Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Modern Woodsman – Concepts for Redefining Tradition

For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, it has probably become clear that I have had a hard time defining my place within the outdoor community. While my approach and my relationship to the wilderness has always been clear in my mind, it has been challenging to find a group that shares my approach to woodsmanship. That is why you have seen me post on subjects that are not ordinarily found on the same blog or forum; from mountaineering, to backpacking, to bushcraft, to fishing, etc. I have been trying to fit my relationship with the wilderness within all or some of these groups, eventually giving up in the attempt, and focusing on the things that for me best define woodsmanship.

What am I rambling about? I’ll try to explain. This post, or more precisely, this concept, started to bounce around in my head about six month or so ago when I watched a video by Dave Canterbury about a concept he called the 21st Century Longhunter. In his project, Dave Canterbury set out to create a modern version of the traditional longhunter. If you are not familiar, the longhunter is a term used to describe an 18th century hunter or explorer who undertook long term, long distance expeditions into the American wilderness. The term was originally applied to hunters from Virginia who ventured into Tennessee in order to hunt for furs and large game. Later the term began to be used for explorers and back country travelers who undertook similar long distance trips into the wilderness. These men would establish a camp deep in the woods, with the help of equipment carried by their pack horses (two for each man according to accounts), and from there traveled (a lot of the time on foot) in small groups, or at times even alone, over great distances, getting as many resources from the land as possible, and traveling only with the supplies they could carry. 


The above is a picture of Mark Seacat, long distance hunter and mountaineer.

When I saw the project, it struck me as being exactly the thing I had been searching for. The concept of the longhunter very closely mirrored my desired relationship with the woods, and my concept of woodsmanship. The thing to which I had aspired, was precisely that: being able to undertake long term trips, deep into the wilderness, only with supplies one could carry and what could be gathered from the surrounding environment.

Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned to disappointment, as Dave clearly had a different idea for the project than I did. While I had hoped that he would present a modern version of the longhunter, fully re-envisioned with modern skills, equipment and techniques, Dave instead focused on recreating the 18th century longhunter as he was with artifacts and equipment that could easily be purchased today, such as using a shotgun as a muzzleloader, or using oilcloth instead of oiled canvas.

Even so, the project had helped define in my mind the concept that I had been trying to pursue during my time in the woods. After giving it some thought, my lack of creativity lead me to call the concept “The Modern Woodsman”. In this post I will try to give a definition for the term and explain how it is connected to the activities about which I have been posting about over the past few years.

For me, as mentioned above, the modern woodsman is a person who is able to undertake long term trips, deep into the wilderness, only with supplies one could carry and what could be gathered from the surrounding environment. He is able to navigate through the bush; he can travel over varied and difficult terrain and during any season and weather; he can properly plan the supplies needed for an excursion of a particular duration, both in terms of the resources that must be brought and what can realistically be obtained from the environment through which the travel will occur. Most importantly, he is not limited to the technology or skill of any particular time period. He uses technology, skills and equipment based on efficiency and practicality. He applies modern hunting techniques, modern understanding of nutrition, and modern climbing, mountaineering, and packrafting techniques. His equipment includes tools that are best suited for the task without consideration for nostalgia and sentimentality. The gear is centered around portability, so that it can be transported over long distances and difficult terrain. The skills he implements are designed for efficiency, not showmanship, and while his equipment is modern, it is designed to function over extended periods of time.


The above is a picture of Andrew Skurka, long distance backpacker.

In effect, the modern woodsman is a reinterpretation of the longhunter in his role as a back country explorer. It takes the longhunter and imagines what skills and outdoor equipment he would have used had he had the resources and information at his disposal that we have available to us today in terms of the outdoor community. Imagine Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark if they had the ability to select their gear from what was available to us today and with the knowledge that we currently possess.

For many years now, I have been trying to fit the concept of the woodsman that I outlined above into one of the existing outdoor communities. In my opinion, there hasn’t been a good fit. From what I have seen, each community embraces a particular aspect, but then rejects the rest. To give a few examples, the backpacking community embraces long distance travel, modern equipment and techniques, as well as modern understanding of nutrition and trip planning. On the other hand however, the backpacking community largely rejects off trail travel, use of natural resources, hunting, etc. The bushcraft community focuses on using natural resources and developing related skills, but largely rejects modern equipment and techniques, and often involves huge amounts of gear that is not portable over long distances. The mountaineering community has developed methods and techniques for traveling over very difficult terrain, but again makes little use of natural resources, hunting, etc. 

Over the years, I have bounced around between the different groups, and have tried to use the skills and approaches from each one of them and combine them to create what I see as the modern woodsman. To be sure, during that time I have encountered people who have taken a similar approach to woodsmanship, and even though they each have their preferred discipline, they have employed skills and techniques from all the different communities in the pursuit of the woodsman I have described. Each of them is certainly much more accomplished that I can ever hope to be, but I have looked to those people for inspiration. Here I am referring to long distance hunters like Mark Seacat, long distance backpackers like Andrew Skurka, and mountaineers like Conrad Anker. While focusing on their chosen field, each of those men has implemented cross disciplinary skills, techniques and equipment in order to undertake long distance and long term travel into the wilderness.

Altitude Everest Film Project, 2007

The above is a picture of Conrad Anker, climber and mountaineer.

It is important to note that I am not pointing to the above people as a way of saying that each woodsman should be equally involved in hunting, backpacking and mountaineering. Learning from all those disciplines and applying the techniques they have developed however is important.

Why do I write this? Well, as the title indicates, I hope to offer this concept as a tool for redefining woodsmanship in the modern context. My experience has been that too often woodsmanship is defined in terms of what was, or what will be (in some post apocalyptic bug out situation) rather than what is. As a result we too often become historical recreationists or preppers in our attempts to become woodsmen. I don’t think that is necessary, and as I have written in a previous post, woodsmanship can be so much more if we embrace the knowledge and technology that we have developed over the years. I think we spend too much time dividing ourselves by discussing who we are not, and what stylistic choices we have made in defining our woodsmanship, instead of looking at all the people who spend extensive amounts of time in the woods and learning from them. We focus too much on trying to recreate some mythical woodsman of a past golden age, instead of trying to expand and embrace woodsmanship as what it can be. The concept of the Modern Woodsman should allow for the existence of woodsmanship now, today. We do not need to live in the past, or in some post apocalyptic future in order to be woodsmen. We don’t need to live in an imaginary world where we pretend it is the 19th century, nor do we need to imagine ourselves as future survivalists, living on squirrel meat in the woods behind the house while fighting invading communist armies in order to be woodsmen. Now, today, there are woodsmen amongst us. This weekend, their next vacation, they will be in the woods, using everything we have learnt and developed as outdoorsmen over the centuries, to accomplish wonderful things, in many ways far surpassing what was possible ever before.

It is in pursuit of this concept that I have been attempting to write here on this blog over the past few years. My hope is to provide for the theoretical possibility of a modern woodsman, who is not constrained by the confines of tradition, dogma, fashion, or sentimentality. To write of a woodsman who is focused on practicality, both when it comes to skill and equipment, who pushes the boundaries of woodsmanship by embracing the developments in skill and technology that other woodsmen have pioneered, regardless of whether it was done a hundred years ago or yesterday. To imagine a longhunter who sets out to survey an unexplored wilderness over the mountains, and can do so by using outdoor equipment we have available today, can plan his food rations using modern knowledge of nutrition, can travel over mountains and difficult terrain using modern mountaineering techniques, cross rivers with modern packrafting technology, and yes, perhaps supply food for himself along the way with the use of modern hunting and fishing techniques and equipment. Most importantly, to write of woodsmanship that exists today.

This is certainly not a model that would be appealing to everyone, nor should it be. My only goal is to put it forward as a possibility and to explain what I have been doing so far, and will hopefully continue to do. The idea of the Modern Woodsman is something that appeals to me, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject with you in a more concise manner than I have done before. 

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