Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sharing With the World from a Cabin in the Woods…

 Looking Down a Sendero

Blogs come in all varieties.  There are blogs about celebrities and blogs about buying things.  Product reviews and healthcare advice; there are blogs about love and even about hate.  What makes someone want to start a blog is difficult to say but I think those reasons stem from many places.  Perhaps most of all it’s about wanting to share things with others.

I believe things like blogs have nudged aside the novel and the non-fiction book.  That’s not to suggest those forms of communication are not popular but blogs give readers immediate access to so many things freely and—given our increasingly limited attention spans as well as the demands on our time—blogs provide education or emotional comfort in just a few words.  That’s important in this hectic age.  A friend told me the other day that Woods Roamer is not your average outdoor, hiking, backpacking, product-reviews blog.  He said people come to this blog looking for one of two things.  “They want to learn the ways of the woods from someone who’s lived it…and they want to know about the experience of the woods from a man who feels it in his heart.”  He told me to keep that in mind and so I will.

Back in the mid-1980s I lived in a 26-foot Avion trailer at the edge of a large lake.  In the evenings I’d look out across the water at mountains to the southwest.  I’d see storms building with lightning pulsating downward over the distant peaks.  Now and then I’d hear thunder bellowing across the flats.  From that small trailer I wrote news articles that made national headlines and were discussed on everything from the major television networks to talk radio.  When I’d roam the cow trails in the nearby woods I’d often think about the irony of talking to the world from a tiny trailer bordered by water on one side and thick brush on the other.  All these years later I guess things haven’t changed much for me.  As I write these notes I see several coveys of bobwhite quail pecking and scratching in the dirt out back.  Three ghost doves are trying to push each other aside at one of the feeding stations.  And pyrrhuloxias and green jays are perched on the branches of a granjeno.  Several painted buntings came to visit a while ago.  In the night I’ll hear great-horned owls and screech owls in the woods behind the house.  I’ll listen to coyotes singing melancholy songs as well as pauraques whistling.  I sometimes take long midnight walks down the narrow road leading away from this place just to enjoy the quiet and stillness.

I think about the people who read this blog around the world.  Name a country and there is somebody there who has read Woods Roamer.  I have readers in the Ukraine and Russia and in Malaysia as well.  There are readers in Australia, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Sweden and many other countries.  And yet here I am in this little cabin in Deep South Texas where my nearest neighbor is almost four miles away.  This region is in the news a lot lately.  I’m not sure what to make of what’s going on sixty miles south of us and about thirty-five miles to the west.  It all seems a bit odd.  All of a sudden people decide to flee en mass to South Texas?  It’s not as if there is a sudden revolution or a monumental collapse in those Central American countries.  In fact, things were the same five years ago and ten years ago and twenty years ago.  So why the influx now unless somebody somewhere is manipulating things.  Regardless, I’ve witnessed firsthand what happens along the Rio Grande when people swim to the US side.  There are trash heaps like hillocks made of plastic bags and inner tubes and discarded clothes and tossed soda cans and nylon rope and glass bottles and a hundred other items that poison the ground killing the trees and nearly all the wild creatures that live there.  I’ve seen the bleached shells of tortoises and the remains of raccoons and bobcats that either choked to death when they were snared by the trash or died of poisoning when they attempted to eat the refuse.  That’s a story you won’t hear on the nightly news.  No immigration reform advocate wants you to know that truth.  Even this far north there are areas where the trash is disgusting.  Known smuggling trails are littered with everything from tossed shoes and tin cans to Santa Muerte emblems.  We’ve been warned by the US Border Patrol to be on guard for criminals and Central American gang members and even terrorists who might use the current chaos on the Rio Grande as a means to sneak into the country.  So we keep an eye out and sometimes at night we hear or see BP helicopters flying along gas pipeline right-of-ways a few miles to the east and west.  By the way, those natural gas pipelines have proven to be a significant problem for many people.  The corporations that own those pipelines have no qualms about destroying ranchland for their own profit.  Politicians have stolen the land via eminent domain so that their contributors in the oil and gas industry can have the land for themselves.  If the land means anything to you then you’ll understand how tragic it is when these multi-national conglomerates arrive and rape the earth and pollute the groundwater as well.  Some ranchers to the west of us are at their wits end.  I wonder how long their patience will last before things start to happen.  Those things sometimes make the news but the National Media is a fickle bunch that runs around chasing event after event yet never really comprehending what’s actually going on.

It seems that people who arrive at this blog want to know more about doing things for themselves than about what to buy at the store.  A lot of them also share my love of nature and my passion for wanting to save it.  Yes, I include politics in my posts and I get mail from both the Right and Left regarding some of my statements.  So be it.  For me it’s all about the land and by that I mean nature.  I advocate for wilderness, plain and simple.  If you’ve bothered to read any of my books you know what I’ve seen happen in these parts.

I appreciate the emails I get from those of you who love the backwoods.  I thank you for sharing your thoughts about nature and your ideas about preserving it.  There are more things to impart to you about living in the brushlands and about making things for yourself.  About being self-sufficient; and focusing on the quality of your life and not the quantities in your life.  About the importance of family and truth and about protecting what has been given to you for free—that which has no voice of its own unless you speak for it.  Whether it is the bobcat or the mesquite tree, the hawk or the tortoise; unless you stand up for them no one else will.  One more thing: I’m always eager to hear from you so don’t forget to drop me a line at  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Potato Chips Cure for Hikers, Backpackers and Outdoor Sorts…

Here’s a quick tip for those of you who might indulge in outdoor activities during hot weather periods.  Keep a bag of salted potato chips in your shoulder bag, backpack or vehicle.  Along with dehydration comes a reduction in electrolytes.  You may begin feeling weak and disoriented.  If your potassium levels fall below what are considered normal you will become ill.  You might even throw up which will deplete your electrolyte levels further.  During summer months hospital emergency rooms are filled with people suffering from precipitous drops in their electrolytes.  I spoke to a fellow the other day who was hospitalized for two days when his potassium levels plummeted.  He’d been working in his garden in the hottest part of the day.  He’d sweated profusely and even though he spent most of his time in the shade he still came down with heat exhaustion and severe electrolyte depletion.  “I thought I was dying,” he said.

I’ve employed this quick-aid method on numerous occasions and believe me it works.  Salted potato chips are both high in potassium and sodium chloride.  One ounce of potato chips will give you about 465 mg of potassium.  By the way, a medium sized baked potato eaten with the skin delivers nearly 1,000 mgs of potassium.  But to bake a potato takes time and I’m talking here about a quick first aid jumpstart to a  potassium deficiency crisis.  A bag of salted potato chips is ultralight so don’t obsess about weight because this is something that might save your life in an emergency.  Besides potassium you’ll also get a carb hit and that can give you enough energy to go find help.  By the way, dogs love potato chips—or at least my dogs love potato chips.  And you know how I love my dogs.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Machete Bowie Survival Knife…And Other Weighty Matters Related to Survival

 You’ve probably heard the saying that a survival knife is the knife you have on you in a survival situation.  Though quaint, the saying is so fraught with variables that it is perhaps less a submission of fact as it is an admission of fate.  In other words, a peanut folding knife is nice for slicing spines off tender nopalito pads but if you happen to find yourself lost in the jungle let us hope you’re carrying more than a tiny jackknife.  Ultimately, the subject of what constitutes a proper survival blade falls along the same lines as what makes for a pretty girl.  Gather ten young fellows and then parade a couple dozen maidens in front of them and opinions on who is the loveliest will most likely vary greatly.  Of course, that’s what makes the world go around.  And so it is with the survival knife.  One person will find the classic KA-BAR® the optimum design while another will opt for a Scandinavian edge and someone else will prefer a Malaysian parang and still another a classic 24-inch blade machete.  In the end the best determinate factor is you; and besides at some point the blade becomes only one part of a consortium of supplies, needs, and ultimately luck.  So it is that experimentation with knives can become on the one hand a ghastly obsession and on the other an exercise in analytics.  Regardless, allow me to submit the machete Bowie for your perusal as one more option in that mine-field of what might constitute a good survival knife.  This knife started out as one of two Tramontina bolo machetes that had seen hard use and been relegated to a shelf in the barn.  A few years ago I cleaned up both machetes but decided to experiment with the design.  But then the blades went back on the shelf for about 24 months awaiting the next stage in their transition from bolo to something else.  A few weeks ago I decided to finish working on one of the machetes and what you see pictured is the result.  Those of you familiar with Tramontina machetes know they are thin bladed and intended for whacking nothing more than light shrubbery, vines and an occasional clump of reeds or stand of small bamboo.  That’s not to say that some have attempted to chop down more robust plants with these machetes but that is taking them beyond their intended uses.  Travel throughout the American brushlands and desert regions and then south into the transition zones then farther south into the jungles and you’ll find 24-inch thin bladed machetes the most popular carry by far.  Tramontina is but one manufacturer amongst a dozen or so makers.  All of them produce good brush whackers.  They’re made of moderate grade carbon steel with the numbers 1060-1074 the most frequent.

Truth is that very few survival knives sold these days will ever be used for anything even remotely approaching an emergency.  As such they are not much more than curios or toys bought to daydream, romanticize and otherwise play.  The game is called “Waiting for Doomsday” and although our current depletion of resources, pollution of water supplies both above ground and underground and our ever warming climate makes such a scenario truly conceivable, the facts remain that regardless of what preparations people take an abrupt collapse will precipitate a level of chaos that will diminish human populations to miniscule numbers in short order.  In the 1970s it was called “The Survival Movement” but that morphed over the years to become what are now called “Preppers.”  Steeped in the duality of eschatological fear and modern-day angst the Survival Movement/Prepper fixation has morphed even further into the world of modern capitalism.  Why just talk about it when we can make money off of it.  I’ll sell you bug-out-bags stocked with supplies; I’ll sell you books on surviving/prepping; I’ll sell you guns and knives; I’ll sell you generators and solar panels; I’ll sell you anything I can convince you that you need.  And then I’ll deposit the checks in the very same banks I claim will collapse “just around the corner.”  Forgive me folks, but the older I get the more profoundly enigmatic things seem to be.

 The Machete Bowie has a 9 ½ inch blade and is 15 ¾ inches overall.  The Tramontina blade is quite thin measuring 1.5 millimeters.  I’ve never seen any reason to modify a blade that thin into anything other than how it arrives from the factory.  Attempting to turn one section into a “Scandi” blade doesn’t make all that much sense to me.  First of all the steel is too soft for performing any sort of fine woodcarving on woods with a specific gravity over 0.70 and that includes a lot of tropical hardwoods.  Second the blades thinness allows it to be sharpened as is to perform rudimentary woodworking if needed.  In remote regions I’ve seen indigenous peoples use machetes in remarkable ways.  Give a fellow a 24-inch blade machete and he’ll use it to do everything from cut reeds for his hut to make a bow and then fashion a set of arrows and then build a trap and then when he’s relaxing he’ll use that same machete to carve a figurine from a piece of soft wood.  He’ll carry his machete everywhere he goes and is quick to pull it out of its sheath if he feels threatened.  On a few occasions I saw the results of a machete fight.  The word filleted comes to mind.

The Machete Bowie has a mesquite handle.  I cut a branch in half then using a farrier’s rasp I leveled both insides of the handle.  Be sure and leave the inside sections rough so that the epoxy will hold.  I then experimented a bit further and used fiberglass carpenter’s tape folded over and over to form an inner seam between the two wooden scales.  I saturated the tape with epoxy then pinned the scales through the tape with two nails.  All was going well until I started my final shaping of the handle and I couldn’t stop the fiberglass from frizzing up.  At last I smoothed things out (and the epoxy saturation helped greatly) and I decided to “paint” the entire handle with epoxy.  The results are pleasing—at least from my perspective—and the handle is now waterproof.

Do I consider this knife a good survival blade?  Yes I do.  Do I hope I ever get the chance to use it as a survival blade?  No, I don’t.  So what will this knife be used for?  Well, around here it will make a good woods roaming companion.  I can slice away nopal pads to open up a trail and keep from getting pricked with spines.  I can whack the thorns off a branch of retama or granjeno to make a walking stick.  I can gut a wild hog; I can make a snare trigger; I can make a simple spoon; I can make a tripod to hold my cooking pot.  This knife is like a few dozen others I’ve made that, for me at least, work a heck of a lot better for the type of foliage I’ve got around here than any Scandinavian blade or other 4-inch “bushcraft” knife.  You see, one shoe does not fit all.  If I were in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or in Manitoba or maybe in the Colorado Rockies this knife would not be my choice of carry.  But in the Texas Brushlands or a few miles west in the Chihuahuan Desert or out in Sonora or maybe in the limoncillo transition zones in Mexico or in Costa Rica then this knife would do for me what I would require in a knife.  And if heaven forbid I needed it to survive then it would work fine…if nothing untold came to pass.  And in that case a knife isn’t going to do you any good regardless.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Addendum: Allergic Reactions Associated with Agave and other Plants

Agave americana

Fellow bushcrafter, Tom Davenport, wrote me to describe a nasty allergic reaction he had while making cordage with agave.  Tom wrote: “Be advised that some species of agave have toxins in the pulp that can cause a nasty batch of contact dermatitis.”  Tom went on to say that when he was preparing a piece of agave some of the pulp landed on his exposed arms, legs and face.  The reaction wasn’t immediate but after a while he began feeling a “burning itch.”  Tom said, “[The itch] was the kind that fogs your mind.”  Tom added that the irritation was so severe that parts of his skin became blistered.

Agave neomexicana

Agave species range across the Southwest and Western states from Texas to California but can also be found in Louisiana and Florida.  Keep in mind that not all people experience reactions to agave.  These types of contact dermatitis also vary in intensity among individuals.  In other words, one person might have a severe reaction while someone else has only a mild reaction and still others have no reaction at all.  I’ve never had any sort of incident with agave even after handling it for decades but please allow me to inject an anecdote into this conversation.  Years ago I came across an interesting “weed” floating in the waters of the Laguna Madre along the South Texas coast.  I picked up this weed and examined it then handed it to my professor who held it for about two seconds then quickly handed it to another student.  The student gave the weed back to me and both she and the professor asked, “Doesn’t that burn you?”  No, it did not burn me but as it turned out I was holding a species of stinging coral.  A few years ago, however, I was making a couple of knife handles using Texas ebony and though I was wearing a dust mask I must have somehow ingested some of the wood dust.  Within a few minutes I had broken out in hives along my trunk.  My point is that we all have what’s called a biophysiological individuality—just like some people have serious allergies to peanut butter or tomatoes or kiwi fruit.  The list is long but the toxins come basically from these chemical groups—calcium oxalate, bromelain, isothiocyanates, diterpene esters, protoanemonin, and alkaloids.

The moral of this story is that we should always be careful when dealing with plants.  Remember that plants have evolved methods to dissuade predators from eating them.  Chile del monte, jalapeƱos and serrano didn’t acquire their spicy hot taste to suit your palate.  Stinging nettles sting to dissuade critters that might want to eat them.  Just like spines on cactus and thorns on shrubs and trees, plants adopted those protective methods that were selected for over millions of years. 

The best advice I can give is to be careful and carry items with you as first aid in case you have a reaction to some plant.  Here’s a prudent list of items you should carry in your pack or vehicle when on extended forays into the wilds.
EpiPen—a quick injectable dose of epinephrine. Ask your doctor for a prescription.
Benadryl antihistamine
Topical cortisone cream
In addition carry the following:
Triple Antibiotic Cream
Antibacterial lotion
A good set of tweezers. Don’t scrimp here.  Buy the best with a fine pointed end.
Bandages, various sizes
Razor blades

Sunscreen 70 SPF or greater