The Beauty of Learning by Doing

A fox squirrel teased at first light. Unaware death lurked so close, the bushy-tailed squirrel frolicked in the leaves, then bounded downhill. When it reached the crossing trail, it sounded like a doe walking slow. A score of minutes into that last day of November, in the Year of our Lord, 1796, a second fox squirrel scrounged in the leaves beneath a red oak that leaned heavy to the east.

A fox squirrel sits on an oak branch.The pair alternated climbing a tree and flailing dirt and duff about. Aside from a blue jay that came and went, these two offered the only noise in the forest. I leaned back against the largest of three oaks that grew close together halfway down the east hillside of the long ridge. On the one hand, the trees formed a man-sized fortification, and on the other their close proximity made swinging the Northwest gun’s muzzle difficult at best.

Not long after, I glimpsed the sleek back of a big deer. Between the trees and the thick cover at the edge of the big swamp, making out the whole deer was impossible. As deer parts came into view, a left foreleg, a thick belly, a right hock and a well-rounded rump left little doubt about the deer’s size or maturity. An ear dropped, four antler points stood tall, then whisked away in an instant. Front legs and hind legs changed places. Arteries pulsed harder.

The buck’s head reappeared behind a haze of autumn olive twigs and dead cedar branches. He hesitated long enough for a count. I recognized the deer as the eight-point whose antlers angled in with a noticeable slant. He was a mature buck, one fit for any woodsman’s table, and only forty-paces distant.

The Northwest gun’s butt slipped to the right of the oak behind me. The browned barrel and its anxious turtle sight stalked around the oak to my left. The muzzle edged forward as the buttstock returned to its rightful place. My left knee, clad in a blue wool leggin with new silk ribbons on the flaps, rose up to offer a solid support for the hoped for moment of truth. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” I whispered.

A shiny black nose dropped to the forest floor, then antlers up he took two steps to the east. A dead cedar tree entwined with purple raspberry switches lay to his right. He sniffed the ground again, dropped to his front knees and bedded, secure behind his own fortification. The tips of his tines hid in the gray mass of branches, fallen leaves and light grass.

The antlers turned about. I assumed he checked his back trail and the slope above. Then they vanished. I envisioned his noble head resting on his left shoulder or perhaps on the ground in front of him. Agonizing moments flowed into a river of minutes. A gray squirrel joined the two fox squirrels. The blue jay perched high overhead. I leaned back against the red oak and satisfied myself with watching the antics.

Valuable Lessons in the Wilderness Classroom

That was the first nice morning in the whole month of November, warm, overcast and a bit damp—the kind of morning where a weary, 18th-century time traveler could find great joy in the most insignificant of happenings. Yet, in the midst of this subliminal euphoria the kind of a morning when an eight-point buck might sneak in and take his rest in the presence of a hungry woodsman.

Not to leave anyone hanging, the buck slept at least an hour. Then a mature, cautious doe descended the hill, maybe eighty paces to the north. When she lingered at the break between the hillside’s cover and the open swamp, he pushed up to his feet and stared at her. She flicked her tail. He dropped his nose to the leaves and walked straight away, his vitals never in danger.

I was disappointed, to say the least, but having a mature buck come within forty paces, bed, sleep, get up and walk away without an inkling a returned Native captive had the turtle sight of a Northwest gun aimed in his direction was a tremendous accomplishment from a traditional woodsman’s perspective. A sigh of relief passed my lips, for here was a wilderness classroom lesson complete to perfection, a tangible indication that the creation of the new persona was finally coming together.

A deerskin shot pouch fashioned after an Ottawa original.That November morn culminated a week of working with the Ottawa-inspired shot pouch. The pouch took longer to construct than I expected, but my expectations and reality are often “out of sync.” But once completed, I moved on to the learning-by-doing stage of gaining woodland knowledge.

In researching the bag, what I would call an elaborate strap was included in the project, and the hope was to have the entire pouch ready to go by opening day of Michigan’s firearms deer season. When that deadline was no longer viable, I opted for a simple buckskin strap as an interim choice. Well, that proved to be a wise move.

This last week I started the planned shoulder strap. As I worked with the antique beads, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the timing of the project. Now I am hoping to have the pouch completed by the Woods-N-Water News Outdoor Weekend, but I am not holding my breath.

The first goal of any accoutrement project is to create an authentic item that furthers the overall impression of the characterization in a manner that is consistent with the historical record. So often, as dedicated living historians, traditional hunters put a tremendous amount of work and effort into researching primary documentation, evaluating that research, then constructing an artifact that closely resembles the originals.

For the really talented do-it-yourselfers or for living historians with deep pockets, “museum quality” is the gold standard. For the rest of us, coming as close as possible to period-correct with the resources available, either personal skills or cash, is the best option we can hope for. But for the traditional black powder hunter, securing a period-correct addition to an 18th-century captive portrayal, for example, is not the end of the research/documentation process, rather it must be viewed as one small step in an unending quest to experience the texture of life in a bygone era.

Years ago I made an Ojibwe-style, open top shot pouch. When I shared my plans with several other traditional hunters, to a person they all expressed concern that shooting supplies would be lost in the heat of pursuit, or that twigs, leaves and general forest debris would soon fill the pouch. Despite their warnings, I went ahead with my plans. In the months and years that followed, I learned none of those were valid issues.

Weaving antique blue beads between brain-tanned thongs.This is the hands-on, learn-by-doing beauty of viewing the glade as a living, breathing wilderness classroom. As I worked on weaving the blue tube beads into the strap’s shoulder piece, I started wondering how this design would work under actual hunting conditions. Would the beads come loose? Would the strap’s shoulder be too stiff? Would it slip around and not stay in place? And further, how was it going to affect the function of the Ottawa-style shot pouch?

One of the keys to a successful historical simulation is wrapping one’s self in a cocoon of period-correct artifacts that push away the current century and insulate the time traveler against the modern world’s many distractions. And one of the keys to experiencing life in another time is allowing those artifacts to contribute and facilitate the gathering of knowledge and understanding.

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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