I first felt the allure of bushcraft at a Cub Scout camp. We parked on a grassy field surrounded by trees, and then we wandered down a small jeep track. The first things to catch my eye were all these rustic camp structures made of raw logs lashed together: the gate into the camp, the tripods holding a weather rock, the signal tower, tables. Even more lashed structures suspended pots and kettles over gentle yellow flames dancing in the daylight. I felt transported back in time.
The idea of building everything you needed, of self sustenance, was an extremely romantic notion and it fascinated me throughout my youth. I would pore over my scout handbook to learn and relearn the knots and techniques required to build these bushcraft gadgets and I would jump at the chance to lash together some useful (or all-too-often superfluous) structure. Oddly enough, all this transpired while my family lived in Germany since my fighter pilot father was stationed there in the U.S. Air Force.
When we moved back to the States we landed in the Seattle area and I was quickly wooed over from the anachronistic arts of bushcraft to the the nylon-clad, fast-and-light backpacking and mountaineering style typical of today’s modern adventurer. It wasn’t until years later when I found myself following a route charted by the transcendental philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau circumnavigating Mount Katahdin in a canoe that I was reunited with my passion for the art of bushcraft.
The trip was planned to be a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Thoreau’s publication of the travelogue The Maine Woods. The extensive lakes and waterways surrounding Maine’s highest peak (which is also famous for being the northern terminus of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail) don’t exactly all flow together, and a number of portages would be required to make the trip.
It was here that I began to question the value of traditional bushcraft versus a modern fast-and-light mindset. The kit we were to pack in consisted of cast iron pots and pans, axes, saws, wood boxes, canvas and leather bags. It was heavy. No wonder canoes, mules, horses and waggons were so popular in the days when these tools were the only options. When paddling, this weight is practically inconsequential. Each stroke of the paddle glides gently through the still waters of the lake or downriver with the current.
On the portages, it was a drag. We used a tamp line—a leather strap braced across the forehead—to carry many of these weighty containers. The roughest and longest of these portages was between Umbazooksus Lake and Mud Pond. After lugging, stumbling, climbing and staggering the two miles to Mud Pond, we walked back the way we came for another load. In all, many of us walked the portage length up to five times. Ten miles of slogging through the mud, six of them with heavy loads and wet, slippery footing—so much for bushcraft romance.
Thoreau didn’t have it as bad as we did when it came to the portages, however. He and his travel partner, Edward Hoar, actually packed very light. They each brought along just a small sack of personal belongings (some hard bread, tea, a pot, an axe and a rifle) and the clothes on their backs. A far cry from the creature comforts we afforded ourselves and hence had to carry. They also traveled in July when berries and other wild foods abounded, while we traveled in May and June just missing the horrendous black fly season. And the third member of Thoreau’s trip was the Penobscot Indian Joe Polis, who they hired as a guide and for his canoe. It was quite minimal.
I wouldn’t trade my experience for his, though. When I read Thoreau’s account, both before and while on the trip, the biggest observation I made was how many more people Thoreau encountered compared to us. In Thoreau’s time, logging was ramping up into a frenzy and saw mills, sprouted up along most of the waterways to catch the trees felled and floated down the rivers. In July, loggers clogged the rivers and logging scouts sorted out the logging strategy, already planning for the next season of tree felling and milling. Thoreau also encountered erstwhile homesteaders on his trip.
We hardly saw a soul. The woods have emptied out in 150 years. Much of the land we paddled along is private, requiring permission to cross and camp where we did. While we were deep in the wilderness we only encountered one couple with a cabin. Evidence of human presence certainly existed in the dams around which we had to portage, but otherwise, our only company out here were the friends and family of our own Penobscot expedition members.
After the end of each day, when we arrived at a new camp, the bushcraft projects began. While some of us scouted for two small, dead standing trees (one of hardwood and one of softwood), the others gathered a few small logs, three inches around and five to six feet long to lash together and create a cooking structure over the fire pit. We started the fire with the softwood, hanging pots of stew and kettles of water from the lashed structure over the blaze. Forked branches with notches cut in them served as the hooks and a cast iron fry pan suspended on rocks piled around the small lapping flame held our dinner that sizzled to cooked perfection. We continue to saw and split the hardwood we harvested earlier to build up enough supply for the rest of the evening and to satisfy our needs the next morning. Bushcraft became a pleasure of routine.
This was heaven for me. While it didn’t include building a signal tower or even a tripod to become a wash basin (though I now wish I had thought of that then), this was the craft that had sparked my childhood interest in full swing. There was a purity to it: Everything we needed for our camp kitchen was simply lying there, waiting for us to come and put it together.
The fruits of our labor paid off. After 325 miles of paddling and portages, including 16 breakfasts and dinners cooked over our bushcraft fire pits, the journey around Katahdin (or Ktaadn as Thoreau prefered to spell it) was complete. Though we followed the same route as Thoreau, we did not have the same journey, despite the eternal similarities: the joy of simply traveling, the experience of learning from members of the Penobscot Nation, the moments of sublime beauty in the raw Maine Woods, the feel of gliding across the water, of battling the wind, the thrill of running rapids and the toil of portages.
Even the differences between our journeys had similarities. We saw moose, but we did not hunt and skin them and tan the hide. We slept under a sheet, but ours was a sheet of waterproofed nylon, part of a tent or tarpaulin, not one of cotton that soaked through so that the rain spattered us. We ate what we brought, but did not feast on fresh moose or wild berries.
Best of all, both groups cooked over an open fire and put to test our skills at the art of bushcraft. I felt akin to the great writer for at least a few moments and I had to wonder if Thoreau was also bummed he didn’t get a chance to lash together some logs.
Cameron Martindell is a senior editor at Elevation Outdoors and digital manager of ElevationOutdoors.com. You can also follow his adventures at OffYonder.com.