Fixed Blade Reflections: A History of Acquisition

From left: SOG Seal Pup Elite (black TiNi); Mora Bushcraft Triflex; Condor Bushlore; Light My Fire/Mora FireKnife; TOPS Brothers of Bushcraft Fieldcraft; Dan's Depot Woodsman; Mora Classic #2; handmade knife of O1 steel; SOG BladeLight Camp; Mora Companion Orange.

From left: SOG Seal Pup Elite (black TiNi); Mora Bushcraft Triflex; Condor Bushlore; Light My Fire/Mora FireKnife; TOPS Brothers of Bushcraft Fieldcraft; Dan’s Depot Woodsman; Mora Classic #2; handmade knife of O1 steel; SOG BladeLight Camp; Mora Companion Orange.

When my love of nature first began to enjoy a renaissance after a period of focusing on my career and my family, I began to refine and hone my gear–my kit, as some refer to it. This process of refinement grew from my simple awareness of a fellow hiker’s Capiline shirt–his shirt was better suited for the conditions we were experiencing than my own, and this recognition of the benefits of specialized clothing and gear began a process of refinement and reflection that continues to this day.

Early in this process I decided I wanted a good fixed blade knife. While I happily survived all the years of my childhood without such a thing, some atavistic urge within me made this desire assume the urgency of a need. For weeks I researched, watching videos of people testing knives, exploring the glut of options out there. Eventually I decided that the SOG Seal Pup Elite was the knife for me, and a few weeks later I was the deliriously happy owner of a new cutting tool.

The Seal Pup was scary sharp, and that sharpness opened my eyes to wonder. My old BSA multipurpose camp knives never had an edge like this. I learned how to baton wood to reduce a log into kindling for a fire, how to shave feathersticks to start a fire. And I cut tent stakes with a few efficient strokes of the blade. I learned, too, that not everyone knows how to handle such a knife: at camp one night, I loaned the SOG to a counselor, who managed to slice open the back of his hand to a sufficient depth to expose tendon. I learned two things from this: first, that loaning potentially dangerous gear to others is not a good idea since it is impossible to know how much experience they have in using your gear; and second, my Boy Scout first aid paid off: the ER nurse said that my field dressing of his wound was among the best she’d seen! Kudos to the Boy Scouts, such a he part of my youth. But as my interest in camping and backpacking grew, I developed an interest in bushcraft, and suddenly the wicked gleam of my SOG’s clip point tip seemed like a limitation.

I “needed” another knife.

Enter Mora. I purchased the Mora Bushcraft Triflex knife after more research. The Mora company enjoys a well-deserved reputation for quality knives at reasonable prices. The Triflex was my first Scandinavian-ground knife, and I quickly fell in love with its versatility. It was an elegant, efficient tool, lighter than the SOG, and its carbon steel blade sharpened easily. I loved it!

But addictions don’t sleep. I kept researching, discovering the idea of a one-knife option: the ideal knife could do it all, from finer bushcraft tasks to heavy batonning. It must be out there somewhere. As my research continued, I came across naysayers who turned their noses down at Mora’s–“they aren’t full tang,” these survivalists said dismissively. It isn’t hard to find someone breaking a Mora on the internet, and this made me crave a knife as robust as my SOG but with a blade akin to my Mora. I didn’t have a lot of money for high-end options, so when I discovered a swath of positive reviews about the Condor Bushlore, I knew I had found fixed blade number three.

The Bushlore is mass-produced in El Salvador of 1075 carbon steel. Its spine is reassuringly thick, and yet not burdensome. Handsome hardwood scales sheath its full tang, attached with brass rivets. Finish quality is a bit iffy, but I set about finishing it and soon had a knife that felt good in the hand and worked well for bushcraft. It also came housed in a traditional leather sheath, a sheath of sufficient quality that most reviewers swore the sheath alone would have been worth the modest price of the knife. This knife was my beater blade: if it was full tang, I was going to test it. I brutalized it, developing affection for its quasi-ugly rusticity. I could tell the steel was not as resilient as it might have been, but the Bushlore was a satisfyingly robust knife that oozed tradition with its simple design, wooden scales, and thick leather sheath.

But it was heavy. Not unbearably so, but my addiction was directing me in a different direction. If I wanted to shave ounces when backpacking, how could I justify carrying a SOG or a Condor? Conveniently leaving my splendidly capable Triflex out of the equation (I needed, er, wanted another knife), my attention was drawn to the collaboration between Light My Fire and Mora, the FireKnife. After all, I was now working on my fire building skills; wouldn’t this light and handsome knife be the perfect choice? The FireKnife marked my return to stainless steel, and I have to say it is a brilliant design. It does what it should: for a very modest price, the FireKnife offers a capable fixed blade and an ingeniously embedded fire steel. It quickly became and remains my backpacking fixed blade of choice. It is sharp, light weight, and multi-use; it even batons modest thicknesses of wood, and its stainless blade is great for food processing.

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But what about heavy-duty wood processing? Yes, you see where this is going. I now needed the ultimate in heavy-duty bushcraft blades, and my research led me to the TOPS Brothers of Bushcraft (BOB) Fieldcraft knife. This was out of my price range, but my parents surprised me one Christmas with this knife. Thick, well-balanced, and supremely comfortable in the hand, this is the knife I would grab if my life depended on a blade. For all its considerable mass, it is still reasonably agile, enabling me to do bushcraft chores. Because of its mass, it handles battoning with giddy ease. I like it for many reasons, but especially because it balances the size of a bushcraft knife with the heft of a heavier survival knife. This is a knife I have repeatedly pulled from its sheath just to savor its feel in my hands.

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Obviously, this marked the end of my fixed blade knife collecting. Not so. Dan’s Depot advertised a Mora-style knife, the Woodsman, free with $4.95 shipping and handling. I bit and received a knife that was really a great value for the price. Was it a Mora killer? No; not close. But it was a great knife for $4.95, even if its sheath crumbled once when I sat on a log. I enjoyed putting it through the paces, testing something that no on really knew much about. My own skills were evolving, as were my understanding of what made a knife functional in a given context or for a given task.

The Mora Classic #2 was a $15 no-brainer when my next craving hit. Long lauded by bushcraft devotees for comfort, utility, and value, this venerably designed knife lived up to its reputation. The absence of a finger guard was initially disconcerting, and I was no fan of the functional, plastic rendering of a traditional leather sheath, but a first foray into Kydex fabrication gave me a new skill set to pursue–sheath making–that resulted in the #2 assuming its place in my collection.

One lovely afternoon in spring, a former student of mine appeared in my room, bearing a gift: a custom-designed, handmade bushcraft knife crafted from O1 steel. The spear point was a first in my collection, and I loved the hand feel of the small wood-scaled handle. A second Kydex sheath with fire steel loop was soon finished, allowing me to carry the knife safely. I plan to build a traditional bushcraft kit around this knife, adding to it my Gränsfors-Bruks Small Forest Axe and an oilskin pack. Given my ongoing trend of reducing my pack weight for backpacking treks, this traditional bushcraft kit will allow me to play with a different philosophy of use, and this little custom knife is ideal for this purpose.

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Gear testing became a passion of mine somewhere along the journey, and I was given the SOG BladeLight Camp for a review. This knife is unlike anything I had before, combining six LEDs with a fixed blade knife. As with the Dan’s Depot Woodsman, I relished the chance to test something relatively untried. It also gave me an excuse to go camping and to indulge my night owl tendencies around a campfire while carving feathersticks or battoning wood. It remains a unique addition to my collection, one I plan to continue to test. I want to polish its edge to a mirror finish. I’m sure some survivalists would decry it as a sell-out from a company that has made “tacticool” blades, but that is too simplistic an assessment. I think it might make a nice alternative to my FireKnife as a backpacking option.

My latest addition is the Mora Companion. This–like its sister blade the Classic #2–is something of a legend in bushcraft circles, enjoyable an enviable reputation for all the same reasons that any Mora earns accolades: it is sharp, capable, and reasonably priced. I’ve not tested it yet: there is something to be said for anticipation, for slipping a new knife from its sheath and looking at the perfection of its untouched blade. The Companion’s Sandvik steels literally gleams. I know it is sharp, too, for a hasty removal from its sheath led to its edge brushing and instantly slicing open a finger tip. It was my own fault, an error as foolish as the one my fellow camper made with my SOG Seal Pup Elite, those years ago when I was first exploring knives. But I delighted in the rapidly pooling blood, for it betokened a razor-sharp blade, and bore silent witness to the joys still ahead that await me when I put my latest acquisition to the test. Latest, but not last.

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Portents

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It happens every year, without warning.

Summer is still in full swing, the sun still bright and hot, the days long and hot. I break a sweat easily during these days, pausing mid-activity to discover I am soaked by the summer mingling of humidity, temperature, and exertion.

And then suddenly the pattern breaks. In rushes a few days or a week of cooler than average temperatures, and the sky yields its sun-bleached blue to a thick monotony of gray. Rain comes, slow and steady, fall-like. And before I know it, I am yearning for the next season.

Mine has been a full summer, filled with family, adventure, and fun. I weathered a minor hurricane at the beach, hiked a glorious loop in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, tackled countless little problems around my home and yard. My husky caught his first possum (not last, I fear, given the apparent IQ of possums). And while summer has been wonderful and intoxicating, a few recent days of rain and cooler than normal temperatures have planted a seed within me. It is the yearning for colors on the trees for crisp leaves underfoot, for a cold breeze on my cheeks and the joy of hot coffee in my mug. It is the longing to sit and lose myself in the lambent flames of a campfire when those flames are warm and welcome. One day before I know it, fall will be here, ushering in its own joys.

For now, working and playing under the summer sun, I must be patient.

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Another review soon . . .

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It is still summer, so I can’t wait to put the sample Outdoor Products Amphibian (20L capacity) through the paces to contribute the review to Brian’s Backpacking Blog. Next stop: canoe!

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Trip Report Published

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Well, after a week at the beach (and sitting out Hurricane Arthur), I finally found time to write up a trip report for my recent backpacking trip in the Linville Gorge Wilderness of North Carolina. Check it out on my Trips & Treks page of this blog.

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Owls

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When we first moved into our present house seven years ago, we soon noticed that a pair of barred owls (strix varia) was roosting in one of the tall cedars toward the rear of our property. Spring came along, and one morning I sat down to breakfast in the dining room, sipping my coffee and waiting for wakefulness to dispel the sluggishness that was making my movements slow. I happened to glance up at one point, looking out through the sliding glass door onto the deck  where, to my surprise, perched an immature barred owl on the railing. He was curious, staring in at me even as I stared out at him. We were separated only by the glass door and about eight feet of space. I was mesmerized.

Eventually Hedwig, as my boys named him, flew off, as young owls of a certain age are want to do, but often I’ve spotted his parents since then, usually thanks to the local bird populace, which is quick to sound the alarm. Sitting on my deck, a chatter of alarm cries rises, and looking toward the sound, I spot an owl in the tree, looking calmly back at me. It happens again and again.

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One night this spring I closed the blinds to my son’s window, when–on an impulse–I reopened the blinds and looked out. There, perched on a tree limb, sat a baby owl, a puff of fluffy feathers with no hope yet of flying. I watched, amazed, as he called out to his mother, a plaintive sound that I now find unmistakable. As my boys gathered about me to enjoy the sight, the owlet turned and looked at us, momentarily ceasing his hungry cries. This was so much better than any movie, TV show, or computer game.

A day or two later, backing out of my driveway, my elder son called out, “Dad, it’s Puffle!” (for Puffle was the name the owlet acquired from my boys). Sure enough, there he was in the driveway, eyeing us uncertainly yet somehow defiantly, too. Puffle was not at ease on the ground, but he was not going to reveal that to us unless he had to. I snapped a shot with my phone through the windshield. I was amazed that Puffle could have gotten so far on his feet . . .

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That night as I stood in the yard, watering plants, I heard Puffle cry out. It was a familiar sound by now, one that made me smile, for often I had followed the sound to find him on a branch, eyeing me with stoic calm. Yet suddenly, as his cry was diminishing, the unmistakable sound of a second owlet could be heard. Puffle and Piffle. So Puffle hadn’t gotten that far on foot; Piffle had. My smile grew even bigger.

So we have owls about us. It is a lovely thing to hear them in the night, or to look up from getting the mail and spot one on a branch above me, tolerating my presence. I’m glad they are barred owls; that means we get to see them in the day as well as at night. And my boys, of course, are thrilled, too.

Nature has a way of blessing those who–to quote William Cullen Bryant–“hold communion with her visible forms,” and enjoying this family of owls and their offspring certainly has us feeling quite blessed.

 

 

 

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Stove Addiction

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5:07 A.M.

The morning is cool, the birds just beginning to stir in their nests, the wind a soft whisper among the trees. My oil lamp casts a warm glow on the cement slab that has become my testing ground. Its light casts long shadows across the slab, glowing eerily where the water in my Nalgene captures and refracts the light.

A sudden shower of incandescent sparks explodes from my fire steel, a shower that ignites the 20 milliliters of alcohol that pools in the bottom of what was once an aluminum beer bottle; now it is a rugged alcohol stove and pot stand. Blue flames rise genie-like from the circle of aluminum, a hypnotic, mesmerizing dance in the cool morning air. Seconds pass, and then, one by one, blue jets of flame burst out of small holes along the outside perimeter of the stove. Success!

I am euphoric as the water gurgles from my Nalgene, filling my Snow Peak Mini Solo pot. Setting the pot on the stove, I watch with satisfaction as my afternoon project from the day before heats my coffee water. But I know, too, that this success will only spur me to make more and different stoves. Such is the MYOG curse.

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For quite a few years, I had been perfectly content  to use a gas stove (pictured above with other stoves of my own creation)—I enjoyed the convenience and the speed with which it heated water. But , while I enjoyed this stove, I found myself yearning to play with a stove of my own design.

The first design that caught my attention was a gasifier, wood-burning stove constructed from a Progresso soup can and a 1 quart paint can. The principle of this stove is ingenious, burning found fuel–wood–at first, but then, by virtue of the stove’s design, recirculating the wood gases produced by combustion and reigniting these at the top of the stove, creating an efficient stove that reduces the fuel to a pile of ashes. Soon after I gulped down some Progresso soup, then zipped over to a hardware store to get an empty 1 quart paint can. The beauty of this design is its ease of construction: my cordless drill and a can opener converted the cans into a gasifier stove that produced a fierce inferno of flame to boil water. A ring of hardware cloth mesh served as a pot stand. Carefully I sawed and battoned wood until I had a stack of fuel. A twist of birch bark was my tinder, and within a minute I had a functional stove beginning to heat water. I was in DIYer heaven!

The stove worked admirably well, reducing the wood to ashes, but when I got ready to store the stove, I realized that it was messy: soot had blackened the stove, and ashes clung to the interior. I was also struck by the bulk of the stove: it was actually bulkier than my gas stove, though it did benefit from being able to use found fuel. Perhaps, though, there was another option . . . .

Somewhere along one the way I discovered forum posts devoted to DIY/MYOG alcohol stoves. These were ingenious and simple devices, made of recycled aluminum cans. I had to try to make one! I had a slew of aluminum cans about, and so I rescued one from the more conventional recycling future that lay in front of it and set about making my first stove. I quickly realized that I was going to need several cans given my novice stove-making skills, but in the course of an afternoon I successfully made my first alcohol stove.

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It was elegant in its simplicity, light in weight, and . . . completely without any fuel. Frustrated by a search of house and shop that yielded no fuel, I raced to the store to get the alcohol I needed.  My subsequent first test was exciting, especially when the stove began to work as I had seen it work in the images online. But I quickly realized that blustery afternoon that I needed two things: a pot stand and a wind screen.

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The circlet of hardware cloth from my gasifier stove worked as a pot stand, and plywood served as a wind screen (not exactly practical for backpacking, though!). Soon I had water bubbling in my old Boy Scout cook pot. Success, yes, but hmm . . . I still needed to work out some things about this MYOG stove enterprise if I was going to commit to using it on a trek.

Those realizations led to a subsequent run to a convenience store to buy large aluminum bottles of a beer that I don’t drink (usually) in a size I don’t purchase (usually). But, Dear Reader, I forced myself to consume the contents of these containers so that I could fashion the stove based on some plans I found online. For some reason I was very relaxed during the making of this stove. Life was good.

When I tested it I was pleased: here was an ultra-durable stove that also worked as a pot stand! One of my problems had been resolved. That morning coffee was better than usual for some reason, a heavenly rush of warm richness (I used my REI DoubleSHot Press Mug to make it) that seemed all the better for having been brewed from water heated on a stove of my own creation. DIYers and MYOGers know this heady rush of pleasure that accompanies the success of a project. But DIY success is a drug, energizing and addictive. After a few mornings of enjoying this stove, I found myself hunched over the stove on a drizzly, breezy morning. The weather reminded me of the second problem I had not solved–the wind screen–because the wind blew the flame all about, drastically reducing the efficiency of my latest stove creation.

More internet research followed. I was busy with my job, unable to go camping, so instead I worked on my kit. Stove-making was front and center on my list of things to improve. By then I was participating in a number of online forums, and I kept stumbling across mention of the Caldera Cone, a product designed and manufactured by Trail Designs. All the reviews were rave reviews, and a bit of good fortune led me to a YouTube video that outlined in superbly explained fashion how to make my own Caldera Cone out of aluminum flashing. My next project? Yes, you better believe it!

Trail Designs’ ingenious cone–I must credit Rand and company here–solved both of my problems at once: the cone itself functions as a pot rest, and the cone also does double duty as a wind screen. Moreover, the conical shape channels the heat around the pot for efficient concentration of heat. This thing is brilliant! I just had to make one for myself. I happened to have some flashing, I reasoned, and soon I was in the heady throes of another MYOG project. This one had a few challenges, notably my discovery that the flashing was coated in something that released noxious fumes and smoke when heated. Ugh. Don’t make that mistake. The baked coating also discolored the aluminum, as you can see below.

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A random orbital sander and some fine sandpaper removed this coating (and thinned the aluminum, and soon I had my very own functional Caldera Cone clone. [Note: I have since acquired the real thing from Trail Designs, mine in titanium, which permits three different fuel options. I love it, and it is my go-to stove. See my review of it  here.]

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My sense of pride was huge, my elation through the roof! I warn you, if you haven’t made your own gear, don’t start now unless you are prepared for an addictive journey. Of course pride goeth before a fall, as my grandmother was fond of saying, and I have had plenty of MYOG failures, too. But those are stories for another day.

So what now?

Well, I was not satisfied with the stoves I had made. My beer bottle stove was too tall for use in my Caldera Cone clone, so I was using my first aluminum can stove. This one, though, seemed inefficient as my knowledge of stove-making principles grew. One late night, the work for my real job completed, I browsed YouTube, searching for alcohol stove designs. I found many videos describing and demonstrating the use of the so-called SuperCat stove, a simple construction made from a cat food can. Well, I don’t have cats, but you may recall that not drinking a variety of beer did not stop me from consuming the beer to make a stove, so of course you know what this meant: I zipped to Walmart, bought a can of cat food, went home, opened it, sniffed it, and then grabbed a spoon from the kitchen drawer. In short order I had scooped it into the trash (you didn’t think I was going to eat it, did you?), and within fifteen minutes my own SuperCat was boiling water (for detailed discussion, see this post). I liked it, but somehow it didn’t seem like what I was seeking. It felt almost too easy, unearned.

Enter Tetkoba, genius of DIY alcohol stove design. One happy night I stumbled across his Capillary Hoop Stove, a diminutive thing fashioned from a few Red Bull cans that produced a glorious whirling vortex of blue flame–not on the outside of stove, as my first few stoves had done, but a spiral of flame rushing to a point from the middle of the stove.

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This was an elegant design (although less elegant than his when made by my own hands). It seemed to me the pinnacle of alcohol stoves, the solution to my problems. I took me a few attempts to get it right, but then I had a potent burner that became the companion to my DIY Caldera Cone clone on a number of wilderness treks and day trips. Cook time was great, efficiency was great, and my own satisfaction was deliriously high. The miles I logged during the day were forgotten when I sat down to boil water for the evening meal, or, indeed, any meal. Cook-in-the-bag lunches and dinners and morning coffees never tasted so good! The addition of a secure fuel bottle made my kit complete. I was finished; I had reached the pinnacle! MYOG stove bliss was mine!

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Then I saw a really great DIY ultralight backpack concept . . . .

But that, my friends, is another story.

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Imbibing Spring

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Poet Emily Dickinson is one who speaks to me through her verse, as below, when she describes the sheer, intoxicating joy of reveling in Nature’s beauty. I, too, have been an Inebriate of air, reeling through endless summer days; I, too, have found spiritual sustenance in Nature.

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew, 
Reeling, through endless summer days, 
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee 
Out of the foxglove’s door, 
When butterflies renounce their drams, 
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats, 
And saints to windows run, 
To see the little tippler 
Leaning against the sun!

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The Bear

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The last thing I expected when I signed up for an animal tracking class was meeting a bear face to face in the wilderness. But let me not get ahead of myself.

A couple of summers ago the itch to learn more about my natural surroundings and their inhabitants grew to a point at which the balms of new Audubon phone apps, books of bird behaviors, and the like could no longer soothe my yearnings. I did a little research, discovered Rob Spieden’s Natural Awareness Tracking School, and soon after was enrolled in a basic animal tracking class. I wanted to know more about the critters whose trails I kept stumbled across when I was traipsing about in the woods. As I am a teacher, I did research about animal tracking in advance, too: I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of the major titles in this relatively small discipline were at my local library, and so I filled my evenings between enrollment and the start of class with reading.

Rob is a great guy–very knowledgeable, highly motivated, and supremely enthusiastic: one morning during the class, he woke up, drove to check the condition of a muddy track trap he knew of along the New River, and then drove back to the school to meet the four of us for our early AM session. He was filled with contagious energy about what he had seen, and soon we were peering at impressions in sand and mud, marking prints with sticks, pondering gaits, and basically having a blast.

My evenings during camp were spent, fittingly enough, in the wilderness. I camped in a bend in a creek in the Jefferson National Forest, nestled between two incredibly steep and thickly wooded slopes. I enjoyed the natural surroundings in the day, but as evening fell, I felt suddenly cut off from society. My phone had no signal; I had seen no vehicle pass by my camp on the rustic, gravel forest road. I nevertheless dined well, enjoying some soup and bread, and dutifully crawled into my tent at 9, aware of the rich chorus of animal and insect sounds funneling through the narrow gorge in which my camp was situated. The night was dark, pitch-black. No man-made light reached the bottom of the gorge save my own fire, stoked and simmering low for the evening. This I eyed until it was all but out through the no-see-um mesh of my tent. When it burned out, the darkness closed in as if it were a creeping presence.

At ten I awoke suddenly.

I had fallen asleep, but now the darkness was filled with the yipping of coyotes, circling about my camp site. I fumbled for my flashlight, vainly shining it in all directions, capturing only foliage and rocks in its harsh glare. The coyotes continued, their yipping louder. I knew that coyote attacks on humans were rare, but such a thought is small comfort when one is alone, trying to sleep in a pitch-black gorge, the thinnest wisp of mesh between you and the menacing sounds encroaching from the darkness. So began a long evening of restless, nervous energy and very little sleep.

I don’t know when I fell asleep again, but my watch’s alarm roused me to a cool, misty morning. Staggering out of my tent, I eyed the woods about me: they were peaceful and calm, bearing no sign of the creatures whose cries had populated the night air hours before. Coffee was a welcome relief, and gradually I came to.

I was eager to return to the school for another day of tracking. We were headed to Carvin’s Cove, a 12,700 acre nature reserve near Roanoke, Virginia. Here Rob was confident we’d see countless deer. We wandered along Carvin Creek in an area of lush underbrush and comparatively level ground. It was not exactly easy going, but it was rewarding: deer beds and scat were everywhere, and Rob pointed out local features that one could use for natural navigation as well. Back and forth across the creek we went, sidestepping piles of raccoon poop, until we came to an area where the trees receded a bit. Here a rotten log captured Rob’s attention, and soon he was pointing out in shredded wood the unmistakable signs of a bear’s curious exploration of the log. A little further on we found another log, similarly shredded; a hundred feet later I noticed a broken branch which, upon closer examination, Rob confirmed to have been snapped by a bear–I black hair was caught on the bark of the tree. This was a recent sign; a bear had been active here not long before. Excitement grew in our little group: we had come to find deer signs, but this was a huge bonus!

The trail we followed became the game trail that the bear was evidently accustomed to traversing, too. Soon we spotted piles of bear scat, some innocuous little piles, others more ominously large. And at last we broke out onto the shores of Carvin Cove Reservoir, watching as delicate deer grazed on leaves and grasses between the woods where we stood and the edge of the water, just beyond them. While they took notice of us, they did not flee, but rather moved gradually away until they vanished.

Rob scouted ahead, returning with a huge grin on his face. He sent us to some mud flats to scout for tracks, and soon we were bent over the unmistakable trail of a bear. Unlike the deer, whose trails led from cover to cover, the bear’s trail betrayed its total sense of security and curiosity. It wandered across the flats in seemingly indolent fashion, pulled here and there by something that caught its eye or, more likely, its nose. I felt affection for the creature, imagining this untroubled stroll.

After an attempt to capture a track by one of the class members, Rob went on ahead of us to retrieve our vehicle while the rest of use ambled slowly through the woods, chatting with the excitement of the day’s discovery still fresh. Ahead we saw Rob pause, one hundred yards distant, making Mickey Mouse ears with his hands, pointing into the woods. Bear, he seemed to be saying. Then he waved us off, as if the “bear” he had seen had dashed away. We joked about the convenience of his being far ahead of us, too far for us to confirm his sighting. Rob had a great sense of humor, after all. So we continued walking and talking.

Suddenly the feeling that I was being watched stole over me, and as the hair rose on my neck, I turned to look to my right, into the woods that were darkening with dusk. An impossibly jet-black bear stood behind a fringe of underbrush, perhaps a hundred feet distant. Its ears were perfect cups above the blackness of its face, giving it a cute look–this was the bear of a children’s nature book. But then the reality that nothing separated me from this apex predator seeped into my consciousness. We had all stopped; no one spoke. We knew that running would suggest to the bear that we were dinner, but I don’t think any of us wished to move. The bear eyed us from its vantage point.

For excruciating, miraculous moments, we stood facing the bear, the bear staring with equal intensity at us. I felt wonder and peace, my curiosity quickly overcoming the momentary fear of recognition that I was facing a bear in the wilderness. Seeing this creature in its natural environment after following in its footsteps all day was magical, and the bear seemed content to let us admire it from our scant distance away. My eyes traced the outline of its head, my focus zooming in its dark features in the midst of this vast wilderness. Then, with a movement that was frighteningly, unbelievably quick, it turned and crashed through the underbrush, an unstoppable natural force in its own element. Though it fled from us, it was then that I felt a twinge of fear; then, that I realized firsthand the speed and power of this incredible creature.

But in the aftermath, a feeling that I had been blessed radiated through me. How rare, how wonderful the experience of that day! As if from a reverie, I turned back to my fellow trackers. Each of us had been slowly reaching for a camera when the bear had vanished into the dusk. None of us had gotten a picture, but we were all beaming from ear to ear.

That smile stayed with me a long time. I had sought a deeper connection with nature through the animal tracking course, and it had certainly delivered: a chance encounter that was more spiritual than I could have imagined.

 

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Spring, finally.

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This morning as my coffee brewed and the early morning sun began to burn off the cool of the previous night, my mind drifted outside of my home to speculate on the changes that this long winter’s late spring would be causing to my surroundings. Soon my thoughts were interrupted by the chatter of others, and as my children and wife and parents emerged from their various bedrooms to discuss our day’s plans, the idea of a walk by a local creek seemed to hold universal appeal.

After breakfast, we went down to the end of the street on which I live, an area that features a newly expansive wetland created by enterprising beavers which drains into a lake.

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Turtles sunned themselves on a log, some double stacked to take advantage of the warm spring rays. A goose set on her clutch of eggs, dignified and quiet but on guard as she eyed us from her island nest. The soft quacking of a male Mallard came to us on the breeze, and soon we spotted him ducking in and out of little coves along the shore, plunging his head into the shallows in search of food. Overhead came the exhilarating cry of a red-shouldered hawk, a high keening sound that told only of the joy of flight.

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As we progressed along the creek, the verdant grass beneath us erupted in blazes or gold and purple and blue: violets and bluets, sweet phlox, and aromatic foliage in myriad patterns. Tangles of wild rose clung to the banks of the river, in shady spots midstream rocks carpeted in moss rose from the cheerful babble of the creek.

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Everywhere came the sounds of birds: a tufted titmouse perched above us, busily flitting from limb to limb, calling to his partner in the woods who echoed his calls in return. My mother, eighty years young, bent over to pluck wildflowers for study, digging deep into her memory to retrieve botanical names. Her mind was quickened by the promises of spring, by newly opened leaves, by the buds that still concealed their blooms, by the riot of color and greens that be tokens the arrival of spring.

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For a leisurely mile we walked, stopping often, crouching down to speculate on the similarities of this leaf to that one, on the color variations of the violets, on the eventual blooms of the wild rose that were still far off in the future. A drake followed us for a ways, offering his companionable quacks; a Canada goose bobbed beside us in stately fashion before finding sustenance on the creek bank in a pool of shade. Red buds blazed in the sun; a plum opened its delicate, feathery blossoms over the water; dogwoods reveled in the warm sun in bursts of white and pink.

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I inhaled deeply, sucking in the the scents of sun-baked bark and grass and flowers and fresh smell of new vegetation.

Spring had arrived, finally.

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Geocaching from A to Z

Note: This post was originally published on my geocaching blog, 26 March 2011.

Last night I discovered two things: first, I had found a cache beginning with every letter of the alphabet except “X”; second, there was a cache beginning with X a little over five miles from my house.

Why is this important?  Because an avid cacher (an understatement!)  placed a cache called Geocaching from A to Z that requires one to list twenty-six caches, each beginning with a separate letter of the alphabet.  A picture of one’s handle for the post is also required.  In the careers of local geocachers, this is a nice landmark cache to secure.

After collecting my thoughts this morning, I set off after the X cache.  I hoped to find it, but I also anticipated spending a long tome searching for it, too long to be able to then go after the Geocaching from A to Z cache.  I found myself turning into a service road for an office park, one that seemed eerily quiet.  The cache site loomed suddenly on my right, an old graveyard languishing in the shadow of empty office buildings.  Both graveyard and office complex were wastelands, eerie in the chill, windy morning.  I set off after my GPSr compass needle, trotting a little more quickly than I needed to stay warm in the face of the suddenly bitter wind.  As I passed an old outhouse in the fringe of the woods, I suppressed a shiver.

Ground zero proved to be an open area in the woods, one strewn with discarded, sun-faded flowers from graveside bouquets, countless blocks of styrofoam from long-dead real bouquets, and fragments of shattered vases that had once watched silently over the same stones.  Did I mention this was a rather eerie place?

The cache was a micro, hidden somewhere in these woods among the discarded flowers and twisted trunks of fallen trees.  Rusted barbed wire grew through the center of a tree, and I wondered how long ago the graveyard was on family property or behind a long since razed church.  Shrugging off these thoughts, I pursued my search on hand and knees, peering under weathered limbs, poking in holes among roots, dusting aside dead leaves.  For ten minutes my search was in vain, then my eye happened to fall upon one place the size of a quarter that had a texture incongruous to its surroundings.  Elated, I reached out and discovered I had, in fact, found the cache.  Chance had led me to this particular spot: I came around an obstacle and my eye fell to just the right spot, but this did not dampen my enthusiasm.  On this morning, where others had tried and failed, at times even in groups, I had made a find without reaching for my phone to call a friend for help.  X was logged.

To my delight, I found myself behind the wheel of my truck, now bound for Geocaching from A to Z.  In something of a daze I drove through a neighboring city whose streets and buildings seemed different to me on this morning.  I found myself blindly following the voice of Mandy, my truck’s GPSr voice.  “Ahead, turn left,” she would intone, and I raised my eyes to see where I was heading.  After forty-five minutes, the city suddenly disappeared from my view and I found myself in the country.  Moments later, crossing a lake, I found my parking spot.  Grabbing my geocaching pack and my handheld GPSr, I plunged into the underbrush on the far side of the road.  I paused on the ridge above a lake.  Below me the ground fell away into a rocky ravine; still further down and away from me, closer to the shore of the lake, a mud-packed trail snaked through the woods.  For a cacher for relishes escaping into the woods, this was heaven!

Scrambling down the rocks, my trekking poles in hand but frankly forgotten in the excitement, I looked about me. The cache owner’s coordinates were dead on.  I spotted the cache, hidden but still visible.  My attention turned briefly to a film canister nearby.  Opening it, I smiled at the hint that suggested I was in close proximity to the cache.  Indeed.

I waited for a moment, almost hesitant to open the cache and log it.

This successful find more or less marked two years of geocaching for me.  I vividly remembered my first cache, so many days before.  I remembered caching with my parents, who–in their late seventies–were game for the hike if a little slower than my young son, who was leading us wherever his heart took him.  I remembered night caching in rain and cold, milling about elsewhere to wait for muggles to clear before making a find.  Weeks-long hunts for multi-caches.  My first travel bug find.  The first travel bug I ever sent out (last found, 3232.6 miles later, in Yuma, Arizona).  I reached down and pulled the cache free.

Part of the logging requirement was to create a foam-block version of my geocaching handle, which I accomplished in a little more time than I thought it would take.  I didn’t mind, though.  The log book was a beautiful, hardbound diary–not your usual geocache logbook!  I savored the experience of signing it.

Later, in the comfort of my home, I savored the memory of all of my caches as I created the requisite A to Z list of aches.  I chose those that were memorable, that had personal meaning, that evoked a feeling of accomplishment in me.  The cache owner had really created a gift for the geocaching community with this one.  Everyone should be asked to pause and reflect from time to time.  Thanks, RF!

 

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