Saturday, December 27, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cool weather hammock from Mexico.

Friday, December 19, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Most people use a small axe to rough-out spoon blanks or bowls.  That’s what I’ve always done and have become so accustomed to using an axe for the initial shaping in woodcarving projects that anything else seems odd.  I’ve seen videos where people perform their rough-out work with large knives but it always looks clumsy.  I invariably ask: Why doesn’t that guy just use an axe?  Even so, I started employing some of my Woods Roamer knives for the initial shaping and found them quite comfortable.  The typical Woods Roamer knife is designed as an all-around survival knife and I still think it’s superior to most other designs because its overall shape lessons hand and wrist fatigue.  But a small axe (especially with a 1.5 lb head) makes the work easier because the wood carver can use the weight of the axe to do a lot of the work.  Still, I wanted to create a large knife I could utilize expressly for woodcarving.  I refer to the concept as “Completing the Circle.”  A man acquires a piece of steel and a branch.  From those two things he makes a knife.  Then he takes the knife he’s made and uses it to carve a spoon or bowl or tiller a selfbow.  The circle is completed because everything the man uses he made himself and one project leads to another.  Nothing was purchased at a store.  Total and Absolute Self Sufficiency.

The knife pictured above is a concept tool and so far I am quite pleased.  In fact, I’ve taken to using this knife for just about everything.  Camp craft, woodcraft, bushcraft…you name it this knife works as well, if not better, than a small axe.

I used a piece of 5160 spring steel acquired from a small trailer for the project.  If you can’t find a used leaf spring from a trailer then you can buy leaf spring sets at either Northern Tool or Tractor Supply.  These are smaller leaf springs than found on automobiles and they make excellent knives.  Most of these leaf springs are about 0.25 inch thick or a tad thicker and you really don’t want anything more than that because a heavier spring requires much more pounding and if left too thick won’t work adequately for woodcarving.

I canted the blade about 1/8 inch to the right so that it would allow me to keep my wrist absolutely straight when chopping or rough shaping a blank.  I made three prototype knives using a wooden handle and cardboard blades to get the angle perfect.  If you want to get an absolute custom design made exactly to your specifications then you need to build a few prototypes first.  Commercial knives are built for the masses and as such the blades are kept straight.  But a custom knife need not be held to those specifications and can be made to fit the user’s style.  Think of this along the same lines as a custom gunstock with canting along the comb in order to fit the shooter perfectly.  Knives can be built along the same lines though most people don’t realize how much better an ergonomically designed knife feels.

I looked around for the perfect handle shape and was lucky to find two nicely curved pieces of wood.  The other piece awaits its blade.  The stick tang is 4.75 inches long and robust.  A 4.75 inch long tang is essentially as long or longer than your average bushcraft knife handle and thus just as strong.  In effect, this amounts to a full tang when considering stress factors associated with light chopping.  I triple pinned the tang with one of the pins concealed beneath the copper ferrule.

As always there are other projects in queue.  A man should know how to make things.  Until you learn to make your own knives and bows and woodworking tools; and you learn all the plants in your region; and you learn biological ecology and ethnobotany and conservation biology at more than the superficial level; and you learn to make your own traps and cordage….Well, until you learn all of those things you’ll be a shopper but not a bushman.  But then after you’ve spent a few years (as in a few decades) honing your skills you’ll start looking at just about everything around you and you’ll think: You know, I can make a better one.  And you know what?  You will!

Blade Length: 7.25 inches
Mesquite Handle Length: 6 inches

My Next Post will be about Mini Bushcraft Tools.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


NOTE: After deciding I’d cease and desist back in September I was flooded with emails from people wanting to know why I’d stopped writing this blog.  The reasons centered primarily on commitments to other projects.  Many readers suggested I write when I could and so I’ve decided to post articles as time permits.  Look for a new article about every ten days to two weeks.  I’ll write more if possible.  As before, the posts will deal with topics related to ethnobotany, especially primitive technologies, and with knife-making, historical themes and issues associated with keeping our lands clean and free of pollutants.  May I offer a special thanks to all those who took the time to write me and I hope you enjoy what’s coming down the pike.

The two most popular fellows on the Texas Mexico border in 1875 were named Oliver and Samuel.  There wasn’t a ranch house within a hundred miles of the Río Grande that didn’t have their namesakes tucked into a holster or hanging from nails hammered into hard-plastered walls or hand-hewed lumber.  Not too many people knew them by their first names but Winchester and Colt was good enough.  Back when I was a kid there were still plenty of 44/40s and .45 Colts in cabinets and closets and even riding the racks of pickups.  Backwoods types had learned long ago that nothing matched the feel and balance of a Winchester carbine and the hand-hugging warmth of a Colt Peacemaker.

There was good reason to own a gun or two back in 1875.  Cattle rustlers, bandits, marauding Apache and Comanche and other ornery characters scoured the countryside looking for loot and captives.  In 1875 a few houses were made from uninsulated boards set on concrete blocks but that wasn’t the norm.  Some parts of South Texas had been so overrun by Indian attacks that they’d become no man’s lands.  Of course, that game will never end as one group comes in and displaces another and people fight over land and resources.  A hundred and fifty years earlier or around 1725 Catholic missionaries living in what is now San Antonio noticed the Apache had vanished.  Now to these Christian sorts the Apache constituted a fresh batch of converts.  Change their names, erase their cultures, show them a “better life” and usher in a brand new flock.  I guess you’ve heard that story.  But when these parishioners-to-be grew sparse the missionaries became concerned.  After all, how can you spread the Gospel when “there ain’t no one to spread it to?”  The priests grew anxious but then someone finally told them the Apache had been shoved aside by a new bunch of potential believers.  What’re their names the priests asked?  “Them’s the other guys,” someone told them.  But the word came out sounding like comanche so Comanche it became.

Now people have affinities for family members and these other guys—like the other guys before them—enjoyed stealing pilgrims to become slaves.  Shucks, the white folks should’ve been used to that I heard someone once say.  But that’s another story.

Along the borderlands these raids were common and, in fact, in some places where the King of Spain had given away big chunks of territory called porciones the new landowners had no peace at all.  You see the previous landowners (just like the landowners before them) still considered what we now call South Texas their home.  A never ending story of conflict and bloodshed; by the time 1875 came along these Celtic Iberians had learned a thing or two about thick walls, gun ports and family bonds.  Nearly every old-time family in the region has a story or two about some ancestor who was kidnapped by either Apache or Comanche.  In some cases people who’d been kidnapped were able to escape years later and make it back to their families.  In other cases those who were kidnapped never returned.  But even when children were abducted and managed to break free they are said to have never fully acclimated back into the European lifestyle.  Some came close but none of them ever forgot their Indian ways.  It seems “the Christian life” was kind of boring and lacked all those neat adventures of the Indian way.

In order to make a proper defensive home one needed thick walls and enough places to return fire should the need arise.  Families kept close to each other and maybe that’s one of the sad parts about modern life because these days families split away like wood chipped from an axe.  That’s not to suggest that families didn’t go their separate ways in the old days because when people journeyed to America from homes in England, France, Spain, Galicia, Asturias and other places they were more often than not gone forever.  Their families back in the Homeland might get a letter or two in the next forty or fifty years but that wasn’t common.  Come to the New World and never have any contact with the Old World again.  Kind of sad when you think about it but I imagine I have distant grandfathers and grandmothers who said goodbye to whatever life they’d known and even if they looked back now and then there was nothing much to see.  It turns out that the Apache and Comanche had a similar history in that regard.  The Comanche were never a tribe in the traditional sense but instead groups or bands connected only by a common language and culture.  Other than that they roamed their respective territories and oftentimes a family member joined another band as a result of marriage or some other circumstance and if that band drifted far enough away then chances were an individual might never see his family again.

The old houses pictured go back to about 1875.  They’re made of mud and limestone slabs carefully stacked one atop the other then plastered over to form a uniform inner and outer skin.  The original roofs were also covered with sticks and mud then overlaid with grass seed to form a living roof so-to-speak.  Later on someone came along and replaced the original roofs with corrugated metal.  The influence is strictly European since these early settlers arrived from the Celtic kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias though there were also a few Basque in the mix.  Later on other people showed up from the region that once constituted the kingdoms of Spain, Castile and Granada.  The priests in San Antonio finally had their way and got to “save” a bunch of Natives who didn’t really need saving (but that too is another story) and most of the Natives were assimilated into the greater society having lost their original Indian names, cultures, myths, songs and even a knowledge of their glorious past.  Oh well, I guess all I’ve done here is open the door to telling a bunch of other tales about life in South Texas by common folk who came to homestead and live close to the land and didn’t’ care much about building "empires" or becoming scripts of cheap Hollywood movies and, if truth be known, were the ones who really built the region.  Not by destroying it but instead filling it with romance, adventure and a love of family.