Nature’s Waterstones

Keeping your equipment in tip-top shape is undoubtedly necessary for your own comfort and safety, and nowhere is this point more stressed in the Bushcraft Community than in the functionality of your cutting tools, particularly when it comes to sharpening. As such, many outdoorsmen/women take pride in their blades and the maintenance of a keen edge. Perhaps we over-state this element, focusing all our efforts on the performance of our axes and knives that we  neglect other areas of our kit; nevertheless, taking proper care of your tools will ensure that they have a long, serviceable lifetime.

In this current day-and-age, there are numerous highly portable and affordable sharpening stones available. Most popular are the ceramic or diamond stones, such as the Fällkniven DC-4 and Spyderco Doublestuff. They are small enough to fit in a pocket and much lighter than conventional bench stones, which are impractical to carry out into the field.

For this post, I will be talking about another option, one that has been around since the development of bronze; and that is the use of river or creek stones. You can find them wherever water flows or has flowed in the past – streams, dried-up riverbeds, or even drainage ditches eroded by rainwater are ideal places to look. Suitable stones (without getting into unnecessary specifics) will be very hard, smooth, and have as flat a surface as possible so that a blade’s edge may be sharpened evenly.  They won’t be as perfectly flat as factory-made stones, but do not be fooled…they will get the job done well. Mind you, creek stones should be considered medium to fine grit, so don’t expect to be able to fix a nick. Moistening the surface with water is recommended, as it helps to keep tiny metal fragments from clogging the stone’s pores.

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For this demonstration I’ll be using the larger blade on a Victorinox Huntsman (my EDC), which is a flat grind with a secondary bevel. The edge is somewhat sharp, dulled a bit through regular use, and in need of honing.

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Sharpen as you would normally. My technique is to start at the hilt (or where the grind begins) and push forward, keeping the edge bevel flat to the stone, and then turn the blade slightly to hone the tip at the end of the stroke. To sharpen the other side, simply reverse the process – flip the blade over so that the edge is facing you, and pull towards yourself, starting at the hilt and finishing with a slight turn so that the tip makes contact to the stone. If your knife has a convex grind, sharpen it like you usually would. With axes, you must move the stone around the edge in circular motions on both sides, but be very cautious, as it’s easy to slip and slice open a finger.

After a few minutes and about 20 strokes on each side…

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It is hair-popping sharp :) .

On a final note, creek stones are not ideal for portability because of their weight and bulk, but it is good to know where you can find them should the need arise. Hardness, smoothness, and a flat surface are more important features to look for than knowing nitty-gritty geological details.

New Compass, some Orienteering, and a Wildlife Surprise

I decided it was high-time I got back to compass exploration and refresh my orienteering skills. The last time I used a topo map and compass for “serious” navigation was in high school, as part of my Air Force JROTC course. I had purchased a Silva Ranger CL and it worked fine for awhile, but when I took it out again towards the end of July this year, it proved to be defective. I put it in the freezer for a day to be sure it could handle cold temperatures for winter navigation in the near future, and upon removal, I found the needle wouldn’t move – it had “frozen-up”…NOT good. All decent liquid-filled compasses should be able to withstand temperatures below freezing and a few thousand feet elevation without defects. So was it worth the $60 I paid for it? I certainly don’t think so.

Silva used to be a top brand decades ago, but that doesn’t seem to hold true anymore, at least for me. Since 2008, all Silva compasses sold in North America are made in Indonesia, except for the Silva Lensatic 360, which is made in Taiwan. Not to say that all Silvas in the US and Canada are junk, but quality control can be hit-or-miss…just something to keep in mind. Silva compasses sold outside North America are currently made in Sweden and seem to be a lot more reliable from what I hear.

I ended up replacing it with a Suunto MC-2D ($40) after reading many favourable reviews online. Suunto is a Finland-based company with an excellent reputation for making quality compasses, including some that can be used all over the world, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, using what Sunnto calls their ‘global needle technology’. These special compasses have a “G” (for “global”) designation, such as the MC-2G and M3-G. Since I don’t plan on extensive travelling, I opted for the MC-2D. It is a mirror sighting-compass, and I must say that I have a slight preference for this design over the simpler base-plate models, for not only can I take more accurate readings, but the mirror itself is multi-functional. I can use it to look over myself for ticks, to guide me in removing something from my eye, and in a pinch, for signaling. Now, this post is not intended to be a review, but I am definitely pleased with the MC-2D so far.

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Here it is in action :) . The topo map I’m using shows 30 or so orienteering markers to look for in the field. As you can see, I have the declination on the compass set for my location, approximately 13.5 degrees West.

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This is one of the orienteering markers, not in good shape and in need of replacement.

This time of year, Black Walnuts and hickories are starting to drop their nuts, albeit prematurely, and the woods are full of excited squirrels and chipmunks anticipating the coming of Autumn.

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I found these beneath a Mockernut Hickory tree. It’s wonderful to smell the spicy fragrance of the green outer husks, a harbinger of the changing season.

Of course, you never really know what you may find bushwhacking off the beaten-path. I reached a marshy area and discovered the remains of a deer carcass.

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Nothing left but the hip bone, part of a shoulder, and a femur 20 yards away. My guess is that the deer died from disease and was scavenged by coyotes. Coyotes rarely attack healthy adult does or bucks.

And further along, much to my displeasure, I found lots of litter left behind, presumably by a group of drunken teenagers.

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Beer bottles, Gatorade bottles…all kinds of rubbish. Inexcusable for them to leave that stuff behind, but this is why I carry a plastic bag with me. Leave no trace ;) .

As the day was coming to a close, I passed by a reed-filled swamp and caught sight of a once common herbal folk remedy, the plant Boneset.

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It gets its name from being used to treat what was then called “break-bone fever” – we know it today as Dengue fever. Apparently, sufferers would be in such pain that they would contort their bodies drastically, making doctors think that their bones would break.

And now for the surprise…on my way back home, I spotted a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk perched on the branches of a Black Walnut tree on the edge of a meadow. It silently swooped down to grasp a field mouse meandering in the grass, and then flew back to its branch.

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This one was not camera-shy in the least, and didn’t appear to be concerned about my presence at all. The hawk was about 25 feet above me. I’ve often heard Red-tails calling to one another, but seldom seen them, especially that close. More often than not, Turkey Vultures will be the ones prowling in the sky.

It was gorgeous weather to be out in – a cool day freshened by a brief morning rain shower. Compared to previous years, this summer is turning out to be a mild one…I can’t wait to see what autumn will be like. :)

Review: Martiini Arctic Circle

Martiini is another respected Scandinavian manufacturer, with a long tradition of making quality blades in Finland since 1928. Here in the States, they are more known for their excellent filleting knives sold under the Rapala brand, but they also make superb folders as well as traditional puukkos, such as the Arctic Circle. It has a plain design, but at a fairly low cost of $35, it is most definitely a worthy competitor to the higher-end/expensive puukkos.

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From Martiini’s company website: “Marttiini’s location at the Arctic Circle was the inspiration for this knife. The light coloured sheath and handle are inspired by our bright summer nights and the dark winter months are represented by the dark blade. Lapland is indeed a land of contrasts.”

The Arctic Circle is a carbon steel blade at 9 cm long (3.5 inches) with a 2.5mm (.098 inches) spine. The handle is made from birch with a light coat of beeswax and has a brass bolster-ring – I find it very comfortable to hold. Like all puukkos, the Arctic Circle has a stick tang, though it is a partial, hidden tang and likely extends at least halfway through the handle. I have not encountered any problems with it, and I’ve owned this knife for well over a year. The blade is a Scandinavian grind, though it appears to have a secondary micro-bevel. The advantage of this is that the edge will last longer and not chip as easily as a “true” Scandi grind. The blade’s edge geometry makes it ideal for slicing, superior to that of the Companion Heavy Duty, even though it is slightly shorter. This is likely because the grind comes up farther on the blade.

Martiini knives leave the factory hair-popping sharp, and they take and hold an edge beautifully. I’m not entirely certain, but I have heard that the steel is about as hard as that of carbon Moras, around 59 Rc. The blade has a protective, blackish patina, and on one side is the engraving “J. Martiini Finland”. Its sheath is a traditional, leather fish-tail design with a twisted dangler. Embossed on the leather are the company logo and an image of Finland showing the site of the Martiini manufacturing facility. Inside the bottom of the sheath is what appears to be a plastic insert casing molded to the leather, forming an inner layer of safety. All Martiini knives have a three-year guarantee, and most are semi-custom in that you can have personal engravings etched into the metal (up to 25 characters) by order direct to the company.

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The Arctic Circle whizzed through the first carving test, slicing curls off pine and Sugar Maple logs. The higher grind and thinner blade made this quick and easy.

With batoning, I decided to opt out of using Sugar Maple, and instead use a halved pine log, splitting it down to quarters for the test.

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The reason is that pine splits easier than most hardwoods, and this knife isn’t meant withstand the stress of moderate batoning. It will be adequate in a pinch, but the blade will get stuck because of its thinner profile. Thumb-sized pieces are OK, but I wouldn’t go any larger than that. That said, the Arctic Circle made it through the halved pine without much difficulty.

When it came to feathersticks, I found that the higher Scandi grind made the job almost effortless. The shavings were also finer than what I could achieve with the Companion Heavy Duty.

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In the photo, I included wider curls from the first task in preparation of the firesteel test later on.

Truncating also produced pleasing results. The thinner blade of the Arctic Circle sailed through the pine wood in three blows.

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On the left you can see the mark left by the Companion for comparison.

The back of the knife was able to strike sparks off my firesteel very well, and the shavings and curls ignited.

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Something a bit interesting with this design is the slight concave shaping on the spine towards the point. Apparently, Martiini added this unique feature for the purpose of having more control when striking a firesteel. Whereas most people use the middle portion of a knife’s spine, using the part close to the tip gives you better accuracy without knocking your tinder around.

For the final test, I used a knee-lever grip to see how much bite the Arctic Circle had on the pine and Sugar Maple.

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Again, the blade cut through with little difficulty, seemingly better than the Companion.

I must say, this is one heck of a knife. At first glance, you might not think it would be able to keep up with larger blades, but clearly this isn’t the case – the results speak for themselves. It surpasses the Companion Heavy Duty in sheer slicing ability and proved to be a superior carver. However, this is not a knife I would constantly use for batoning…that’s the one area it lacks in. Then again, puukkos are slashers, not beaters. I therefore advise that any splitting should be done occasionally with pieces no thicker than thumb-size. Use the proper tool for the heavy jobs ;) .

The Martiini Arctic Circle could be considered an exceptional “step-up” from the similar Mora Classic 1, and for a low-cost, traditional puukko, you cannot go wrong with it. It has become my main blade, and I wear it as a neck knife. Martiini also makes other inexpensive puukkos, such as the Lynx Lumberjack, Black Lumberjack, and Lynx 129.