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: