Summer of Walkabouts
Primitive survival outings in the mountains
By Thomas J. Elpel and Friends
Summers are short in Montana, and I always strive to make the most of them, getting up in the mountains as much as I can before winter comes again. In my eagerness, I sometimes imagine that spring comes a little earlier than it does, and this year we went on a walkabout in March In Search of Spring. We were definitely a bit early.
After that camping trip, we went to work on the intern house for our Green University program. In May we took a break from the building project and brought the junior high kids out on a camping trip, similar to the 8th Grade Camping Trip I wrote about a few years back. As summer rolled around we started doing more and more hikes in the afternoons, when my kids got out of school, and on the weekends. We continued building intermittently throughout the summer, but spent more and more time out in the woods. This journal describes several of our short walkabouts and camping trips during the summer of 2006.
"Just what we could carry in our pockets"
One of the greatest thrills in wilderness survival is to go camping without a backpack, carrying just what you can fit in your pockets. On this particular trip I was joined by Kris (one of our Green University interns) and my friend Nick from Potosi Hot Springs. We took just what we could fit in our pockets and walked over the Tobacco Root Mountains in mid-June from our store in Silver Star to our house in Pony. We didn't actually leave right from the store itself, but rather, my daughter dropped us off near the community of Waterloo, so we could explore Beall Creek and Beall Lake. I had never been there before.
There used to be a Forest Service trail up Beall Creek to the lake, but there isn't any formal public access at the bottom and so the trail had fallen into disuse. My brother and his girlfriend tried coming down the trail on horseback the year before (riding from Pony to Silver Star), and found so many fallen trees that he called me on a cell phone for help. I drove up the canyon, found all the gates open, and walked up the trail a ways with the chainsaw, cutting trees out along the way. The trail crossed back and forth across the creek, and the bridges were all in really bad shape. I finally reached a narrow part of the canyon where it would have been impossible to get through with the horses either across the decrepit bridge or in the creek itself, so I turned back. Fortunately, they had come to a similar conclusion already, and rode the horses back out the way they came in. But the initial explorations had piqued my interest, so now it was my turn to explore Beall Creek. Without the burden of horses or even backpacks, we would be able to navigate the terrain more easily.
Actually, it is amazing how much gear you can stuff in a few pockets, and we had all sorts of food and trail mix, maps, emergency space blankets, fire-starters, and fishing tackle. It wasn't intended to be a strictly primitive trip, so we brought a handful of compact survival gear to test out, such as the space blankets. We also had semi-warm clothes, especially coats (which we tied around our waists), since we were headed into the mountains, and there was still snow up there.
It was fun hiking up Beall Creek, and we explored and tasted many of the wild plants along the way. The trail definitely criss-crossed the creek a lot, which required crossing on trees or walking on the decrepit remains of the original bridges. Higher up in the canyon we had to step over or climb over many downfallen trees in the trail--if we could find the trail at all. It wasn't difficult to get over the obstacles, but the cumulative effort started to wear on us long before we reached the lake at 8,500 feet in elevation. We were tired when we reached the lake, and disappointed to see that it was so shallow--and apparently devoid of fish--but it was beautiful.
We had hoped to catch some fish there, but seeing nothing, we headed up on over the ridge into the South Boulder drainage. I used the timer on the camera to take this picture of the three of us sitting on the ridge. You can see Beall Lake in the background.
Finally on our way down the other side, we dug up a small harvest of spring beauty roots and greens along the way. We also saw scores of large, white mushrooms. I'd seen them from time to time in the past, but hadn't ever identified them. White mushrooms usually have that "poisonous look" anyway, but now that we were foraging for dinner, I really wanted to know whether or not that mushroom was edible. We didn't harvest any, but I later figured out that it was a subalpine waxycap, and it is edible. I'll have to try it next time!
At the Curly Lakes we discovered an abundance of some very large waterbugs, which looked like an easy source of protein. I had never eaten them before either, but this is the first time I had ever come across them in such quantity, so it seemed worth a shot. I waded in and caught enough for a small meal.
Our first night destination was a wickiup that I built more than ten years before in the South Boulder drainage. We still use it about once or twice a year, though it could use a few repairs to plug the air leaks around the bottom. Anyway, it was late in the evening when we arrived there. We started our fire using a Swedish Fire Steel, then we cooked dinner on a piece of rusty tin we found on our way in. I got really lucky and found some king bolete mushrooms, which were unseasonably early, but what a treat! We also dug up some wild onions, so dinner consisted of onions, spring beauty roots and greens, and king bolete mushroom. The portions were small, but boy was it good! I cooked the waterbugs separately, and they were awful. But we had all sorts of other trail food anyway, so we were not too hungry.
We slept around the fire in the wickiup that night, using our crinkley space blankets mostly behind us to block any cool air coming through the walls of the shelter, and to reflect the heat back from the fire. Actually, it was remarkably warm for that time of year in the mountains, and I think we would have been quite comfortable just about anywhere.
It is only a two-day hike across the mountains, but we gave ourselves three days to do it in, so we had an entire extra day just to explore and forage for the fun of it. We set some figure four deadfall traps in the morning in hopes of catching some ground squirrels, then hiked back up into the high country, to Sailor Lake. Nick assembled a soda-bottle fishing pole and spent some time fishing with that to no avail. But we also hiked up higher to the Brannon Lakes, which were still partly covered with snow. I got lucky and caught two fish there. We picked more greens along the way, and it turned into an all day outing. Unfortunately, we didn't catch anything in our traps, but we did fine on the trail mix, and energy bars we had in our pockets. We roasted the fish right on the coals, and cooked up another stir fry of vegetables and mushrooms. It was all simply delicious.
Given that we brought the emergency space blankets along to test them out, we thought it sensible to sleep in them that second night, though we were still camped in the wickiup and around the fire. The bags seemed to work fine, though they did tear easily, and we definitely sweated inside of them. Most importantly, it never got that cold, or I think we might have been a bit less comfortable.
On the third day we hiked up Park Creek, over the top to Pony. We found some giant puffball mushrooms along the way, but couldn't see any sense in harvesting them, since we were on our way out. We met up with the road just over the top, and there encountered a bunch of college-age guys and girls out drinking beer and shooting ground squirrels. Guns and beer--always a smart combination! We talked only briefly, and were glad to get past them as quickly as we could. It was all downhill from there, and we made it home with two extra energy bars. After three days in the mountains with just what we could carry in our pockets, we still had extra food!
Filming the Art of Nothing Volume 4
At the end of June Kris and I partnered up to film the fourth volume in our Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Video Series. I've always done my own filming on these outings, but this time we were joined by Adam and Dawn-Marie Starr from Zone 5 Pictures. Adam previously converted all of our VHS videos over to DVD. He liked what we were doing, and wanted to be directly involved in filming and editing the next movie in the series. This is our first professionally filmed video.
Adam and Dawn drove out from New Hampshire, which was supposed to be a leisurely trip, until they realized their calendar was off by several days. The last night they couldn't find a motel to stay in anyway, so they arrived at our place in the morning of the day we planned to go out. Naturally, we put off the outing for another day, although I don't think they really got a chance to get rested up. We typically film from first light until well after dark, which works out to an eighteen- to nineteen-hour day this time of year.
We filmed the movie Canoe Camping: on a song and a paddle on private land out at nearby Harrison Lake. Kris and I scouted the area ahead of time to make sure it would work for the video, and we sketched an outline of the skills we would like to cover. Things never go quite according to script on these survival outings, but we ended up with an awesome movie out of it anyway.
After filming the video, Renee and I, and the kids, and Kris, went car camping for a week in the Pioneer Mountains. We had some great hikes, and we dug for crystals at Crystal Park. Then my daughter Felicia went with Grandma on a week-long horseback ride along a section of the Nez Perce Trail. We waited until Felicia returned before starting our next little walkabout.
Backpacking with the Kids
In late-July Kris and I walked over the Tobacco Roots again, only this time it was with my kids and the dog--and we had loaded backpacks. For a long time I have wanted to take the kids backpacking, but in the past we've always done car camping, canoe trips, or occasionally horseback trips. Mostly it has been a logistical issue. With small children it is easier to put the family and all the gear in a canoe to float on down the river, than to expect them to climb mountains with heavy backpacks on. However, the kids are not so little anymore, and even our youngest, Edwin (now five) was big enough to walk on his own. The only other backpacking trip I tried with the kids (but not Edwin) was a couple years before at Christmas time down by Lake Mead in Nevada. We hiked for two days over some pretty rugged terrain before we were completely cliffed out beside the lake, and we were still less than five miles from where we started. This time, at least, we would be on more familiar terrain in our own "backyard".
My sister gave us a ride to Sheridan and dropped us off on Indian Creek, so this walk was a completely different route than the one we took in June. It was still a little less than twenty-five miles across the mountains to Pony, which is one of the odd things about these mountains. No matter where we get dropped off at, it is always about a twenty-five mile walk back to Pony. Anyway, the big kids all had frame backpacks with their sleeping bags, clothes, and personal snacks. Edwin had only a little school backpack with a few clothes, snacks, and his all-essential coloring books and markers. He must have carried his own pack for at least a hundred yards before he gave it to me to carry the rest of the way. I carried the rest of Edwin's gear in my pack, and Kris carried most of the group food. It felt weird to Kris and I to be carrying so much gear, after our last trip of the mountains with just what we could carry in our pockets.
All in all, the trip was remarkably uneventful, which is usually a good thing when camping with kids. They proved to be very good backpackers, and the distance we walked each day was just about right, without really pushing anyone's limits. The first day we camped at Thompson Reservoir, pictured here. We built sandcastles on the beach (okay, mudcastles, really) before making camp, cooking, and crashing for the night. There was a pika, which looks like a cross between a rabbit and a mouse, living in the rocks near our camp. Edwin hoped to feed it some leaves and catch it, but he never got quite that close.
On day two we walked up over the ridge at about 9,000 feet, where we had a good view of the Branham lakes up Mill Creek, as well as Bell Lake on the Potosi side, which was where we were headed. On the downhill side we found some large lingering snowbanks. The kids jumped off the rocks above, then skied down the snow bank with just their shoes. The flowers along the way were amazing, mostly a blend of yellows and pinks. At Bell Lake we rested and played on another beach, this one quite sandy. I chased butterflies with the camera.
From Bell Lake we walked on down the trail and then on down the road to the Potosi Campground. Even after all the hiking, the kids were full of energy. We played hide-and-seek tag first, and then something like dodgeball. Donny had a poncho in a bag that served as a suitable ball, and we had two of us on the outside throwing the ball back and forth while trying to bean whoever ran back and forth in the middle.
Day three was our longest day, which started with the grueling ascent up out of the Potosi canyon. From the top the trail is comparatively flat for several miles through meadows and forests along the foot of the higher peaks. Felicia and Cassie were eager to go on ahead just as soon as we reached the downhill side above Pony, and they covered these last four miles or so almost an hour faster than I did with the boys. (They also hitched a ride to town just as soon as the hit the road.)
I was thrilled that the trip went so smoothly, and I hoped to take them out on a slightly longer backpacking trip before the end of summer. However, the forests were drying out, and campfires were already banned outside of the established fire pits at the campgrounds. All campfires were soon banned as the fire season worsened, and we finally opted to go car camping again as the most attractive alternative.
by Adam Jones & Thomas J. Elpel
Tom: Kris and I had been planning an "all primitive trip" at the end of the summer, just after my kids went back to school. I already had a complete set of buckskins and primitive gear. Kris tanned a bunch of hides and sewed his own clothing over the summer. In August we were joined by Adam Jones from Michigan. He stopped by for "a couple days" to check out our Green University internship program, and ended up staying for a month. He helped Kris and I put the roof on the intern house, putting a solid roof over it for the first time ever. He happened to have a full set of buckskin clothes already.
Adam: When I arrived in Silver Star, I learned about a primitive camping trip that was planned for the end of the month. I was excited and unsure what to expect. Although I had experience with primitive skills, I had not been on this kind of a camping trip before, nor had I ever been to Montana. After a couple of weeks getting to know Tom Kris as we worked on the intern house, we set up plans for our trip.
Tom: Originally, we hoped to make it a week-long trip across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. I hoped to make that trip the year before, but aborted it due to a knee injury beforehand. This year we had to abandon the idea again, due to the fire ban in the forests. It is just about impossible to go primitive camping without a fire; not only do we use it to cook with, but we risk freezing to death at night without it. The alternative we came up with was neither as remote nor as primitive, but seemed like the best choice we had available under the conditions.
Adam: We planned to drive about forty-five minutes south of Silver Star to Nevada City, where we would camp for a few nights then hike up over the mountains to Pony. The campsite was along a small river that had been dredged for gold many years ago. Now few people go into this somewhat forgotten place. We chose here because we would be allowed to have a fire on private land while most other places had a fire ban because of the dry weather.
August 30th: We packed up our few items that we decided to take: a couple of hair-off elk skins, some sheep hides, water bottles, metal cups, metal knifes, a metal cook pot, our buckskins, a small amount of food, iodine crystals, a few other primitive items, plus Tom had a small first aid kit. Our food consisted of a small amount of flour, sugar, and oil, in the hopes of cooking some wildberry pies, plus we brought a large quantity of venison from home. We would eat some of it fresh and make the rest into jerky. We were dropped off mid morning and walked in to a site where Tom had built a wickiup many years ago, which was by now in serious disrepair. We cut the venison into strips right away and hung it out to dry on some branches in the sun. Then we gathered armloads of cattails to insulate the wickiup. Around dark, Kris and I struggled with a hand drill fire until we finally got it. We rested around the fire cooking a stew. Tom made smoking rack out of willow and we set some jerky on it before going to sleep.
August 31st: What a night for me. It got cold, down to around freezing, and I found that I did not have enough blankets to be warm. After a couple hours of sleep I woke up and saw that everybody was a little cold, so we ignited the fire from the hot coals, and I spent the rest of the night alternating between sleeping and tending the fire. I think it was the coldest night of my life. I was glad to hear the birds in the morning and to see the sun slowly warming the day. We reheated our stew, and I added some mint to the broth to see what that tasted like. We got the jerky smoking again, and went out and gathered more cattails. We had already cut all the easiest ones, and it was tiring walking around the rock piles to get to them, so it was challenging to add to the shelter. I also gathered some cattail fuzz to insulate my moccasins at night. Then we walked upstream to look for berries and explore. We didn't find any berries, but we did gather a few greens. We also gathered some cattail roots and shoots for dinner. This was the first time I had tried cattail roots and we roasted them. I was amazed at how good they were. It almost tasted like corn to me. We also had more stew, but this time there were some greens and cattail shoots in it.
September 1st: I slept a lot better. The insulation in my moccasins made a huge difference, and we heated up some rocks to set around us for warmth. Still woke up a couple times but much better than the night before. We ate more leftovers, and some mint tea. Kris wasn't feeling well, but Tom and I walked downstream to see what we could find for food. Not much, but we did gather some rose hips. My legs and body were getting tired a lot faster than I expected. Back at camp, we fried some greens, liver, flour, and oil. The flour and oil were a nice treat from our food bag. Tom and I gathered more cattail roots, because I want to try to processing them into flour. I had some success, but it was definitely not very efficient. I tried both a wet and a dry method and neither worked as well as I hoped. We cooked more stew and got ready for darkness.
September 2nd: Another rough night with very little sleep. My joints hurt from laying in the one position where I was warm, so I had to choose between comfort and warmth. I would switch back and forth, taking short naps. When we woke up in the morning I asked Kris how he was feeling and he was still not well.
We planned to leave the next morning to hike up over the mountains. But we were both a little worried because of how tired we have been feeling and it would probably be even colder in the mountains. We talked with Tom and decided to finish the projects we were working on and leave in the evening around dark. I worked on processing cattail roots some more and Tom made some experimental fishing tackle, but didn't catch anything. We cooked up some flat bread from the cattail starch mixed with wheat flour. Then we packed up our gear and hiked out to Nevada City.
I had mixed feelings about our departure. I felt a warm front coming in, which indicated possibly warmer nights, and we saw many rabbits along the way that stayed still long enough for us to get a good shot at them with rocks, if we had tried. On the other hand, my body was tired. I was not enjoying the cold nights. I learned a lot about primitive camping though, in these four days. I had never been so cold at night that I was unable to get much sleep. I also learned about different wild foods even though there wasn't much in that area. I had a great time and I hope to get better and more prepared for it in the future. Thank you Tom and Kris for a wonderful trip that I will not forget.
After aborting the primitive trip, we took a couple days break and then went on a separate camping trip up to Hollowtop Lake in the mountains above Pony. This time we brought more conventional gear, plus Kris and Adam made some alcohol stoves, which were legal to use, even while there was a continued ban on open campfires. We hiked in to a familiar campsite, then spent that first afternoon exploring and foraging. Mostly we threw rocks at squirrels.
Sometimes squirrels will stick around and give you a reasonable chance to hit them with a rock before they scamper off across the tree tops and disappear. This time we found a squirrel that was especially patient. It had ample opportunity to disappear in the forest, but pretty much stayed in one tree, although it was about thirty feet off the ground. We each threw a bunch of rocks, and then a bunch more. It was pretty pathetic, really. The squirrel refined its position within the tree to the one point that was most difficult to hit with a rock. We must have thrown a hundred rocks apiece--three hundred between us, and we never did hit that squirrel, although we skimmed its fur many times. Like I said, it was pretty pathetic. However, next morning I saw a squirrel not far from camp and got it with the first rock I threw. We made squirrel stew and added some wild onions to it. We cooked in our metal cups on the alcohol stoves.
We also hiked from Hollowtop Lake up past Deep Lake and Skytop Lake, then climbed up to the top of Hollowtop Peak, elevation 10,604 feet. It was good to be up there again, although there was so much smoke in the air from all the forest fires that we really couldn't see very far. On the outing we collected a nice bunch of whitebark pine cones. We picked out a few pine nuts right there for a tasty snack, then brought the rest of the pine cones back to camp to process them. It took awhile to peel back the scales to get out all the pine nuts, but we ended up with close to a quart of delicious pine nuts. On the third day we hiked back to Pony, exploring deer and elk trails along the way. Maybe next year the weather will allow us to do the Bob Marshall trip, but for now, our shorter trips were good enough. Adam stayed with us through Rabbitstick Rendezvous, and Kris stayed with us through most of October. Thanks guys for all the good times!
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