As Needy as Little Kids

Wet corn stubble perfumed still air. A full moon, white and mellow, high to the west, guided buffalo-hide moccasins through dawn’s first glimmer. The night prior, before the drizzle, forty-plus geese gathered on the cornfield’s eastern-most knob. They took flight an hour after dark, ke-honking as they winged to the River Raisin, deep in the Old Northwest Territory. “October 15, 1796” was scribbled at the top of that day’s journal entry, along with “maybe tomorrow?”

Sometimes, but not always, the geese would return an hour after dawn to their night feeding ground and land in the opposite end of the field; no rhyme nor reason, just years of frustrated observations from the wrong location. Moccasin footfalls progressed to the hilltop to the west. This was a gamble for sure, but one that might produce a roasted goose dinner. The thought induced instant salivation. At worst the woodsman would arise from the field damp, stiff and dirty.

Now on that clear morning, after the night-time shower, the hired post hunter carried an old blanket, dyed a drab brown with walnut hulls, torn on the one edge, soiled from past goose chases, yet rolled neat and cast over his shoulder. This was not an all-day hunt, rather a side excursion of whimsy and hope, a reason to travel light and easy.

With sweeping swipes the right moccasin scuffed tawny stalks and curled leaves into a hefty pile. Folded in half lengthwise, the blanket settled on the cleared ground. The woodsman sat in the center, checked the Northwest gun’s prime and rested it on the blanket to his right side. Sitting upright, he grabbed handfuls of fodder, placing them over his buckskin leggins and knee breeches. Stalks and leaves formed a headrest. Leaning back, his left arm tugged the remainder of the pile over his torso like the folly of a thread-bare quilt. His gaze faced west, in the direction of the River Raisin, relaxing and patient.

The traditional woodsman reclines in the stubble, half-covered with corn fodder.

A southwest breeze arrived as yellow and lavender spears darted from the eastern horizon. The sweet aroma of drying corn filled his nostrils. With luck, black-necked geese might drift down with set wings, into the wind, right to left, passing over “Old Turkey Feather’s” anxious muzzle, rousting the death bees from peaceful slumber.

“Kee-honk, kee-honk, yonk, yonk…” A single Canada goose flew west to east. Its head with the white patch dipped earthward, surveyed the corn, but kept on flying.

“Caw, caw, caw, caw… Caw, caw, caw, caw…” Six crows came next, circling, banking and flapping upward with no possible direction, other than trying to instigate a raucous scene. Overcome with the silence that followed, the post hunter’s mind slipped away, not into sleep, but rather into a tranquil calm that seldom exists in the midst of a simple pursuit.

A robin chirped and a blue jay screamed. “The elk moccasins need attention,” he thought. “The tear in the tail of the linen shirt needs mending…new winter mittens…oh, the felling ax needs a good stoning…and…” Sandhill cranes, three to the south and two to the north, interrupted his backcountry “to-do” litany, “Urrr-ggooou-aaa, Urrr-ggooou-aaa…”

“Ke-honks” foretold of another pair of geese, again, in the air after spending the night on the river. Voices silenced a ways from the corn. The pair circled once and began their descent. To the south, a string of seven geese began honking. The lead bird’s long, black neck glanced sideways. Gentle wingbeats, mixed with a glide or tumble here and there, returned to steady thrusts as the pair pulled up, fifty yards distant, perhaps more. They angled in a southeasterly direction, parallel to the seven, but headed for another breakfast rendezvous.

A wedge of eleven appeared, with more to the west. Those birds stayed high, giving the woodsman’s cornfield hideout no mind. Twenty two, fifteen, then two loners followed. The stubble that was a goose’s delight the night before offered no promise…

To Decoy or Not to Decoy…

“Do you hunt with decoys?” is a question sometimes asked at the outdoor shows. The answer is a noncommittal, “Occasionally.” I usually turn to the photo albums and leaf through the pages looking for specific pictures. Each comes with a story, as one might surmise.

In the early years of my traditional black powder hunting affliction, decoys were not necessary. The tactic used on that October morning in 2008—find a feeding field at night and the geese will return in the morning—worked with better than average results for many years. Goose numbers were up and hunting pressure was minimal. Then the big obsession with goose hunting hit—trailer loads of decoys, layout blinds, and big diesel trucks to pull the whole shebang. Not to complain or criticize, rather observing the impact of modern techniques.

That October hunt was a turning point. A decision had to be made, stick with the old traditions or use a spread of decoys. I lose interest when modern game habits push the woodland scenario into the future. Those situations aren’t as much fun as cavorting with my hunter heroes on an 18th-century stage.

A few years back, when the section oak collapsed in June while I was at Friendship, I set out two dozen goose decoys bought at a garage sale. Birds looked, set their wings and landed just beyond their plastic brethren. I found myself trapped, hoping the incessant honking might bring a pair low over my cornstalk lair. Instead, a big wedge pulled the birds from their morning repast. At least I didn’t have to stand up and spook them.

A traditional woodsman hidden under a pile of soybean fodder in the midst of a layout of goose decoys.

My interpretation of that calamity was that today’s birds are now wary of landing “where they should” in a decoy spread. Six-inch plastic suppositories, charged with a pound of steel shot, capable of reaching a hundred yards, taught the survivors to social distance or die.

Recently I watched an outdoor show where a half-dozen hunters set up for geese. I was working on making deer-hair cones—modern versus traditional attitudes. When the banging started, I glanced at the flat screen. Now I realize the camera distorts distance, but those hunters were shooting at birds fifty yards up and out. I laughed, as it reminded me of a goose hunt years ago.

It’s a long story, but my brother-in-law, Dave, and I ended up on a guided goose hunt. Dave had never hunted geese before, and the guide, who was a customer of mine, wanted to introduce him to the sport free of charge.

Well, there was a mix up, and five other hunters showed up that morning. They had the wrong date for their paid hunt. The guide was in a bind, and considering his kindness in taking Dave hunting, I said it wasn’t a problem. They turned their nose up at the idiot standing there in moccasins, leather leggins, a drab-colored hunting shirt and a sweat-stained “dew rag,” leaning against a funny-looking “antique gun with a rock.” Thank you, gents, for the returned kindness.

The guide laid out the rules, emphasizing “I call the shot.” These hunters, decked out in the finest camo money could buy, armed with those big suppository guns and toting leather shoulder bags stuffed with ammo, took over the bench in the blind. The guide was upset.

I explained that I had to be on the right side, touch hole flash and all, and that Dave and I would weasel our way into the pile of spare brush left over from hiding a blind in the middle of cut corn.

Not long after, a nice wedge of a dozen geese circled, honking back at the guide’s beseeching. They swung wide and were headed to the hole in the decoys in front of the blind. The geese were dumping air about forty yards out when the first hunter jumped up and opened fire. “Stay down,” I told Dave as I put my hand on his arm. All five took three shots apiece. You could hear steel hit feathers and bounce off. Not a bird fell.

The guide came unglued. “I said ‘I’ll call the shot,’” he yelled. “If you jump my call again, you’re out of here.”

David’s eyes got big. “I’ve never heard a guide talk like that,” he whispered. Those geese would have dropped in twenty yards in front of us, I explained. A good shot for “Old Turkey Feathers,” a difficult shot for big guns with tight chokes.

Eight birds came in. The same fellow started to jump. His companion stopped him. “Let them get one shot off. The geese will flap to gain air and come right in front of us. You shoot for the first bird,” I whispered. Those birds followed the script. Dave knocked down the first goose with one shot, I took the third. Everyone else missed; too close for teensy-diameter shot strings. The guide couldn’t stifle his amusement with the performance of the antique gun with the rock.

For the surviving six birds, the wilderness classroom lesson that day was “don’t land in the middle of other geese,” especially the velvet-flocked ones with over-sized feet. And that continual conditioning makes it tough for a traditional woodsman with a cylinder-bored gas pipe.

Wild turkey hunting is getting just as bad. I passed on a flock of jakes early in the spring season, which turned out to be a egregious mistake. A bird with a two-inch beard walked seventeen paces from the ground-hugging juniper that I sat in. He was searching for the hen that clucked once a half hour earlier. I wanted a long-bearded gobbler, and they all hung up fifty yards out. Hmmm… that same fifty yard distance the big suppositories claim. Is there a correlation?

I have a nice hen decoy, Henrietta is her name. Late in the season she gets to come to the woods, when the gobblers are real call shy. She hasn’t attracted a suitor in several seasons. She’s getting to be an old maid. When not in the woods, she sits in the back seat of the pickup, staring over the console. That scares the daylights out people that approach the truck windows.

And I picked up several hen decoys at an estate sale over on Waterman Road a few years back. While I am confessing my decoy sins, I must say that I have set up a small herd of hens before, scattered, facing every direction, mimicking what I observed in the wild. But that tactic hasn’t worked, either. My experience matches that of my neighbors, so the linen and leather are not the problem.

My “to do list” includes fabricating a turkey decoy and maybe a couple of geese in the fashion of Native American decoys. Unfortunately, time is the prohibiting factor there. I have alter egos that need clothes and 18th-century trinkets. They are as needy as little kids…

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

Posted in General, Goose Hunts, Skills, Worth thinking about... | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What the Squirrel Woods Offers…

Two steps and a pause… Three huge red oak trees with short trunks and broad, spreading limbs stood on the next ridge west. Two steps and a pause… A host of tall, slender oaks, progeny of the three, populated the hill crest. Two steps and a pause… The air smelled warm and dry.

“Caw, caw, caw, caw,” a lone crow, flying in the sideways manner that the black demons sometimes do, winged in the direction of the wooded hillside on the far bank of the River Raisin, deep in the Old Northwest Territory.

Two steps and a pause… The caws faded. “Tseep, Tseep, Tseep,” a tufted titmouse twittered. The little bird with greenish-grey plumage and a feathery top-knot perched on a curved witch hazel branch. Two steps and a pause… The tiny songster canted its head, scrutinizing the hired hunter’s elk moccasins, stained deerskin leggins and faded hunting shirt. “Tseep, Tseep, Tseep,” was its only comment, good or bad.

Msko-waagosh looked through the space between two red oaks that shared the same root.

Two steps and a pause… A fox squirrel bounded from the right matriarch, down the hill and up the rise. A crimson cardinal sang next, “Whit, whit, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu, tsu.” The cardinal sat on a witch hazel, too, this one ahead, to the right. Two steps and a pause… The fox squirrel nuzzled under old oak leaves. Earth and leaves flew about. Two steps and a pause… Twenty paces to the south, a blue jay swooped from the rustling leaves above.

The pause continued… The blue jay flew on without screaming. Two steps and a pause… “Chukk, chukk, chukk, chukk,” a different fox squirrel barked to the north, but thirty or so paces farther than the first, near the two shag bark hickories on the knoll that rolled into the river’s tangled bottomlands. Two steps and a pause… Another crow passed over, “Caw, caw, caw, caw…”

Two steps and a pause… That morning’s still-hunt, in the Year of our Lord, 1793, continued in the direction of the three old red oak trees. That fox squirrel treed when the crow called. Two steps and a pause… A grey squirrel climbed limb to limb in one of the siblings to the left. Two steps and a pause… The hired hunter’s course ascended the rise, now forty paces distant from the right monarch. Two steps and a pause…

“Barking Off Squirrels…”

A while back, a forum thread challenged the authenticity of measuring a powder charge by pouring powder over a lead ball held in the palm of the shooter’s hand. I posted a passage from John James Audubon’s book, Delineations of American Scenery and Character:

“…He takes from his bag a bullet, pulls with his teeth the wooden stopper from his powder-horn, lays the ball on one hand, and with the other pours the powder upon it until it is just overtopped…” (Audubon, 282).

A week ago, while researching a different passage, I came upon the second mention in Audubon’s missive, this time in the chapter entitled, “Kentucky Sports:”

“…Each man cleans the interior of his tube, which is called wiping it, places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it. This quantity is supposed to be sufficient for any distance within a hundred yards…” (Ibid, 60).

Now this chapter covers a variety of marksmanship challenges associated with masters of the American longrifle. But what caught my eye was the subject of the next paragraph. There, in italics, was the topic of another marksmanship feat, “Barking off squirrels.”  

As I have shared in recent posts, one of my goals for the upcoming fall hunting season centers on the simple pursuit of small game. I’ve spent a fair amount of time skimming through journal notes looking for small game adventures. To be honest, most involve the hired hunter for Samuel the Trader’s post. Msko-waagosh has a few squirrel and rabbit hunts, as does Mi-ki-naak, but most occurred before either returned white captive came on the scene.

If I recall, Audubon’s recollection of squirrel hunting with Daniel Boone is the primary documentation cited to support the practice of “barking off squirrels.”

Barking off squirrels is delightful sport, and in my opinion requires a greater degree of accuracy than any other. I first witnessed this manner of procuring squirrels whilst near the town of Frankfort [Kentucky]. The performer was the celebrated Daniel Boon [sic]

“My companion, a stout, hale, and athletic man, dressed in a homespun hunting shirt, bare-legged and moccasined, carried a long and heavy rifle, which, as he was loading it, he said had proved efficient in all his former undertakings, and which he hoped would not fail on this occasion, as he felt proud to show me his skill. The gun was wiped, the powder measured, the ball patched with six-hundred-thread linen, and the charge sent home with a hickory rod. We moved not a step from the place, for the squirrels were so numerous that it was unnecessary to go after them. Boon pointed to one of these animals which had observed us, and was crouched on a branch about fifty paces distant, and bade me mark well the spot where the ball should hit. He raised his piece gradually, until the bead (that being the name given by the Kentuckians to the sight) of the barrel was brought to a line with the spot which he intended to hit. The whip-like report resounded through the woods and along the hills in repeated echoes. Judge to my surprise when I perceived that the ball had hit the piece of the bark immediately beneath the squirrel, and shivered it into splinters, the concussion produced by which had killed the animal, and sent it whirling through the air, as if it had been blown up by explosion of a powder magazine. Boon kept up his firing, and before many hours had elapsed, we had procured as many squirrels as we wished; for you must know, that to load a rifle requires only a moment, and that if it is wiped once after each shot, it will do duty for hours. Since that first interview with our veteran Boon, I have seen many other individuals perform the same feat.” (Ibid, 60-61).

This passage contains enough quotes for a dozen blog posts on a variety of subjects, and perhaps I can address several in the weeks to come. But with regards to barking off squirrels, a number of thoughts, most focusing on the safety aspects of the practice, flood through my mind.

Boone is using a rifle. I prefer the smoothbore. For most living historians a difference in accuracy exists between the two, depending on skill and mastery. Further, I have a problem hurling a single death sphere, one with a mass of 345 grains and a diameter of .610-inch, at a bushy-tailed squirrel.

As a matter of personal preference, I never shoot on an elevated plane where a miss hurtles a sizeable round ball to points unknown. Stories abound where a house, car or Heaven forbid, a person is hit with a projectile shot in the air that missed its intended mark.

Plus a direct hit with that round ball transforms a meager meal into a pitiful hors d’oeuvre. Lead shot is another matter, but even then the death bees inflict damage to valuable meat.  In essence, I don’t take shots in trees with round balls. That practice is not safe in today’s world.

That said, early on in my journey back in time, I tried barking squirrels with the .40-caliber Dickert flintlock rifle. Those were careful shots, downhill at squirrels in low branches or on deadfalls where the miss ended up in either the nasty thicket or the big swamp. That is one blessing of rolling southern Michigan hills.

I’ve never tried with “Old Turkey Feathers” and have no intention of attempting that feat. That is not to say that I don’t get a real kick out of shooting at the “Bark the Squirrel” paper target that shows up from time to time at black powder shindigs.

Msko-waagosh picks up a downed fox squirrel.

Over four decades, I’ve heard a fair number of tales from other traditional woodsmen who have tried barking off squirrels. A dancing fire, a twinge of guilt/honesty and a few good companions make for a lot of “you-won’t-believe-what-I-did” laughs. I find it interesting that most, but not all, of those stories end in the same way—by the spinner of the yarn almost getting bit by an angry squirrel. Now and again, a hard hit that splinters the wood with explosive force does the trick, consistent with Audubon’s observation. The “explosion of a powder magazine,” is the key phrase.

That said, I cannot count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen a twig break from under a grey or fox squirrel. Sometimes the critters get lucky,  grasp a branch on the way down, dangle and struggle, then right themselves—and sometimes they don’t. I’ve never seen a fall from a tall oak or hickory kill a squirrel. A few were stunned and acted dead, but that didn’t last.

In the majority of recollections, the bark peeled, maybe splintered some, the squirrel fell, the linen and leather clad marksman patted himself on the back (I’ve never heard of a lady trying to bark off a squirrel—“we’re smart enough not to try,” Miss Tami once said with a wink), and reached for that bushy tail—without poking the little beastie or watching to see if it was still breathing. As I’ve often said, Congress should pass a law that every squirrel in the forest must have a sign with bold red letters affixed to its bushy tail that reads: Grab at your own peril!”

Still, I’m getting impatient waiting for a chance to see what the squirrel woods offers…

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

Posted in Research, Safety, Skills, Squirrel Hunts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

With Disgusted Relief…

Inquisitive fingers felt splintered openings. Msko-waagosh shook his head in amazement, the sulfurous stench of spent black powder still in his nostrils. Lead shot holes, shoulder-high on the returned white captive, peppered the barkless trunk of a dead red oak, but offered no answers to the woodland mystery.

On that late October evening, in the Year of our Lord, 1796, Msko-waagosh clenched his right fist, directing it back and forth, then up and down on the trunk. There were no missing holes, no voids in the perfect pattern left by the death bees. Overcome with disbelief, he moved his humble representation of the fox squirrel’s head and chest about again, seeking a location where the shot struck the vanished bushy-tail.

Msko-waagosh, called the “Red Fox” in the English tongue, examined the trunk for blood or short, auburn strands of hair. Crouching to one knee, he inspected the brittle, curled oak leaves at the tree’s base and behind. Again he shook his head as he fingered leaves. He scrambled to his feet, circled the tree, searching above and below the death bees final resting place, but to no avail.

Msko-waagosh, the returned white captive, paused behind a red oak tree as he gazed up the forest.

In disgust, he grabbed up the Northwest gun and marched back to the stout red cedar tree, counting the paces, glancing back at the dead oak twice. He sat cross-legged on his trade blanket, rolled and bound with a leather portage collar. His mind recalled the fox squirrel’s leap from the shag-bark hickory’s jagged branch to the broken limb of the oak, the slow, unconcerned bounds to the limb’s juncture with the trunk and the casual dart to the far side of the hulk.

With its tail flicking and twitching, the squirrel circled the oak as it descended, once, twice, and then the long pause on the backside. Minutes it was. “You prayed for a clean kill or a clean miss,” he whispered to no one but himself.

The minute after the prayer afforded the time for the man mentored in the ways of the forest by his adoptive Ojibwe family to ease the smoothbore up, set the cock and rest his left elbow on his left, wool-clad knee, raised up by then. The Northwest gun’s turtle sight waited, steady, patient.

That fox squirrel rounded the grayed oak trunk close to the ground, head down and out, looking about, scanning the fresh-fallen leaves. The turtle held firm on the black eye, the one on the right, the animal’s left. The sharp English flint crashed. The squirrel’s tail flicked. Yellow sparks flew. The squirrel’s body turned upward. Black powder flashed. “Kla-whoosh-BOOM!”

Flames belched from the muzzle. White smoke roiled and billowed forth. The trade gun’s thunder echoed up and down the great swamp. The squirrel did not drop, did not thump in the leaves, did not thrash about as Msko-waagosh expected. And then in his mind, he recalled the flick of the tail, passing to the back of the tree, above where he aimed. “Oh,” he said with disgusted relief.

As he leaned back against the cedar tree, Msko-waagosh noticed the firelock’s cock was down, the pan coated with dry, black fouling. He looked about, concerned for his safety when he realized he had not reloaded. When the fox squirrel did not thump in the leaves, he ran straight to the oak. This was not his practice, which again caused a shaking of his head. He stood, pulled the hickory plug from his horn and began the loading process…  

“What’s in Your Pouch?”

Msko-waagosh’s shot pouch holds just the basics for loading and servicing the Northwest trade gun: two spare flints, two or three priming wires, one or two gun worms, a wrought nail to tighten the cock’s jaw screw, a turkey wing bone and either a pouch of shot or seven lead balls. It also contains a buckskin wallet with hunting licenses and a brass powder measure, modern necessities dictated by law or safety concerns. Oh, and a pair of mismatched cuff buttons, which he never uses, fitting his linen outer shirt.

Mi-ki-naak’s pouch is a tad smaller in size. He keeps a wrought turn screw for the fusil’s cock-jaw screw, and he’s started carrying French amber flints instead of black, English flints.

The hired trading post hunter’s buckskin bag is the largest. It often includes a palm-sized Psalms and New Testament in a leather envelope, a burning glass in a cowhide case made by Darrel Lang (Leather from the Past), and sometimes the post hunter’s fire-starting kit in a thin leather sack. Lead balls or shot are kept in cowhide bags, Christmas gifts from Darrel. As one might expect, the license wallet moves from pouch to pouch, depending on which alter ego takes to the woods.

Msko-waagosh's shot pouch, horn and split belt pouch shown during a squirrel hunt.

Either at the outdoor shows, or on hunting excursions, someone asks, “What’s in your pouch?” (One of these days I’m going to pull out a credit card, just to gauge the reaction.) In the wonderful world of living history, that question is ever prevalent.

At times, the inquisitor’s attitude switches from curiosity to the adversarial air of the “period-correct police.” A few items into the show and tell session, the question, “Do you have documentation for that,” raises its ugly head, save those instances when a viewer is genuinely interested in the historical background.

Many years ago, in part through the influence of Mark Baker’s writings, I evaluated each item based on documented primary sources consistent with the hired hunter’s persona. I followed that practice when Msko-waagosh and Mi-ki-naak came on the scene. Some necessities had no basis in 18th-century writings, some were carried, but kept on pack animals or left at a station camp, and some appeared over and over in the midst of the chase.

One of the goals of living history, and also traditional black powder hunting, is to discover what an individual had available and chose to use, then learn how those items fit into their backcountry lifestyle. John Tanner, Jonathan Alder, James Smith, Meshach Browning and the other hunter heroes I depend on, mention items in passing. Often times, the writings of two or more seasoned woodsmen are needed to complete a picture of common accoutrements.

In the end, the wilderness classroom provides the laboratory setting to test out these artifacts under first-hand, trial-and-error circumstances. Thus, through decades of field study, only a handful of “necessities” prove necessary.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that wilderness calamities happened, which turned a trade gun into nothing more than an expensive club. What has always intrigued me is the hearty hunter continues on, intending to repair the malady either at camp or at a local trading post—and they survived under that premise. Without a doubt, some did not make it, and thus they did not pen any memoirs.

Over the years, I have been taken to task with conversations that centered on “what you’re not carrying that you should,” followed by a listing of “must have accoutrements.”

Well, this week I ran across a blog post from several years ago. The link was sent to me in an email. The lecture began with, “A woodsman must be careful to distinguish between what you like to have along and what you need. You must balance minimum accoutrement weight against maximum survival efficiency.”

I don’t have a problem with those statements. I interpret the documentation with respect to my character, his chosen time period, his geographical location and his social standing, backed by practical, in-the-field experience. I am not criticizing what someone else interprets as correct for his or her persona. I offer this only as a point of comparison or contrast from a living historian’s perspective who is also a traditional black powder hunter.

The leather belt bag contains an oval brass box with fishing kit, an octagon brass box with tinder, flint and steel, and an “optional” brass compass.

The knapsack is of the “new improved” variety with a rolled wool blanket containing “spare clothes” and fixed with buckle straps. A drawstring bag contains the medical kit: rolled gauze, rolled bandage, 18th-century scissors, forceps and clamp, a modern hemostat and three antique bottles of medicines. A deerskin pouch holds a mainspring vice, spare lock screws, spare mainspring, frizzen spring and sear spring, worn frizzen and a wad cutting punch. A small brass kettle and tin cup is pictured, along with a linen sewing kit or “housewife.” Loose items include soap, a comb, whetstone, metal file, wooden spoon, a pair of moccasins and an awl.

A linen market wallet is shown, but the contents are not, other than noting sufficient food is carried “for a long stay.” An oil cloth is tucked between the bedroll and knapsack.

The leather shot pouch holds a ball bag, a shot bag, a drawstring bag with cleaning supplies, two flints, spare flint leather, turn screw, ball puller and a tin of grease, half a lead bar, brass mold and a lead ladle. Patched balls in a loading block, tin measure, pan brush and vent pick are attached to the woven strap.

A powder horn, tomahawk, long knife with sheath, patch knife with sheath, folding knife and a leather-covered glass bottle for drinking water fill out this woodsman’s kit.

Now going back to my previous caveat, this is one living historian’s interpretation of what is necessary for a trek in the forest. With the exception of the medical kit, most of these items can be documented by the writings of my own hunter heroes. But that documentation is based on happenings in and about a homestead, lodge, trading post or village setting, not in the heat of a fair-chase hunting scenario.

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

Posted in Clothing & Accoutrements, Persona, Research, Squirrel Hunts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maybe there…

“Urrr—ggoooo! Urrr—ggoooo!” Sandhill cranes sounded a warning, before first light, in the plowed plot behind the Waterman homestead. Damp elk moccasins whisked along the doe trail. A light drizzle pitter-patted. Tree-by-tree, footfall-by-footfall the earthen byway snaked through the young hardwoods. All about, last fall’s cupped leaves held tiny puddles.

The distinct smell of wet curs mixed with the freshness of awakening growth perfumed the air. Night’s abyss fought dawn’s inevitable greying. Fog hung low in the swale with the tall cottonwoods, and ahead, around the muddy watering hole. Three soggy days did not deter the quest for a wild turkey. Mid-April, in the Year of our Lord, 1793, made up for March’s drought.

Upwind, three antlerless deer meandered on the ridge crest, a few paces beyond the wild cherry that grew at an angle shallower than a brass sundial’s gnomon. The woodsman paused, letting the deer go about their morning business.

“Obl-obl-obl-obl!” A distant gobble afforded no prospect. A close-by answer never came. Then, in the distance to the southwest an unmistakable rumbling foretold of the impending downpour. The backcountry hunter glanced about and settled on a large white oak that leaned east, twelve hasty strides distant.

The hired trading post hunter sat beside a red oak tree.

Three moccasin swipes cleared wet leaves, exposing damp earth. The trade blanket, rolled tight and bound with a leather portage collar, thumped beside the drier side of the big trunk. With a quick draw through the hem of his linen hunting shirt, the woodsman wiped beaded water from the Northwest gun’s browned barrel. He sat cross legged, his back tight to the tree, hunched forward with the smoothbore’s firelock tucked under his right arm.

A thumb and index finger twisted the maple peg in the cow horn’s spout, snugging it, but not tight. His left hand turned the wiping stick, pulling it an inch or so until it felt free in the forestock. The light drizzle grew into a pounding torrent. Streams of water dribbled from the oak’s upper branches, landing beyond the huddled hunter. Mist and the occasional splash struck linen and leather, but the old monarch’s eastward lean spared the full force of the deluge.

In the midst of the rainstorm, a hen turkey yelped twice, “Ark, ark…” Near the red willows that grew on the south edge of the swamp that bordered the woodlot, a gobbler answered, “Gob-obl-obl-obl!” The sage hunter considered adding a second hen’s voice, but decided against that tactic. Instead, he chose to wait.

A half hour or so later, the rain returned to the spotty drizzle of first light. Neither bird uttered another sound. With care, the woodsman got to his feet, slung the bedroll over his shoulders and ventured into the valley at the base of the hill with hopes of hiding in the tangled limbs where two hollow oaks crashed to the ground. “Maybe there,” he whispered to no one in particular…

Swollen Wood Woes

Four-plus decades ago the traditional black powder hunting bug bit hard. I was an all-weather hunter, and preferred a light rain or snow to bright sun-lit days. When I switched from the Ithaca 20-gauge to the Northwest trade gun, I never considered changing my hunting style.

Wild turkeys weren’t an option back then, so the spring rainy season wasn’t an issue, but the fall and winter had their share of wet and dismal days. I laugh now, but in those first few years, I pulled a lot of muddy messes from the breech of “Old Turkey Feathers.” Trial and error in the wilderness classroom was the best teacher, with a little guidance from Pa Keeler.

During that time, I learned that the last inch or so of the ramrod hole in the trade gun’s forestock was a tad tighter than the rest of the boring. On more than one occasion, I had to let the gun sit for a day or so in the living room corner until the swelled hickory rod eased up in the hole. Once, distraught with frustration, I destroyed the end of a rod by clamping it in my shop vice. The hickory stick didn’t budge, so I clamped it tighter, eventually crushing the brass tip and rod end—and I still had to wait for the wood to shrink on its own.

A little judicious shaving on the last couple inches of the new rod tempered the problem. Thank heavens I left the rod blank full length before adding the brass tip. I had to cut it back, because I removed too much wood. The third time was the charm. And my propensity for breaking ramrods during competitions didn’t help, either. But with experience comes knowledge.

Over the years I have broken a few powder horn stoppers, too. Two got caught in heavy brush, which had nothing to do with wood swelling. I twisted one off in the midst of a rainstorm like the April shower. I broke another on the primitive range at Friendship, the morning after a heavy shower. I should have known better…

The hired trading post hunter removed the wiping stick and seated a leaf wad firm on the powder.

When I clean Old Turkey Feathers, I always oil the wiping stick. I use bear grease on the powder horn stoppers. As an aside, it is now my habit to make the stoppers out of hickory or maple, left natural. I find the light wood makes the stopper easy to see in dark conditions and contrasts to the horn’s spout. Again, lessons from the wilderness classroom.

As traditional black powder hunters, we take great care in finding the optimum load for our favorite muzzleloader. We pay close attention to the gun’s idiosyncrasies and special needs. But many fall short in dealing with wood’s response to water. A swollen lock mortise can bind a sear or hamper a mainspring. A swollen ramrod makes it difficult to reload after placing a shot on a fine white-tailed buck, long-bearded gobbler or black bear. And it’s pretty tough to measure the next powder charge with a jagged stopper stump in a horn’s spout.

If we fail to account for wood’s propensity to shrink and swell, there is no point in moving to the next lair and whispering, “Maybe there…”

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

Posted in General, Muzzleloaders, Turkey Hunts, Wilderness Classroom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Searching for the Golden Orb

Two wood ducks whistled, but remained unseen. The hired hunter crouched down as he tucked the bag of duck shot into the deerskin shot pouch that hung on his right side. Light rain drizzled through a humid fog. The air smelled of earthworms and wet oak leaves. The fowls, a hen and a drake, edged the hardwoods, winging just inside the narrow clearing. With a sharp bank right, the drake looked down on the standing water in the south corner of the huckleberry swamp. The pair veered into the oaks and hickories with another shrill whistle.

The woodsman grounded his right knee out of habit. The Northwest gun eased up. With judicious care, an anxious thumb clicked the cock into the sear’s first notch. Teeth gripped the horn’s plug. The index finger covered the cow horn’s tip, cut off and augured out, metering a dash of black granules into the pan. Plug in place, the frizzen snapped closed, ready for the wood duck’s second pass, which never materialized.  

Ten minutes ticked by. The forest tenant scrambled to his feet, sighed and tipped the smoothbore’s muzzle down as he pressed the stock and lock under his right arm. The death bees rattled and buzzed, then pitter-patted onto the wet leaves.

The fowl’s whistle interrupted the backcountry hunter; he did not roll and tamp the final leaf over the precious charge. He knelt again. More out of superstition than frugality, his fingers gathered up all the black pebbles his eyes could see, not wishing to miss “the golden orb,” the solitary bee that might down his next meal.

The trading post's hired hunter sits behind an oak tree waiting for the wood ducks to return.

The hired hunter resumed the evening’s still-hunt. Buffalo-hide moccasins whispered down the rise, along the doe trail to a stout oak tree that grew up and out over the thickets stagnant water. His rolled blanket, bound with a leather portage collar, thumped behind the oak. He glanced about, then sat on the wool cushion, hoping the wood ducks might return to roost in the sequestered puddle.

Ferns and sumac dotted the point to his left, to his right more oaks, a single shag-bark hickory and two wild cherry trees. The oaks still flaunted an abundance of green leaves; the hickory was golden yellow and the cherries almost barren.

A long-legged spider crept up the right, hunt-stained leggin, but paused at the leather thong, the one that replaced the tie the woodsman lost the week before on a wild turkey hunt, two ridges west of the huckleberry swamp’s wet corner.  As he watched the spider, the hunter realized the rain stopped. A fox squirrel barked, “Chukk, chukk, chukk, chukk.”

Geese ke-honked to the west, seeking a night’s rest on the River Raisin, sounding like they dropped in at the sand flats. Two more flocks arrived. A red squirrel twittered, “Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Five chickadees whirred in. “Chic, a-dee, dee, dee, dee…” they said as they flitted from twig to twig. And then the silence descended that marked the end of that dismal, but joyous November day, in the Year of our Lord, 1795…

Unraveling a Mystery

Ten or so years ago, a traditional black powder hunter sent me an email, wanting to set up a time to talk. He had a problem with a wild turkey hunt. The tale of woe began at the end. The gobbler took his time strutting to the hen. The time traveler was anxious, breathing hard and shaking a bit, but he calmed his nerves when the tom stepped inside the crossed sticks that marked the fusil’s maximum effective distance.

“I gave him a couple of steps,” he said. “He stopped in front of a dead oak with no bark. I was right on. The pan flashed. The gun fired quick. Above the smoke, I watched him fly up in a distant tree top. I waited, then he flew off.” He paced the distance at twenty-one yards.

The conversation reverted to the beginning of the hunt. Well before daylight, the voyageur, his family was French Canadian so his persona reflected a great, great, great relative’s 18th-century profession, left his house, walked to the back of his yard and loaded the fusil de chasse. A fresh load for each day was his habit. He followed the foot trail into the woods and set out one hen decoy. He took his place in a makeshift blind of twigs, limbs and burlap. “It’s almost impossible to see me,” he added.

We talked more. I asked the same questions as before, but with a different slant. I had nary a clue. He mentioned that he was running late, because he’d overslept. “The birds started gobbling while I loaded.” I went on with the friendly interrogation all the way to him sitting in the blind. There was no plausible explanation for the miss, which frustrated me. I wanted to offer an answer, maybe two, other than “buck fever.”

 Meshach Browning, one of my hunter heroes, fessed up to a bad case that occurred during a deer hunting challenge. The “shakes” cost him a jug of whiskey and earned a hearty ribbing:

“…Presently a very large buck made his appearance, when I said to myself: ‘That will make the sixth deer, beside two gallons of whiskey, and the reputation of being the best hunter in the woods.’

“…The buck gradually drew nearer, but the pine-trees stood so close together, that it was a hard matter to secure a good aim, and besides, I found I was becoming so much excited that my hand was growing unsteady…I waited to get rid of the shakes, though to no purpose…I put my gun against a tree, thinking thus to brace myself…I fired at his whole hips, at a distance of not more than twenty steps, without ever touching either hide or hair of him…” (Browning, 172)

As I thought through the circumstance, step by step, I remembered the wood ducks. “Did you hear your shot hit the dead oak?” There was a long silence; careful recollection sometimes takes a few minutes.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember,” was his response, “why?”  

“Just a hunch,” I said, followed by an explanation of my mistake. But he was certain he seated an over-the-shot card on a hefty charge of #4s. We talked through the possibilities, settling on lost shot or buck fever as the most plausible.

He called back the next evening. “I checked the oak this morning,” he said with a humble tone. “Not a pellet in that tree.” He went on to say that he always loaded in the same spot, because he liked to lean his ramrod against the maple at the edge of his woods. He checked there on the walk home. “I found the shot pressed down in the path where I walked on it.”

Shooters waiting their turn at Shaw's Quail Walk at the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association.

Not seating a card over a shot load is more common than most people would think. One morning at Shaw’s Quail Walk on the grounds of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association in Friendship, Indiana, a fellow competitor, shooting an original double barrel, stepped to the line.

As per safety requirements, this veteran of the shotgun games held the muzzle up above his head from the loading bench to the woods and all the while he waited in line for his turn to shoot. When he stepped to the markers, he tipped the barrels down range to cap the shotgun. Both shot charges rattled out, creating a cute little dust cloud a step in front of him.

When the kidding subsided, similar tales of embarrassment circulated. For shotgunners, forgetting over-the-shot cards or a shot charge all together, is akin to dry balling a favorite rifle or pistol. There is always the concern for a short-started load, so failing to seat the card is an important safety consideration that requires constant vigilance.

I have had shot cards loosen up, to the point the shot rattled in the barrel when it was moved. I don’t have that problem with leaves, or “compost wads,” as neighbor Jeff says. The cause in that instance was a change made by the card manufacturer to the diameter of the cards, 20-gauge, the size I used to purchase.

Back then, I went through a couple thousand over-the-shot cards a shooting season. I still had some of the old cards in the bottom of my shooting box. I measured them and discovered the discrepancy. The supplier was super, replacing the cards with 19-gauge, the correct size based on his new dies.

And going back to the gentleman that dumped his double’s charges in the dirt, he started to bend down, but stopped. In disgust he turned around and said, “I just lost two golden orbs.” And he was right; he dropped both birds at station #2…

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

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Satisfying the Trader’s Cravings

Buffalo-hide moccasins crushed fresh snow. The footfalls laced in and out of the prairie grass at the edge of a small hardwood stand. An early fox squirrel left a remembrance of its jaunt between a hefty red oak and a young white oak. A red squirrel’s whirring, “Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…” garnered no mind from the morning mission of the hired post hunter.

It seems the night prior, a late-January Thursday, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, Samuel the Trader mentioned, “Rabbit stew sure would taste good” as he gazed out the cabin door at a light snow squall. At first light, his hired hunter set out for the great swamp. Where the prairie grass met the hardwoods on the wetland’s southeast end, the raspberry tangle and a bit to the east, the cedar grove offered the best hope of securing a couple of rabbits to satisfy the trader’s craving.

The Northwest gun, charged with the last of the clerk’s plover shot, remained across the hunter’s chest, muzzle up and out. An anxious thumb twittered on the cock, anticipating the first furry bound and jog. His nose dripped in the crisp, clean-smelling cold.

The moccasin trail wandered around the ravine, through a patch of red cedar trees, then to the brink of the slope that contained the hardwoods. The urgent quest produced but two sets of fox squirrel tracks.

The trading post hunter pauses at the edge of the hardwoods.

At each pause, the woodsman surveyed the hillside. The white carpet that slipped down the slope to the drooping sedge grass looked clean, fresh and without blemish. Likewise, the depressions between snow-covered prairie grass clumps remained barren. Undaunted, the hired hunter continued on, after all, he had ‘til dusk to fulfill the dinner request.

At the north end, where the oaks, wild cherries and hickories diminish and the thick-packed cedars begin, split hooves marked a pre-dawn passage of three, maybe four younger deer. And there, to the right, in the midst of the doe tracks, a cottontail rabbit’s hind footprint, pointing downhill, provided the first hope. Without a single moccasin’s commitment, keen brown eyes saw where the rabbit left the deer’s byway, and discovered the matted-down snow under two scrawny cedar trees. A fallen oak limb grown over with weeds, now bent-over and broken, attracted his attention.

“A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the post hunter whispered. Puffs of steamy breath drifted northeast. A fox squirrel scampered along a hickory limb, scattering snow as it ventured overhead. With that, Samuel’s hunter began a cautious still-hunt to the scrawny cedar trees…

Black Powder Small Game

Historical discussions sometimes take interesting turns. The telephone conversation centered on a fusil de chasse, purchased with the idea of taking a wild turkey or two. An incoming email resulted in the phone exchange. We talked mostly about loading, tips and tricks and some primary documentation regarding the French smoothbore. Then I posed the question, “Do you hunt small game?” The fifty-something gentleman paused, then said “I used to,” followed by “I never considered black powder small game.”

The exchange turned to youthful adventures that taught the basics of hunting, sportsmanship and the enjoyment of the outdoor world. Families grow, time afield diminishes and the emphasis shifts to big game, such as the white-tailed deer, black bear or magnificent elk. More by happenstance than intent, the simple pursuit of small game falls by the wayside.

This new-found friend shared some of his first experiences chasing fox squirrels and cottontail rabbits in his home state. His memories were not all that different from mine, or most hunters. A few decades ago acquiring the rudimentary woodland skills began with successes and failures chasing squirrels, rabbits, ducks, pheasants, quail and the occasional varmint. Today, videos, outdoor channels and social media skip right to trophy bucks, and such.

But back then, patience came with fox squirrels. Rabbits honed tracking abilities. Understanding habits and habitat followed from finding a duck or goose honey hole. Pheasants and quail taught brush hunting 101 and wing shooting 102. Gophers and woodchucks instructed classes on stalking, still-hunting and waiting for the best shot. And with them all a deep respect for the lessons taught in the wilderness classroom, humbling as they might be.

But the question of the night was, “I could hunt small game with the fusil, couldn’t I?” And my answer was, “Certainly! It would be a great opportunity to learn and grow with your new fusil.”

His question hung with me for several days, and recurs now and again. I realize in my own life I have gotten away from the small game. In recent years, family demands are to blame, but before that I simply did not place enough importance of small game hunting. That joyous pastime got away from me, too.

My hunter heroes mention small game from time to time. Meshach Browning started as a squirrel hunter, then graduated to bear and deer. John Tanner tells of hunting rabbits amongst tales of buffalo and elk. And yes, some of my most memorable traditional black powder hunts centered on small game—Swamp Hollow comes to mind, as does a few weekends in Michigan’s Huron National Forest.

The start of small game season is two months distant. Now is the time to begin planning ahead, the time to give a priority to the forest’s littler tenants. Sticky notes plaster the flat surfaces on either side of my desk. When the stickum gets old, notes fall. Reaching for a highlighter the other day, I discovered one that read:

“There is a limit to the number of autumns in a person’s life and none should be squandered.”

At the time, photo sheets from that January rabbit hunt stared back from the left-side monitor. I read the passage a couple times before taping it up in its rightful place. It’s funny how little happenings spark repentant thoughts. I vowed to include more small game hunts in this fall’s outings. We’ll see how that plays out. Maybe Samuel the Trader will have more cravings?

Carrying a cottontail rabbit, the hired hunter continues to look for tracks and sign.

Ten paces from the matted area, the post hunter paused to unravel the tracks with his eyes, not his buckskin-clad legs. A lone set of tracks angled to the swamp’s edge, but to the north, another set returned. At the torn end of the oak limb, a single set of tracks circled uphill. He chose that path, watching ahead with each moccasin step. The rabbit’s tracks disappeared in the midst of the deeper white fluff that filled a break in the hardwoods. He turned back.

Being thorough, the woodsman investigated the tracks that led to the swamp’s edge. They, too, ended, not showing any connection to the set that returned to uphill. He paused, perplexed a bit. He decided to check to the south.

Six paces distant, from an obscure tuft of grass between two red oaks, brown fur exploded. Uphill three hops…two bounds to the right…the sear clicked…behind a red oak…the Northwest gun’s butt plate slammed against linen…three bounds left…the turtle sight chased…under a cedar tree’s dead limbs…and another…into an opening…

“Kla-whoosh-BOOM!”

The muzzle’s angry, orange tongue lapped. Thunder echoed over the great swamp. White, sulfurous stench swirled about. The death bees swarmed. Snow flew skyward. The cottontail rabbit rolled. In a surprising instant, persistence satisfied Samuel the Trader’s craving…

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

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Delivering a Woodland Message

Darkness afforded safe passage. Slow and steady, elk moccasins still-hunted along an earthen byway. Warm fog smelled drizzly wet. Silver orbs clung to thin prairie grass. Hunt-stained buckskin leggins dashed the dew from the slender, green blades. Some droplets spattered, some clung, damping leather knee-high. The year was 1792, early May.

Beyond the small clearing, the doe trail eased over the ridge crest and down into the thick cedar trees. Boughs brushed the hired hunter’s faded-green sleeves, darkening the fabric with water spots. Six or so cedars down the hill, the elk moccasins paused.

Trepidation replaced the urgency of reaching the fallen tangle of cedars before first light. A premonition swept over the post hunter like the cold that befalls the earth just before a mighty thunderstorm. Without conscious thought, the forest tenant treed. His blanket roll, pulled from about his shoulders, dropped beside a modest cedar. The butcher knife sliced away a half-dozen scraggly, dead twigs. He sat cross-legged, his left shoulder against the trunk, the Northwest trade gun resting on his left knee, which was raised up ready for an impending shot.

The hired trading-post hunter raised the Northwest gun to his shoulder and waited...

Twenty silent minutes passed. The sky grayed. A doe meandered south to north on the lowest trail that followed the great swamp’s west cut bank. Then a single gobble, abrupt and short, gave validity to the premonition… “Obl-obl-obl-obl!”

The bird called from the roost, maybe sixty paces north, about even with where the woodsman sat. The smoothbore’s turtle sight stalked in the gobbler’s direction. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the eager hunter whispered.

Big wings thrashed; the muffled “thump” hit close by, distinct, certain. From experience, the woodsman worked the trigger as he brought the firelock’s cock to full attention. The death bees twittered. The left elbow anchored on the left knee. In less than a minute the long-bearded tom’s red head and white pate marched south on the next lower doe trail. Thirty-five paces…behind a young oak trunk…thirty…a pause in front of three cedars that shared the same root…not quite twenty-five…the turtle sight followed the red head’s progress…

A Problematic Quick Kill

The journal entry for that spring turkey hunt is quite short and choppy, not more than ten brief sentences with two or three word phrases that are important to me as a writer. In that era, the gobblers roosted in the same trees each night, a hundred or so yards down the ridge. A February ice storm tipped seven or eight good-sized cedar trees upon each other, creating Mother Nature’s version of the half-faced shelter.

The destruction was new, and on that May morning my alter ego wanted to lure a fresh turkey dinner with a few seductive draws on the wing bone. But then the premonition hit. Sometimes he listens to that inner voice, but most times he doesn’t. That morning, the voice was loud and specific, “Sit Now!” And so he did as instructed.

From the lone gobble to the shot took no more than a few minutes. There was no cautious stalk, no forest chase, no intrigue and no story, to speak of. “A turkey gobbled, flew down, walked a few paces and the Northwest gun belched fire.” Not much for excitement there, let alone a riveting exploit, modern or traditional.

Now I need to back up a bit. I feel it is important to note that I did not finish the story, but I had to give away the ending to make sense of my thoughts and comments. Please, let me explain.

Early on in my traditional hunting writings, I split the story up, explaining the importance of that particular tale, then finishing with the “Kla-whoosh-BOOM!” Now and then the beginning of a tale contained a muzzle blast, but those were misses. At the time, this format was not by design.

Then a good family friend stopped me at the grocery store to tell me how much she enjoyed my writings. She said she was a non-hunter. Her husband encouraged her to “read one or two,” so she relented. Sherry said she discovered that if the “Kla-whoosh-BOOM!” occurred in the main text body she could keep reading, knowing that I missed. When the trade gun’s bellow was close to the end, she stopped reading. She was happy, and I gained a new reader.

After that impromptu discussion, I’ve followed that convention with only two exceptions. So I have to disclose…there is a “Kla-whoosh-BOOM!” near the end of this missive.

Experienced hunters know that there are times when circumstances nullify all the cultivation of skills and hours of intense woodland training. These happenings are few and far between, at least for my characters, but they do happen.

For me, as a living historian, “The turkey gobbled, flew down…BANG!” situations are counter-productive to a meaningful portrayal within a somewhat planned traditional hunting simulation. But, they are still period-correct.

Yes, a major reason for crossing time’s threshold and pursuing wild game in the manner of my hunter heroes is the taking of sustenance for the family dinner table. But more often than not, that is not the case. And when that happens, the simulation, the living of life in the shadow of Meshach Browning, George Nelson, John Tanner or James Smith, is as important as taking a woodland foray to its natural conclusion—providing meat.

From a writer’s perspective, those few thoughts, scribbled on a folded page with a brass lead holder, can form the basis of an enlightening message. But the better tale is what happened the hour or the day or the week before. The failures, the almosts, the twists of fate that are beyond a backcountry hunter’s control provide the best intrigue and realism.

The journals and narratives of my hunter heroes contain passages of game taken more by luck and being at “the right place” than skill. John Tanner, the Falcon, happened upon a young “Assinneboin” hunter on a large prairie. Tanner considers the incident noteworthy and elaborates. In the midst of the telling, he says:

“…I remained a little while at the lodge of the young man I had found in the prairie, and then went out to start for the next village. Geese were flying over, and I raised my gun and shot one. It fell in the midst of a number of Assinneboins. Seeing there a very old and miserable looking man, I motioned to him to go and get it…He then went and took up the goose, and returning, communicated to me by signs which I had no difficulty to understand, that I must go to his lodge and eat with him before I could leave the village…” (Tanner, 135).

The importance of the tale centers on the encounter with the young Assinneboin hunter and the hospitality of his village. The goose is key to Tanner’s interaction with the old man, but the hunting story is a one-liner: “Geese were flying over, and I raised my gun and shot one.”

“You don’t kill much with your trade gun, do you?” That question is common at the outdoor shows, in emails and sometimes in casual conversations. In today’s world, most published outdoor stories tell of taking whatever game the writer decides to pursue. In many instances, the animal is record-book size or the take is the limit allowed under modern game regulations for that specie and location.

Over four decades, “Old Turkey Feathers” has downed a lot of game. But not all of those traditional black powder hunting experiences make it to print. And in the last ten years or so, I have become selective in what I take or shoot at. That’s due in part to past experience and in part to a change in outlook—the seasoning of a sportsman, so to speak.

The hired hunter approaches a downed wild turkey in a grove of red cedar trees

In truth, I get greater joy in helping others get started enjoying the outdoors, and especially traditional hunting, than stacking up my own game. For me, recounting the 18th-century sojourns is all about delivering an uplifting woodland message, than emphasizing the death bee’s solemn verdict.

The gobbler stopped and looked about, scanning uphill and down. Underbrush blocked the bird’s body, but an opening lurked three, maybe four turkey-paces distant. A slight hesitation fostered concern, then the gobbler took those four fateful steps.

“Kla-whoosh-BOOM!” The Northwest gun’s muzzle belched orange flames and roiling white smoke.

And in a fleeting heartbeat, the death bees delivered their woodland message. The tom rolled and flapped to the bottom of the hill. The hired post hunter pursued. Huffing and puffing, the backcountry woodsman anchored the bird with a wet elk moccasin while he offered a prayer of thanksgiving…

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

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A Two Hour Diversion of Sorts

Step by step, center-seamed moccasins paralleled the path. The hired post hunter left no trace. That December’s still-hunt dropped over the ridge crest, then followed the earthen doe trail. Twenty paces to the northwest the faint, crescent-shaped curve of the right toe of a leather-soled shoe pack remained amongst the split-hoof tracks, from the looks, left the prior evening.

A late-morning hush fell upon the hardwoods, foreboding, haunting. A fine snow, the texture of course maple sugar, began to fall. The woodsman progressed, pausing and looking about more than moving. Yet, despite the cold, the air smelled warm and comfortable with a twinge of the wet-fur smell of rain-soaked, fresh-split red oak.

Not far beyond, at a slight bend in the trail, a straight depression, that of the left outer side, appeared, accented by a thin line of white crystals. “A British Ranger, perhaps?” the backcountry hunter whispered to the fox squirrel that sat in the leaves under a stout red oak, uphill, to his left. There were no signs of a blood trail, no reason for the transgression into the post hunter’s wilderness Eden.

The hired hunter of a local trading post pauses behind a wild cherry tree, ever alert...

For a time, securing fresh venison became secondary. Unraveling the intrusion’s meaning became paramount. Eighty paces or so found no further evidence of the Englishman. A modest circle, cast downhill, then up failed to provide a clue. A second, larger circle produced the same results. The two woodland mistakes, uncovered by accident, proved inconsequential.

And yet, on that ordinary December deer chase, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, the chance discovery pumped new vigor in an otherwise normal simple pursuit. In the midst of a still-hunt, brought on by a fruitless quest begun at first light, a two hour diversion of sorts burst forth from a wilderness byway like the wild flush of a frantic fowl from tangled sedge grass.

Tracks and Tracking

Dear reader, there is a postscript to this tale of intrigue and mystery, one that is also ordinary in nature. The evening before, Lieutenant Darrel Lang, a former member of Captain Joseph Hopkins’ Independent Company of Rangers at the Siege of Detroit, wandered about the North-Forty, immersed in his beloved 1760s.

At dusk Lt. Lang’s English fowler bellowed, downing a white-tailed deer. When the post hunter happened upon him, despite the three decade discrepancy, he was dragging the deer on the west side of the ridge. An hour later, on the other side of time’s threshold, being the 21sth century, the modern me barraged Lt. Lang with questions he could not answer. This was no problem, just a quirk on my part that accompanies any deer taken on the farm.

After the next morning’s first stand, my alter ego went in search of the kill site, but could not find it—a tribute to a living historian who, when dressed in proper attire, thinks and lives like a mid-18th-century British Ranger.

Gerry Barker addresses tracking in Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies when he writes:

“One of the most necessary skills of the scout is the ability to read signs of passage. This becomes simple when they are divided into two categories: top signs and bottom signs. Top signs are from the ankle up and are often the easiest to pick up on the move. These are broken twigs, tufts of hair or fiber, bruise marks where someone steadied himself on a sapling, broken spider webs, and bent grasses. Bottom signs are almost always tracks, scuff marks, or overturned pebbles.

“The tracker…must know how long it takes for grass to stand back up in the springtime and how long a footprint will stay moist in that type of soil…

“If the trail is lost, it often can be relocated by making casts in an organized manner out from the last known track…”

And, of course the ultimate warning:

“Tracking an enemy is dangerous because when you find him, he shoots at you” (Barker, 37 – 38).

The historical scenario for that aspect of the morning hunt was to scout the area on the pretext of hearing a close-by shot the night before. The high trail offered the best chance for picking up any leftover sign from the hunter. When the trail evaporated, the hired woodsman cast in ever-increasing circles, but to no avail. Lt. Lang did a fine job of eluding discovery.

In a section titled, “Enemy Trackers,” Barker addresses the necessary forest skill that Lt. Lang demonstrated when he wrote:

Lt. Lang paused beside a red oak, scanning the forest for danger.

“Scouts walk in leaves rather than on sand or dirt that will leave a track that is hard to erase. When they can walk on downed trees, roots, or rocks, they do so. The spy must cover his trail as he goes. When they take a break, they double back and watch their back trail…” (Ibid, 45).

For the traditional black powder hunter, there is no substitute for time spent in the woods. Woodland skills are acquired habits, and even more so when performed in an 18th-century context. Traversing the forest without leaving a sign takes years of mistakes, evaluated in hindsight and the lessons applied to future scouts.

A good example of the historical documentation for “leaving no trace,” can be found in the taking of Mary Jemison. In 1758, a scant couple of years before Lt. Lang’s 1763 adventures, Shawnee warriors captured the fifteen-year-old woman. She lived out her life among the Shawnee, and in her memoir she tells of her captor’s escape into the Ohio country:

“…our captors led us on as fast as we could travel. One of them went behind with a long staff, picking up all the grasses and weeds that we had tramped upon…It is the custom of Indians when scouting or on private expeditions to step carefully, avoiding any spot where an impression of their feet can be left. Thus they shun wet or muddy ground. They seldom take hold of a bush or limb, and they never break one…they leave no trail…” (Seaver, 18).

Thus, the post hunter came upon two partial moccasin prints from heavy-leather, Ligonier-style shoe packs. These two mistakes should have combined with other “missteps,” but they did not. In the end, the search proved useless in a 1763/1794 sense, but then again, those two footprints fueled an exhilarating, two hour diversion…

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

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