Saturday, May 21, 2016

QUICK AND SAFE MACHETE SHEATHS

I hope I’ve made it clear over a half-dozen posts at least that in the Southwestern US the most important cutting tool you can own is the machete.  I'm referring, of course, to those of you who spend significant amounts of time in the desert and brushland regions.  Those areas are known for their endless varieties of thorns and spines and their abundance of dense hardwoods.  A cute four-inch-blade Scandinavian grind knife that might be all the rage in the north country becomes rather anemic when faced with thorns and spines that are almost as long.  Besides, genuine bushcraft has little to do with “fine carving tasks” and instead focuses on the construction of shelters and the acquisition of food.  In the rain-forests of South America indigenous people construct almost everything with their machete.  The same goes for those who live in remote regions of Southeast Asia.  Hunters use machetes to construct dwellings and to make bows and arrows.  They make their fishing gear with machetes, clear the greenery around their abodes and even carve figurines during fiestas.

Most of the indigenous people carry their machetes unsheathed, and they sharpen them with smooth rocks gathered along streambeds.  In other areas where firearms are restricted (so the only people who own guns are crooks, cops, and military) the people use their machetes as weapons.  A man wielding a 24-inch blade is a fierce combatant indeed.  The machete is so ubiquitous along the borderlands and farther south into Latin America that the thought of restricting a machete seems tantamount to genocide.  How, after all, is a man to provide for and defend his family without a machete?  How does one kill venomous snakes and make fishing equipment without a machete?  It boggles my mind when I hear of East Coast politicians wanting to restrict the machete from the citizenry.  Folks, that’s another world out there as mysterious and foreign to us as we must appear to them.  As one old codger told me not long ago, “God Bless ‘em but may they please not move over here.”

A lot of people toss their machetes behind the seat of their pickup trucks or in the tool box attached to the truck’s bed.  To them a machete is no different from a hammer or saw.  It’s just one more tool among many.  But for those of us who are particular about our cutting implements then the machete is given a sheath.  In Mexico one will see nice leather machete sheaths sold in the markets for about ten US dollars apiece.  But for someone living on an ejido (agrarian village) ten dollars might as well be a thousand.  I’ve seen some folks carrying their machetes in sheaths made of carrizo but for the most part the long blades are kept naked and oftentimes tucked between belt and trousers.

 

I always take modified, short-bladed machetes with me when I’m woods roaming. My woods roaming machetes vary in blade lengths from eight to ten inches.  I modify them to have a Kephart style point that comes in handy for slicing and tossing nopal pads out of the way. 

Here’s how I make my machete sheaths.  First, I cut a piece of heavy weight cardboard so that the length will be an inch or thereabouts longer than the machete blade.  Then I wrap duct tape around the sheath and incorporate a piece of paracord beneath the top wrap to serve as a dangler. The other day a fellow who uses the handle, Mattexian, commented on my post about tow strap knife sheaths saying that old Boy Scout handbooks recommended using a tin can as a protective barrier inside axe sheaths.  Thanks, a million, Mattexian!  Because of your suggestion I’ve started using soda cans to protect my makeshift machete sheaths. I now cut open an aluminum soda can and then fold it until it measures the same dimensions as my cardboard sheaths end-point.










Since the cardboard fold is on the side where the blade edge rests there's little chance of the blade slicing through at that point.  If it makes you feel more comfortable then you can easily incorporate a piece of aluminum there as well and wrap it over with duct tape. I make my sheaths tight to keep the machete secure.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

SOUTH TEXAS SMUGGLING TRIANGLE


In the early morning hours of May 11, 2016 three bailouts occurred, each within two hours of the other.  The first bailout at 2:00 AM, the second at 4:00 AM and the third at daybreak.  Each bailout was preceded by felony pursuits where smugglers refused to pull over even as state and federal law enforcement police followed lights on and sirens blazing.  In each case the smugglers eventually crashed their vehicles into ranch fences and headed inland knocking over small trees and cutting wheel-rutted paths through the brush.  Usually, it’s a mesquite tree that stops the smuggler’s vehicle, but even before the dust settles one can hear people yelling to jump out and run, thus the term “bailout.”  Smugglers pack anywhere from ten to twenty illegals in their trucks, vans and cars; and when the people run they scatter into the night.  The US Border Patrol will send in a team of trackers and, if available, a helicopter will be flown in from the Rio Grande Valley about seventy miles to the southeast.  Just hours after sunup on May 11, 2016 a Texas Game Warden was on patrol in the same area where the three bailouts had occurred the night before.  The warden spotted a pickup making a suspicious U-turn on that lonely stretch of paved road and he decided to follow the truck in order to get its license number.  The warden radioed the plate number to the Starr County Sheriff’s office in Rio Grande City some forty-five miles to the south.  Within a minute the sheriff department dispatcher replied that the suspicious vehicle had been stolen out of Houston, Texas a couple of days before.  The warden flicked on his lights and siren and simultaneously the pickup truck hit the gas pedal.  Another hot pursuit was in motion.  After traveling about a mile the pickup truck veered left and blasted through a ranch fence.  Like the bailouts the night before, the truck launched into the air as it struck a mound of dirt and then it rammed into the brush at fifty miles an hour.  The driver whipped his vehicle sharply to the left and paralleled the fenceline as the warden stayed on the paved road moving alongside and preparing for a possible gun battle.  Then the smuggler’s vehicle lurched up and down when it hit head-on with a mesquite tree.  The warden—who had kept the Starr County Sheriff’s Office abreast of the goings on—stopped his truck and jumped out, M4 rifle in hand and a Glock .40 S&W on his belt.  The young warden scaled the high game-proof fence the smugglers had breached about a quarter mile back and then cautiously approached the stilled pickup.  “They were obviously coyotes [smugglers] getting ready to pick up a load of illegals,” the warden said later.  The stolen truck had already been readied for its cargo of people.  The rear seat had been removed in order to accommodate as many illegals as possible.  One 12 gauge shotgun shell was found in the truck but if the smugglers had a firearm they took it with them.  The warden returned to his truck (scaling the high fence once again) as not to leave his vehicle alone where the smugglers could circle back and steal it.  Within a few minutes a Starr County Sheriff’s deputy arrived to assist.  It took five hours in nearly one-hundred degree temperatures to secure the stolen truck and have it towed out of the ranch and back on the paved road.  As of this writing the coyotes have not been found.  “If they’re veteran smugglers then they know how to escape,” the warden said.  “But if they’re newbies they’ll be dead within a couple of days from lack of water and sunstroke.”

This morning (May 12, 2016) another bailout occurred near a crossroads called McCook about thirty miles south of my little ranch.  A few days ago another bailout was witnessed in the tiny hamlet of San Isidro about four miles south of here.  In that case the smugglers drove through the parking lot of a family owned convenience store and then almost crashed into a windmill across the road.  A friend who oversees a small ranch west of here near the intersection of FM 1017 and FM 755 tells me that over the last few weeks there have been nearly a dozen bailouts at that location.  Last night at about 10:00 PM we heard a helicopter (Homeland Security or US Border Patrol) circling to the east.  We knew what was going on—another large group of illegals was observed moving through the brush.

When you hear the suits in the New York Media as well as the groups associated with various political factions telling you that illegal immigration is down then they are either lying outright or they are horrifically misinformed.  Facts are that the US/Mexico border is as out of control as it has ever been.  The New York Media will tell you that apprehension rates are down and from that statistic they erroneously conclude that illegal crossings are likewise down.  This is just one more example of why agenda-driven news coverage coupled with an extreme lack of knowledge about US Border issues and the unique culture that makes up the Borderlands leads to the wrong inferences and thus bad news coverage.  Let’s make this clear at the outset: If apprehension rates are down then all you know is that apprehension rates are down.  But you do not know if illegal crossings have, in fact, lowered.  Border law enforcement will tell you that nothing has substantively changed.  The reasons apprehensions are down are numerous ranging from the politics of amnesty and presidential executive orders and what that does to law enforcement morale to purposeful fudging of the data in order to gain political advantage.  Let’s also make it clear that the fault of our immigration problems is just as much with the Republicans (who want cheap labor) as it is with the Democrats who live under the delusion that “the Latino vote” is a monolithic and mindless group that will always vote Democratic.  Regardless, it’s the Borderlands that are suffering as constant waves of illegals cross into the region to wreak havoc on ranchers, farmers and even city dwellers.

Take note of the map I provided.  The South Texas Smuggling Triangle encompasses over a thousand square miles.  The epicenter is Starr County but the triangle extends in to Hidalgo County to the east and Zapata County to the west.  Affected counties also include Jim Hogg County and Brooks County.  This is a harsh landscape divided by rocky outcrops along the south and the South Texas Sand Sheet to the north.  Regardless, this land kills if given the opportunity.  Whether from lack of water or unrelenting heat or from snake bites and a score of poisonous insects or simply shear exhaustion from trudging across a land that enjoys taking life whenever possible, the Smugglers Triangle always begs the question: Why do they attempt to cross an area so forbidding to human life?

Good Samaritans have placed 55-gallon plastic barrels filled with one-gallon water jugs alongside the paved roads that crisscross the Smuggler’s Triangle.  I assume the barrels are placed alongside the roads to ease the illegal’s crossing into the United States.  What these groups don’t seem to understand is that once the barrels are filled with water jugs and then left by the roadways they are essentially abandoned.  Some of the Samaritans have complained that people have been “stealing” the water jugs from the barrels.  Pray tell, how does one steal from something that has been abandoned?  Regardless, I assume that people sometimes stop by one of the barrels for a jug of water.  If people want to place water along the farm to market roads then that water is available to whoever wants it.  Case closed.

So what happens next?  Of course, this is election season and the spin doctors on either side are busy blaming each other for the chaos along the US/Mexico border.  One guy wants to build a wall that will likely “create jobs” but will probably have little effect on curbing the human tide.  And a woman candidate says she’ll keep the borders open—or at least that’s what she’s proclaiming this week.  Lest you forget, after September 11, 2001 the American president did absolutely nothing to secure the borders.  Federal and state law enforcement officials working along the border were aghast that Junior Bush abandoned the border to whoever wanted it.  Have things gotten any better since then?  Well, yes and no.  The Border Patrol has been augmented since the Bush years.  But simultaneous deferred deportations have made the problem worse.  It’s as if the country takes a step forward and then three steps backwards.  It seems that Washington DC has become impotent over the last couple of decades.  An oligarchy wedded to corporatism where less than one-percent of the population pulls the strings for all the rest.  When I was a kid the US population was around 165 million people.  There’re not many people anymore who can remember what it was like to have truly open lands and an abundance of nature.  The youth of today have no idea what real woods roaming is all about.  How can they?  They’ve never known it—not really, not truthfully, not tangibly.  Today the US population is estimated to be around 340 million people.  Population ecologists tell us the country reached its “maximum carrying capacity” at about 220 million back in the early 1980s.  The date at which the US population will reach 400 million people keeps changing with the timeframe continuously revised downwards.  If you think things are chaotic now then wait a few years.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

THE BEST PRICKLY PEAR

NOPAL DE CASTILLA

Prickly pear cactus has been distributed to many parts of the world but it originated in the Americas, specifically in what are now the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America.  There are several dozen species of prickly pear belonging to the genus Opuntia.  Throughout the region where these cacti are found you’ll hear prickly pear referred to as nopal (no-pahl).  When the pads are beginning to grow and thus fleshy and light green they’re called nopalitos, the suffix, itos, being the diminutive of the word, nopal.

In 1995 the Texas legislature named the nopal the Texas State Plant, an appropriate decision considering that you’d best not mess with nopal or with Texas.


Ask anyone around these parts which is the best tasting species of nopal and they’ll reply nopal de castilla (Opuntia ficus-indica).  Go to local grocery stores and you’ll see bins laden with nopal de castilla pads.  Families grow nopal de castilla in their yards, and nopal farms are found throughout the area, all of them growing this favorite prickly pear.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, nopal de castilla originated in Mexico.  The good news is that nopal de castilla is easy to grow if you live in dry, arid, desert regions.


Since we’re a bunch of knife nuts around here I just had to show you a photo of my new favorite nopalito spine remover.  It doubles as my Port Mansfield, Texas fishing trip pal.



Monday, May 9, 2016

TOW-STRAP KNIFE SHEATHS

If you like pretty and nice, and you rarely use your knife for anything more than a weekend camping trip or afternoon of whittling in the backyard then you can afford to be fussy about your knife sheath.  Let’s face it; nothing quite matches the beauty of a well-made leather sheath.  For those of you who are into the “tacticool” look then a Kydex sheath is probably your thing.  But what if you’re going to be using a knife on a ranch or out in the jungle or perhaps even in a remote military zone where the sheath is subjected to abuse ranging from bumps and scrapes to high humidity and even monsoons.  What if stealth is of primary importance?  What if the ability to improvise the sheath at a minute’s notice is also important?  If that’s the case then allow me to introduce you to a sheath system I’ve been using for at least twenty years. These sheaths are for the person who's looking for a rugged, no nonsense sheath.


The idea started with an extra-heavy-duty olive drab military tow strap I bought at an army surplus store over thirty years ago.  The tow strap was brand new and it made a nice addition to my truck’s emergency package.  Over the years the tow strap was used for pulling other vehicles out of mud or sand and towing cars and trucks from one location to another.  Then one night my two youngest sons were attempting to pull a disabled pickup truck and the strap snapped when one of them gunned the engine.


Perhaps most folks would’ve tossed what was left of the strap into the garbage but I saw an opportunity to give it a second chance so I made my first tow-strap knife sheath and immediately discovered it was a practical concept.

Before I get into the details let me tell you what I like and dislike about other sheath materials.  I’ve already admitted that leather is beautiful.  If you take care of it then it can last for many years.  Neglect it and it will be gone in no time.  To begin with leather, being an organic product, can quickly degrade if not pampered.  Leather is subject to mold in humid climates and if you’ve ever fallen into a lake or river wearing a leather knife sheath then you know what a mess that can be.  Even if treated with silicon or some other leather preservative the sheath will soften to the point of being mushy.  If it dries too rapidly it’ll harden and become brittle.  You can work the leather fibers back and forth to put some “life” back into the sheath but you’d best treat it with a conditioner (saddle soap, Neatsfoot Oil, Mink Oil etc.) as soon as you get a chance.  Wet leather takes a while to dry and if you’re using a carbon steel blade then watch for rust spots on the blade where it came in contact with the leather.  Furthermore, leather stitching has a tendency to unravel over time.  Kydex on the other hand is practically impermeable to the weather.  It is, however, horrifically noisy.  If you’re trying to move through the woods or brush without making aberrant sounds then Kydex isn’t for you.  Brush against thorns and you’ll hear an icky scraping sound that can be heard a hundred feet away.  Besides, every time you extract your knife from a Kydex sheath you might as well yell, “Here I am!”

So then what’s the advantage of the military tow strap knife sheath?  To begin with it’s inexpensive to buy and easy to make.  Remember, I’m referring specifically to a military grade tow strap.  They’re available at army surplus stores or online.  These are not your thin, bright yellow straps sold at auto stores and larges retail outlets.  Military grade two straps are heavy, thick and rugged.  If you decide to buy one then get a strap that’s 1 ½ inches wide.



 Depending on the overall length of your knife, cut a piece of strapping long enough to be made into the sheath itself and the carrying loop.  Note the photo above. I lay the knife on the table and then measure the length I’ll require for the sheath then I’ll overlap the loop for the belt.


You can add a leather patch at the bottom of the sheath (where the knife point will make contact with the sheath) or if you choose then leave it as is.  In all my years of carrying these knife sheaths I’ve never had a knife point come through the heavy sheath.  Not that it won’t happen, but that it’s never happened to me—so if that bothers you then attach the leather piece.


To secure the sheath wrap the entire area with duct tape.  You can use any color you want.  I just use whatever I have on hand but I imagine you might use a camouflaged duct tape and that would look quite spiffy.


Some of you might be wondering about a welt along the cutting edge of the sheath, or where the knife edge will make contact.  Again, I seldom bother with that detail.  It’s never been a problem for me but you can fashion a strip of leather or plastic and insert it between strap or you can wrap it over the outside.  I’ve done the latter and it works well.

There are a number of improvisations that can be done with this easy-to-make knife sheath.  I wrap my sheaths with parachute cord.  You might also insert a ferro rod under the cordage or you can slip some fish hooks and fishing line via a pouch made from another piece of strap that’s wrapped along with the sheath. These straps are rugged, waterproof and the duct tape adds more protection to the sheath.  Remember that I’m not referring to lesser tow straps and I am not recommending any other type of strap like that from a seat belt.  The seat belt strap is far too thin and fragile.  In other words, I don’t recommend seat belt straps.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

HELPING THE HOMELESS WRENS

All news is local.  But then so is all life.  Ultimately, everything boils down to what’s going on within the couple of square miles where you live.  Yes, the National Media, Talk Radio, and the hysterical political class want us focused on everything at once and simultaneously on nothing at all.  Keep the public off track and unbalanced, their blood pressure up and their nerves frayed.  Weekenders show up from the city and all they talk about are the same things they’ve fixated on back in suburbia, which is mostly politics.

In the meantime things seem to go on as always and the only time our routines get changed is when, once again, city folks arrive with ideas on how everything should be modified to mirror their perception of how things ought to be.  A constant struggle between harmony and chaos.  My best bit of advice is to learn how to live your life without looking through the eyes of others.  Flick off the Tube; switch off the radio; and if you have to be bombarded by sound then listen to some sort of mellow music.  I occasionally listen to Pandora “ambient music” when I’m working on the keyboard.

Allow that two square mile radius to shrink to one mile and then to your private backyard or maybe a quiet corner at a nearby city park.  Find a wooded path somewhere and search out a hidden spot and set up your hammock or pup tent and make that your private world.  Learn to look at individual things and not just at the entire panorama.  You’ll spot an ant or beetle walking between blades of grass and you’ll wonder about the life of that ant or beetle, or perhaps a bee buzzing from flower to flower.  Realize that you, and only you, will ever know that ant, beetle or bee.  Examine the leaves on a shrub and take note of how they’re shaped.  Look to see if there is any variation between the leaves.  Often you’ll find that shrubs and trees have distinct leaf variations on each individual plant.  I take things a bit further and dissect hardwood branches to learn about fiber structure and color differences.  I’ll take note of fiber separations as the wood begins to dry.  In my world I’ve learned the most intimate things about our local hardwoods.  Show me a cross-section of a branch and I’ll tell you what species of plant it belongs to.  I do not need to see the leaves or flowers but instead just the wood.

Stressed out?  Then make your life smaller not bigger.  Rein things in.  Learn to concentrate on the minute and not the “grand picture.”  Now’s not the time to try to analyze the bedlam beyond your secret enclave.

In my world the hot news goes something like this: Tololo’s brown cow just delivered a cute bull calf.  The orioles are moving through so we’ve set out extra orange slices to keep them nourished: Bullocks, Baltimore, Altamira, Orchard, Hooded; Audubon.  We’ve had our share of rattlesnakes too this spring.  A few days ago my wife, Norma, and son, Matthew, had a close call with a rattlesnake in the front yard.  The snake almost bit Matthew.  I was outside pruning some branches when I heard that distinctive rattler buzz.  It sounds like air rushing out of a flat tire at a high rate.  I saw Matthew jump back and the rattler arched its head up threatening to bite.  So I ran inside, grabbed a 20 gauge, and then back on the porch handed the shotgun to Matthew.  That was just too damn close!  Don’t even think about preaching to me about catching snakes and then transferring them someplace else.  I’ll dub you as one more na├»ve slicker who comes to the woods now and then with all sorts of high falutin ideas stemming from a complete lack of woods experience other than an occasional two-hour “field trip.”  Note: We leave all rattlesnakes alone if they are beyond our yard.  We don’t collect rattlesnake skins to make belts or hatbands.  We loathe rattlesnake roundups; that’s a Chamber of Commerce thing.  By the way, we have just as much disregard for those who come out this way and don’t know one snake from any other and have to shoot every snake they see because, after all, “It’s a snake.”

Now on that same day that Matthew almost got bit and about an hour after sunset I walked out on the front porch and noticed that my blue-heeler, Oy, was acting kind of squirrely and hugging the front door.  You get to know your dogs—especially if they are indeed part of the family.  I checked around the front porch but saw nothing.  Walked inside and told my wife, “Something’s wrong.  Oy is acting strange.”  She took the flashlight and said, “Let me go check.”  A minute later, she called out, “Arturo! I found it.”  How she spotted that snake I have no idea other than she’s a country girl and having lived with a woods rat for thirty years, and having run into hundreds of rattlesnakes during that time, she’s learned a thing or two about the Brushlands.  So I grabbed a .22 revolver loaded with rat-shot and centered the milled sights on the snake that lay coiled between a molcajete and a small box.  Then two nights ago my wife stepped out on the front porch and as she approached the walk-around leading to the utility room she spotted a big rattlesnake slithering away from her.  “Arturo!  There’s a snake on the walk-around!”  I grabbed the Judge and a pair of ear protectors and faced a very angry snake.

We’ve tried all sorts of “snake repellents” purchased at the hardware store but none of them work.  In other words, they're all just a waste of money.  I’m going to buy some geese and guineafowl because they make good rattlesnake watchdogs.

Lots of local news but let me tell you the story of the homeless.  The homeless wrens, that is.  The little wrens are the busiest and probably some of the best parents you’ll ever meet.  They’re absolutely devoted to their babies and both the daddy and the mommy work tirelessly to protect and feed their children.  Don’t you wish humans were all like that?  Anyway, the little wrens look for any small cubby they can find to build their nests.  The best cubby is at least four feet off the ground, nicely protected from predators with small openings big enough to let the parents fly in and out but too small for things like hawks and owls to enter.  The only problem is that the cubbies are sometimes not practical.  Take for example the wrens that try to make a nest every spring in the lock drum at the second gate about a mile and a half away.  The little wrens will work hard…as in manual work, as in by themselves, as in not hiring anyone else to do it…and then along will come some dude in his pickup truck and he’ll try to turn the knob to open the gate and he’ll find the nest in the way.  A sweep of the hand; a poke or two with a stick; perhaps even a curse word or three…and all that hard work gets tossed onto the ground.


The above photo was taken at the second gate.  Notice the half-moon opening on the bottom of the lock drum where the wrens had built a nest.  Cleaned out and now doused with axle grease.


The above photo is from the first gate where a bit of good luck saved daddy and mommy wren from losing their casita.  The gate shifted and the lock drum is temporarily disabled so we placed a chain around the gate to allow entry to our place and my cousin’s place on the other side of the private ranch road.  Country folks don’t mind this setup and will wait patiently until the babies are raised before fixing the gate.  Anyone who complains is looked at as immature and spoiled.  End of that story.

A NEW BEGINNING
Now the old man who lives in the cabin surrounded by trees and who keeps mostly to himself and devotes a lot of his time to staying quiet and private, and who makes knives and an occasional bow, and who enjoys roaming the woods and bird watching and especially studying native plants…Well, he decided to help the homeless wrens.  So he’s been busy building bird boxes of all sorts but for right now the focus has been on wren boxes.  Plans are to set a couple of wren boxes near the second gate (nicely hidden so passersby won’t get curious) and to set a couple of boxes near the first gate for the same purpose.  The old man already made some wren boxes for the back porch and they were occupied this spring.  The parents will be back in a few weeks to raise another family.




There’s this fellow named Ken who lives in East Texas near Houston, I think, who loves to go off into the woods and “stealth camp.”  He finds a solitary spot and spends a few days hidden in the forest.  He’s never said so but I think that’s where he really lives.  When he’s back at his casa in the gated subdivision he just exists.  But when he’s resting in his hammock or tucked away in his secret tent then he’s living.  There’s a lot of symbolism associated with that if you’ll just bother to think on it a spell.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

HOW TO MAKE DARTS FROM NOPAL CACTUS FLOWERS

Back in the days before kids spent all their time plopped on their butts staring trancelike into smart phones and tablets; and when television was black & white and consisted of only a couple of networks; and when the idea of getting something didn’t mean a trip to the store but instead the act of making it….kids used to spend most of their time outdoors; they were skinny and lithe; and most of all they were creative.  When I was in Junior High and High School there were only two chubby kids in the whole school.  Nowadays, it seems only about one in four is slim.  I went to a marching band contest a few years back and was amazed at how many of the kids were overweight and looked barely able to move around.  When I was a kid, the population of the United States was around 160-165 million.  There were many places to hike and roam and camp and wander without having to run into a dozen or more folks trekking down the trail or without looking across the landscape at a subdivision or shopping center in the distance.  We left our front doors unlocked, our car door unlocked and no one (unless they were suffering from paranoia) walked around packing a pistol.  Drugstores sold medicine and cosmetics that weren’t sealed because no one had come along to put poison in the jars or cans.  In High School you’d see guys driving pickup trucks into the parking lot and perched against the rear window was a lever or bolt action rifle that was considered just another tool to be used around the ranch.  I have no idea what was going on along the East Coast or out in California back then other than what I’ve seen in movies but it’s obvious those people developed different attitudes about things.  Over time the Easterners and Westerners started moving westward and eastward and they brought their mindsets with them.  The overall population climbed meteorically and so crime rose correspondingly.  Today the US population is around 360 million and growing.  With only a few exceptions, gone are the wooded enclaves where people used to find solace—and this applies to every part of the contiguous 48 states.  Go online and you’ll see hundreds of websites about Bug Out Bags and the coming Societal Collapse.  You’ll watch videos on “tactical” this and “tactical” that.  By the way, the word tactical has become the hypnotic buzz word in many circles.  The quality of life in the US is now measured in quantitative terms and as such the idea of acquisition trumps the idea of tranquility.

Oh well.  Please, however, allow me to take you back fifty or sixty years (and in so doing you’ll be going back even further) to a time when kids made things instead of bought things.  Allow me to give you one tiny example of something ranch kids did in the way back yonder.  The game was called darts.  You’ve heard of that game, I’m sure.  But in the way back, kids didn’t have the money to buy a set of darts and even if they’d had the money I doubt they would’ve wasted it on something they could easily make for free.  The darts, you see, were made from nopal cactus flowers and the spines of the nopal pad.  I have no specific recollection of who taught me to make these darts but I imagine it was my Uncle Bill who was raised in the ranch country and was always interested in woods craft.  My Uncle Bill died in 1998 but he still holds the World’s Record for an alligator gar caught on a rod and reel. I pulled the following off the Internet: The Texas state record, and world record for the largest alligator gar caught on rod and reel is 279 lb (127 kg), taken by Bill Valverde on January 1, 1951 on the Rio Grande in Texas.

So now allow me to show you how to make a dart from a nopal cactus flower and spine.

Shown above is a nopal cactus flower.  Notice the green stigma with the ovary below it.

Be careful when reaching into the flower because they are usually full of stinging insects.

Pinch the bottom of the ovary and then pluck the stigma and the ovary out.  The stigma is sticky but not very much.  Now clip a cactus spine from one of the pads.  Please be careful when you clip the spine because at the base of each spine is an aggregation of smaller spines that will prick you if you are not careful.

Now insert the rear of the clipped spine into the top of the stigma as shown in the photograph below.


The nopal cactus comes with a readymade dart board.  Ranch kids would hold impromptu dart throwing contests by assembling darts and then throwing them at a pad.  If a dart happened to break they’d simply made a new one on the spot.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

THE HUNTER'S KNIFE

Visit bushcraft websites and you’d think the world revolves around the Scandinavian knife bevel.  Over the years bushcraft has somehow morphed into hiking and camping.  A guy takes a knife and makes fire sticks and then batons a small branch into two pieces and declares his knife a genuine bushcraft knife.  Truth is, however, that outside the industrialized world not many people think the same way.  In fact, tell someone your knife is an excellent woodcarving knife and he’ll wonder why you brought it into the brush.  You see, deep-rural folks are looking for a knife that will gut, skin and debone a deer or hog, maybe an elk or moose.  They want a knife that cuts through fur-ridden skin without snagging; a knife that stays sharp so time isn’t wasted having to re-sharpen it. Granted a lot of dudes shoot their animal and then truck it to the butcher shop.  But in most parts of the world—and around places where men are particular about who fillets their game—all the work is done by one or two fellows.


A couple of weeks ago my son, Jason, shot a large feral hog sow with a head shot.  Jason has been shooting since he was about five years old and he was hunting with his old man even before that.  Along with Jason was my son, Matthew, who first spotted the pig and then called it up.  Matthew spent the first five years of his life living in a cabin in the woods and is as adept at bushcraft as any man.  In fact, I’ll take it a step further.  In my life I’ve only known two men who could complete the process of butchering a deer or hog from gutting to producing professional fillets and various other cuts of meat using nothing more than one knife.  Heck, I can do all that but I’m by no means an artist like Matthew.  His cuts are made with such geometric precision you’d swear they were done with a bandsaw.  The other fellow I knew was my grandfather, Trinidad M. Valverde Sr.  My granddad was a master butcher, master carpenter, master woodsman and regional ethnobotanist.  He passed away when I was 24 years old but I spent my youth with him and got my start in the woodsman’s life from his tutelage beginning at about the age of four.



 After much effort we were able to bring the sow to the compound where we hoisted it up on a heavy A-frame for butchering.  Matthew went into the house and brought out a basket full of knives.  For whatever reason he started out with a Mora knife but after a few seconds he said, “Dad, this knife doesn’t work.”
          “Try one of mine,” I said and then handed Matthew one of the knives I’d made for him.

Matthew's number one hunting knife

We learned a valuable lesson that night that I’d like to share with you.  If all you’re going to do is tote along some packets of freeze-dried food and your tent or hammock; and your woods experience amounts to a few nights sleeping under the stars making fuego with ferro rods or fire steels then you’ll be fine with what has become known (incorrectly) as a bushcraft knife—or a pocket knife for that matter.  On the other hand, if you’re off to some foreign land or maybe into a real wilderness area where you’ll have to hunt or trap your food and then you’ll need to butcher it and prepare it and cook it you’ll need a different kind of knife.  This is where the stout blade with a deep secondary bevel works best.  I no longer see any reason to make woodcarving knives since I can buy them for ten bucks a copy from Brother Ragnar at his Ragweed Forge.  But when it comes to hunting knives or what some call “survival knives” or “camp knives” then I make my own.  I make them from 1080 or 01 steel 1/8 inch thick at the spine.  Blade lengths range from 3 ½ inches to four-inches.  The handles are always Micarta that I made from old jeans, brown canvas or cardstock.  I’ve also made general purpose knives from 15n20 steel at 3/32” spine widths.  The steels mentioned are excellent for all-purpose knives (hunting, butchering, camp-craft etc.) and when mated with secondary bevels at from 40-45 degrees they will cut through fur-ridden skin like a Scandi knife cuts through a piece of wood.  And no, I don’t sell my knives.


 Here are some of Matthew's hunting and general purpose knives. 

Below are some of my favorite general purpose knives







So then where can you buy a knife that would make a good hunting/general purpose knife?  First, I must admit that I’m not that experienced with using store bought knives since I always make my knives.  I’ve never even handled an ESEE knife but it seems to me that the ESEE 3 would make a good all-purpose knife.  I think that general purpose/hunting knives should be no thicker than 3mm (1/8”) at the spine.  Granted, I also make big choppers.  But those blades are simply hatchets made in the form of a knife.  I use 5160 steel for those blades.  They work for building camps but if I’m going to carry one of my choppers I’ll always carry a carbon steel pocket knife for carving or butchering.  (More on that in an upcoming post)  The ESEE 3 has a 1/8” blade.  The ESEE 4 is IMO too thick at .188” and so I don’t think I’d find it all that interesting.

There are scores of “hunting” knives and again I admit I’m not familiar with any of them other than what I’ve seen in photos.  Nonetheless, I prefer blades that have a basic, simple, no frills design.  I don’t care for gut-hooks.  I don’t like “tacti-cool” motifs.  I’m not into sweeping distorted blades that look like something out of a sci-fi movie or what Rambo would carry.  In other words, I’m not into the bizarre nor do I find those models practical or even aesthetic.  Some folks go ape over the tacti-cool stuff but those mutations are like the old “California gunstocks” of the late 1950s and 1960s with their flaring Monte Carlo combs and exorbitant cheekpieces and white-line spacers and box-like forends and diamond inlays.  Jeez, I hated those styles even as a kid.  It wasn’t until Ruger came out with the classic model 77 design back around 1967 that things started to settle down.  Until then I was on a steady diet of Jack O’Connor and Warren Page who understood stock design and acquired their rifles from the likes of Al Biesen and Jerry Fisher, Dale Goens and a fellow named Milliron.  Well, knives are as crazy these days as rifles were in the 1950s and 1960s.  Perhaps that’s why I prefer simple, reliable designs like ESEE and a few others.  But again, I’ve never handled an ESEE.  Maybe someday.

For now I’ll settle for my own handmade knives with secondary bevels.   They’re perfect hunting knives and “around the camp” knives.  Also I’m a stickler for proper heat treatment and tempering.  My personal knives work.  I’m content.