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Tom's Camping Journal
Island in the Sky
September 29th-30th, 1998

      The stars disappeared from the sky, chased away by the coming dawn. I arose from the shelter, dropped the blanket poncho over my head, and slipped on my moccasins and tire sandals. There was not a cloud in the sky, yet the morning remained gray and cold, awaiting the rising sun. The dwarf huckleberry plants formed a soft, yet wiry carpet on the forest floor, the crunching sound barely audible under my foot steps. A familiar trail took me through the pines to a favorite rock above the lake. I stepped out onto the rock and gasped in delight at what I saw. It seemed as though the rest of the world had disappeared, and all that was left was an island of forest, peaks and the lake all floating in a sea of clouds, like a magic kingdom in the sky.

Camping between two boulders with wood and grass cover.       A thin line of trees held the edge of the lake on this island in the sky, but beyond that the soft white clouds stretched to eternity. I scanned the horizon, yet no other mountain peaks penetrated the cloud cover. Ours was the only island.

      The sun did not announce it's coming with the gradual brightening of the sky, but rather it seemed to burst over the horizon in an instant. I quickly started back for camp to grab my camera, but then stopped and returned to the rock to watch the show. I did not want to miss a moment, and I knew the magic would be gone before I could get to camp and return.

      Only recently I learned from the staff of Wilderness Awareness School about something called "animal forms", where you mimic the actions of specific animals to move more fluidly through the woods. The animal forms include the common stretches used by athletes to loosen up the body, but in this case you visualize becoming the animal that best fits each stretching motion. As I watched the morning drama unfold I circled my arms forward and became the osprey flying out of its nest. I circled my arms backward and became the osprey diving down into the lake to catch a fish. I became a raccoon tumbling rocks over with my hands, looking for crayfish, then turned my wrists the other way, becoming a raccoon shoveling berries into my mouth. I stood on one leg and became the great blue heron in the water, drawing circles with the toe of my other foot. Through the series of stretches I became an owl, an otter, a great bear, and a hummingbird. Afterwards I shook out my feathers like a chickadee, and softly traveled back to camp.

      As far as camping trips go, this was a short one, just an over-night trip-no more than thirty hours all together. But it seemed a sufficient break from the work-work world that carries on each day below the clouds. Richard, my companion, came up to Montana to learn stone masonry, and we just finished a class with several other participants. We put up several tons of wall in one week, and it seemed time for a quick refresher in the mountains.

      Our shelter in this case is a little hollow between two boulders. It started out as a mudhole a few years ago, but I make improvements to it each time I come, so it has a mostly dry floor now, covered with an insulating layer of grass and dry, rotted wood fibers. The greatest difficulty with the shelter is the seam between the two big rocks. The rain drains off of both and funnels down into the middle... that kind of defeats the purpose and meaning of "shelter"!

Climbing tree for squirrel pine nut cache.       I previously stuffed the narrow crack with armloads of rotten pine needles, but this only slowed the flow of water. Mud might have worked okay to stop the trickle, but I consider this a permanent shelter, not just a primitive one, so I made the ethically questionable decision to haul in cement and concrete the gap shut. I mixed the cement with sand and gravel from the lake and packed it into the crack, invisible from either above or below. Although the shelter is very close to the shore of the lake, it is nevertheless in one of those blind spaces that nobody ever walks through. It even took me years to stumble across the site, and I purposely seek out those blind spots. Eventually I would like to turn the shelter into a little stone cottage. It is one of my favorite places.

      Richard started a bowdrill fire and kept it burning all night. The heat reflected off the rock surfaces and warmed us as we slept. I once found an old tin can with a lid by the lake, and I use that to cache extra food from my camping trips. There is always an ample supply of food there. This time we used some of the dried vegetables from the cache, and left our extra flour.

      I usually come up to this camp in mid-summer. It is a good place to dig roots and go fishing. I've looked for pine nuts here in the past, but I've always been too early in the season. This time the nuts were ripe, even if the cones were not very prolific. We raided a few squirrel caches and found enough cones to meet our needs. I roasted the nuts, cracked the shells, and winnowed out as much of the garbage as possible. It is very difficult to remove all the shells, but I keep getting better at the process. At least the thin shells are readily edible, even if they are crunchy.

      Besides raiding the squirrel caches for pine nuts we also went after the squirrels. Hunting is certainly not my forte, as I would usually rather just watch the animals than kill them. But this time we were out for blood. On the first day we went after a squirrel that ducked into a hole in an old tree. The tree was hollow, with a cache of pine nuts at the bottom and two different trunks coming up from the ground. We spent more than an hour trying to smoke the critter out of the tree, so we could club it. We controlled all the exits, or so we thought. But I think it is constructive sometimes to hunt with your wits, if only to be out-witted by a creature with a tiny fraction of your brain power. It is humbling to say the least. The squirrel picked just the right moment to dart out of the smudge hole when we were unprepared, and it scampered away right between us. Fortunately we did not club each other in the confusion!

      On the second day we did get a squirrel by this technique, and I think it was the same squirrel, but we trapped it in a woodpecker nest high up in another tree. By this time the rising sun warmed the cloud cover around our island, and the clouds surged up through the forest, surrounding us in mist. Richard skinned the squirrel down by the lake while I processed more pine nuts. Eventually the sun burned away the fog, and suddenly we could see across the lake again. We cooked up the squirrel with more dried vegetables and made some ashcakes from flour mixed with ground pine nuts. The squirrel was fat from the pine nuts and the meat was sweet. I still remember looking into his eyes, half-conscious from the smoke, just before I clubbed him. Killing is sobering work, but I would rather do it myself and know the pain, than to let someone else do it and give me the lifeless meat in shrink-wrapped plastic. It was evening by the time we hiked all the way back to town.

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