid crooked knives with sufficient hooks to make nice spoon bowls and string notches on selfbows.  Lots of other uses as well and so I never leave home without one.


Then there is my number one knife, a Case Trapper.  Years back sodbusters were the favorite amongst the locals but those days are gone and now the trapper style rules.  Admittedly, most trappers are stainless steel affairs, many of them Chinese knockoffs, but you’ll not catch me with anything other than carbon steel.  I don’t discuss pocket knives much around here so I can’t speak for why others have chosen this style but for the Ol’ Woods Roamer nothing else works as well.  Woodcarving, whittling, making traps, scraping, and even burnishing; nothing beats the trapper’s model.  I use my Case CV trapper daily and have learned to rely on it.




And, of course, the proof is in the pudding or perhaps better said that cup of freshly brewed coffee percolating as we speak.  A heavy cloud cover, a slight breeze out of the north, a covey of bobwhite quail munching on the handful of grain I tossed out to them and the mini-scoop I just completed using nothing but my little saw (to cut the branch), my Woods Roamer knife (to rough out the blank), my crooked/hook knife (to form the bowl and do most of the shaping) and my Case CV trapper as scraper and burnishing tool to get it as smooth as glass.