Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sharps: Ready set

When today's outdoorsmen talk of the tools and the mindset that they take with them into the woods, more often than not they'll invoke the names of Nessmuk and Kephart.

In the 1880s, "Nessmuk" was the by-line of stories penned by George Washington Sears for Forest and Stream magazine. The Massachusetts native wrote of camping and paddling in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, and his 1884 landmark book, Woodcraft, has never gone out of print.

Horace Kephart followed Nessmuk chronologically and, in many ways, philosophically. Also a contributor to Forest and Stream, his articles were gathered into Camping and Woodcraft, first published in 1906.
Kephart was born a Pennsylvanian, but he's best known for writing of his life in and love of the Smokies of western North Carolina. He was an early and avid proponent of establishing Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Nessmuk and Kephart are read and revered to this day, arguably the old and new testaments of life in the woods. Both men espoused respect for the land and pioneered what we now refer to as "ultralight" camping.

In homage of a sort, each man has a knife pattern that bears his name. Beyond those iconic blades, what bears remembering are the "systems" of edged tools that accompanied them on their wilderness forays a century ago.

These days many of us are preoccupied with chasing the do-it-all knife, and that's fine as far as it goes. There's nothing wrong with nurturing the skills required to survive if limited to a single blade.

Nessmuk, by contrast, was a woodsman, not a survivalist. He was bent on thriving in wild places, writing of a sensible trio of tools: a hatchet, a simple jackknife and a fixed-blade of his own design. Here's how he described each part of his woodcraft system:

"The hatchet and knives shown...will be found to fill the bill satisfactorily so far as cutlery may be required. Each is good and useful of its kind, the hatchet especially, being the best model I have ever found for a 'double-barreled' pocket-axe."

"Before I was a dozen years old I came to realize that a light hatchet was a sine qua non in woodcraft, and I also found it a most difficult thing to get. ... I had hunted twelve years before I caught up with the pocket-axe I was looking for."

"A word as to knife, or knives. These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper. The 'bowies' and 'hunting knives' usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of 'Billy the Kid,' than the outfit of the hunter. The one thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with. The strong double-bladed pocket knife is the best model I have yet found, and, in connection with the sheath knife, is all sufficient for camp use."

I'll admit to getting a kick out of that third passage -- it seems that "tacticool" knives were as prevalent in the 19th Century as they are today. Thirty-three years later, Kephart echoed his predecessor:

"A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun. The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick-barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk."

"The conventional hunting knife is, or was until recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. It is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth -- and Sheridan forty miles from a grindstone!"

"The jackknife has one stout blade equal to whittling seasoned hickory, and two small blades, of which one is ground thin for such surgery as you may have to perform (keep it clean). Beware of combination knives; they may be passable corkscrews and can openers, but that is about all."

That's great stuff, isn't it? It's nothing short of essential, elemental woodcraft -- but if we use Nessmuk's and Kephart's philosophies only as our springboard for nostalgia or mimicry, we miss the point.

Sure, we can plunge headlong into the wilds equipped with modern copies of Kephart- and Nessmuk-pattern fixed-blades, along with duplicates of their axes and jackknives. Truth is, that wouldn't be a bad place to start -- but it's only a start.

Reading more carefully the writings of Nessmuk and Kephart, we find that each man arrived at his well-known system through trial and error -- "I had hunted twelve years before I caught up with the pocket-axe I was looking for" -- so why shouldn't we?

They found tools that worked by working the tools they had. I'm willing to bet that had George and Horace lived longer, their practical experience would've shaped their choices even further.

And so, it seems to me, we can draw two fundamental lessons about edged tools from these woodcraft legends: have a system and work the system. With that mindset, we can get past mere imitation.

Mike Stewart of Bark River Knife & Tool, for example, has this latter-day take on a "bushcraft set":

"I like to have...a four-inch blade and a smaller knife (fixed or folder) for fine work, and either a mini-axe or Golok. With that set, there isn't much that can't be accomplished -- from basic camp chores to shelter building.

"While I agree with the concept of the three-tool set (like Sears), I don't agree with his selection of cutting tools. In practice, I actually expand the three-tool set into four by carrying a small fixed-blade and a folder in my pocket. I can't imagine not having a folder in my pocket at all times."

See, it's not heresy to differ with Nessmuk or to stray from Kephart's model. In fact, I contend that challenging these standards -- based on personal experience -- is the whole idea.

The KintlaLake set, reflecting my own experience, is heavy on the light end and light on the heavy end: a four-inch fixed-blade knife, supplemented by a smaller fixed-blade and a pocketknife, folder or multi-tool. No axe, no Golok and no machete.

I plan to fix that -- not only by adding a more substantial tool or two, but also in terms of gaining experience, mastering skills and doing actual woodswork. I may not have cause to carry a hatchet or a Clax on a day hike with the family, but I owe it to myself to find out what works best for me at the bigger end of a compact bushcraft system.

Stay tuned.

Earlier posts
Sharps: A philosophy

Woodcraft, by Nessmuk (aka George Washington Sears)
Camping and Woodcraft, by Horace Kephart (1917 edition)