Many wild habitats are unique and quite localised. The knowledge to survive there requires specialist, local knowledge.
This is certainly the case with most hunter-gatherers, such as the Hadza, for example. They can't just move anywhere and be hunter-gatherers. Their knowledge of how to sustain themselves from the land is inextricably linked to the land from which they sustain themselves.
Even in larger, more widespread habitats such as boreal or temperate forest, there is a good deal of variation, both in vegetation and local terrain. Getting to know your way around an area of wild country requires you to build up a mental map of an area and, over time, the local knowledge that goes with this.
Where are the animal trails, the migration routes? Where do particular species of animal like to feed? Where is the best fishing? Where do particular species of trees and plants grow?
Wherever you go, the people who know the land best are the locals. The people who have spent time on the land, in its forests and on its waters.
Gaining A Native Perspective
However good your general bushcraft skills are, there is always value in gaining the local perspective.
Better still - when it comes to bushcraft - gain insight from natives, whose people have been close to the land since time immemorial. Gaining aboriginal insight is priceless.
The interaction required to gain this perspective goes well beyond the typical superficial tourist experience. As an independent traveller, I have witnessed this superficiality from Scandinavia to Africa to Australia. Most tourists just don't want to know very much detail about indigenous cultures. They want to take a photo and move on. As a result, the native people become accustomed to pitching things at a very low level.
If you want to know more, this can me massively frustrating. Like me, participants on our expeditions want to know as much as possible. They want to soak up the local knowledge and the indigenous culture.
As a result, we look to our native hosts to provide a view of their world which is both detailed and honest. We stay with them and we work to their timetable.
This experience informs the trip participants in a way that we, as guides, could not. It imbues the expedition group with a unique view of the land, the terrain, the trees, the plants, the animals - the very nature of the country we are travelling through - that they would otherwise simply not obtain.
Visiting The Dokis
On our French River expedition in Ontario, Canada, we stay with members of the Dokis band at a wilderness camp on their land. We set off with our canoes fully laden and paddle up to the Dokis Reserve, where we stay for several days before continuing on our expedition.
Our native guide is Norm Dokis and our time spent with him is always dedicated to passing over as much practical local knowledge to our group as possible. Activities with Norm are seasonal and depend upon nature. But whatever the programme, time spent with him is informative and entertaining. The Dokis are Ojibwe people and the band has a rich and interesting history. Norm also has keen ability to animate his culture and its history via the stories he tells. He doesn't stop there, taking our groups to sites of cultural and historical significance.
On our recent trip on the French River, the programme with Norm was wide-ranging and included trees, plants and fungi, fishing, wild game, sites of cultural and historical significance, and preparing food for our onward journey.
Trees, Plants and Fungi
Uses of local tree, plant and fungi species featured throughout our time with Norm. In particular we hiked out into the backwoods behind the camp where Norm stopped frequently to tell us about uses, identification and lore.
In a land filled with water, where travel is easiest by boat, you are often on the water - effectively outside of the forest - looking at the woods on the shoreline.
Water will naturally find the lowest point in the terrain, as does cold air, and so bodies of water are typically the coldest places in winter. Because the edge of the forest is most exposed, here you will find the hardiest trees - mainly conifers.
One striking aspect of entering the forest on foot is that once you walk back away from the shore, the nature of the woods changes. There are many more broadleaved trees here.
Here because it is more sheltered and because the tree species are different, the plant species on the forest floor are also different. There is much of interest to be found - many useful plants and fungi, including wild foods.
Norm began the group's education in local fish and fishing with a thorough presentation of fish species found in the waters of the French River.
Some of these species have become prized game fish, which sport fishermen pursue to the exclusion of all else. In some cases this has been very damaging to fish population numbers.
What's interesting is that while native people in the area did fish for some of these species, they also appreciated and utlilised many of the other species which modern sport fishermen ignore or discard.
A prime example is the white sucker, a fish in the family Catostomidae. Nowadays this fish is not considered good eating as it is boney. Yet native people would fall back on this fish as a food source in times of hardship. It was an important survival food. It's actually pretty tasty. Also, the heads were considered a delicacy in soups and the eggs were ranked as the best eating of all fish by Ojibwe elders.
As part of the native treaty, the Dokis have the right to fish with nets. Even so, Norm is alert to how easily nets can damage fish populations. Nets are an extremely effective way of catching fish. They come into their own in survival situations. For example, Norwegian resistance fighters used to swim nets out into mountain lakes in order to catch trout. Being able to accompany Norm as he put nets out was a great way for the Frontier Bushcraft group to see their effectiveness first-hand.
The first job, however, was to prepare the nets. The guys on the trip had to make sure there were no tangles and get the nets ready to be payed out from a boat.
In the past native nets were made from the inner bark of basswood, Tilia americana, but these days modern nylon nets are used.
The nets were put out to work overnight, to be checked the next morning. In the meantime, there was time for more sporting methods to be employed. It was also a great opportunity to spend some quiet, contemplative time and soak up the magnificence of our surroundings. Norm, who has worked as a fishing guide, was also on hand to give advice and tips on fishing tackle set-up and where to fish.
The next morning we headed out to check the nets. Before we even got to one of them we knew there were fish in it. There was a loon hanging around right on the line of the net. We unhooked the top line of the net and started to expectantly haul it in, back into the pail we'd paid it out from the previous day.
There was a range of species in the net and all of them - walleye/pickerel, cisco, striped bass, pike and suckers - had featured in Norm's talk the previous day. When we got back to the dock at Norm's camp, the first job was to disentangle the fish from the net.
The nets had certainly been effective. This was, however, no mere academic exercise. The fish were all going to be used - either to feed us while we remained in camp or to take with us on the remainder of our journey.
What followed next was a masterful demonstration of fish preparation and filleting, where Norm demonstrated what Ray Goodwin refers to as "the ease of long practice".
At the end of this filleting/preparation session, there was a lot of fish. But I can say that we ate all of it - either cooked up in camp or during our journey. The fish we took with us was smoked before we left camp (see below) and supplemented the food supplies we had brought with us in our canoes.
Animals and Wild Game
Throughout our time on the land with Norm, he pointed out all manner of tracks and sign that indicated the presence or passing of animals and birds.
The droppings of a black bear were examined and found to contain acorn shells. These were relatively finely chewed, which Norm told us meant the scat was left by a female bear. Males apparently wolf down the kernels with less chewing, resulting in larger fragments in their faeces.
One morning we headed out to shoot ducks. We didn't see any but we had a lovely walk down to a beaver pond where Norm suspected there may be some birds. Along the way we saw tracks of white-tailed deer. Norm already had some ribs back in camp for our final evening's meal, so we didn't need any more venison.
Since our trip coincided with the moose rut, Norm thought he might be able to call in a moose. If you are not familiar with moose calling, the concept is simple - by imitating moose calls, you can attract a moose. Depending on which call you use and the sex of the moose that hears it, the moose's interest is roused either because it is looking for a mate or because it wants to see off a rival. Either way it is best to be armed. Norm brought along his trusty Winchester.
We had travelled by boat to an even quieter part of the reserve than where we were camped. We then walked in to the bush along a small trail. The area Norm had selected was a large open swampy area surrounded by thickets and trees. Good moose country.
After a small ceremony, we settled down and Norm made some calls. We then waited. Nothing. After a while, Norm thrashed some saplings, imitating the action of a bull moose scraping its antlers on vegetation when it asserts dominance in an area. Then we waited. We heard something moving around in the distance, out of sight. Intermittently we heard something which could have been heavy footfall. But still we didn't see anything. Norm called again. This is not something I can easily describe in words, so below is some video of Norm moose calling...
Sometime later we again heard movement further around the periphery of the area from where we'd last heard it but as the light began to fail, we called it a day. We hadn't seen a moose but it had been a thrilling evening nonetheless.
As well as the excitement of unidentified movement, there had been all manner of bird life flitting around. It had been superb just to sit, watch and listen. There was no noise pollution. Unlike being in the woods back at home, there were no planes overhead or cars in the distance. All we could hear around us was nature. And silence.
Sites of Cultural and Historical Significance
As documented in the film Eagles On The River, The Dokis have a rich and interesting history.
Norm was keen to take us to various sites that highlighted or illustrated the history of his band. First, we travelled to visit a site of rock art, faint now but painted with a mixture of red ochre and sturgeon fat. The rock art which was discernable depicted animals and people in canoes. There was much else, faded or obscure, that we couldn't make out. My mind couldn't help but wonder of its significance to those who painted it.
We visited Chaudiere rapids, which during the fur trade were one of the bottle-necks on the voyageur route. Nearby are ceremonial sites.
From there we continued and visited cradle rock, the exact place where Norms ancestors are said to have first encountered Europeans. The story goes that the natives were so surprised, they left a baby by the side of the river. Folklore doesn't tell of what happened to the baby but the site gets its name from a rock here which is shaped like a native cradleboard.
Nearby is a clearly discernible example of rock art with an obscure design. Thought to have been of special significance and studied by academics, there are various theories as to its meaning and purpose. Here we said thanks for safe passage on our journey and Norm left an offering of tobacco, one of the four sacred medicines in Ojibwe culture.
This rock art is not far from cradle rock and the area shared by them is overlooked by a representation of an eagle, the Dokis band's symbol, or doodem, which has been placed high atop a cliff. The eagle is also represented on the Dokis band's flag, pictorially and by the Anishinaabe word Migisi, which means 'eagle'.
On our way back to Norm's camp, we travelled a route that took us past an old Hudson's Bay Company outpost. The wooden structure is long gone but the stone fireplace and chimney remain and can be seen from the river.
The remainder of our time at the camp was largely occupied with food - preparation and preservation.
As it was our last night with Norm and VA, we were going to have a feast, including ribs and a massive fish fry.
We also needed to prepare food for the remainder of our journey. We hot-smoked a good amount of fish and a shoulder of venison. Once cooled, this was packed into bags and added to the rest of our provisions.
The feast was fabulous. Each species of fish was delicious, as was the fried roe which came from some of them.
The ribs were out of this world. Truly the best I've ever tasted. They had been marinated in a simple yet delicious mixture then cooked on a brazier outside the cabin. This is a recipe and taste I'm keen to replicate in the woods closer to home and will be trying it out over the coming months.
The next morning, as we packed, I think everyone still felt very well-fed from the night before. We did manage an early lunch of a delicious fish soup, however, made with the remainder of our catch. Nothing went to waste.
We'd had a great time staying with Norm and VA on the Dokis Reserve but it was time to go. We had paddling, portages and as yet unknown challenges ahead. Our time at Dokis had certainly stood us in good stead for the journey.
As we paddled away, the river seemed the same as it was when we arrived. But it felt different to be there. Through the insights and experiences Norm shared with us, we had gained a different perspective on this place.
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