Howdy From Missouri!

Well now, it seems as if the days have already flown-by! I’ve been “off-grid”, as it were, for about a week. I almost forgot about computers entirely until my supervisor, BJ (aka “Big John the Badass”), told me he would try to arrange my computer access at a desk in the Potosi Ranger Station here at Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

The National Forest itself has a lot of designated wilderness areas, of which my duties as a wilderness ranger intern are to monitor the following – Rock Pile Mtn (over 4000 acres), Bell Mtn (over 9000 acres), and the Irish (over 16,000 acres) sections. The designation was granted by Congress, and as such, there are certain regulations and management practices that need to be followed in accordance to the Wilderness Act of 1964. For one, there is only one road in and out of these locations, and it isn’t exactly a road you would drive your Prius on…the Forest Service access roads are dirt and gravel, with lots of bumps and holes, better suited for a vehicle with 4WD. Secondly, the trails are not marked with clear, coloured blazes every 30 ft – again, this is a wilderness, not a quick walk in the city park. The trail might be blocked by obstacles such as fallen trees (which we do our best to take care of them with crosscut saw and axe work), or it might be impassible due to flooding in heavy summer rains. As such, visitors need to be self-reliant to enjoy the solitude and remoteness.

BJ related to me an incident involving a SAR operation that occurred last year, in which a woman was travelling the Bell Mtn Wilderness to geocache, and she was ill-equipped for her journey. What should have been a relaxing day became a near catastrophe as her GPS batteries died, leaving her stranded in the woods at twilight. She had no map, and she also didn’t pay attention to the clock. Luckily, she was found and made it out without injury.
Potosi is a small town by my standards – population about 3000, though there are several other nearby towns that are smaller than that (less than 1000 population). Where I am in Missouri it is quite hilly, and there are mountains all over the place…apparently, they are older than even the Appalachian range back East. There are lots of mineral deposits in the area, and in the town of Ironton, LOTS of red granite. The forest ecology is a bit different than Connecticut, but not by much other than the lack of more evergreen coniferous trees and a lot more hardwoods (oaks especially). There are lots of wild turkeys here, at least throughout the National Forest. Black bears are sometimes seen, and only a fool would leave his/her food lying about camp without taking proper precautions, such as using a bear bag to store food.

So, after settling-in after my arrival last Wednesday, I got to take part in some trail building on the weekend with the Ozark Trail Association, a non-profit organisation run by volunteer conservationists. Last Thursday, I helped the crew leaders set out the assortment of tools in a remote section of Mark Twain National Forest. Little did I know then that the weekend wing-ding was a “Mega Event”, with 220 people attending, the largest gathering ever for the OTA.

 

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We arrived on Friday at the Bass River Resorts, a short drive to our work destination, to camp out for the time (3 days, 2 nights). It was a bit odd at first, as most everyone else was car-camping, and I was among the few who had packed in a backpacking manner. The weather was fantastic, so I opted for a modified Adirondack tarp shelter next to the Bass River (really more a stream than a river).

The following day (Saturday) we all got down and dirty with tools such as fire rakes, McLeods, pulaskis, pick-mattocks, and grub hoes. It took maybe 5 hours, but we created about 3/4 mile of trail. When we got back to camp, the OTA prepped a large dinner followed by, in true Southern fashion, a large bonfire and live bluegrass music. I met a lot of great people at that event – it was a blast :). I also found out that southern gnats and mosquitoes don’t seem to like my Yankee blood.

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We left on Sunday, and on Monday I got to work in the Forest Service garage, fixing up some of the FSS (Federal Supply Service) pulaskis my supervisor lent the OTA for their event. You can get a lot done with a pulaski as far as trail building, and it is equally useful when fighting forest fires.This one above is a Warren Axe and Tool Co. FSS, possibly from the 1940s. And yes, the handles are painted. I know some of you axe purists may cringe, but this is done mostly so that the tools can be identified as belonging to this Ranger Station. Usually, with a collaboration like the mega event with the Ozark Trail Association I mentioned earlier, the USFS will lend workers and-or tools to the organization if necessary, and it helps to know which tool belongs where.

On Tuesday my supervisor took me out to the Rock Pile Wilderness for some trail maintenance work and introductory wilderness monitoring. I was issued my “field hat” (a hard hat for safety purposes) and leather work gloves. No chainsaws here, just good ‘ol fashioned hand tools, man-power, and in our case, BEARD power :D!. He brought along his full-sized axe and a 5 ft two-man crosscut. I brought along my Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest axe.

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usfsmtnftrailworkjb3-5_zps54bdalt7Big John the Badass swinging his 3.5 lb Council Tool Jersey.

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This is a technique for making a lower cut (“under-sawing”) with a crosscut saw, using the helve of an axe to steady the blade. Notice my Small Forest axe on the right. In situations like the above photo, the downed tree can have numerous “pinch points” (tension stored in the wood fibres from limbs resting against the ground, another tree, or a large stone). A lower cut was necessary to finish the job and relieve the pressure, and the saw did get stuck cutting from the top. The Small Forest Axe was very helpful for cutting the tension with careful chopping next to the left of the saw blade when it was stuck. It is rare that you can get through a day without at least some technical difficulty. But that’s all the fun when working with hand tools, and through mistakes, you learn how to adapt. 🙂

The Forest Service has three different levels of crosscut certification – A (novice), B (intermediate), and C (advanced). Some time in the future the letters will be recognized as numbers; 1 for novice, and so-on. I will be certified first as an “A”, and then a “B” during my 6 month internship. BJ and I make a good crosscut team, and you know you’re good when you fall into a rhythm, letting the saw itself do the work for you – at that point it is almost effortless, and you can pull the saw with a finger.

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This is a rocky “glade” near the summit of Rock Pile Mtn, wherein there is too little soil for most plants other than Eastern Red-cedar (a juniper) and grasses. The exposed rock is home to a variety of mosses and lichens.

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I have no clue what kind of plant this is, but I thought the flowers looked cool :). There was also some Indian Paintbrush and Spiderwort along the trail, but I didn’t have the time to take a bunch of photos.

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On Wednesday and Thursday, I was back in the garage fixing up the other pulaskis and re-hanging a Council Tool FSS boy’s axe. As most of us already know, when you work with hand tools, you should know how to repair and restore them. The Forest Service has acquired hundreds of vintage double-bit and single-bit axes to use for trail work, some made by companies such as Warren Axe and Tool Co., Collins Co, and True Temper/Kelly Works. But most of the cutting tools you’ll find wielded by trail crews are more recently made specimens from Barco Industries and Council Tool.

Yesterday I attended another wing-ding with the OTA at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways for their Junior Ranger Day event. As the name suggests, this place is managed by the National Park Service and is the only NPS-managed area in Missouri. We assisted them by providing hiking activities to groups of 5th and 6th graders from the local schools. The hike was nothing “serious”, but it was enough to hopefully spark a few young minds, and no doubt it is always great to take the kids outdoors and to teach them some basic woods skills, such as identifying plants. Sorry, no pics….I foolishly left my camera behind.

Today I finally found time to catch up on my blog. But I enjoy the work, as well as the unexpectedness of what each day can turn into. 🙂

Slán go foill!

 

 

 

 

Primitive Bushcraft: Grass Coiled-Basket

Aside from vine woven and various bark baskets, grasses were a widespread resource for our ancestors to make containers with. They were also very useful for a variety of things, from fire-making to shelter-building, and even foraging.Some grasses, like maize, rice, and ancient forms of wheat, were instrumental in the development of human-kind with the introduction of agriculture some 10,000 years ago in the Middle East (among the earliest known wheat cultivation sites is at Iraq ed-Dubb, or Cave of the Bear, in modern-day Jordan – radiocarbon dating of the site is 9600 BC). Others, such as bamboo, have a plethora of uses and make jungle living possible.

The evolutionary history of grasses is quite impressive – the oldest grass fossils date back to the late Paelocene, approximately 58,000,000 years ago. These were early proto-bamboos with broad leaves. Today, grasses cover almost every continent in the world, prevailing in extreme environments such as polar regions, mountain summits, and dry deserts. They are, without a doubt, the most highly adaptable plants in the world, with thousands of different known species.

But as far as basketry, grasses can be woven in a manner so as to be nearly watertight. And with their widespread and local abundance, you can make a basket however large you wish. The best times for collecting grasses is late autumn and very early spring, when “everything is dead”. You can also gather them during winter if snow-pack isn’t a concern. Metal cutting tools aren’t necessary for this project. Everything can be done with simple stone flakes.

Below is a sample of some local grasses in Connecticut.

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I really don’t know exactly what kind these are, nor does it matter for our purposes. Ideally for basket-making, the grass should be fairly tall with long stems. As you can see, these stems are all dead (new shoots sprout up from the same root systems). You can weave a basket using green stems, but that is best only for temporary use, as the stems and any leaves attached will shrink as they dry. Dried grass works best for a long-term use basket.

**Obviously, be careful not to accidentally grab fist-fulls of plants that can cause dermatitis, such as poison ivy**

The preparation involved here is fairly minimal. All you have to do it grab a bunch of stems in your hand and pull hard to one side. The stems should break-off from the root stocks without any need for cutting. Don’t worry if the stems are different lengths; that doesn’t matter, nor will it affect the basket. You don’t need to remove the leaves from the stems themselves – it is actually better to leave them on, as they will add a little extra substance to the coils.

Collect as many bundles as you think you will need for the size of basket you want to create. The next thing to do is to sort out any undesirable plants from your bundles, such as Carolina Nightshade/ Horse Nettle stalks, dogbanes, milkweeds, etc. This isn’t necessary except for aesthetics. If you end up with a leftover bundle or two after your basket is completed, scatter or leave them so that they act as a mulch for the new shoots.

Now then, we will need another plant to provide the weavers so that we can wrap each coil and interlock them. I personally like to find uses for invasive plants, so I chose Japanese Honeysuckle.

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Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, is a very widespread invasive that was first introduced in Long Island as an ornamental in 1806. This plant grows quite aggressively, tending to out-compete native cousins like L. dioica, Wild Honeysuckle. But, Japanese Honeysuckle can provide very long and flexible vines, which is perfect for all sorts of weaving projects.

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Make sure to collect bits that don’t have any off-shooting vines. We want as straight and long vines as we can get. These are easily cut with even a small stone flake.

If you are using a different source for your weavers, you will have to experiment with their flexibility to determine if it is best to take off the bark or to lightly pound the fibres into more flexible weavers. With Japanese Honeysuckle, I have found that lightly pounding them between two smooth rocks will soften the fibres and take off the flaky, outer bark. Do only one vine at a time, since they can dry out too quickly and become rather brittle. If you need, have some water on hand or use saliva to re-hydrate the fibres.

Something else you will probably need is a sort of awl to poke through each coil of grass so that you can interlock them with the weaver. A piece of bone can work well. Always remember to make to find/make the tool to do the job…it makes everything go much smoother. I opted to use a Black Walnut twig to make my awl.

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The reason for using walnut is that the twigs are somewhat hollow with minimal pith to remove. Shaping can be easily done with a stone flake, as shown above.

Now we are ready to begin! 🙂

Start by grabbing a small bunch of dried grass stems, no thicker than 1/2 inch. Take your weaver and lay about 4 inches/10 cm of it on the grass, with the longer end pointing in the opposite direction from the grass stems. Now grab onto the part where the weaver and grass stems overlap, and carefully wrap the weaver over itself (using the other, longer end) and the stems with some tension. Wrap about 4 or 5 times. Curl the wrapped part of the grass onto itself, making a small “O”. Take the long end of the weaver, keeping the tension, and thread it through the “O”. Apply a bit more tension to tighten the “O”, and then start to wrap the grass stems again.

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Now then, the strongest and tightest weave you can do is to wrap once around the grass stems, and then to wrap over the stems again and thread it through the lower coil. This forms what is generally called a “squaw stitch/weave”. The more you wrap around the stems without interlocking to the below coil, the less strength the basket will have. A pattern of 4 wraps around the stems and 1 interlocking wrap won’t be nearly as strong as a squaw stitch. Of course, this doesn’t really matter if the purpose of your basket is to be a foraging container. But try to keep the pattern the same so that there is equal strength and tension throughout the basket.

Use the awl to help interlock the coils as shown below.

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Pull the weaver through and maintain the tautness. Tension is key in making these sorts of baskets. And like most outdoor projects, remember to take your time.

Keep the diameter of the coils the same by adding in more bits of grass when you start to run out in the coil.

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And when you want to start making the walls of the basket, gently twist the unwrapped grass to where you want it, and wrap with the weaver.

Sooner or later, you will gradually run-out of weaver length, so another will have to spliced in. There are two methods for doing this. The first is to leave the last two inches/5 cm of your starting weaver parallel to the unwrapped grass, and then to take a new weaver and form a clove hitch over this as close to the last wrap as possible. Then wrap the new weaver around the grass stems and old weaver, interlocking with the coil below. Then keep going with the pattern you were doing before. The alternative is to end the old weaver on a clove hitch, and then to carefully insert one end of the new weaver through this and into the wrapped grass no less than 2 inches/5 cm (under at least 2 wraps), and then to continue the pattern as before.

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This photo shows the latter method.

Once you are close to the finished shape, don’t add any more grass to the coil, and wrap the last few inches of grass so that they interlock into the coil below, ending with a clove hitch. Take the tail end of the weaver and pass it through at least two wraps on the below coil, and cut the excess off.

The end result should look something like this…

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I added in a temporary handle using an extra weaver, interlocking the ends into the coils.

This basket will serve as a foraging container, one that can be used to collect berries without worry that the smaller fruits will be lost through cracks and crevices, a disadvantage with open-weave vine baskets, unless an inner lining of large leaves is used. Basket weaving is a fine way to spend a late autumn or an early spring day. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by the subtle wildlife animals. By keeping silent except for the rustle of grasses, you may be gifted with a memorable wildlife encounter :).

 

 

 

April Snow and Ice

I dare say that we have not had winter here in the northeastern US. It seems more like an extension of spring. Some parts of the region did see a few snowstorms, but temperatures throughout have fluctuated quite dramatically, up and down, and mostly up. This has impacted the wildlife and flora noticeably. In mid January, when temperatures reached as high as 70 F/21 C, black bears awoke from their hibernation to stroll about the local woodlands. I found evidence of their activity whilst working at Weir Farm National Historic Site. And just when people thought winter was over (even though I contest it hadn’t really started), temps dipped low at random intervals. In February we had a hard freeze on the 13th, when the mercury dipped down to a chilly -10 F/-23 C. Of course, the next day the temperature soared up to 60 F/15 C.

This, ladies and gentleman, is what New England weather is like. Contrary to what outsiders from the area might have heard, we don’t normally get “harsh” winters, though 4 inches of snow one given day with temperatures consistently below freezing for 2 months might be harsh enough for some people. Having grown up here, I can tell you that our seasons are unpredictable, and the winter months are no exception. You might get truck-loads of snow like last winter of 2014-2015, or you might end up with hardly anything to call winter, such as this past season. There is no “normal” here. And if you live here long enough, you learn to expect the unexpected.

That said, I still find it rather amusing to see temperatures continue to fluctuate. Even though we are approaching mid-April, we have had several recent freeze warnings – usually to alert gardeners and landscapers that more sensitive plants such as magnolias, forsythias, basil, and rosemary, will suffer at the sudden drop in temperature. And that is what this post is going to be about….admiring the unexpected weather changes that have shaped and continue to shape this region and its people, as well as reflecting on why I practice bushcraft and explore the outdoors.

So it was on an earlier day in April, that I watched a passing rain shower gradually become an ice storm, finishing with a light dusting of snow. Everything was coated in about 1/2 inch of ice. I guess Loki’s frost giants walked through.

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Such a dangerous beauty, ice is. It can cause horrific traffic accidents, and yet it can coat a landscape in a frosty quilt of dazzling artistry.

Ice and snow came again on a different day, and I decided to take full advantage of it.

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Nobody on the Ives’ trail but me :).

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Salix bebbiana, or Long-Beaked Willow, with blossoming catkins that resemble those on its close relative, S. discolor, Cat Willow.

I followed the frost-crusted trail up Black Oak Ridge, slipping every now and then on iced-over rocks. I took a risk not bringing my ice-trekkers – for more confidence in my footing I should have brought them.

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About 700 ft/213 m above sea level here. Quite a nice view, and the perfect place for a brew-stop.

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Because temperatures were hovering around the freezing mark, I brought my DIY esbit stove. The tea pot was a hand-me-down from my brother’s godfather, something I hadn’t taken with me in a few years. It is made of aluminum, but for boiling water to make tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and freeze-dried meals, it is all I really need – simple and lightweight.

 

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And here is the view close to the summit (938 ft/286 m). For me, this is what it’s all about….you can’t get views like this through a plasma TV or a fancy computer. You have to travel to these wonderful spots on your own, a sort of personal pilgrimage through Nature’s vast temple to arrive at the altar of personal philosophy and self-understanding.

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Here’s the view further down the path looking northwest at Hemlock Heights, summit 971 ft/296 m.

Heading back down the ridge was easier than the ascent, mostly because that part of the trail was constructed better. There was also much less icy rocks to worry about. At the bottom, I turned south and followed the path as it meandered around the southern shore of a beautiful pond.

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On the left is Laurel Hill, and on the right is Black Oak Ridge. The positioning of this valley creates an area of heightened acoustics, and sound travels surprisingly well. The trail continues on the right side of the photo, towards the centre, and then up Laurel Hill.

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Frosted Ramps, anyone? 🙂

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Perhaps some ice-chilled Spearmint on the side? 😀

I followed the Ives’ Trail up and over Laurel Hill, crossing over to Town Hill. I wasn’t taking any chances here, since the trail was littered with iced-over rocks, so I hand-railed the path off to the side. I stopped at about the 700 ft/213 m mark amongst a grove of tall Norway Spruces, Canada Hemlocks, and Eastern White Pines. The wind had picked up, and most of the trees had broken-free from their crystal-like coating of ice, waving heavy branches in the gusts like a freed man lifting his arms to the sky in a moment of euphoria and exultation.

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It was at this time that I turned back to head home. This was only a 6 mile hike hike, but I took a leisurely pace, and this was my own pilgrimage. I think we all need trips like this, where we can laugh at the clock and distance ourselves from the routines and chaos of modern society, to walk among old friends and ancient companions who have been  with us for thousands of years, reminding and humbling us that we are all human at our roots.

 

 

 

 

A New Beginning

Well folks, it’s official: in this follow-up post to my ‘Update 2016‘ article, it is my great pleasure to announce to you all that I will be heading down to Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri for a 6 month Wilderness Ranger internship with the Student Conservation Association. I just got the confirmation call today after an interview yesterday, and I thought I would share the good news with you :). Here’s some information about the job from the SCA’s website:

Wilderness Ranger Intern
This position is located on The Mark Twain National Forest, and covers the Potosi/Fredericktown and Doniphan/ Eleven Point Ranger Districts. Incumbent performs a variety of technical work in support of the unit wilderness program in the area of recreation, ecology, data collection, and trails.
Major Duties:

Performs inventorying and monitoring of specific resources for Limits of Acceptable Change process.

Inspects assigned areas to determine compliance with regulations or specifications.  Explains or enforces use regulations according to Wilderness Act.  Prepares reports on conditions of camps and facilities.  Maintains visitors use records and prepares visitors use information for data processing.

Assist agency personnel with violation information.  Collects evidence and provides documentation for cases of misuse of wilderness areas.  Documents destruction to or impacts on campsites.  Analyzes ways to educate users.

Identifies restoration projects for planning future restoration projects.

Works closely with supervisor to ensure all administrative tasks are accomplished promptly and efficiently.  Writes responses to general inquiries regarding wilderness management.  Organizes or maintains wilderness library of current issues, technical articles, maps and slides.

Inventories signs and check for accuracy and maintenance level.  Gathers specific data on wilderness conditions.

Educates user groups on “Leave No Trace” camping techniques and packing out garbage.  Responsible for curtailing the improper management of human waste and educating people on importance of campsites placed away from water sources.

Work is performed outdoors where there is exposure to extremes of weather and temperature.  Work area varies from established administrative areas to wilderness areas.  Work requires the use of safety equipment such as tools, gloves, goggles and hard hat.  Requires working and living under primitive conditions.

 

Training Opportunities:

Wilderness Training
Saw training (crosscut and chainsaw)
Trail Maintenance Training
Wild land Fire training

Federal government defensive driving training

 

That pretty much covers it at a glance. My accommodations will be on-site, and I will receive a healthy weekly living allowance stipend ($160-$220). After completing the wildland fire training, I will be paid $16/h on top of it all by the Forest Service. Health insurance is optional, but is provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is standard for all SCA and federal government internships and jobs.

I start work officially the first week of May. I can’t express adequately my joy and anticipation of this opportunity. My ambitions are becoming a reality, and you are all going to be a part of it :).

That said, this is certainly not an end to my blog, though I cannot promise I’ll be able to post frequently with a 40 hour a week schedule. However, I’ll post as often as I can, and I’ll try to show the work that I’ll be doing. I am very much looking forward to this :).

On a final note, and slightly off-topic, I have other posts that are overdue, and those will be coming out sometime in the near future. So stay tuned :D.