Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Using a Machete with a Gancho "hook"

First I’d like to thank my readers for their patience during this interlude, and especially those of you who were kind enough to send me emails asking why I had stopped posting. As you might have gathered, we live in a remote area in deep South Texas.  The ranch is nearly four miles from the nearest town—a hamlet actually of less than 300 people.  We pass through a number of locked gates before we get to our place and the isolation would be perhaps too much for some folks. We have no television nor do we want one. The Internet is our only connection to the outside world but over the past two months our link was slow to nonexistent. As of yesterday things improved and now I can get back to posting.

Despite the oppressive heat of the last four months we’re still putting in ten or twelve hour days working on various projects.  I wanted you to see how the ranch-hands use their machetes along with a gancho or hook to trim the underbrush and manipulate thorny plants and spine­-ridden cacti.  I’ve spent my life trying to save the South Texas Brushlands from indiscriminate clearing and I assure you that any manipulation of the monte comes with a degree of trepidation.

The video below was taken in the early stages of creating a cabin site. We left all the trees and larger woody plants intact and only removed the underbrush where rattlesnakes and other nefarious creatures might lay waiting. The cabin is now almost completed and I might add that the “birding” surrounding the place is spectacular. We’ve included water sources and the area is thickly foliaged. Deep South Texas is famous for outstanding bird watching and the area around the new cabin does not lessen those expectations.

South Texas is machete country and no one travels in these parts without one of the long blades. They’re used for everything from clearing underbrush to whacking rattlesnakes to cutting saplings for walking sticks and other projects to slicing one’s way through a stand of prickly pear cactus. I’ve made entire selfbows and primitive arrows with nothing more than a machete.

Here’s the video on using a machete in unison with a gancho to perform work.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bushcraft and Nature

Although I do not know my readers personally, I assume you are here because you feel a certain kinship with the things I write about. Viewing the statistics generated from this blog I know that many of you want to learn about knives and machetes and other types of cutting tools associated with bushcraft. Some of you also want to know about native plants and how they have been used over the centuries to provide both food and medicinal care. Still others are concerned about the natural world and its future. An eclectic readership and yet at the same time sharing a bond ensconced in the idea of the importance of wilderness, the need to preserve it, and a deep interest in learning how to live with nature and not off nature.

We are most certainly brothers and sisters in that regard. I bet that for most of you the ideal moment is spent in a forest or woods or maybe on a mountain top or perhaps by a campfire in the desert night watching the endless stars overhead. I imagine, as well, that you draw strength from nature; it is there that you regenerate yourself.  In fact, for all your love of bushcraft knives, axes and machetes and other assorted topics, what really drives you is a profound need to arrive at some sort of equilibrium with what exists apart from the world humans have created. You seek the solitude and beauty of those things that sustained our ancestors. For no matter what your religion is or politics or where you live in the world you and I and all the others who come to this blog are one and the same: We love nature.  The wilderness is the very breath of our lives.

Perhaps some of you venture into the wilds carrying field manuals on birds or plants or reptiles. After all, it’s not all about making a fire with sticks or building a lean-to or fashioning a pot holder.  I’ve seen enough YouTube videos to know that a significant number of bushcraft devotees encourage others to never destroy nature just so they can “have fun” or “practice their skills.” The ideal is to enter and leave like a ghost without trace or remnant or artifact left behind.  That, my friends, is a master woodsman.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Blowgun Dart Quiver

When people speak of indoor target practice I think of blowguns. I never use them outside preferring my slingshot or one of my selfbows instead. But for a relaxing evening of punching holes in a cardboard shoebox I find the blowgun the perfect tool. I set the shoebox on a chair then stand at the other end of the room and punch holes in the box for a few minutes. There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to hit a half-inch dot painted on a box twenty feet away. 

There are many articles on how to make blowguns as well as making blowgun darts so I won’t spend much time covering that subject. Suffice it to say that they are made from steel or aluminum pipes and from plastic conduit and similar materials. But my blowguns are made from stalks of carrizo (Arundo donax) which is an introduced species of cane that’s pervasive from California to Texas. I’ve made them out of bamboo as well but since carrizo is so readily available and cheap (as in, free) I prefer using it instead. 

This is a picture of one of my carrizo blowguns. It’s only 44 inches long but that’s fine for my indoor shooting. I had to reinforce the end of the cane not long ago when it started to split. I wrapped a little artificial sinew around it. I’ve got carrizo blowguns ranging in length from about 40 inches to six feet. By the way, I make my arrows from carrizo as well.

When it came to making a quiver for my darts I decided I wanted one from leather. 

Here are the quiver’s dimensions:

Length: 10 ¼ inches

Outside Circumference: 8 5/8 inches

I used two different types of leather lace to complete the project. The larger lace secures the quiver’s bottom and side. A narrower lace is used as decoration along the quiver’s opened end.

I attached a length of parachute cord to the quiver in order to hang it over my shoulders.

My darts are made from bamboo skewers obtained at the grocery store. I trim them to nine inches long and then wrap a little bit of cotton to the end using a thin piece of artificial sinew.

The darts in the photo above are getting old and need to be replaced.

For those of you living in colder regions you might consider making a blowgun for wintertime use. It’ll be freezing outside and the snowdrifts might be covering the cars but you can still have fun practicing your survival skills in your living room. Oh yes, one more thing: You’ll need a cardboard shoebox.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hardworking Pocket Knives

Pocket knife aficionados know that the various “folders” come in different styles. Each style originated in order to accomplish particular tasks ranging from woodworking to, as the story goes, castrating animals. Some pocket knives are more popular than others; we would expect as much. But oftentimes the popularity of any specific folder depends on what is viewed as “in” at the moment as opposed to what works the best for any explicit chore. In my life and in my part of the country I’ve seen the preferred type modulate over the decades. Years ago most vaqueros carried single-bladed sodbuster pocket knives. Sodbusters were inexpensive and ranchers would buy enough to hand one out to every vaquero on his payroll.

I picked this sodbuster up at a local hardware store a few months back. Including sales tax it came to about ten dollars. It has Imperial written on it. So far it hasn’t given me any trouble. Time will tell.

Then later the stockman became more popular. In fact, I still see a lot of stockman knives in use. I use the sheep foot blade on the folder above as a scraper and the other two blades as general purpose blades. This one is marketed under the name Magnum and is distributed by Böker.

Now it seems the so-called “tactical” lock blade has taken the stage. I don’t use this knife made by Benchmade much other than to pack it when I’m in an area where the meanest varmint walks on two legs. The blade is a bit thick for optimal bushcraft use (at least in my opinion) and I’ve got other and less expensive folders that perform better on those tasks. Even so, I’ve used this knife over the years to do everything from making skewers to gutting deer. The one pictured above is a “first production” model—but that does not mean all that much to me.

There’s a saying amongst some ranch hands that you’ll know a fellow by the way he opens his knife. All I know is that woods rats tend to be rather solitary and aren’t too interested in impressing anyone with any sort of one-handed flick out of the blade. To each his own but old hands tend to open their pocket knives slowly not being particularly interested in doing anything fancy. A pocket knife is simply a practical piece of gear; in fact, it’s probably the most important piece of gear they own. They’ll use it for a lot of chores from cutting the twine on a bale of hay or trimming a leather strap or pinching a mesquite thorn out of a boot or maybe removing the rattlers off a rattlesnake’s tail.

If you happen to cruise any of the knife forum sites they will invariably have a section dealing with what is called “Traditional Folders.” Those are pocket knives that fall under the category of “slip-joint” or “non-locking blade.” As a kid all my older male family members carried some sort of slip-joint. In my clan it seems the most popular were knives that could be employed for trimming the spines off nopalitos or young prickly pear pads. They could also serve to sever the juicy fruit from a pitaya cactus. Those slip-joints were usually small with razor sharp narrow blades. When nothing else was handy they’d also make dandy steak slicers and worked wonders on a juicy piece of fajita (fa-hee-tah) sizzling off the barbeque pit.

Over the years I’ve developed a preference for the style of slip-joint called the muskrat. Don’t let the muskrat’s long, narrow blades mislead you. They are robust and can take abuse. Not that I’m one who abuses his knives but you’ve got to do something remarkably foolish before you snap a muskrat’s blade.

A few weeks ago I used one of my muskrat pocket knives to gut and clean a respectable catch of speckled sea trout my sons reeled in over the course of several nights at the Laguna Madre. Its thin stainless steel blades were perfect for the saltwater and made for spectacular fillet work.

Like a lot of pocket knife carriers I use my muskrat folders for mundane tasks like opening a box or dicing onions at the camp. But they work nicely for making trigger assemblies on survival traps and….well, the list is long and varied.  The neat thing about the muskrat folder is that you’ve got two identical blades lying next to each other and that allows you to use one blade for food handling and the other blade for other chores.

Note: It’s a good idea to keep your blades clean regardless of what you use them for.

The knife above is well known to most bushcrafters. The Opinel is made in France. It has a unique twist-open and lock mechanism that allows the user to extract the blade from the wooden handle and ready it for use. The blade locks by simply rotating the lock-ring mechanism back to its original position. This is an Opinel model number six with a three inch long blade. It cost me about twelve bucks when I purchased it a few years ago. The blade is exceedingly thin and can be sharpened into something akin to a razor blade. But the knife is delicate and the blade is carbon steel and rusts up about as fast as a boxer sweats in the ring. This is one of my favorite leatherworking knives and has seen hard use.

Most of my pocket knives are inexpensive and that word should not be misconstrued as to mean “cheap.”  As I’ve noted in a previous post we ought not to confuse the two words—especially in a world market where the costs of labor vary dramatically. These knives have not let me down and that’s what counts.

I feel incomplete if I can’t carry a pocket knife. And from time to time I’ll switch styles and tote something else. But invariably I come back to my muskrats. The two pictured above are marketed by Böker under the name Magnum. Someplace down the road I’ll probably try another brand that I’m fond of but for now these lightweight little folders are handling the job just fine. And yes, I’ve got plans to post articles on those other knives.

One more thing friends: This is a busy time of the year and that’s why the posts have been sporadic. I’ve got lots of ideas for short articles and those will be coming along in time.       

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Texas Heat and Drought

If you live in the American Southwest or north into the Midwestern states and you spend much time outdoors then you know these have been difficult days.  Ranchers, farmers, construction workers, road maintenance crews and many others have been forced to work in horrific heat.  Texas in particular has been hit by record breaking high temperatures and prolonged drought.  Earlier this summer parts of Texas were torched by fires that turned the skies into something akin to a volcanic eruption.  New Mexico and Arizona have not been spared by the fires either and vast parts of the Southwest are in what is termed “extreme drought.”  Forget trying to build a campfire or even go woods roaming or hiking in most places. Yesterday I needed to check a piece of land but even at 6:00 PM the temperature was 102° degrees Fahrenheit. Three hours before the temps hovered around 110° and even by 11:00 at night the air still felt like a blast furnace.  The heat index at mid-afternoon was near 120 degrees.

Earlier in the day a life-long buddy of mine and I sat in the shade cast by a small porch and like most outdoor people we spoke of the weather. The news that El Niña seems to be reemerging is taken with a sort of resignation: As if the acknowledgment that the times are changing seems inevitable.

On the drive out to the ranch I listened to a radio program about the Texas drought and ongoing heat. The narrator interviewed meteorologists and climatologists from several universities or agencies as well as a biologist from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and a scientist from an organization that studies the effects that heat and drought can have on health.  A city manager from a North Texas municipality was also interviewed.

The meteorologist and the climatologist, like most scientists, were cautious in their conclusions. The city manager, like most politicians, was cautious in his assessments. But the health scientist did not hold back. She warned that the effects of diminished aquifers on water quality, especially as it relates to increasing the concentration of toxic contaminates that might have seeped into the aquifers over time, could translate into health emergencies. She also echoed the concern of others about reduced flow in rivers and streams and its relationship too elevated toxin/water ratios. 

If you’d care to hear the complete program yourself then here is the website:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why We Sometimes Ignore Reality

What we learn and why we learn¸ and more importantly what we choose to accept, seems more influenced by what we want to believe. Challenge any hardcore “true believer” regardless of the arena and you’ll likely be confronted with what some have called a “spirited intolerance” of any opposing view. All of this can occur despite the proofs that might be laid out in a classic “supportive data” format. So regardless of both tangible and empirical evidence to the contrary it seems that many people hold to their beliefs no matter how illogical, void of reason, or lack of experimental verification they have on their side.  Then there are those who will simply fabricate things hoping others won’t bother to check the facts. We see and hear this all the time and it raises the question about why some behave so enigmatically. The reasons, of course, are complex and ensconced in a myriad of both mental and emotional dimensions. Some people just don’t want to behave responsibly, and accepting certain truths would mean that prudent behavior is mandatory. Others are at the mercy of their fears. Still others seem unable or unwilling to expend the energy to take a stand. All of this brings me to an article someone sent me a few weeks back entitled, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” There are other articles on the same subject but I found this one particularly intriguing. At the very least you might find it thought provoking.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Saltwater Fishing Vacation

A saltwater fishing vacation takes many forms. For us it was as much a chance to renew family bonds as it was to catch fish. So the time away was spent with the boys visiting and, of course, talking about fishing. The nights were long, quiet and tranquil as we fished into the early morning hours casting lines for speckled sea trout and red drum.

I cannot help but draw analogies between a summer’s vacation and life itself. The excitement of a new adventure builds and as the days progress there are moments of happiness and reminiscence. The time is lost in a pursuit of discoveries that ultimately are compressed into something difficult to distill though now and then snippets surface, as if pinched from the furrows into which they are bound, only to have them dissolve back into a muddle of memories that perhaps more than anything speak of who we were.

Finally, it is over. You knew that time would come though in the beginning it seemed far away. Now you wonder if, indeed, it really came to pass.

When not talking about fishing or eating fish caught the night before, fishermen spend their time going over their tackle and preparing for the night.

And fishermen also wait. They wait for the sun to go down.

They wait for the tides to change and for the schools to come in.

And then the excitement begins.

The speckled sea trout are biting.

          There are moments of calm and it is during this time that all fishermen enter a transcendent state where thoughts become imbued with contemplations too numerous to detail.

I paid the price for picking up this little crab to show my grandson.

         My oldest son sent me this photo when he and my grandson were flying home. Finally, it is over. You knew that time would come; though in the beginning it seemed far away. Now you wonder if, indeed, it really came to pass….


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mini Axes and Survival

Getting to know an axe or any cutting tool for that matter is a lot like trying out a new pair of shoes. You’ve got to walk a few miles before you know for sure if they are any good. My tendency is to slog tools over varying obstacle courses before I feel comfortable assessing their attributes or failings. So after nearly five years of using a Gransfors Bruks mini axe and six years of working with a Fort Meigs belt axe purchased from Ragweed Forge I think I’ve acquired enough experience to offer some conclusions about their usefulness.

Gransfors Bruks axes have garnered a sort of cult status amongst some bushcrafters. But are they worth the prices they command these days? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself. When I bought my GB mini axe the cost was decidedly less than it is today. And while it’s a nifty implement I don’t think I’d fork over the cash some are willing to dish out in the present market.  Don’t get me wrong; GB axes are well made. But I recall an Introduction to Business course I took years ago as a freshman college student. The professor kept reminding us that for every item purchased, some other item or items had to be left behind. A little axe that costs nearly two-hundred dollars in today’s market means you have just used up a significant amount of money on one piece of equipment that might have been spread over a series of tools or other items that, when all is said and done, offer the same amount of efficiency as the high-priced item.  

Your money; your choice.  But whether you ultimately give any mini axe a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depends precisely on how you perceive the axe as it relates to your needs. If your idea is to go out and build cabins and ramparts then you’ll be mighty disappointed in the mini axe. On the other hand, if you intend to travel lightly and build a sparse, but adequate, shelter, and make a fire, construct a pot holder and perhaps a camp chair and cot and maybe even a few traps then low-and-behold the mini axe will get you there.  It will also allow you to gut and skin some food and even—particularly in the case of the GB mini axe—fillet a fish. In fact, you might find that an ultra-sharp mini axe serves you better in the long run than the quintessential Mora knife.

The Fort Meigs axe (sometimes referred to as a Kentucky Belt Axe) was much less expensive. It appears to be cast carbon steel. Both the Gransfors Bruks and the Fort Meigs readily draw sparks on my ferro-cerium rod. The Fort Meigs does not have the thin blade profile like the forged Gransfors Bruks. The GBs thin blade allows you to use it as a shaving and whittling tool. But because the Fort Meigs is more thickly convexed it gives some advantage when cutting small saplings or floor tillering a bowstave.

Now lest I walk off a rhetorical cliff, let me say for quasi-minimalist applications the use of either a 12-16 ounce mini axe (total weight) or a two pound small axe (1¼ pound head weight) depends as much on your physical prowess as it does on your bushcraft talents. But remember that even a pound difference in carry weight seems to increase exponentially for every mile you walk and every foot you climb.

In the above photo you see how the GB mini axe can be held to perform delicate cutting tasks like game preparation or woodcarving. This is due to its thin blade profile. A larger axe cannot be held as comfortably in this manner.

The above pictures show the grind and bevel angles of both the Gransfors Bruks mini axe and the Fort Meigs belt axe. You’ll note I never wedged the handle on the FM belt axe. It’s in there tight and has never presented any problems. Somewhere down the line I plan to fashion a new handle from mesquite wood.

There are a number of ways to contemplate the desired blade type in a survival scenario. A small parang (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/06/survival-parang.html) will work as effectively.  

For that matter the little pocket adze (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/02/pocket-adze.html) will do in a pinch. 

Then there is the mini axe. And, of course, there is the quintessential Scandi-grind knife that people, including yours truly, love so dearly.

I had to wrap some heavy trot line around the grips of my GB mini axe and the Fort Meigs axe in order to fit my hand. The Fort Meigs handle leaves a lot to be desired in my view because of its thin contour. This is mitigated by wrapping the handle and even after extensive use I’ve yet to snap the hickory.  The GB mini axe has a nice oval handle and thus seems to afford more physical stability. Remember, however, that I don’t use either axe to perform hard chopping or mimic the workings of a large felling axe. That’s not what they are intended to do and thus should not be thought of in that respect.

Mini axes are ultra-portable, quick handling, survival tools that can be dropped in a coat pocket or bush jacket and used to slice a sapling for a trap spring-pole or to notch a tree to mark a location. And if need be they will easily whack a 2-inch pole to use in making a wickiup or lean-to.

Some will scoff at the notion that a mini axe is better as an all-around tool than a typical bushcraft knife. I respect their rebuttals. But if someone told me, “You can be dropped into the wilds with either a 4-inch blade knife or a mini axe but not both…which one will it be?” I would not hesitate. I’d snatch up the little axe and say, Thank you.”

One lazy afternoon I used my GB mini axe to help make a slingshot. (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/03/slingshots-and-rattlesnakes.html)

One more note: There are a number of mini axes available on the market. They are mostly made by small firms and sell for under $40.  Do a web search and see what you can find.  I have tried only three makes of small axes. A few years ago I purchased a Vaughn mini axe. Sorry but I don’t have a photo available. After I sharpened the blade I gave it to my grandson who has also received one of my adzes, a crooked knife, and a couple of selfbows. He’s on his way to becoming a bona fide bushcrafter!

Gransfors Bruks mini axe: 2 9/16" face; 4 1/16" head; 10 7/16" handle. Weight averages around 12.0 ounces.

Fort Meigs belt axe: 2 3/16” face; 4 ¾” head; 11 ½” handle. Weight averages around 16 ounces.   

Monday, June 13, 2011

Survival Parang Video

Here's the video on my Survival Parang and on my Custom Bush Tool I promised I'd post.

Survival Parang

After several prototypes and much experimentation with design I think I’ve finally arrived at an ideal, “all-around” survival blade that I could depend on no matter where I travel. I call it the “survival parang” because obviously its design is heavily influenced by the parang machetes of Southeast Asia, particularly in the areas of Malaysia and Borneo. You might recall the earliest incarnation of this concept in a long blade I built called the “custom bush tool.” Although quite adequate I knew the overall contours could still be improved so I set out to build a number of “blades” using cardboard and wooden models. When satisfied that the peak design features had been successfully incorporated into the parang I took a 14” industrial file and forged the knife adhering closely to the specifications I’d established with my prototype designs.

Here’s my survival parang photographed after an afternoon of testing including cleaning up a 68 yard trail that had overgrown along the edges, plus using the parang for splitting some mesquite branches for firewood. After all that work the blade was still very sharp—so much, in fact, that I was able to quickly work down a coma wood stave to “floor tiller” dimensions so that it can dry a few more weeks before completion into a selfbow.

You’ll note that the blade is robust. It runs ¼ inch thick along the spine with no reduction in thickness all the way to the tip. The only reduction in thickness runs towards the bevel which is essentially a convex grind with Scandinavian type features. In other words, the bevel is reduced enough to allow for woodcarving but still stout enough to maintain excellent edge integrity. In an afternoon of work I experienced no chipping or “folding” of the edge, and the blade held its sharpness.

You’ll note the lazy-S shape incorporated into the blade design and handle. This allows the user to obtain optimum chopping force with less energy and reduced stress on the wrist joints. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this feature. Honestly folks, this knife is, in my opinion, vastly superior to most “survival knives” seen on the market from the old standbys like the KA-BAR made famous by US Marines in World War II to the British Jungle Survival Knife to any number of heavy, straight handled designs that, though extremely robust, make poor chopping tools and less than adequate fine woodworking instruments.

I had no intentions of making this into some sort of gaudy, extra-lusso, super shiny blade as seen on some knives. To each his own but that sort of look leaves me cold. I wanted the survival parang to reflect its purpose: A wickedly functional, tough life-saving tool intended for serious work no matter the environment.

In the above photo you can see that the rear end of the blade is rounded both on top and bottom which allows me to choke up on the steel for fine woodcarving tasks. Thus I can use the knife for serious chopping or for delicate work.

I incorporated three brass pins into the tang in order to secure the handle sections in place. The handle is mesquite wood held together by the three pins and an epoxy amalgam of fine mesquite wood dust. Over the years I’ve found this amalgam is even stronger than wood itself, and it also adds to the beauty of the handle. I’ve never encountered any sorts of problems with this type of handle setup.

Obviously, I’m enthused about this knife. Here are the dimensions:

Overall length: 14 ¼ inches (36.195 cm)

Blade length: 8 ¼ inches (20.955 cm)

Handle length: 6 inches (15.24 cm)

Blade thickness along spine: ¼ inch (6.35 mm)

Malaysian parangs come in an assortment of styles ranging from straight models to the swooping lazy-S designs as featured on my survival parang. Some designs incorporate handles that sweep downward, while other designs have handles that swoop upward. Blade lengths hover around 12 to 14 inches but some parangs have blades as short as nine inches while others have blades up to 24 inches. The only real commonality in any parang is that the blade is usually thicker than seen in most machetes found in the Americas. My survival parang is on the short side with a blade length of only 8 ¼ inches. The tang extends to just aft of the last brass pin but it is not a stick tang as seen on most Southeast Asian parangs. My survival parang incorporates a more substantial tang because the stick tangs just don’t look that strong to me. Still, my survival parang has the majority of its weight distributed forward of the handle which gives it an ergonomic advantage in chopping.

So why do I call it the “survival parang?” I picked the name because the blade is large enough (both as to length and overall design) to be used for serious chopping and other bushcraft tasks, but not so large as to be obtrusive or overly bulky. In other words, you can carry this blade with you and not be encumbered by its size. I’ve got a leaf-spring that I’m working on to make a larger parang but honestly I think this design will probably supersede the upcoming blade in terms of overall survival use. Of course, time will tell. I plan to post a video on this survival parang so look for it in the next several days on my YouTube channel, The Woods Roamer.    

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Stubby Camp Knives

If given my druthers I’d rather make my own tools and bushcraft supplies than purchase them at a store. I know many of you feel the same. Of course, there are times when it makes sense to go out and buy the things we need but that’s not as imperative as some would have us believe. And it most certainly doesn’t mean we’ve got to spend a week’s wages on any particular piece of equipment. Indeed, the commercialization of bushcraft seems to run counter to the basic philosophy of making your own, building your own, and venturing out as a Minimalist in gear but a Maximalist in knowledge. Still, that ethos seems lost on a few. Not long ago I stumbled onto a group of “bushcrafters” who were so loaded down with gadgets and tools their packs looked like nylon footlockers strapped across their backs. They looked at my buddy and me as if we were a couple of hobos scouting up a shanty. Perhaps that was the impression we gave with our woolen bedrolls and mosquito nets rolled into small tarps wrapped in twine and strapped across our backs. We carried our food in homemade haversacks slung over our shoulders along with old prospector canteens. A kitchen spoon, tin cup and cooking pot apiece and a little coffee percolator for the two of us along with some basic first aid, extra cordage, SAK knife, a pruning saw and machete made each individual pack begin its journey in the 22-23 pound range. We nodded at the group noting agape mouths and wide-opened eyes and just kept going until we reached a tiny artesian spring hidden in the backcountry.

On that same foray my friend asked me to recommend a stubby field-dressing and skinning knife that wouldn’t tear pelts or clip bladders and guts. I told him I’d think on it and a few weeks later showed him the knives pictured below.

I took some worn out files purchased at a yard sale then annealed them, shaped them, heat treated and tempered the blades. Then wedded the full tang knives to some pieces of Osage orange that were part of a 70 year old fence post, mostly rotting and worm eaten. Brass pins hold the scales in place along with a slathering of epoxy. The top knife measures 6 ½ inches overall with a 1 5/8 inch blade. The blade measures 3/16 inches thick at the spine nearest the handle. The bottom knife measures 6 11/16 inches long with a 2 inch blade that’s 5/32 inch thick at the spine.

Here’s a photo of the 2 inch blade knife in my hand to give you some perspective of its size.

Both knives have convex grinds that give them the strength needed for tasks associated with various camp duties like prying things open or perhaps splitting bone. Ragweed Forge (I have a link to the site in my links section) has started selling a similar knife in both stainless and carbon models called the “Craftline Installer.” It’s advertised as a good knife for striping insulation from wires (to make snares?) and for tasks requiring leverage.

Here’s a smaller version of my “stubby camp knife” collection. The knife measures 5 13/16 inches long with a 1 7/16 inch blade. The blade’s spine width is 6/32 of an inch adjacent to the handle.

It’s surprising how many uses these sturdy knives can have around the camp or workshop or even in the house. The Craftline Installer series sold at Ragweed Forge will probably not be as stout as the knives pictured here but they are inexpensive and perhaps worthy of a some experimentation on your part.   

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Trail

My latest novel The Trail has been released in an online version through Amazon Books. It's a story I think a lot of woods roamers, bushcrafters, and lovers of adventure and the wilderness will enjoy reading. Below is a synopsis followed by the first few chapters and then a link directly to Amazon Books. The Kindle App is available free to install on your iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android, and other mobile devices as well as your personal computer. Of course, your Kindle Reader has the application built in.
The Trail synopsis:
A young man sets out to reclaim his life in an age when all seems lost and the memories of former times reduced to stories as foreign and distant as the artifacts that line crumbling highways and fill deserted towns. With the aid of a Lakota Indian he learns the woodcraft skills that help him survive on his journey through the wilderness. A tale of resolve and tenacity in the midst of ceaseless adversity,The Trail speaks of hope and friendship and the will to persevere even as life itself seems determined to foil the simplest pleasures.
The Trail
Arturo Longoria-Valverde
Four Notes Books
Also by Arturo Longoria-Valverde
Adios to the Brushlands
Keepers of the Wilderness
Home Ground (Contributor)
Hecho en Tejas (Contributor)

In Memory of:
Trinidad M. Valverde, Sr.

The Trail © 2011 by Arturo Longoria-Valverde. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form.
The Trail is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any semblance to actual persons, living or dead, business, companies, particular incidents or any local is entirely coincidental.
Part One
He leaned against a wooden post that was once the corner of a long fence but now stood like a solitary beacon hinting of times gone and barely remembered. Around him ebbing sunlight cast scraggly yellow slivers deep into the crowding blackness as nighttime prowled through the woods. Far off he heard a yodel dog call. And in the trees nearby an owl hooted; its baritone voice resonated against mesquites and ebonies held still beneath a wintry sky. How long? He wondered. Two days, the cottontail rabbit? But he could not remember so he laid back and placed his rucksack under his head then tried not to think of the hunger gnawing within him.
North by northwest he walked tracing a blue norther’s fringe and shadowing a trail of asphalt shards and sand filled cracks from which emerged stunted cevalia, golondrina and purple sage. Far from windmills and town sites and all other places where people staked temporary claims; he walked beyond eyesight of pilgrims and wagoners who plodded the tar-ridden stubble as if it was still real and viable and who embraced their blindness of what had become true as if it were a holy writ.
Nights were long and covered with frost, the sun of short duration. He drank the muddy water from potholes filled when the frigid bellies of somber gray clouds burst above him. When he paused it was amidst thorn brush and cactus. Small fires and little smoke, a frayed green parka as cover. And suffered tortured sleeps huddled within the company of nebulous shadows that cried with the voices of those who would never return.
His name was Jacob. Raised in south Texas a mile from the Rio Grande and two miles from the town of La Casita where on main street dozens of cars and trucks sat as if their owners had gone to shop and never returned. Flat tires, broken windshields, bumpers stolen, and seats removed. It appeared from a distance as if they held in the unison of their silent rows a tether on a life long past. But few complained. It was as if a resignation, as thick as the oil settling in rusted pans and dripping in slow cadences along the sand swept streets, had settled firmly into the collective spirit of the living. Even so, he could imagine how it was in the former times when the cars rolled and honked and made noises that some missed in a strange sort of way. The stories, like ballads sung over and again said the jobs had played out when the industries folded because water was scarce and could be had only by those who could afford it. Then a sickness came and fires roamed the world and smoke blanketed the land like a fog smelling oddly of burning rope. They tried to take the guns but many remained. It was ammunition, better than gold when available, that became in short supply. There followed great stealing and robbing and people roamed the countryside like mice in a panic. Some said the law, or what little existed, was worthless because it protected only the rich who had their own sweet-water wells. So the poor made do with cisterns though more often than not they drank from the stagnant holdings of ditches and lakes that smelled of things they did not understand. Then the money, like the wells from which no sounds ascended when pebbles were dropped into them, went dry.
Not that anyone told the story exactly the same for each had someone else to blame. Or so his father had said though he too had plenty of places to throw spears and daggers. Even so, his mother remained steadfast to the scripture’s promise that all things work for good for those who love the Lord. And though Jacob did not attend a school, for they had long since closed their doors, his mother insisted he be educated. So he read books of literature, philosophy, theology and science.
Some days his mother sent him to cut nopalitos and hunt black grackles and she cooked them with enough chile del monte to nullify their gamy taste. Sometimes his father looked for the odd jobs that weren’t around because that is what everybody did.
They had a goat but it was stolen. And three chickens but they were eaten when his sister Christina married. Rafael wished his parents could have attended the wedding, but said in his heart he knew he was becoming a son and brother as well as a husband.
“They’ll make a life,” Jacob’s father said.
But twelve months afterward, and four days shy of his eighteenth birthday, gunshots rang out as he cut nopalitos behind his house. He heard his mother scream and a fear welled vaporously within him. Jacob bolted windless into the backyard and a numbing vibration rocked his head and blurred his eyes. When he awoke blood covered his face, grass and dirt stuck to his cheeks and hair, and a convoy of small yellow ants had formed leading away from him and into some other world.
He stood wobbly and in a daze walked to the door and saw his father dead in the front room. In the back room he found his mother—her hands and chest, like his face, covered in blood. He sat next to her and with eyes distant and a feeble voice she said, “There’s nothing you can do my son.” But he did not reply and felt her words brazed within him like Satan unrepentant.
Two years he stayed at his sister’s house three miles from where he and his parents had lived. The memory in his mind and the reflection of the memory on his heart both torment and guidepost.
Finally, Christina could endure no more.
“We must leave,” she said.
“Where will you go?” he asked her.
“North,” she said.
“There’s nothing north.”
“It’ll be better than here.”
“I won’t go with you.”
So on a dusty day in late March Rafael built a wagon from salvaged lumber clamped to the axle, wheels and tires of an old truck and then traded their chickens and goats for one black mule. Jacob wondered if their escape ended when a fever came upon so many in mid July. For he heard that the dying moved south into the camps and hamlets that sprang up along highways grown silent and stole whole families away in less than a fortnight.
Five months later two couples were killed as they made their way into La Casita to attend a church service. And a small ranch four miles to the east was attacked—a woman abducted, a man wounded.
There was no other choice. One day before dawn he took his things and walked away. His single shot .22 caliber rifle in hand; its bluing worn to the dull gray of seasoned metal and the stock scratched and dented. His father’s thinned machete wedged beneath his belt, and a rucksack packed with extra socks and underclothes and tin cup and a small canvas pouch filled with bullets. A two-quart canteen dangled from a strap over his shoulder.
Jacob stretched his back against the old corner post and tried to remember how long he’d slept. The morning was cloudless with a faint northerly breeze and speckles of frost clinging to the coyotillo and sage. There were vague recollections of a windless day under dark brooding clouds and of brief moments of consciousness in between: A readjusting of the rucksack turned pillow and of draping the green parka across his chest and pulling its hood over his face. Beyond that he recalled nothing but grayish hues and silence. Except now a cardinal he remembered had perched but for a moment on the nub of a decaying mesquite trunk twenty feet away. Its carmine feathers like red velvet so intense it muted and melded the surrounding haze into the reverie of his sleep.
He pulled his dad’s old leather wallet from his back pocket and opened it and when he saw the picture of his mother and father an endless sadness rushed through him. Her creamy skin and brown hair, blue eyes and slender nose, and the smile that seemed forever only his. His father’s brown hair and graying temples, salty mustache, brown eyes and gentle grin. He could hear his laugh and her whisper and he remembered people saying he looked just like his mother. Then he saw the photograph Christina had given him when she and Rafael left. A note written on the backside: For you my brother. Do not forget.
Jacob closed the wallet and returned it to his pant’s pocket then lifted the single shot rifle from against the corner post. He reached into the rucksack and took the canvas pouch filled with .22 bullets and fished out three. Inserted one into the rifle’s chamber and dropped the other two into his shirt pocket. Perhaps he might find a deer, he thought, though he had never seen a deer. And he began following the twisted strands of barbed-wire fence that flaked into powder when touched yet somehow remained stapled to worm-ridden juniper posts. His eyes on shadows and skyline for signs of both man and beast.
At a spot along the fence where six posts lay snapped at their bases he noticed something strange in the ground. He kicked it and it broke loose. The reflex of hardened clay like fingers bursting from a closed fist. Jacob bent and picked the object from the dirt and saw it was an old cartridge case tinged greenish-blue. He rubbed off the dirt clinging to the case and read its head-stamp:270 Win R-P. Must be very old, he thought. Then dropped the case into what once had been a woodpecker’s hole in the juniper post next to him.
He walked on and when he heard a scraping noise coming from the wheat-colored grass nearby he cocked the rifle’s bolt. His eyes narrowed as he followed the sounds through the rustling blades. Then the beast emerged, its nose pressed against the ground, its scaly tail etching a line in the soft dirt. It flicked its long ears up and held still and the rifle cracked.
The armadillo was dry and crunchy cooked as it was over an open spit. And when a cold drizzle passed overhead in the middle of the night Jacob retreated into his parka and finished off the charred bits of meat like Braille read with his teeth. By dawn small pools had formed within the rooted and dished out pits made by feral hogs, and Jacob filled his canteen and drank then sat with a rumbling stomach trying to ignore his ailing gut. Somehow he mustered what strength remained and took his rifle and again walked the fenceline, the sun breaking through gray clouds in the east.
He passed the spot where he had shot the armadillo then walked into a low area with taller mesquites and less nopal cactus. Hunger rippled into every part of him and the ground yawed back and forth. So he sat beneath a chapote tree and waited. Perhaps a rabbit might cross or maybe a javelina or feral hog. He did not think his rifle could kill a hog but if per chance a javelina appeared he would shoot it in the ear. He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting as if on the canoe Rafael would bring when they fished the Rio Grande. And from far away he heard his father’s voice.
“Papa,” Jacob whispered.
And the voice came again. “Are you all right, son?”
For a moment Jacob struggled to come back. But even as he opened his eyes and groped for his rifle and saw the man standing in front of him, he could not pull himself completely out.
“Hold on, son.” The man stepped back and held up his hand. “No reason to point that gun. Hell, I didn’t even see you till I was on you.”
“Come any closer mister and I’ll shoot.”
“I believe you, son.”
“I’m not your son.”
“Just saying I’m sorry to have bothered your nap.”
“Wasn’t napping.”
The man gestured at the rifle in Jacob’s hand. “If you plan on getting your food with that you’ll starve.” Then he combed his right hand fingers through long graying hair and with his left hand reached slowly into his jean’s pocket. He pulled out a small roll of orange colored wire then unsnapped a worn leather sheath looped into his belt and slid out a bone handled knife. He cut a section of the wire and placed the roll back in his pocket. Then squinting his eyes nearly shut he began peeling back the orange insulation exposing the wound copper strands underneath. The copper wire trailed down along his short bowed legs against faded and grass stained jeans.
“Take one end and make a loop,” he said. “Wind the end of the loop around like this into a noose. Now you’ve made a snare.”
The man held up the noosed copper wire. “Works good on rabbits and possum.”
“You don’t use a gun?” Jacob asked.
The man shrugged. “Snared a bobcat once. Tried to eat it but couldn’t get past the smell.” He wiped the knife’s blade across his tattered denim jacket then slipped the knife back into its sheath. “Good luck,” he said and reached out and laid the snare on a sage bush in front of him.
Jacob made no attempt to take it.
“You wandering out here alone?” the man asked. But Jacob did not reply.
The man scanned the brush around them and sighed. “Bad times to be traveling alone,” he said.
The man’s trap line meandered in and out of low and wooded ground. Of the twelve snares set one held a cottontail rabbit and the other an opossum. Darkness had fallen by the time they reached his camp hidden within a meshwork of tall mesquites. The man placed the rabbit and opossum on two flat rocks and took a handful of sticks from a small pile and dropped them on a layer of smoking ash. With the fire revived he pulled his knife and began gutting the rabbit.
“What’s your name?” Jacob asked.
“Must be wanting to tell me yours,” the man said.
“I see no reason why not.”
“Well go ahead if it makes you feel better. But names don’t count for much anymore.”
The man laid the gutted rabbit on the flat rock and picked up the opossum. Then he slit the opossum’s belly and pulled out its guts and lungs and heart and tossed them into the brush. “Damn coyotes will feast tonight,” he said. And picked up the rabbit and cut a thin line around the base of its neck and extended it towards Jacob. “Grab the ears and hold tight.”
Jacob took hold of the rabbit’s ears and the man pulled the skin off cleanly and held the bloodied hide against the firelight. “We’ll dry it and tan it and put it to good use.”
Jacob rubbed his hands in the dirt and looked out to where the man had tossed the viscera. “Thanks for showing me how to set snares,” he said. Then gathered his things and stood.
The man took another handful of sticks and dropped them into the fire. Sparks whisked upward and the dust from the ashes trundled outward. He waved off the dust. “You’re welcome to share the food. Camp by the fire if you like.”
“I’d best be off.”
The man tossed a larger stick on the fire. “What’re you looking for?” he asked.
Jacob said nothing though it came to him that perhaps what he wanted was to know something more than moments of sated belly interspersed with sleep and long periods of neither. It seemed as well that he yearned to hide, but why he did not know. He could not tell the man all of these things and said only, “The truth.”
To the man’s credit he remained quiet though after what seemed several minutes he said in a low voice, “Name’s Hawk. Charlie Hawk. Some call us Sioux but we’re Lakota.”
The night grew cold and far off yodel dogs cried. Close by a screech owl whistled. Now and then Charlie Hawk would belch and say, “Excuse me.” But Jacob kept to his thoughts.
Charlie Hawk finished his share of the opossum and drank water from a wooden jug. Set the jug down, breathed deeply and said, “Coyotes are having a good old time tonight.” He paused then asked, “You from around here?”
“A town near the Rio Grande,” Jacob said.
“Town got a name?”
“La Casita. Means little house.”
Charlie Hawk nodded. “Long ways ago I lived in Dakota.”
“How did you get to these woods?” Jacob asked.
“Came down the west bank of the Mississippi into Arkansas and east Texas, now here.”
Lightning pulsed to the north and the dull tympanic sound of thunder arrived seconds later. Charlie Hawk flicked his chin at a pile of brush a few feet away. “My house.”
“You’re lucky it’s been cold,” Jacob said. “If this were summer you’d be sharing those sticks with scorpions, maybe a rattler or two.”
“Well, I’ve done that already.”
Charlie Hawk patted the embers with a long stick and seemed to enjoy watching the sparks fly out.
“What brought you here?” Jacob asked.
Charlie Hawk tapped the fire again but this time seemed oblivious to the sparks. Then he said, “The big sickness, I guess.”
In the night a raw chill blew out of the northwest. And the morning sky turned albumin clear as quivering stars dropped back into the icy vacuums of space. The sun appeared like a fuzzy yolk along the horizon but one lone star to the west stayed bright as if refusing to yield to the sun’s commands. At last when the sun was full and well above the skyline did the star vanish as if plucked from space by some unseen creature. Jacob heard a cough and looked away from the campfire to see Charlie Hawk emerging from his brushy lair, a large sheepskin in his hands. He handed Jacob the skin and said, “It’ll keep you warm.” He turned and walked into the woods.
Jacob wrapped the shearling across his back and went about snapping dried branches from the small trees surrounding the camp and placing them on the fire.
When Charlie Hawk returned, he was carrying a twisted root as big around as a broom handle and as long as his arm. He wiped off the dirt covering the root and cut it into thin slices and skewered each slice onto a green stick and set the stick over the fire. The slices cracked and popped and he said, “I’ve learned a few things along the way.” Then handed Jacob a slice of the cooked root and Jacob bit off a piece and found it crunchy and tasteless but it did not upset his stomach.
“Let’s water up,” Charlie Hawk said.
They walked to an old water well a half mile from camp. Charlie Hawk moved like a weary buck pausing and sniffing the air then walking on only to pause and sniff again. “Got to be careful there’s no one else around,” he whispered.

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