Tom's Camping Journal
Thursday February 17th - Tuesday February 22nd, 2000
My wife dropped us off on the snowy road. We said our good-bye's and she drove away, back home. The rest of us, Mike, Barb, Jeff, and myself, put on our pack frames and immediately started looking for a place to make camp. It was only about 11 o'clock in the morning, but for us, that was bedtime.
I truly expected to go on this camping trip by myself. After all, who else would want to go on a expedition in the middle of February in Montana, walking at night and sleeping by day, with minimal gear and a weird diet? We planned to travel in light hiking boots, or warm tennis shoes, but I also promised to cancel the trip if severe weather, deep snow, or frigid temperatures came just before hand. I was surprised to have three people eager to go with me. Fortunately, we were lucky and the weather was beautiful all week long.
This was an unusually warm winter, even warmer than all our other recent warm winters. The temperature never did drop below zero all season long. That could be a first in recorded history, I don't know. The temperature rarely even dipped into the single digits, and thus far, we only had three snow storms of any substance all winter. The first part of this camping trip was the coldest, with night-time temperatures in the teens, but before it was all over we stripped down to T-shirts and even went barefoot around camp.
Our starting point was the Confederate Campground of Canyon Ferry Lake, a man-made reservoir created by damming the Missouri River. We explored through the woods along the creek bottom where Confederate Creek spills into the lake. The ground was still covered in patchy snow from a recent storm, and most of the bare ground was sopping wet, but we did find one warm, dry space on the side of a hill, tilted at just the right angle to the sun. We called it "camp" and spread ourselves out in the sunshine to nap. Despite walking only a quarter mile, we all needed to rest.
Jeff arrived at our house early in the evening the day before, but Mike and Barb's flight was delayed. It was 1:30 in the morning when we finally got home from the airport and went to bed. We were up by 6:30, awaken by the kids' alarm clock, as our girls had to go to school. So we started our journey with less-than adequate sleep, considering we planned to stay up and hike all the next night. Mike and Barb easily fell asleep and napped for hours in the sun, but neither Jeff nor myself proved to be very adept at sleeping in the day time. Mike shared this passage from his journal:
"I lay back against the hill and tried to suck up sunlight like a fleshy solar panel in pants. Patches of snow spot the palomino hills with white and the only sound is the ringing in my ears left over from too many months of freeway frenzy and hurrying cities. I bite into a dumpstered pear and reflect on how far my life has come in the last twenty-four hours. Yesterday, the pear and I were being wasted. We were both unwanted and unappreciated. I don't belong in LA or airports. My existence and everything I stand for seem to sicken some. That's all right because the feeling is mutual. Here, however, I sense that I am welcome. Cottonwood and juniper greet me with out-stretched limbs. Here the pear tastes sweet and I am grateful for each gritty, juicy bite."
I always debate whether or not to bring blankets on this sort of trip, and this time it seemed like a good idea, for three reasons. First, it is hard enough to sleep in the day time if you are not used to it. The blanket is a small luxury that makes it much easier to snooze when everything else is so unfamiliar--such as sleeping in the sun on the side of a hill in the middle of February. Second, three of our blankets had a slit in the middle to poke our heads through, so they could be worn like a coat while we hiked at night. We would cut a slit in the fourth blanket too, if necessary. Third, these simple blanket coats did not make much extra weight in our packs, since we traveled mostly at night when we were wearing just about everything we had.
We stayed on the side of that sunny hill all that first day, right up until the sun dipped below the horizon. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and we could hardly put on our other layers fast enough. We bundled up our gear in our arms and carried it into a nearby ravine. I'm not sure, but it seemed to be an old irrigation ditch originally designed to take water out of the Missouri River to nearby farm lands. The ditch may have been only five or six feet deep originally, but apparently a breach in the ditch led to a major washout, creating an extended section of artificial ravine roughly twenty feet deep, now occupied by twenty to thirty-year old cottonwood trees, small junipers and a carpet of grass.
We moved into the ravine for protection from the wind and made a temporary camp on a patch of bare and dry ground. Like our previous space in the sun, this spot was dry because of its angle to the sun. Although it was steep, I chose it as a potential campsite because we could have a good-sized fire there without killing any grass or other living plants. Besides, we didn't plan to stay there long.
With crude sticks we dug out a trench on the slope, then started a fire with flint & steel. One thing I always enjoy about these trips is that I don't ever have to start the fire, since everyone else needs the practice. Starting a fire is usually either a race to see who gets it first, or a cooperative group effort to get it before everyone freezes their fingers off. It is an excellent way to learn fire-building skills, by working in a real-world situation to get warmth from the available tinder and kindling materials.
Camping on the steep slope was hardly comfortable, but we melted snow in our pots and made tea. Making tea is probably the most important activity of each day, since otherwise it is hard to drink enough cold water to stay properly hydrated in the winter. Mike tended the fire while the rest of us walked out into the moonlight to pick rosehips for our tea. Jeff brought along a schedule indicating when and where the new space station could be seen in the sky, so we got to see the little blip of light racing across the southern sky for all of half a minute. He later shared this entry from his journal:
"It is funny how this trip is not what I envisioned. As Barb just said, one has to get used to discomfort (e.g. cold, hunger) out here. Despite the discomfort, I feel that this is very important for me in some way."
We brought two large enameled cups to cook in, plus my usual stainless steel can and a goldpan for mixing ashcake dough. I also brought a primitive ceramic pot for the first time. I made the pot on the Green River Canoe Trip last summer, but did not have the chance to fire it with the other pots we made. Instead I fired it at home in our fireplace. I was timid about putting the snow-filled pot on the campfire, as I understood it needed to be warmed slowly and evenly, lest it might crack.
After tea we cooked a simple meal of rice and lentils, but my dinner took at least an extra hour to cook in the ceramic pot. It took me a few days to get good at cooking in it. While waiting we went for a short walk to explore the night. Jeff practices and teaches Yoga, so he led us through a series of Yoga exercises on top of the hill. It was awkward doing some of the maneuvers dressed in everything we had, but it was fun just the same. I ate immediately upon returning to camp, then we packed up, reclaimed the campsite as best as we could, and set forth on the first leg of the expedition. Our basic plan was to hike along the reservoir, back upstream along the Missouri River as far as we could reasonably get during the week.
Our first stop was the creek, a few hundred yards away to fill our water bottles. Our tea from melted snow was wonderful, but it is difficult to melt snow fast enough to meet all of our water needs. Some of our water bottles were still nearly full from home, but the smaller ones like mine were already empty.
All of my life I have been accustomed to drinking out of just about any creek, river, lake or other water source I could find, even downstream from cow pastures and towns, but other people have some obvious reluctance to following my lead. I've never been sick from drinking any kind of muck before, but then my immune system is well trained for it too. Nevertheless, I finally acknowledged the times and bought a high-tech ceramic water filter for the benefit of my guests. The threat of Giardia I'm not so worried about, as it can be treated with antibiotics if necessary, but there is also a genuine threat of more serious ailments like hepatitis.
Of course I had never actually used the filter before, so we stood out there in the moonlight reading the directions, trying to get the device to work. My initial efforts failed to produce any water, and I thought I must need a deeper water hole to work from, so I jumped out to a gravel bar in the middle of the creek to reach a better spot. Unfortunately, it was only gravel on top, and everything below was soft mud. That could have been disastrous! I sunk in to the tops of my hiking boots, but got back out before any water came inside. The night was very cold and the water froze to my boots within a few steps on dry land. I've always heard that the Eskimos did that too. They would dip their boots in water immediately before stepping outside, to cover them with a protective layer of ice. I was very lucky the water didn't soak all the way through. However, Jeff's bag of peanut butter granola mix fell out of my coat into the water and turned to peanut butter goo. We still ate it.
As for the water filter, the problem was that it was just too cold to use it. It froze before we got any water out of it. Jeff brought a water filter too, and we had the same problem with it. Later in the trip on warm, sunny days we were able to intermittently filter some of our water, but we never got to the point where we liked the confounded gadgets. For the moment I just filled my water bottle from the creek, and at last we were on our way. Well, almost.
Our backpacks were the Roycroft-style "A"-frame packs. Mike made his packframe last summer when he stayed with us as an intern. He stayed with us for nearly three months, helping out in exchange for learning about plants and primitive skills. I would have preferred if Barb and Jeff had the chance to make their packframes too, but that would have taken too much time for this trip, so I provided them with some of our extra packs.
With a packframe you put all your gear in a bag or roll it up in a poncho, a blanket, or whatever you have and tie the bundle onto the frame. Learning to tie it tightly takes a little practice as Jeff and Barb discovered. Hardly had we left the creek when Jeff's gear toppled out of his pack onto the ground. We took a break to tie his pack then walked no more than twenty feet when Barb's pack fell apart too! But this time we tied everything securely, and finally, finally began our moonlight walk.
We walked for hours along the shore of the frozen and snow-covered lake. Most of the shore was bare, angled just enough into the sun to melt off all the snow. The rocks clinked like glass beneath our feet with every step. Sometimes we moved up higher onto the grassy fields for a change. Although the trek was relatively uneventful, the night seemed to pass by quickly. We must have used up a large part of the night back at and around camp, and only a few hours actually walking. Time can become somewhat surrealistic after disrupting normal cycles to move by night. We covered about six miles before we stopped. We stopped because we came to an interesting bay of the lake, where a creek came down out of the mountains. The area was thick with brush, old farm equipment, with lots of driftwood along the shore. It seemed like a good resource area, an interesting place to spend some time.
The exposed lake shore is hardly the most ideal place to camp, but we found a good sandy spot with lots of firewood where we could light our fires without permanently scarring the land or killing any vegetation. Immediately we got out our flint & steel kits and started a fire, then we picked up sticks and started digging four trenches for hot coal beds, making a square around the central fire. The purpose of a hot coal bed is to heat the ground to make a warm place to sleep. The fire heats the thermal mass of the ground, then you fill the trench with dirt or sand and let the heat radiate up underneath you. The sandy beach was frozen, but with sticks and rocks we chipped out shallow trenches, then started fires in each trench We were no more than eighteen hours into the camping trip, but already this was the third time we stopped to "make camp". Barb peeked at her watch. It was 4:30 in the morning. We hauled a giant log over and plunked it down on the lake side of our camp for a backrest and minimal windbreak.
I've slept warmly through many winter nights on coal beds. Usually we heat the beds for one and a half to two hours, so it seemed a single hour would be more than sufficient to get us through until dawn this time. It wasn't!
In retrospect, I think that the willow wood we were burning just wasn't putting out as much heat as other fuels, or we didn't really burn the beds for a full hour. After all, we were existing in an odd sort of time-warp, making shelters after being out all night. We awoke cold before dawn came and rekindled the central fire. By now I was concerned that my entire group might be ready to up and leave me, and I wouldn't have blamed them if they did. Barb and Mike said the trip was harder than they imagined, and I'm sure it was, especially after flying in from warm California to go camping in the middle of February on the shore of a frozen lake! Jeff later said that he seriously considered walking out. As he wrote in his journal:
"The first day of this trip has broken down the first layer of my habits. These habits consist of things that make me comfortable (for example, eating sweet and blasting my stereo) and routines based largely on clock time (for example, I wake up at 5:30 and have breakfast at 6:30). These habits are obviously very strong, because I constantly think about them today. I really want to eat a big meal, do my usual yoga routine, check my e-mail, etc. but cannot do so."
One thing about hot coal beds is that you have to do some of them wrong to learn how to do the others right. Our initial efforts thawed the sand, so that we could easily dig the trenches deeper and wider than before. We built our fires bigger and burned them longer. We cooked a breakfast of hot cereal while we waited, then covered the coal beds and finally went to sleep, snuggly tucked inside a sandwich of warmth from the ground below and warmth from the morning sun above. We slept for hours.
We stayed at this simple campsite all day long. Sleeping, drinking tea, and eating were the highest priorities, as they always are on these kind of trips. We all napped intermittently throughout the day, although neither Jeff nor myself could fall asleep too easily during the day. Everyone in the group except myself brought journals and spent much of the day writing. We also worked on fire-starting skills, mostly building bowdrill fire sets. Jeff recorded in his journal:
"I can see why Tom refers to trips like these as a metaphor for living. As these layers of habit and routine peel away, more of my core self and core issues become apparent. While this is uncomfortable, there is also a very strong power in it as I live more and more in the moment out here."
The rose bushes in this place were covered thick with rosehips, more than we could ever possibly eat. Rose hip tea was easy and delicious. We also tried tea from Russian olives, but it wasn't very good. The Russian olive isn't at all related to true olives. It is a cousin to the buffalo berry, a shrub native to this area. In Arabia the Russian olives were ground and used in bread, so we did some experimentation with them. The fruits were best right off the tree, but quite astringent. The acid taste really made our mouths pucker up. I crushed some of the gray-sour fruits on a metate, but couldn't break up the seeds enough to use them in any recipe. However, I had a bag of dried chokecherries brought from home, so we crushed those on a metate, then ate the fruits, nutmeats, and shells as a trail food. It was crunchy, but tasty. Two bald eagles landed in a nearby tree.
Winter days are short, especially when we spend a large part of the day sleeping, so it wasn't long before the sun began to set, and we started packing to move camp. We ate another meal of rice and lentils before we left.
The in-flowing creek melted the ice in the bay, but out farther the lake ice was much more solid. There were many people out ice-fishing during the day, so we knew it was plenty strong. We walked back along the shore a safe distance, then took the short-cut on the ice across the bay. We walked through the sunset and into the night, once again plodding step-by-step through the clinking stones of the beaches. We stopped to talk about a few plants in the moonlight, but mostly we just walked. There were many good places to camp behind protective walls of driftwood, where we could have easily made very warm hot coal beds in the dry, stony beach. But the night was early, so we kept walking forward. After several miles we came to the Duck Ponds, a series of massive dikes built on the shallow end of the lake, apparently to create habitat for ducks and geese, although it was hard to imagine spending that much money on habitat development. The dikes were at least twenty feet higher than the lake, and nearly ten miles long, if stretched end-to-end. I wondered if the dikes might have some other use I wasn't aware of. We took the shortest route across, traversing about six miles of dikes. Barb and Mike sang songs as we walked.
One of my concerns before we entered the system of dikes was that we might not find decent shelter until we were beyond the dikes. If we became to tired to walk any farther, we would have little choice but to keep plodding along anyway. At best we found one ample pile of driftwood, but it was completely exposed to the wind. The night was cold, so we could not stop to eat and drink cold water without a fire. We kindled a fire by the driftwood pile and made some tea. For a snack we had pine nuts leftover from my last camping trip, which we combined with the chokecherries we ground on the metate stone. We also had some jerky from a goat I butchered in the fall, plus some gorp-- a trail mix of nuts, dried fruits, and chocolates. Then we continued on into the night. Jeff shared this passage from his journal:
"I can see that the Tao notion of going with the flow really applies out here. Tom Brown himself has said repeatedly not to fight nature but to go with it. I find that if I accept the colder temperatures, they are not so cold. If I accept the hunger pangs, I actually enjoy the fasting and the meals taste absolutely delicious. The best shelters are often already mostly 'built' for us and thus less manipulation of land is needed. It is quite amazing how nature does provide. I would never have thought so before. I saw this same idea in Tom's Direct Pointing book involving Succession and Tilting things the way one wants them to go. In America, we use so much brute force!"
The Duck Ponds consist of three "C"-shaped dikes separated by small creeks entering the lake. We crossed the ice over another bay of the lake to get from the first to the second dike, but had to place a log across a creek to get from the second to the third dike. The straps on Jeff's pack failed there, so we took a short break for some make-shift repairs. Later in the night the group saw three moose, but I unfortunately missed them while trailing behind at the moment. Mike desperately wanted to see a real wild moose when he stayed with us last summer, so he was quite thrilled to finally see some. He wrote in his journal:
"Ours is a frozen world, sparkling like magic in the moonlight. It's a world of solid white lakes which we can walk upon. A world of moose and elk and coyotes. It's a world of feeling--cold toes and warm comforting fire, of fast and famine, of risk and reward."
Soon we were off the system of dikes but getting progressively more tired. Mike laid down on the ground and fell asleep every time we stopped, if only for a minute. We considered hiking all the way through the small community of Townsend before camping, but decided we had better stop as soon as we could find a decent place to camp. Besides, Barb and Jeff were starting to get blisters on their feet. We covered about twelve miles in the night. At last we found a dry space beneath a canopy of Juniper trees beside the Missouri, with an abundance of firewood and good insulative dry grasses. Once again we were making camp at about 4:30 in the morning.
There were many styles of shelters we could have built there. We collected great big arm loads of the tall reed canary grass while we deliberated over which shelter might be the easiest to construct to give us the best sleep with the least work. The most comfortable would have been to build some hot coal beds to heat us from below, with a blanket of insulative grasses above us. But we didn't want to take that much time and the ground may have been too frozen to dig there anyway. Instead we attempted a grass sandwich, with grass above and below us, warmed by our body heat and our shared blankets in the middle. We put ponchos over the top and weighted down the edges with logs to block the flow of cold air through our bed. Our upper bodies were sure to be warm, all mashed together in one bed, but I was concerned about our feet being warm enough. Only later did I realize it may have been possible to equalize the warmth by flipping two of our bodies the other direction, so we would have had our feet warmed by each others' torsos. I fell asleep in that sandwich bed and thought I slept for hours before we were all awake with cold feet, but more likely it was no more than half an hour. We tore apart the bed and used the grass for insulative mats to keep us off the cold ground. We slept the rest of the night around the fire for warmth. Of course it was only a couple hours until dawn anyway. As Jeff later wrote:
"We were all tired, irritable and very cold and hungry. The sandwich type of bed was not quite adequate for our bottom halves and Mike got up to thankfully start a fire early in the morning. I was not feeling great today and was getting frustrated with fire-making. I finally broke down and really bawled my eyes out in private behind some dried grass. After that incredible release, I took the pressure off myself to master any of the skills and came back to the group where I successfully made a bow-drill fire in just a few minutes. Time out in nature always seems to give me that opportunity for emotional cleansing and release. The other stuff, deadlines, obligations, etc. are not there to get in the way. This feels like a turning point in the trip."
A tasty meal seemed like a good idea to boost morale, so we cooked up a batch of ashcakes, basically thin flour and water biscuits cooked on the hot coals, then spread a thick mush of instant split green pea "soup" on top. We added just enough water to the soup mix to give it the consistency of refried beans. It was quite delicious.
I really liked this place. The trees were covered with a blanket of frost until the sun burned it off. The ducks and geese seemed to favor this stretch of river and I loved to hear them talking in the water or flying overhead. There were many birds here, and I liked to whistle back and forth to the chickadees.
Jeff and I did yoga exercises in the morning sun. We all slept intermittently throughout the day, although Barb seemed to get the most sleep. Mike needed some alone time and spent much of he day exploring on his own. We worked on bowdrill fires and cordage. The challenging part to doing any sort of group workshop is that at any given moment at least one of us was always asleep. In the late afternoon Jeff and I went for a walk to pick buffalo berries. We ate the sweet-sour berries right off the bush.
On our way back to camp we sat down for a moment on the bank of a shallow river channel. At that instant a beaver surfaced nearby and swam in circles and back and forth in front of us. We sat quietly and watched it until it swam upstream and disappeared under water. For dinner we ate rice and lentils again. I guess I brought a lot of those!
On this trip we found that it was too difficult to hike all night only to build our shelters in the predawn when we were the most exhausted. Therefore we decided to switch and build our shelters in the afternoon or evening, to sleep as long as we wanted. Then we would start our hike closer to morning and walk into daylight.
We harvested many more armloads of grass and made an insulated wall of "waddlework" around the fire. Basically we made a circle of willows in two rows and stuffed grasses in between them, to make a grass wall up to about thirty inches high all the way around the fire. The wall served as a fire reflector to hold the heat in, and we hung our ponchos above the wall to block more of the air flow. We slept on grass mats around the fire. Sometimes the grass would work its way into the fire and flare up, but we all slept "with one eye open" alert even in our sleep to the danger of being burned. Mike was especially good at leaping straight up from his sleep to stamp out any fire that started. I've spent so much of my life sleeping that way that I hardly wake up to beat out the flames. We all slept reasonably well, at least as well as can be expected. The fire hazard was especially great because I had been extolling the benefits of stuffing grass inside our clothes for extra insulation, so everyone was stuffed like scarecrows.
Towards morning we packed our gear, destroyed the shelter, and hit the trail once again. It was almost dawn, and I would have rather moved out sooner, since our trail took us right through Townsend on the railroad tracks.
Based on prior experience closer to home I really expected to see porcupines just about every night out in the brush and fields here along the river. Mike and I made spears the first day and carried them along in order to kill a porcupine when the opportunity arose, but we saw almost no sign of the nocturnal animals at all. We saw only one bush that was gnawed on months ago, and we found the quills of one corpse smashed into the railroad bed, but no other signs of the animals through the entire trip. We still had a sufficient supply of food to eat two decent meals each day, but I would have packed a wider diversity for the trip if I had known we would be so unsuccessful in our hunting efforts. Mike wrote in his journal:
"Tom seems to enjoy starving on these trips. It's an important primitive skill for us suburban kids who've never missed a meal to learn. We eat meager amounts of rice and lentils and skip meals until we can hunt or gather ourselves a banquet. I'm impressed at how quickly my regular activist, subpoverty lifestyle trappings become luxurious. I long for a dumpster to pull food from and my greasy old sleeping bag to crawl into in the cold."
Mike is exceedingly resourceful. Like myself, he grew up in the Bay area of California, surrounded by a meaningless material life. Despite having access to money and college, pretty much anything he wanted, he chose to leave it all behind to live in the "real world". He learned to forage in grocery store dumpsters, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. It is against his principles to support the industrial culture that is rapidly consuming the entire planet, so he forages in dumpsters for most of his food and other necessities. I was constantly amazed when he stayed with us through the summer. Every time we went to town he would load the car with gourmet breads, sacks of flour, blemished fruits and vegetables, and odds and ends like dented cans of pop, all scavenged from the dumpsters. I always thought these goods were being utilized in food bank distribution programs to the needy, but that was not the case. On the way to a summer gathering we stopped at a dumpster behind a bagel shop and packed the car with more than thirty bags of gourmet, day-old bagels. We didn't have room in the car for the rest.
Anyway, he set his pack down beside the railroad track and bounded off across the street to a grocery store dumpster, bringing back about a dozen perfect sweet potatoes and a five pound bag of sugar. One thing about these trips is that there are no rules except for the ones we make for ourselves, so I thought to myself, "Why not?" It is an easy food resource to exploit to keep our packs light as we travel from point to point.
It was almost light and the traffic was increasing on the road. We had to walk a couple miles beside the road before disappearing into the woods along the river. I was glad to finally get away from the road. At least it was a beautiful morning. Mike wrote:
"Walking along the road, I fantasize for a moment about some benevolent motorist pulling over to offer us a ride. I quickly realize how ridiculous it would be to drive to our week's end destination in a matter of hours. The journey is all we have. The end is arbitrary. It's how you get there that matters. And we'll get there faster, I'm convinced, if we take it slow."
Walking is always a good stimulus for thoughts, especially walking on a trail, a road, or in this case the railroad tracks beside the highway. Jeff wrote:
"My spirits are very high as we walk along the train tracks past Townsend. I am more and more amazed at the things I notice out here. Looking at plants and actually LOOKING at them, their patterns and uses is a divine experience because I interact with them. This type of learning through direct participation/interaction and through a systematic building of pattern recognition is really effective for me. The memorization in most of my education did not give me much to be interested in and thus I did not always learn effectively in school. A teacher of mine about two years ago was working on a similar concept in teaching called Planning and Implementing Instruction which talked about learning at different levels through doing. On this trip, we learn outdoor skills and also learn about ourselves, about the land and about connections between all of these components."
When we finally left the tracks we found ourselves at the edge of a field of beans and wheat. the wheat was mostly gone, but there was the equivalent of hundreds of sacks of pinto beans still left in the field, missed by the harvesting equipment. We gathered both beans and wheat to process later, and we looked at some of the weedy edibles too, like the amaranth and goosefoot plants. We had plenty of goosefoot seeds with us already, which we ate with our cream of wheat cereal and added to our ashcakes. We wandered along the river for another mile or two, looking for a good, out-of-the-way place to make camp. At one point I tried pole-vaulting across a small stream, but my pole sunk deep into the mud, without swiveling over, and down I went into the creek, sinking in up to my shins.
I should point out that my shoes were "Air Jordans", or something like it--fancy basketball shoes picked up at the thrift store for a few bucks. It was an odd shoe for camping, but incredibly well insulated. Even when full of water, my feet were not too cold. I found a beam and placed it across the creek for a bridge for everyone else to cross. Then we hiked onward until we came to a state fishing access on the river, where we could build a fire and spend some time cooking food and drying out my clothes.
Fortunately, this day was not like days past. The sun shone very warmly on us, and by the afternoon we were all going barefoot, at least for a little while. We had a feast of sweet potatoes, ashcakes, and refried beans there by the river. We napped in the sun, winnowed our wheat, wrote in journals, and did a brief plant walk to work on identification skills. We cooked some of the pinto beans and ate those too, before we packed up and left in the late afternoon. We still had to find a place where we could actually build a shelter and camp. We hiked another couple miles until we found a really exciting place full of cottonwoods, willows, junipers, thickets of rosebushes and buffaloberries, with lots of ducks and geese in the water nearby. The place was vibrant and alive and we decided to stay there for two nights.
Barb and Jeff and I camped on the dry ground under a juniper. We dug out three hot coal beds beside each other and spread all our blankets above us for better insulation. We slept warm all through the night. Mike built a reflector out of logs nearby and slept by the fire. The next day was even warmer and more beautiful. We explored the area and worked on more fire starting skills, but mostly the group hung out to cook, eat, sleep and write in journals. The top inch of my ceramic pot snapped off, but it was a clean break and the rest of the pot was still usable. All in all, I was quite pleased with the success of the pot on this trip. Jeff's packframe straps had almost completely deteriorated, so we needed to make new ones from scratch.
In the past we've made the packframes at home and improvised straps from scrap materials on hand, but I had been wanting to try making some decent straps in the field. This was a golden opportunity. We harvested dried out cattail stalks and worked together to cord them together into a thick rope. I've always made two-ply cordage in the past, but for this project we made three-ply cordage, twisting together three bundles of cattail stalks to make a rope. The rope started out and ended skinny, but we made it good and thick through the middle were it wrapped over the shoulders. The rope turned out great, but just a few inches too short, so Jeff still had to sew it on to remnants of the old straps to make it reach. That day he wrote:
"After several days out here, I begin to see how valuable these experiences are. I am more persistent in trying new things, more compassionate and more aware of the others in the group. I see what is meant by addressing one's weakest link, which often for me has been trying new things for fear of failure. Out here, I begin to see the river and tree lines and animal trails as the highways and man-made things as kind of in the way or just sitting there. Usually, major routes to me are man-made interstates, streets and clean, wide trails. Perspective changes! Have been hearing lots of amazing birds today and noticing how time is so slow out here. It is great when one is living each of their moments in the present."
In the evening we decided it was time for yet another new shelter. We stacked up logs in a square to make a hogan-like structure, about three feet tall, partly shingled over with strips of bark to better hold the heat in. It was snug, but we made a small fire in the middle, sang a few songs, and fell asleep. It was a comfortable shelter, but a short sleep.
I'm not sure if we had some bad water, or if it was just some kind of flu bug, but Jeff woke in the night with serious gas and stomach upset. He later wrote:
"Drank some bad water and puked early this morning. The others got some good entertainment as I swore that I had found religion. With all the cow poop out here, it is a wonder that we have not all been sick. I guess our careful boiling of water has paid off. I am pretty tired out from being sick and still have a bit of the bug. This coming day is our last on this amazing trip. While this six days has not been a vacation in the traditional sense, it has been a vacation in the spiritual sense. I realize now that I sometimes put myself in challenging situations to knock myself out of ruts and habit that can hold one back."
None of us got much sleep that night, but we sang more songs and recited poetry around the fire, before breaking camp and moving out just before dawn. This last day of the trip was especially hard for Jeff, since he wasn't feeling good. Mike was also not feeling so well, and seemed to be running a fever part of the time. He thought it was from the stresses of our weird sleep schedule and our strange diet. Whatever bug Jeff had, I got it too, but not until the next day while at home. It probably wasn't giardia, since that has a longer incubation period. If it really was something we got from the water then it would be ironic, since in all these years I've never before filtered the water until now. Anyway, it was a thoroughly purgative experience, probably as healthfully cleansing as it was miserable to experience... just looking at the bright side, I guess! Barb finished the trip feeling really good.
Our last day was very warm, although it clouded up and rained in the morning. We found shelter beside a massive cottonwood tree and made a fire and some breakfast. Mike experimented with the bones of some nearby dead cows to see what kind of shape the marrow was in. The marrow of the first bones had been completely consumed by worms or maggots that tunneled inside. The next set of bones he tried still had good marrow in it, although there were worms in it too. We cooked up some of the marrow for a taste, but it was less than appetizing. I brought a small vial of vegetable oil, so we mixed up more dough of flour and goosefoot seeds and made scones. We also brought along some dried, candied currants leftover from making jelly at home. With a little water and some of the sugar Mike found, we made quite the delightful treats to celebrate our last day on the trail. By the time breakfast was over, the sun was out and before long we were all stripped down to our T-shirts.
On this kind of walk we travel with the pattern of nature, in this case following the river, like a thousand generations of our ancestors would have done. Unfortunately such idealism doesn't always mesh with civilization's notion of land ownership and private property. That is one reason to hike at night, when the rulers of the landscape retreat to lighted houses, giving nature temporary reprieve to reclaim rights to the land until morning.
Legally speaking, the edge of the river is state land all the way up to the high water mark, but we did not always stay down by the river. On one farm we passed a massive pile of cow manure disposed of at the river's edge where it was illegally polluting the water with nitrates. The rancher caught up to us in the next field over. He was quite upset to find us on his land. Mike wrote in his journal:
"What use have I for a world that would throw away fruit and friendship? A culture which lays waste to everything which is wild and true, everything I admire, all in exchange for laws and clocks and a rumor of convenience. I give thanks that that world does not exist here except in opposition (or as the occasional supply of dumpster yams). It's only present in the over-grazed and roaded landscape, the pollution in the stream, the harassing cop, and an angry, guilt ridden rancher, afraid that we will witness his shit stacks on the riverbank, piles of dead calves or perhaps that we will damage his fences as we pass."
More than anything, I thought the manure pile by the river seemed like a tragic waste of a valuable resource. Anyway, the rancher said he was concerned that we might do some damage to his $200,000 worth of irrigating equipment. But we were courteous, and he let us go on our way. We've never had trouble with land owners in the past, even when Renee and I walked all the way across Montana. People can see that we are pretty harmless, so they really don't mind too much. This time of year there really isn't anywhere else to go anyway, when the mountains are all covered with snow, so I took the chance that it would be okay, crossing miles and miles of farmland along the river. We did not run into anyone else all day.
We walked all the way to the little town of Toston and called home from the bar, about thirty-five miles from where Renee dropped us off six days earlier. Renee brought us back to Pony and we finished the expedition with a big meal out at the local diner.
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