Practice Makes Perfect- Making Fire

22 December 2017

My son and I are always testing ourselves, no matter what we do. We make everything we can into a learning experience, do our best to find better ways to do things, and to get better at what we do. It could be a physical test, by turning a 5 mile canyon walk into a 15 mile walk for example. Or a skills test- I might let Nicolai do the packing for a trip, have him navigate and route-find as we hike, or have him get our stove set up or fire made for the night’s dinner.  Making fire is a classic test for us, something we can never practice enough. We use many different methods- a single match, a lighter, a metal match (a rod composed of a metal alloy known as ferrocerium) and tinder, a metal match and magnesium shavings, or a bow and drill. We make it a point to practice all these techniques in varying temperatures, different levels of wind, with different moisture levels, and types of tinder and fuel, essentially training for any possible conditions that we can. This is the way we get better, and master our skills.

Much can be said about fire making techniques and tools- everyone has their favorite methods, and opinions of different methods, not to mention opinions of countless other variables- how many methods you should carry with you, whether or not to carry natural tinder or a commercial variety, a small lighter or a large one, a book of matches or strike anywhere stick matches.  These are all questions that each person has to work out for themselves. No matter how many books you read, how many blogs you visit, or how many Youtube videos you watch,  it all boils down to your skill and comfort levels.  If you can make fire in a few seconds with your eyes closed by rubbing two sticks together, you probably don’t need to carry 3 or 4 different methods with you.  If you have trouble lighting a fire with matches, you should probably have a large, well-stocked fire kit with plenty of redundancy.

fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, magnesium block. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Three fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, and magnesium block with imbedded ferro rod. No matter what your favorite method, it is important to become proficient. Being skilled in many fire making methods just adds insurance.

Start With the Basics
Fire making, like any skill, begins with practice. Depending on the method or methods you choose, it could be lots of practice. The key is to learn the skill before you need it- practice and become proficient with with the basics first- starting with matches or a lighter, then moving on to the metal match, the fire steel, bow and drill, hand drill, or fire plow. Did I mention you need to practice fire making? And if you decide to carry and use one of the “primitive” methods at the end of the preceding list, you need to practice even more- don’t wait until your life depends on it and assume you can work out how to use a fire steel, flint and charcloth. It may be too late.

Start with considering the placement of your fire- think about where you want to build it. Ask yourself if this is the right place for it now, overnight, and tomorrow. Think about wind and weather, what is overhead (remember the lessons of Jack London!), and if this is where you want to sleep if it is for the night. Consider reflectors, natural and those you put in place. Are there rocks or a rock face to direct the warmth towards you? Finally consider safety, dry grasses and branches for example and Leave No Trace principles.  Try not to build a raging, night-long fire where its existence will be visible for years.

No matter which method you use to get that all-important spark, all fire-starting methods require a tinder bundle for your spark, kindling to build it up, and fuel to feed the fire. Spending the time to create the perfect tinder bundle will insure success. Collecting and preparing kindling and a sufficient pile of fuel for your fire may mean the difference between being warm, and starting over.

Birds nest of juniper bark, photo by Gerald Trainor

The perfect birds nest with glowing spark from a bow and drill.

Where we operate in the Four Corners region bark from the Juniper is the best tinder available. It is easy to find and remove from any Juniper we  come across. Our second choice is the hairlike, inner material from dry cottonwood bark. Chunks of dry cottonwood bark are usually found at the base of larger cottonwood trees; look for those that have large, dead branches. Either material should be twisted in the hands, or pounded between a couple of rocks to break it up and create the fine powder that is so easy to ignite. Of course there are countless other materials that can be used for a tinder bundle. The idea is to find something that can be reduced to fibers, and pounded nearly into powder. Other desert plants to look at include sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and some grasses if they are fine and very dry. After making your tinder bundle, simply hold your match or lighter underneath, place the spark from your bow and drill or charcloth into the bundle, or direct the sparks from your metal match into the bundle. Once you’ve reached this point the rest is fairly easy- slowly and carefully feed the fire with tinder, kindling and then larger fuel until it reaches sufficient size for your needs.

For more on fire making in general, see our Learning the Basic of Fire page.  Also see our page on the Metal Match and Magnesium Fire Starter. Visit the Desert Explorer website to peruse other skills topics as well as the highlights of some of our adventures.


Tracking Practice on Our Recent Desert Trip

8 December 2013

When Nicolai and I are in the bush our eyes are always open, constantly searching for signs of the ancient inhabitants, for birds and mammals, and for tracks along our trail. There are tracks to be found everywhere; often they are not human tracks in many of the places we find ourselves, but always tracks of coyote, lizard, beetles, and other desert dwellers. All tracks are interesting, and all tracks tell a story. We often stop to read tracks when we find them- we spend some time looking at them, find out where they came from, where they are headed, and try to deduce what the track maker was doing at the point we found them. It is much like detective work. We look around us collecting all the available information: track size, stride, gait, the path of the track, the details of the immediate vicinity including vegetation, water, and even geology. All of these details added up help us build our tracking picture; that is, the overall disposition of the track maker. They inform us about what happened when this animal passed through this exact location when it did, what the animal was doing, its purpose. Tracks and other sign help the tracker decide whether the animal was hungry, thirsty, frightened, tired, old, young, injured, or healthy.

A typial canyon bottom in southern Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Looking down canyon from the canyon rim. Nicolai and I easily followed many sets of tracks up this canyon including lots of deer- tracks in the moist, narrow canyon bottom are some of the easiest tracks ever to follow. We weren’t sure if there was a way out, but based on the deer sign we guessed the deer know something we didn’t. At the canyon head we found an old cattle trail leading up to the rim.

But it is not just a matter of looking at the tracks in the sand, or the grass that is pushed aside, or the bit of fur left in a thick section of brush. All of this is important- these are absolute pieces of data which add to our picture. But just as important is what we perceive on the inside, what we feel about the animal that passed by here and left the clues. When we are following sign, we are not only collecting  clues, but we are doing our best to mentally become the animal we are following. Based on the clues we collect and the tracking picture we build, we put ourselves in the animal’s skin, we make our mind its mind. This is the way, we are told, that the best trackers work. They become their quarry, the develop a relationship with it. And if they are hunting it for food, and they are successful, in the end they mourn for the animal they have tracked and hunted, because the animal became part of them.

These very basic tracking concepts- especially the part about thinking like and becoming the animal- are something that Nicolai and I talk about, something that we have been practicing- or at least doing our best to practice, for years now. I think that many of the books that we have read, and that we have put on our Tracking Bibliography on the Desert Explorer website, discuss these concepts. Some go into it more than others. One book that really dwells on the point is Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking and the Origins of Science. I mentioned this book in a recent post, and noted that it is available for FREE as a PDF download from the author’s website. I have downloaded and had my own copy printed for our library. Liebenberg’s approach to tracking is unlike any other author I have yet read. He begins at the beginning- he starts way back with our hominid ancestors and works forward to modern Homo sapiens, speculating along the way about how tracking came into being and how it developed, and complemented the overall development, of our species. I highly recommend the book to anyone who really wants to get a feel for tracking in the most primal sense.

Another canyon bottom in southeast Utah. Gerald Trainor photo

Another section of canyon bottom. We found deer, coyote, lizard, chipmunk, turkey, human, and of course cow tracks here.

Another book that Nicolai and I have just finished reading is called The Harmless People.  It is about the bushmen of the Kalahari desert, written by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. This book does not cover tracking specifically as much as The Old Way, another book by the same author. Both books are studies of the bushmen lifestyle and the author’s experience there with her family in the 1950’s. This was before the profound changes that occurred which have catapulted the bushmen into the 21st century, causing them to abandon many of the skills that kept them alive for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Both books have a revised afterword that was written in the late 1980’s which addresses the changes. Both books are written more for the laymen rather than the archaeologist, but will be enjoyable and important to both, if they have an interest in the hunter gatherer societies and how they lived.

Read more about our desert adventures at the Desert Explorer website, and more about us specifically on our biographies page.

Trip Report- The Dirty Devil in May- What a Drag

17 June 2012

I would be lying if I did not admit up front that I never really expected to be “floating” the Dirty Devil, in the river running sense. I knew that the water was low when we started and would be low throughout our trip. I also knew that most likely, and as it turned out, we would be walking and guiding our boat down the river. The truth is that we were out for an adventure. And we got one. There were nine days of movement, most of it down the Dirty Devil River canyon, enjoying the geology, animals, birds, stars, and solitude. In the end we ran out of water- there was not the slightest chance of getting the boat any further. There was barely enough water left at the ford to drag the empty boat up to the truck. The ford is where we changed our plans and went for a walk up Poison Spring canyon.

We started out with about 5 CFS, hit a high of about 11 CFS, both of which measurements were adequate to walk and guide. But when we hit the low- about .75 CFS- that was it. Lucky for us we were right at the ford when it dropped to near nothing. Because of the situation we were… almost in, I made Nico promise to run away screaming if I ever mention “floating” the Dirty Devil at anything less than 100 CFS again (although I feel it would be safe at 25 CFS or so, and I have floated it at a steady 10 CFS without much problem). Nevertheless, we had a great time. We saw red spotted and Woodhouse toads, carp, catfish, and other, smaller fish that I couldn’t identify. We saw Peregrines, a Virginia rail, and the usual vultures, flycatches, quail (a mother with 10 young), mockingbirds, and kildeer. We saw plenty of beaver sign, and found some fresh porcupine tracks early one morning. We also saw, surprisingly, three longnose leopard lizards along the way.

Porcupine tracks along the Dirty Devil. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Porcupine tracks along the Dirty Devil. The conditions were perfect for viewing and photographing the tracks. The texture of the foot pads, the claws, quills on the legs and feet, and the occasional tails marks were all clearly visible. At this sandbar camp we found endless fresh tracks when we woke up including deer, rabbit, coyote, and beaver.

The geology of the canyon was an adventure in itself. By the time we left the area, Nico was an expert at identifying the stratigraphy and well on his was to understanding the depositional environments and ages of each strata. On our way down the canyon, we went from seeing the Entrada formation off in the distance to walking out of the white Rim sandstone at the ford. On our way up Poison Spring canyon we went back through the strata in the opposite direction, spending the first part of the walk in the ancient swamps of the Moenkopi formation and much of our time seeing the big, fluted walls of the Wingate formation. We ended at the highway looking across at the Entrada goblins once again with the imposing Henry Mountains in the background.

Nicolai Trainor in Happy Canyon. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai walking up Happy Canyon, one of the geologic wonders along the way.

The Way Out and Survival Skills
Another high point of our “float” was the abundance of carp. I had told Nico about them before the trip and he was looking for them all along the way. When we finally came across the first fish a few days into the trip, he was elated to discover a new method for catching them. He would run them up and down the water for a while, tiring them out, and finally running them into the shallows where he could just scoop them up with his hands. The method worked great for carp, but we did not get to try it on catfish as we saw only a few of them. They were much more elusive than the carp, and kept well in the shadows, not being as easily spooked as the carp.

Nicolai Trainor and carp. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nico caught this carp by hand, and had a great time doing it. He has since been discussing becoming the next host of “River Monsters”.

When it was finally time to admit there was no longer enough water, we left the boat and gear a few hundred meters up river from the ford in some willows and set out on foot. We started at about 6 a.m. with the intention of walking about half way up the canyon to one of our favorite campsites in some cottonwoods. We knew there was wood there for a fire, and there is (nearly) always running water nearby. Our original plan entailed making a coal bed to keep us warm. We only had a small day pack with food, water, rain gear, and a few survival items. For sleeping we had only a light bag liner and a poncho. The coal bed would keep us comfortable through the night. A coal bed, by the way, is nothing more than the coals a fire spread out and covered with sand or soil. The heat is trapped in the soil and radiates up throughout the night keeping you toasty warm.

We made it to our intended camp by mid-day and so took a break under some junipers up a side canyon. We ate lunch and had a nap while hiding out from the ever-increasing winds. By the time it started cooling in the afternoon my 7-year-old son suggested we just walk the other 8 miles to the highway. Never one to back down from a challenge to walk further, I accepted. We were within sight of the highway, about 16 miles from our start point, at about 8 p.m. The wind also helped my decision to keep going- there was no safe way to build the fire for the coal bed, so other plans would have to be made any way. As it ended up, we slept in a small, sandy depression surrounded by blackbrush for the night. First thing the next morning we were out on the highway, thumbs out, hitching our way back to Hite for our truck.

Longnose leopard lizard, Poison Spring canyon. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A female longnose leopard lizard we spotted in Poison Spring Canyon. It sat still and allowed me to take about 15 photos.

We are currently getting ready for a trip to Nevada in a few weeks, and preparing for the arrival of our new cataraft from Jack’s Plastic Welding. Our hope is to use the cat on the Green later in the season. I say it is our hope- the way things are going we are not at all sure the water levels will cooperate with us. For current river flows visit the USGS water data website. Another important planning site is the Utah Fire Data website. It will have all the current fire ban information, as well as data on current fires.

More photos from the trip have been uploaded to the Desert Explorer Picasa page. For more information on hiking, floating, and survival, and our adventures in the Utah desert, visit the Desert Explorer website.

Rattlesnake Bites- First Aid, Treatment, and Myths; Personal Locator Beacons; Everett Ruess

29 October 2009

I first wrote about rattlesnakes a few years back on the Desert Explorer website. The research was as much for myself as for visitors to the site. My goal was to find out the truth about rattlesnake bites.  Some of the questions I addressed, or tried to, included asking what first aid measures should be employed. What kind of treatment can be administered if you are deep in the bush and cannot get to medical help? Is the venom of young snakes more potent than older snakes? And does the latest suction device, the Sawyer Extractor, really work?


I searched the web, visited the library, and called the Poison Control Center with a list of questions.  My main question for the Poison Control Center was about treatment, about what to do if I was a five-day walk from help. I called them a number of times, as my research developed, and asked that question again and again.  I got the same answer: “Seek medical attention.”  None of the doctors I spoke with would commit to anything beyond that statement.

A good friend of mine told me how he encountered the same answer in a seminar he attended as an environmental scientist. The treatment for rattlesnake bite: “Seek medical attention.” On a recent trip to Utah one of my fellow canyoneers told me how she heard the same phrase during a wilderness medicine course.

With this in mind I decided to revisit my rattlesnake bite research.  I have since scoured the web for more recent data, finding quite a bit including literature about Crotaline Fab antivenom (a brand name antivenom) and it’s effectiveness, the toxicity of venom and it’s possible increase in potency,  and recent studies on the epidemiology of snakebite and trends in mortality rates.

I also made a couple of calls to the Poison Control Center, still asking the same questions and getting the same answer, but this time with a qualifying statement.  I asked my usual question about what to do if I am a five-day walk from medical help and get bitten by a rattlesnake. On my second call I was given the usual answer, but I had been persistent enough in my questioning that the doctor added to his stock statement: “Seek medical attention, or die.” Finally an answer, but not the one I wanted to hear.  He told me that there is no field treatment, made it sound like first aid should be quick, and limited to stabilisation of the patient, and was resoundingly against suction devices such as the Sawyer Extractor. Here he made a good point saying that if you can extract 30% of the venom, as the manufacturer states, the other 70%  is still in your system and just as likely to kill you if you don’t get antivenom. (I will still carry the Extractor with me- if there is at least some chance that it might help save my life, it’s worth the few ounces of weight.)

Personal Locator Beacons
This same doctor made another good point- if you walk off  into the bush, are many days away from help,  and are bitten, the only sure way to save yourself is by having a satellite phone or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Rattlesnake bites might be reason enough to look into a PLB, something I have never considered before. And oddly enough today I found an article online about abuses of PLB’s by people who probably shouldn’t have been let out into the wilderness alone anyway, using it to call for help because their water tasted salty. This a far cry from Dave Foreman’s fantasy Primeval Wilderness where there would be no trails, no signs, no guidebooks,  no maps, and no rescue. True Wilderness, with a capital W. So much for that. For more PLB stories, click here.

Red more about rattlesnakes, bites, first aid, and find links to some of the data I found at the Desert Explorer website.

Everett Ruess
In case you didn’t hear, Everett Ruess is no longer found.  The family had doubts that the bones found along Comb Ridge really were those of Ruess and sought a second DNA test from the Armed Forces DNA lab. The test results conclusively stated that the remains were not those of Everett Ruess.  The remains found along Comb Ridge are now being returned to the Navajo Nation, as they are not those of a caucasian. So the mystery of Ruess’ disappearance remains a mystery. And I still have an excuse for crawling around amongst the rocks searching for bones in the Utah desert.

Wilderness Kids- Survival Skills for the Four Year Old

24 April 2009

When we go hiking my son carries his own Camelbak with water, snacks, his bird guide and a few survival items including a whistle and a flashlight.  I have stressed to him since the very beginning the importance of being prepared, of having all he might need with him, just in case. As a father I feel one of the most important things that I can do for my son is to teach him the skills to stay alive in the bush. Of course our frequent practice of primitive skills goes far beyond the average person’s idea of being prepared, and of being self-sufficient. For the average hiker these skills are not entirely necessary, to say nothing of the average four or five year old. But it is very important that they know what to do if they become separated from you on a hike.

A note on terminology- I avoid using the term “lost”.  “Misoriented” is a term used in the U.S. Army roughly translating to being lost.  The philosophy is that you never really become “lost”- you are somewhere on your mapsheet and the mission depends on your continuing. “Misoriented” in this context is always proceeded by the term “temporarily”.  There are psychological advantages to never allowing yourself to become “lost”, but rather “temporarily misoriented”, and to teaching this perspective to your child. With that said, I personally have never been lost in my life, and never will be. I stress this point to my son as well.

The Basics of Hiking Together

The following discussion assumes that you are teaching your child wilderness skills as you hike, discussing topics such as trees, plants, rocks, animals, and even the weather.  It is assumed that you are carrying a map and compass, and that you are actively teaching your child about them, allowing him or her to use them as you hike.  Teaching children about nature in general and about maps, about how to find north with or without a compass, and about basic navigation techniques empowers them and will help them develop a healthy relationship with the wilderness. For more on teaching children wilderness skills, see our Wilderness Kids pages.  For more on land navigation see the Maps and Navigation pages at the Desert Explorer website.

The first thing to teach your young one before you ever take your first hike together is to stay close, at least in sight distance.  Children are naturally and healthily attached to their parents- they want to be near us.  They stay close to us at the grocery store, and keep us in sight at the park for example. Hiking in the bush should be no different.  Talk to your children about the potential dangers where you are hiking- this might be a stream, animals, steep slopes, or thick brush where you could be quickly separated.  Explain to them that you are not in your back yard, that they need to stay close, closer than normal- stress the importance, but do not scare them with it.  You want them to enjoy the wilderness, not to fear it.

Each situation will be different, but if my son and I are following a discernible trail, I often let him take the lead. I then have him in sight all the time. If I lead I am constantly turning to check on him.  We often hold hands and walk together on our hikes, taking in the sights and discussing everything we see.

If We Become Separated

Should we ever become separated my son knows what to do.  I have taught him that if he cannot see me, cannot hear me, if I do not answer when he calls for me, that he should find shade and sit down. I have taught him to be calm, have a drink of water and continue to listen and call for me.  In his pack he carries a very loud survival whistle.  He knows that this is not a toy- it is to be used only in such a situation. That is his next step; get out the whistle and blow it at intervals.  This whistle is so loud that there is little chance of me not hearing it.

My procedure is the same if we become separated- I stop and call for him, listen for him, and wait for the whistle. With him stopping in place and sitting down, I am given the advantage of being able to easily follow my backtrail and locate him.  He knows that if he stops and sits down he is making it easier for me to track him.  If I cannot find him on the backtrail, I can find where he wandered off our trail and begin tracking him to where he sits.

Thoughts on Being “Lost”- Panic or Calm?

Panic is the primary danger to people who become misoriented in the bush. Once a person realises they have lost control of their situation, that is, they are lost, a downward spiral can quickly occur.  Stories abound of hikers hundreds of feet from the trail, or a mile from a road, heading off in absolutely the wrong direction, thrashing through the brush, leaving their gear behind, exhausting themselves, and putting themselves in extreme danger.

The thought behind stopping immediately could have saved many hikers from uncomfortable and unplanned nights in the bush, and worse.  When people are lost, out of panic, they often begin to travel aimlessly-  to wander, to cross their paths again and again, or to travel in circles looking for the lost trail or a recognisable feature.  For rescue personnel who might be tracking them this makes the job all the more difficult.

The first thing to remember if you do “become lost” is to remain calm. Sit down, take a drink of water, and relax a moment.  Then consider where you have come from and where you are heading.  If you calmly and logically assess the situation, chances are you will quickly realise where you went wrong.  If you are indeed unable to find your way back, you must remain calm and gain control of the situation. For more information on how to address being lost, and a survival situation in general, see the Survival Kit pages and the Primitive Skills pages at the Desert Explorer website.

The Four Year Old Flintknapper- More Thoughts on Teaching Children Primitive Skills

18 April 2009

This post is a follow-up- or perhaps a continuation- of the post titled The Four Year Old Archaeologist. In this post I discuss how I have been teaching my son about lithic technology- stone tools- and how to make his own. For more on teaching primitive skills to young children, see the Wilderness Kids pages on the Desert Explorer website. Also see our Primitive Skills pages for explanations and introductions to some of the skills.

My son Nicolai and I make it a point to practice some form of primitive skills at least once a week.   We build countless fires, have recently spent time tracking many coyotes, identify useful plants wherever we go, throw sticks and spears, and now have begun flintknapping together.

I introduced Nicolai to stone tools- ancient ones and those I had fashioned- when he was about two years old.  I showed him points, explained how they were made, and what they were used for.  On our frequent trips to the desert I would pick up any lithics I found- a scraper, part of a point, a core, and lots of debitage (the smaller pieces left behind during the tool making process)- and let him hold them.  We even visited and camped near a quarry sight where I explained the process of curation of raw material and how stone found in one location can be carried to other locations hundreds of miles away.  Finally,  I carefully explained the processes  involved in making each piece of debitage or stone tool he was holding, giving him an overview of the flintknapping process as follows.

The Process of Making a Tool

First you find a cobble- a suitable looking piece of the raw material.  You remove the cortex (the weathered exterior surface) from the cobble by striking it with another cobble called a hammerstone, of a different material.  The best hammerstones are river cobbles; elongated, rounded, with smooth surfaces.  You find an appropriate looking surface on the piece of raw material, called the platform, and strike away.  The idea is to remove long flakes from the core that can be used to make points, scrapers, blades, or numerous other stone tools using more refined techniques and other flintknapping tools such as a deer antler pressure flaker.

Beyond the technical description of how a tool was made, I include in my explanations things like why we found the piece where we did- deposited in the bed of a wash by moving water for example.  I also explain my thoughts on why the people who made the piece chose that location to use it- maybe they chose a wooded hillside that had a good view of a pocket of water below, and waited for deer to come and drink there.  I talk about why the toolmaker may have left the tool- it may have been stuck in a wounded animal that they could not catch that later died in the area.  Or it may have broken during use, striking a rock or the bone of a target, and was then discarded. If it was a flake tool or a scraper, it may have been more of an expedient tool, made, used and discarded in place.

Now when Nicolai finds a flake he tells me about it.  He can explain the flintknapping process, and has a solid grasp of how the various tools were used. Now we are beginning to discuss the process in more depth, differentiating between the different flake types- primary, secondary and tertiary flakes- and investigating the actual reduction process which takes place during tool manufacture.

Making Our Own Stone Tools

At home in our back yard primitive camp Nicolai has watched me work away at large pieces of obsidian, making smaller pieces with a hammerstone.  He has watched closely as I use antler billets and tines to make my blanks into usable tools- blades, scrapers and points.  Now he has begun making his own.

Nicolai arranging his core and getting ready to strike off a flake.

Nicolai arranging his core and getting ready to strike off a flake. He is very serious about the process. Note the safety glasses.

I know that he always pays very close attention when I explain or demonstrate something to him, and when I answer his questions. This is natural for children, and as old as the process of toolmaking itself- the child sitting with the parent or other elder learning the lifeways of his people.  From the very first time Nicolai picked up a core and hammerstone I could tell by his technique that he understood all I told him and had watched me carefully.  From the way he sits, how he looks for the proper platform, how he holds a core in a piece of leather tightly against his leg, to the way he holds and strikes with the hammerstone, he is on his way to becoming at least a functional flintknapper, if not one who shows skill beyond the average level. It may not be long before he is critiquing my stone tools and teaching me new techniques.

For more information on flintknapping and recommended titles on the process, visit the Lithic Technology page on the Desert Explorer website.

Map Reconnaissance- Choosing and Knowing Your Route

12 February 2009

Any fun and successful trek in the bush, whether it be an afternoon walk or a week-long backpack, begins with a thorough study of the map.  It is important to develop an understanding of the terrain you will be walking, for example its elevation changes, possible exit routes in case of emergency, and locations where you might find water.  This knowledge will help you enjoy a safe journey.  The map reconnaissance, or map study, as I present it applies more to a trek in the wilderness than in a national park, where you will follow trail markers and meet other hikers along the way.  Map reconnaissance for a wilderness trek in desert canyons will be my focus in this post.  Since I am currently preparing for a long walk in the Escalante this  summer I will use it as my example in the text.  Please note: the following post assumes the reader understands basic land navigation techniques including a thorough knowledge of map reading.  If you find yourself lost while reading the following please visit the Desert Explorer website and read through the Maps and Navigation pages found there.

Map Study Sequence- Location,  Distance, Entrance and Exit

After I have chosen the general location for a trek, here the Escalante region,  I begin with either USGS 1:100,000 “metric maps” and/or Trails Illustrated maps if they are available for the area.  Note that if you use both the USGS and Trails Illustrated maps that they are different scales.  I use these  smaller scale maps (maps showing a larger area and less detail) to establish a general length for the trek while keeping in mind the time I have available.  I also look for possible entrance and exit locations, where I might be able to drive to the canyon rim for example, and establish a staging area- a “trailhead” of my own. Once I have developed a tentative plan by studying these smaller scale maps I turn to large scale maps with more detail- 1:24,000 topographic maps. This is where the thorough study occurs.  By closely reading the 1:24,000 map I can determine if in fact my trailhead is accesible, if my entrance and exit locations are plausible, and if springs might be located along my route.  Knowledge of terrain features, contour lines, map colors, symbols and scales is necessary at this point.

Distance and Time

When considering hike length and time needed, you must know your limits- your calculations may be different from mine.  I typically allow for between 14 and 20 kilometers, or 8 to 12 miles travel per day.  For me, typical canyon-bottom hiking time is about 3 kilometers per hour at an easy stroll.  So this amounts to between 5 and 7 hours of walking each day.  I often do more than this- sometimes as much as 10 to 12 hours of walking in a day, amounting to as much as 15 miles, or about 24 kilometers.  By knowing my rate of travel, I can create an accurate itinerary through my map reconnaissance.  My times and distances are something I have established for myself over the years.  You will need to establish your own guidelines. And remember that daily distances will vary according to terrain.  The distance covered in a day of canyon-bottom hiking  will vary greatly from a day that includes climbing out of a canyon, trekking across a mesa, and entering another canyon.  That day may be very different in length from a day of road-walking back to your car.

Checkpoints and Daily Goals

How far and how fast I walk depends on many factors which I consider in my map study.  I ask such questions as: where is the next set of ruins I want to visit?  The next water source?  My next camp? The next side canyon I want to explore?  And on the final day, how far is it back to my truck? Answering these questions allows me to establish checkpoints along my route, specific locations that are my goals during, or at the end of each day.  For example, on my coming Escalante trip, I know that day one will be partially taken up by final preparations and travel (hitching a ride) to my “trailhead”- the Highway 12 bridge over the Escalante River.  I should be left with about 6 or 8 hours of good daylight for walking.  I know that Boulder Creek enters the river about 6 miles down.  This is my camp for the night, and if time allows I’ll take a look up the creek a mile or two.  Ten miles further is The Gulch, my goal for day 2. Further down river I will make it a point to camp at the mouths of side canyons that I will do overnight trips in the following day.

Itinerary, Contingencies and Safety

I usually stick to my itinerary, but if there is any question about how long I might be at one location, or when I might arrive at another, I note it and calculate alternative distances based on these options.  I put everything down on paper, including mapsheet names, and if I am on a longer trip copying a smaller scale strip map from the 1:100,000 maps , marking pertinent points on it, and leaving it behind with a responsible individual.  I include phone numbers of local agencies, such as the BLM office, in case I do not return within my alloted time.  In terms of time allotment, I usually allow myself a couple of extra days on a trek of any length, and note that on my itinerary.  It will read something like this: “I should be back at my truck on Friday, but give me till Sunday to call you. If I don’t call on Sunday give me till Monday afternoon before you begin to check on me.”  Leaving an itinerary and contingencies  may not seem important to some, but lives and limbs could have been saved on more than one occasion if people had done so.

For more information on basic navigation techniques, visit the Desert Explorer website and read through the Maps and Navigation pages.

San Juan River, Primitive Fishing Skills, White Rim Trail Solo Ride

16 March 2008

San Juan River Launch Dates

The launch calendar for the San Juan River is online. The San Juan River referred to is the section found in southeastern Utah, with the put-in just outside the town of Bluff at Sand Island. We drew our launch for 22 July, with our take-out about 28 miles downriver at the town of Mexican Hat. Ours will be a family float this year, my wife, son and I taking about five days for this short stretch of river. The float can be expanded to nearly 84 miles to the “final” take-out at Clay Hills Crossing. Just below Clay Hills is a rather new and impassable waterfall blocking the way to the upper reaches of that “lake” below. A portage around the waterfall could add innumerable miles to ones itinerary; you could float all the way to Glen Canyon Dam.

Unfortunately for those who missed the lottery date, the Sand Island calendar is nearly full in May, June and July. March, September and October dates are nearly all open, April and August are about half-full. The mid-summer dates are full for launches from Mexican Hat as well, but outside of May, June and July there are more open dates if you are considering floating from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills only. Either way, if you are hoping to get on the river act quickly as every day more red rectangles appear in each month of the calendar, indicating full launch days. If you have a limited window for floating, do not despair. Check the launch calendar daily for cancellations. Updates are posted every weekday and you might get lucky and find the date you need open. For more information on floating the San Juan River visit the Desert Explorer San Juan River page.

Primitive Fishing Skills

Last week my son and I worked on primitive fishing implements. Using a deer leg bone, an old metapodial (the elongated toe bone in the hind leg) we created a couple of skewers, or gorge hooks. Gorge hooks are straight pieces of bone in this case, sharpened on both ends. they can be made from hardwood splinters as well. A leader is tied at the center of the piece. To bait them, the gorge is turned sideways, parallel to the leader, and the bait is slid over both. Once the gorge is swallowed by the fish, tugging releases it from the bait and allows it to turn sideways and lodge inside the fish.

The process began by crushing the bone with a hammerstone, with a concerted attempt to create long, thin splinters of bone. Once this was accomplished the chosen splinters were snapped to about 1 1/2 inches in length, close to the desired final length. Next the abrading process began. I used a slab of flat but rough sandstone to abrade and form the gorge. I held the bone between my thumb and forefinger, moving it back and forth, mostly on the long axis of the piece of bone. This helps to avoid flaking off larger pieces of bone and helps create a more symmetrical finished product. Each gorge pictured below took about 1/2 hour to create. For more on primitive fishing skills and survival fishing kits, visit the Desert Explorer Primitive Skills pages.

gorge hooks created from deer leg bone

White Rim Trail Solo Ride

I have begun working on my packing list for my unsupported White Rim ride. It will not be till August, but since I had some free time I started to compile my gear list for the trek. I will take five days to do the ride, averaging about 25 miles per day, with one day to sit by the river. I will be pulling a BOB trailer with all my gear behind me. The majority of my carried weight will be in water. I will not be able to resupply water until the end of day 3 when I camp at either Hardscrabble or Labyrinth campsite. Both are on the Green River and they are just a few miles apart. I will decide which I will use this week. I will be able to resupply on day 4 as well as that will be my free day at one of these river campsites. The final day will be the ride out.

I have not yet decided on which BOB trailer I will use. They have two single-wheel models, one with a shock and one without. They weigh 17 and 14.5 pounds respectively and both have a maximum load capacity of 70 pounds. I will make an attempt at keeping all my gear at 20 pounds or less; ultimately I would prefer it weighs in at 15 pounds. But with bike tools, shoes (other than my riding shoes), and 5 days of food, 20 pounds is more realistic. Add to that 1.5 gallons of water for days 1, 2 and 3, and 1.5 gallons as a buffer- 6 gallons total, and I have added 48 more pounds. This brings my total towed weight to about 85 pounds if I choose to tow the BOB Ibex model, with a load of about 68 pounds, just under the load limit.

I will continue to refine my list and eventually post the packing list on the Desert Explorer website as the ride draws nearer.

Fire Making, Desert Explorer Updates

18 February 2008

Fire Making

This weekend I continued my experimentation using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard. I have had great luck with dry bark that I have found at the base of larger, older trees. It also provides the hairy inner bark which can be used to create a “birdsnest” for fire making. The “birdsnest” is the carefully constructed bundle of bark which receives the spark created by friction on the fireboard. I had never read of anyone using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard, but I am sure it has been done. Typically the board is created from a piece of Cottonwood branch. So far I have made at least the last 10 or 12 fires using it.

Cottonwood bark is rather soft, compared to a fireboard made from a Cottonwood branch. A 1/2 inch thick fireboard from bark is good for 2, maybe 3 fires per hole. Using the inner bark for a birdsnest to receive the spark is not as efficient as using Juniper bark. My birdsnest was a handful of bark with the pieces being about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. About a third of the bundle, in the center where I placed the spark and began blowing, was crumbled to dust. All in all it requires more work. In the case of my latest experiment, this amounted to about 5 minutes of blowing and coaxing the bundle of bark into flame. The same can be achieved with Juniper bark in less than a minute. For more information on building fires and primitive fire methods visit theDesert Explorer website.

cottonwood bark fireboard with cottonwood branch drill for bow and drill firemaking kit

The above image shows a fireboard made from a piece of Fremont Cottonwood bark. The drill is from a branch of the same tree. The hole in the fireboard was used to make three fires.

bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood and Utah Juniper

This image shows bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood on the left, and Utah Juniper bark on the right. Both are suitable for use as a “birdsnest” for receiving the spark from a bow and drill fireset. The image shows both types of bark without having been prepared for use. The Juniper bark is the easier of the two to ignite.

Desert Explorer Updates

This week I added a Nevada Page to the trip guides. There is very little to it yet, but it has been started. So far I have a listing of places to visit in and around the town of Fallon, in the Lahontan Valley. Fallon is located on Highway 50, south of Highway 80. Some of the listings include directions and particulars on the sites to see. These include the local museum, rock art and archaeological sites, an historic fort and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge which offers amazing birding. I will continue working on this page with all the rest.

I have been working on the Backpacking Foods pages. They are coming along, with about 10 recipes so far. These pages seem to be popular, so I will continue adding to them in the near future as well.

I added some explanations and gear links to the Desert Gear pages and the River Gear page.