14 October 2012

Blades: Practical Tools for Outdoors People

I lost a dear friend a few years ago: it was a Case XX "Stockman" pocketknife that my grandfather carried in the years before he died in 1979. There was nothing remarkable about the knife: dark bone handle and blades of carbon steel (a patent Case variation called "chrome vanadium steel") stained dark by deer blood and other strong oxidizers such as apple and peach juice. It was hard but tough steel, easily kept razor sharp with a small pocket whetstone:

Having carried this knife for 30 years, I used the sheepfoot blade to scrape carbon from the spark plugs of my old Land Rover (1972 Series III). I think I left it on the radiator before setting the points,  shutting the bonnet and driving off. I never saw the knife again.

I grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where Case knives were made. Everyone, it seems, had a relative who worked at Case Cutlery. And in those days, every boy above the age of 10 and every man carried a pocket knife. Carry a Schrade, Buck or Gerber? Heresy! So, after I lost my old knife, dear Mrs Rover didn't have to think too hard when it came to my Christmas gift. Though my new friend is made of stainless steel, it has most of the qualities I like about Case XX knives (2.5" main blade):

For day-to-day chores such as cleaning fish, field-dressing deer, or cutting apples, a pocketknife is all you need. On the few occasions when I have killed an elk while hunting mule deer, my pocketknife could do that job as well. Shortly after moving to Butte, Montana, I realized a larger knife would be a good thing for field dressing elk. A local knife maker, Harold Podgorski, used L6 (a very tough low alloy carbon steel) from old circular sawmill blades to make his knives. I like the sense of craft and common sense he brought to knife making (no pretentious B.S. about exotic stainless steel alloys, high-tech "Damascus" steel etc). After field dressing, quartering, and skinning about two dozen elk, I'd say Harold's knife has given a pretty good account of itself (4.75" blade):

You can quarter an elk or make do around camp with just a knife, but a hatchet is a good tool for snicker-snacking (as does the vorpal blade in the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky) the ribs away from the spine and for other heavy butchering work, as well as for cutting branches or small firewood. I bought a Norlund hand ax when I was in college, about the same time I bought my first aluminum-frame backpack. Ten years later I replaced the original handle (after it broke) with a shorter, sturdier one made of white oak and shaped to fit my hand (3.25" blade):

Two other knives in my more-or-less random collection deserve special mention. One is a Russell "Green River" blade--my favorite skinning and thin-bladed, light-duty kitchen knife. Again, the blade material is nothing special--just good old carbon steel. The handle, though, is very special--a fine piece of local Mountain Mahogany (a dense, hard wood) fitted to the blade by my friend Dave Carter (4.75" blade):

The other special knife is my most recent acquisition. My graduate student and friend Oliver gave it to me while I was in China (3.25" blade):

Oliver is a Uyghur, a Caucasian Muslim minority in China, with the population centered around Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thousands of years ago, the Uyghur people spread along what became known as the Silk Road. They were famed for making (and carrying, and using) weapons -- including knives -- and closely allied with the Khan Dynasty in the early middle ages. To carry a Uyghur knife is to be part of this tradition, and I honor this culture and hope the Uyghur people are granted greater freedom from the Chinese, Russia, and other countries that have subjugated them. Here's Oliver, "driving" a Willy's Army Jeep at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing:

In a world where we often become obsessed with "high tech" -- whether cellphones, sneakers, or boutique cutlery -- it's nice to know that traditional craftsmanship and materials will still do the job. Better yet, in using such tools we connect with culture in ways that give meaning to our lives.

02 October 2012

Elk's in the Freezer, Let's go Hiking (and Partying!)

------ warning: dead animal photos ahead --------- 

Hunting Elk with a Longbow

Whatever I do, I pursue it with "Knowledge and Thoroughness," as the motto of my Alma Mater Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (MS 1981) puts it. This makes elk hunting a bit like moonlighting at a second job. Parties, hiking, and some other social activities get put on hold.

In addition to what I have posted earlier, there have been some great moments at my elk hunting blind. This young coyote came in one afternoon and seemed more interested in exploring than in hunting Brer' Rabbit:

Like the many elk that avoided the spring when I was nearby, this mule deer doe clearly knew something was not right:

A trail camera consistently showed elk coming to the spring. Look carefully at this young 4X4 bull, as you will see him again:

The elk just did not come when I sat near the spring. I had two well-hidden spots, but finally abandoned them and went back to the old Indian hunting pit that friend Dave Carter has found. It did not seem like a good spot: too far from the spring and crowded into the base of a sagebrush hillside leaving little visibility. But it was the right place:

This young bull came by chasing a young cow, and he and the cow practically leaped over me. Several other cows watched the show, though they were just out of longbow range (c. 30 yards). But I made a soft cow call, he walked past at less than 20 yards, and then walked slowly away until falling over dead after 200 yards. At such times, it is good to have a friend like Dave--big, strong, and willing to help me load an elk at short notice:

I am thankful for this gift, honor the elk's spirit, and will use his flesh well. I also cherish a tradition of hunting that goes back to the Native Americans who dug and hunted from "my" pit. This photo shows my arrowhead, the bull elk's ivories, and a jasper tool flake I found in the pit:

Let the Fall Full Moon Festivals Begin

This past weekend was marked by the full moon, which heralded two major holidays that are dear to me:

My little city of Butte, Montana, has put on a good and growing Oktoberfest the past few years. The warm weather brought out a good crowd this year:

Several bands took the stage, playing everything from contemporary folk and country to traditional oom-pah-pah. Got tuba?

Beer races drew out competitive natures:

And others took the opportunity to dress up:

A brief shower found my friend (and gifted writer and geologist) Richard Gibson celebrating the first rain we have seen in many weeks:

After the Oktoberfest, we joined our Chinese-American friends at a dinner celebrating the mid-autumn or full moon festival.  There is nothing like a 12-course Chinese banquet to cap off the day. The dinner ends with the lucky egg yolk food of the day, moon cake (this photo is from http://scienceray.com/astronomy/chinese-moon-cake-festival-or-mid-autumn-festival-is-near/ ):

Golden Time

The following day, to work off all those brats and moon cake, we hiked into some high mountain lakes to see the Alpine larches. Unlike other conifers and like hardwoods, the needles turn yellow and fall off in the autumn. "Golden Time" peaked a week or two ago, but the trees still had good color:

I carried my pocket-sized grouse gun, and this grouse made a tasty dinner:

The lakes are very scenic, and we all wished we had come to camp instead of for a day trip:

Our weather is predicted to turn colder with rain and snow later this week. It's been a gorgeous summer, even though I got off to a late start. Happy autumn, everyone!