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Tom's Camping Journal
A Father & Daughter Camp-Out
Saturday February 27 - Sunday February 28, 1999

      Within minutes of our arrival in camp we were covered with burrs. They were stuck in our shoe laces, our socks, our shirts, tangled in our hair. There were burrs everywhere, mostly the Velcro-like burrs of the burdock, but also the tear-drop shaped "beggars ticks" of the hound's tongue plant. Spiny cockleburs guarded the river's edge. But the field was also infested from end-to-end with spotted knapweed. Knapweed does not produce true burrs, yet the scratchy flower heads still grabbed at our clothes with every move.

      Except for the common cocklebur, these plants were all introduced weeds from the Old World. The knapweed is especially a problem. The plant forms an association with fungus in the soil to steal carbon away from nearby grasses. In Eurasia, where knapweed came from, the grasses co-evolved with it, developing defensive mechanisms. But like the Native Americans who lacked immunity to European diseases, the native grasses are now helpless against this European invader. Five million acres of Montana grasslands are infested with knapweed, often in extensive monocultures with little else growing in between. In this field the knapweed has doubled it's population in a single year; it is now the dominant plant in the area. In just a few more years, all the remaining grasses will be gone.

      The greater problem is that the land was already stagnating, dying, turning to desert, but few people have yet noticed. For millennia the ecology of this land included the thundering herds of bison. They plowed the soil with their hooves, destroying everything in their way, breaking up hard soils and tramping organic matter and seeds into the ground. The vast herds of bison thundered onward, leaving the prairie to unrestrained growth for months or years until the herd returned. Today, with livestock scattered widely across the fields, the land is both under-impacted and over-grazed. The grasses are already half-dead. Knapweed just finishes the job.

      With the aid of livestock it is relatively easu to imitate the roaming herds of buffalo. It is possible to beat back most of the knapweed, to make the grasses flourish again, and to double or triple the grazing capacity of the land, but farmers are often slow to adapt. Many would rather go down bitterly with the ship, than seek out new solutions for a changing world. Anyway, weed education helps keep me busy when I am not out camping. And camping trips like this help keep me inspired on that path. The scratchy weeds and burrs were soon imbedded deep in our clothing, itching at our skin with every move.

      Yet, this was a good camping trip, a very good camping trip. On this brief journey I brought along my daughter Felicia, age nine. Renee dropped us off where the railroad tracks crossed the highway, about six and a half miles from our destination. We walked quickly along the tracks, through the canyon, across the many bridges to our camp. Felicia did really well with a pack frame on her back.

      The last time the two of us went out without the family was over a year ago, in January of '98. In the midst of winter I brought Felicia out to the windswept shores of a frozen lake, where our only shelter was a simple wind-break we built out of logs and cattails. We did fine, but it was hardly comfortable. I was concerned that she may never want to go camping with me again after that. But kids are adaptable, and she handled that trip much better than most adults would. Still, I wanted to make this trip a lot nicer. We even brought sleeping bags this time, and food she would like!

Camping in wickiup.       I've been a dad for two and a half years now, and I am very proud of my kids. In the time since we adopted our three children, we've mostly focused on the contemporary skills, building a family, developing a routine around school, and transforming our primitive skills school from a hobby into a legitimate enterprise.

      We haven't emphasized the primitive skills too much with our kids, and frankly it does not matter to me whether or not they ever master the physical skills. The important part is that they learn to be resourceful, able to use their heads to work through problems and find happiness wherever they go in life.

      On this trip I was pleased to see how quickly Felicia identified tracks, birds, and even a handful of dead plants, but most of all I noticed that she has become adept at asking questions and gathering information to solve the many little mysteries of life... "What made that sound?" "What caused this [disturbance]?" Sometimes she was asking me, but she was also asking herself, putting her neuro-circuitry to work processing the possibilities, and eliminating the improbable to find the probable.

      Partly we have encouraged a mystery-solving ethic at home, encouraging the kids to play detective to uncover the cause of any mystery around the house, or to assemble possible explanations from incomplete information-events like the sound of gunfire in a field, followed by a truck immediately returning to the ranch house. But also, I know Felicia has role-modeled after Nancy Drew, from the many mystery stories we've read together. Nancy Drew is confident, smart, resourceful and pretty, and Felicia has found those attributes to be worth modeling.

      As for myself, I've been intensely restless lately. Since becoming a family, I learned to form a routine, to get the kids off to school each morning, to play with them each afternoon, and to buckle down in front of the computer the rest of the time and work, work, work.

      I work the most in winter, so I can play with the kids through the summer. But after months of spending all my time indoors writing, I get desperate to go camping and suffer a little bit. I get moody and irritable until I go on a good camping trip.

      At home I go from meal to meal without ever getting the chance to go hungry. Eventually I feel like the food is killing me instead of nourishing me. I just love our lifestyle and our home, but sometimes everything is so easy and comfortable that I can hardly tell if I'm still alive. I feel weak and pathetic. Hide tanning projects have kept me active this winter, but still I feel like an animal trapped in a cage, with hardly any room to turn around, and desperate to escape! For me this trip was a chance to escape just a little bit, to recharge to face a new day.

      We didn't do anything too spectacular this time, except to be together. Felicia was just thrilled to cook over a campfire, to chuck rocks in the water and to toss a boomerang back and forth between us. But we did fix up the wickiup a little bit. A year after I built it it was still bone dry inside, even while the ground outside was mud. We worked together to start a flint & steel fire, and we cooked rice and lentils for dinner. We gathered grass for insulation under our sleeping bags, and we set a single Paiute deadfall trap in an old, abandoned house nearby. We baited it with a strip of strawberry fruit leather.

      Felicia was absolutely thrilled to catch a huge packrat overnight, but she let me skin it and eat it. She ate white rice with cinnamon and sugar instead. We both thought we had the perfect breakfast! I intended to tan the beautiful rat hide, but as with many thin furs, clumps of hair started falling out before I could finish.

      The morning was beautiful and warm. It was the last day of February and we were wearing T-shirts, carrying our packs two miles out to our pick-up point. Along the way we sat on warm rocks in the sunshine and dipped our toes in the icy water of the river. We chucked rocks and blew on bullet-shell whistles found on the ground. The clouds moved in and the wind blew hard for the last hour before our ride came, but still we were happy campers.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
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authored by
Thomas J. Elpel
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