“A bee-line to navigation”

Looking down at the 24″ X 36″ piece of paper that said USGS Topographic map in one corner, and a maze of wavy lines that differed in thickness and color, Tom thought it resembled a plate of spaghetti more than a tool used for not getting lost in the woods. The map was on a table in his friends hunting camp. It was marked with all kinds of interesting stuff that made absolutely no sense to him, like multi colored lines that varied in thickness and in places very close together. There was a book that accompanied it titled “Navigation made easy.” If Tom wasn’t already confused, this book and it’s illustrations left him wondering if he could find his way home, never mind plot a course and not perish in the wilderness due to the cold or some wild animal. Words like declination, azimuth, and bearing sent him into a tailspin, but he needed to learn this map and compass technique to keep up with his best friend who had the benefit of a father that was an avid sportsman and scout leader.

When Tom returned home that night he received the typical enthusiasm from his father when he asked him if he knew how to read a map. “Why do you have to know that”? his father asked him. Tom thought for a moment before answering because he wanted to avoid the usual lecture about wasting time in the woods when he should be studying for chemistry tests. “I was just curious. We get extra credit in geology if we no how to navigate” His father put the news paper down and looked out the window and said, “I guess you could get a book from the library and figure it out”. He then went back to reading the financial page and sipping his coffee. Tom wasn’t surprised his father didn’t know how to read a map. He decided to ask his grandmother who had grown up on a local farm and knew everything about living off the land. When he saw her that evening he asked her if she knew how to navigate with a map and compass. “I can show you how to use a compass but there is a-lot more to it than that” she replied. “Okay” Tom said, “where do I start”? “I’m going bee-lining tomorrow afternoon and you can bring a compass with you and practice”. Tom was thrilled to learn about the workings of a compass, but not so crazy about getting stung by a bee. He couldn’t get within 10 feet of a hornet without receiving a dime-sized welt in the process. Nonetheless, he would tough it out for his grandmother and the chance to master this art of navigation.

Many of the locals used to harvest honey from wild bee hives found near farms in the area. The trick was to find a worker bee and follow it back to the hive then harvest the honey comb. When a worker bee finds a food source it returns to the hive in a perfectly straight line hence the term “bee-line”. There were a few old timers who had it down to a science. Rick Eastman was a local contractor and known for never wearing a watch and always being on time, but he also had a knack for finding bee hives. He used a device he made called a bee-line box that had two compartments and a window made of glass. He put a sweet smelling concoction inside it to feed the bee once he caught one. It was quite a trick but he would catch a bee, cover the glass to block the light and pull out the compartment divider so the bee could find the food. Once the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture he would release it and watch in exactly what direction the bee flew away. He then stuck a stick in the ground, attached the box on top and waited for the bee to return. The time in which it took for the bee to return told him how far away the hive was. This was the part that made him unique because he never wore a watch. Tom’s grandmother was a master bee-liner but she insisted on using a watch.

The following afternoon he met her in the field behind the farm and she was wearing a white long sleeve shirt, buttoned at the sleeves to keep out horse flies and a bright red hat. She claimed that bees are attracted to bright colors and they would find her in a field of goldenrod. Tom brought his compass along and was eager to start using it. They walked to the end of the field and sat down looking towards the treeline on the east side of the property. They found a good patch of goldenrod and sat down in in the middle of it. It was an overcast day in August and she claimed that made it easier to see the bees flying in the sky. It wasn’t long before a bee was feeding close by and she was able to sweep it into the bee box. This amazed Tom because he couldn’t get near a bee without being stung and he just watched his grandmother catch one, bare handed. After the usual commotion the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture that was inside the bottom compartment and when it seemed it was ready she opened the box to watch it fly straight to the edge of the field.

“Now might be a good time to pull out that compass Tom,” she said. Tom didn’t remember exactly where the bee went but she assured him that it would be back with some friends. She told him to take the compass and “put the red in the shed”. “What Shed”? Tom asked. “The red part of the magnetic needle needs to go inside the orienting arrow, that’s the shed”. Tom looked confused but did as he was told. “Now hold it level and twist the housing until the direction of travel needle is pointing to where the bee went”. Tom was completely lost now, so she took the compass and oriented it to 90 degrees east, that she said is where the bee flew. It wasn’t long before the bee came back and went right into the box. “Now lets check the time when it leaves and pay attention to where it goes,” she said. When the bee flew off Tom watched as hard as he could and noticed it flew straight towards the big white birch tree. After six minutes the bee was back and filling up. When it left Tom was certain it flew in the same direction as it did the last time and pointed his compass, it read 90 degrees east. “Okay Tom, I would say it’s about a half mile or so to the hive”. ” Now you need to take your bearing and make note of a specific point and walk to that exact point to take another bearing”. Tom looked at his compass with that red needle in the shed and the direction arrow was pointing right at the birch tree. ” Okay, so we go to the birch tree and then what”? “Then we mark another point and keep doing that until we find the hive”. ” Okay” Tom said and set off towards the edge of the field.

When They reached the edge of the field it was muddy from rain and hard to walk in, but Tom was confident the bee had flown this way, right towards the big birch tree, but what now? “Okay now point that compass in the same direction using the needle, and where does it point to?” Tom kept the red part where it was supposed to be and the direction needle pointed at a big rock with green moss on one side. “That big rock up there is where it says to go” Tom said. Right at the same time a bee flew by them heading straight to the mossy rock and Tom realized he was on track. They both walked to the rock and picked another point of reference. After doing this several times Tom realized he was hearing a constant buzzing sound over his head. After they started walking again his grandmother looked up and said “whoa, look at the size of that hive!” Tom looked up, and sure enough there was a massive hole in a rotted out oak tree. The bees had made their home and were flying in and out faster than he could count. “Well I guess that’s the hive, now we have to get Gramp’s out here to cut it down in the morning when its cooler”.

There was no shortage of bees and bee hives because of all the farming. The locals used to harvest a few hives every year, never wasting any of it. They would use the honey all year long and sell some occasionally. “Now Tom, you can figure out your back azimuth and get us back to my bee-box?” Tom remembered the term but had know idea what it meant. “How do I do that,” he asked? “You came in at 90 degrees east, right? So, if we do a 180 degree turn around, and we go out 270 degrees west, it leads us straight back to the spot we started”. Tom spun the dial around and realized that now the black part of the needle is in the same spot as the red was on their walk in. Now feeling confident with this new devise he assured his grandmother he could get them back home. Sure enough, after leap frogging from point to point they ended up right back where they started. Tom started thinking that now he had a better understanding for the compass maybe he could better understand that book he tried reading in the hunting camp.

Merganser ducks in New Hampshire

I never get sick of watching wildlife. Today I watched some local waterfowl going about their business. This is a male and female Merganser. There is also a cameo from another female duck which you can identify..

March update and thoughts on hunting.

It’s been a typical March here in New Hampshire with the late season Nor’ Easter’s dumping 26 inches of heavy, wet snow and sub zero temps following.  The fox are in the dens, and the sap is making it’s second good run of the season.  Unfortunately, the last cold snap we had froze and split 10 of our 150 buckets, but we think we can repair them with some tin solder.  It looks like another good week of boiling before the maple buds come out, so it should be a good syrup season overall.  I plan on making maple sugar again this year because  we find that it is good in most recipes to replace processed sugar and that has been a goal over the last year.

The ice fisherman are still at it where the ice is accessible.  My friends Randy and Mike are pushing record numbers with the Lake trout (togue) they have been jigging up this year.  Randy Rod Co. makes handcrafted ice fishing rods that come in a variety of models.  He makes a “Laker Taker” that is good for the deeper jigging that has some clandestine back bone but has an ultra-sensitive tip.  My favorite is the “Spicy Noodle” that we use for jigging saltwater smelt up in Maine.  My friend Big Al and I had a good season up there but it always is too short with ice conditions being what they are. You can check out the Randy Rod on YouTube and Instagram on his channel Randy Rod Co.

I was hoping to get in some last minute snowshoe hare  hunting as the season goes until March 31st, but with the boiling of sap and work it doesn’t look like I will get the chance.  It’s hard to believe with the number of coyotes we have now there are any snowshoe hare left, but they still seem to be in decent numbers as compared to 20 years ago.  Rabbit populations do cycle for one reason or another. The development of land and loss of habitat is probably the biggest reason for it.  There have been some programs in neighboring states to reintroduce the cottontail and there seems to be some success at it.  It is hard to imagine any wildlife reintroduction program ever being more successful  than the wild turkey.  When I was a kid back in the 70’s there were none at all.  Now you can’t go out in your car and not see a flock of these things.  Its a good thing but some think we are getting overrun with them and its hard to disagree.

Many hunters and non-hunters think the state should allow more birds to be harvested. Change like this comes slowly when it has to be passed through legislature.  A good example of that is the grey squirrel, the Sciurus carolinensis (grey squirrel), was protected in some counties for decades.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that there was no shortage of these tree rats, and it was hard to believe you couldn’t hunt them. It was too bad because they are great eating and it gets the younger generation into hunting and that value of hunting is learned and passed on.

Its a tough pill for some to swallow, but without ethical hunting the wildlife would be endangered or extinct.  It is the hunter/sportsman that support the wildlife habitat.  Without programs funded by hunters  the animals wouldn’t be managed properly and would exceed the carrying capacities of areas leading to either nuisance issues or starvation. This is an age old argument, but fact is, without the tradition of hunting and harvesting the wildlife suffers.  I also have to mention again, this only works when done ethically.  The same goes as far as fur bearers.  It makes more sense  to harvest an animal ethically and make use of it than to let the species get overrun,  become a nuisance to people in sub-developments, have the habitat destroyed, and ultimately abolish the species.  Fur harvesting is under fire across the country and better education needs to be in place to promote the ethical harvesting of wildlife.

I have always felt, personally, if you ethically harvest an animal from the wild and make 100% use of it,  that animal has had a far better life than one raised for human consumption.  There is no peaceful end in the wilderness.  Death comes hard and  is not always swift.  Its a very emotional issue for many, and even worse as the generations get further removed from the tradition of the hunter/gatherer.

This is just my personal opinion and nothing else.  I have seen a change in lifestyle over the last few decades and I wonder where its all going.  The truth  is that wildlife shouldn’t live behind fences, and we as humans need to live with it.  I have learned a few things about animal habitat, food source, reproduction and the carrying capacities that are necessary to support wildlife and I learned it all through hunting them.

Haystack Mountain

When Tom pulled his truck up to the abandoned cemetery parking area he was already running late because of a phone call he had to deal with at 5:00 that morning from a customer.  He was able to put off the service call until later that morning and get to his favorite stump to watch the sunrise and hopefully see that big buck that has been enticing him since bow season started in September.  It was a crisp November morning towards the end of deer season, but he still had time to harvest a buck for the freezer.  Tom grabbed the 300 Savage and his pack, locked the truck, and started walking at a good pace up the tote road to the stone that he would follow to the clearing. Once there, he had about a 15 minute walk up to the top of the small mountain to find his stump where he had shot a few good New Hampshire Whitetails. About half way up the mountain he realized he made the classic mistake: because of the cold morning he started out overdressed, and his wool plaid hunting coat was overheating his torso and those hot sweat needles were creeping up his back.  He decided to tough it out rather than take off the jacket because he was already late.  He just made it to his spot as the first rays of light where casting there promise of a bright and sunny day over Haystack Mountain.

Tom settled in and poured himself a cup of black coffee out of the old thermos and blew on it lightly to cool it off.  This time of day is known as the “magic hour” to deer hunters.  There is no wind and the crisp frozen leaves alert you of any movement in the dark woods.  It’s at this time you feel confident because the conditions are perfect and you have hours ahead of you that could produce the buck of a lifetime.  As Tom sat waiting, sipping his coffee with slightly blurred vision from the hot steam coming up from the cup.  He heard the usual squirrel banter, and the turkeys were coming down from their roosts as the hens were calling to gather the flock.   It’s hard to imagine any other place to be when you hear the wildlife starting their day, oblivious to your presence.   It puts into perspective, for some, how insignificant people are in this world.  As badly as we over develop and pollute the world, somehow the wilderness eventually comes back.  Even an iron train trestle that supports a multi-ton locomotive will eventually disappear.   If not maintained, all the sky scrapers that fill the horizon, full of clamoring people and flowing electricity, would decay and crumble; eventually the coyotes and beaver would return things to a natural state.

The snap of a dead branch brought Tom back to the business at hand.  He was jolted by the sudden approach of a large animal that had some how walked up behind him without making a sound until it was within 20 yards. Tom managed to control himself and not turn around immediately, like so many times in the past.  When you get spooked you spook the game.  This was a lesson his grandmother taught him years ago.  “When a deer first notices you they don’t really know what you are.  They are more leery than smart, it’s their nose that keeps them alive and women get them killed” she told him.  After what seemed like an hour, he heard the footsteps of a deer and realized he hadn’t been busted yet.  He was positive he had chambered a round into the rifle and it was on safety.  His heart was starting to settle down slightly, and he started turning his head and concentrating on anything brown that could possibly come into view out of the corner of his left eye.  His eyes actually hurt, he was peering so intently on seeing a rack.  Sure enough, there was the deer looking 180 degrees from his direction with no idea Tom was there.  The only problem was, the deer was missing antlers.  It was a beautiful doe Tom guessed to be 120 pounds and four and a half years old.  Tom took a big breath, put his gun back on safety, and sat it across his legs.  Reaching back for his coffee he decided to admire this beautiful deer.

He took a sip and wondered if the doe was in rut yet.  It was at this point he noticed the 10 point buck 30 yards out, staring straight at him!  Well, I guess that answered that; now what?  All this planning, preparation, and thought process come down to a split second decision.  This is where most hunting stories come from, and was Tom going to have another story or backstraps for dinner.  The fact that the buck hadn’t moved pretty much concluded the doe must be in rut.  Gram’s words echoed in Tom’s head “women get them killed.”  Tom slowly set down his coffee and brought the gun up to his shoulder in one fluid movement.  With both eyes open he immediately saw brisket in the cross hairs.  He slid the safety back and, after a few long seconds, squeezed off a round.  He saw the fire in the scope which meant he didn’t flinch. The doe had been watching him the whole time and immediately vanished from sight. There is nothing as quiet as a frozen November morning in the woods after a gun shot.  Everything stops.  It is almost surreal,  making you feel like your waking from a dream.  Tom chambered another round with the lever gun and stood up.  He couldn’t see the deer.  How could I have missed? He felt good about the shot, and was confident his rifle was sighted in, but where was the deer?  He left his stump and started walking towards the spot where he thought the buck had been standing.  Still no sign of the deer.  A sudden crash from the left brought him back to reality, he had hit the thing and it was kicking in the leaves.  Shouldering the rifle as he approached, he was ready to finish him off, but realized it was just the nervous system of the deer and survival mode kicking in.  Tom had hit him exactly where he aimed putting a round into his heart and lungs. The big buck was been dead before he hit the ground.

It’s hard to describe the emotional feelings you get at this point… it’s a combination of happiness and guilt all at the same time.  On one hand, you shot a nice buck and that is the point of hunting.  On the other hand,  you just killed a beautiful and majestic animal.  It’s a very difficult thing to get your head around, but to survive one has to eat, and its a life for a life.  We eat to survive and regardless of where it comes from, food is food.  Tom pulled out his hunting knife and squatted down with the usual mixed emotions to begin dressing out the deer.  From all the years past, he knew that it’s now the hard work starts.  After the field dressing was completed, he grabbed what was left of the heart to eat that evening, another ritual his grandmother introduced to him.  He stuffed the heart in his pack, slung the rifle over his shoulder, and finished his coffee.  Looking down at at the 10 pointer he guessed it would possibly weigh over 200 pounds.  A nice deer for New Hampshire. Tom grabbed one side of the rack and started dragging his deer down the mountain, wondering who he was going to invite over for back-straps..

Myths, Fish, Gear & Minimum Viable Kit (MVK) | JMB Podcast Episode 33

This podcast is a production of Jack Mountain Bushcraft Media. The Working Class Woodsman may or may not be a guest in this particular podcast episode and is not responsible for the content (especially for anything he might say when he's a guest).

In episode 33 of the podcast we discuss a common myth of barehand navigation, the effect of changing air pressure on fish, and gear addiction, evolution and minimum viable kit (MVK). For this episode I was joined by Ed Butler (aka Working Class Woodsman), and for those with sensitive ears we did swear a few times so maybe don’t let your five-year-old listen.


PHOTO: A hot fire in a tent stove.

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Red Fox visits a Grey Fox on Saint Patrick’s Day !

I had the privilege of watching a red fox try and visit a grey fox den. Its always fun exploring the backwoods and seeing tracks but watching the animals is entertaining and you learn more about them. The red fox has a white tip on their tail and the grey fox has a black tip and often gets mistaken for a small coyote. The have incredible hearing and are very fast at jumping and pouncing on their prey. They survive primarily on bugs, berries, nuts, rodents, rabbits and larger carrion. They mate around January thru February and the gestation period is around 52 days and often build dens close to people to avoid coyotes. If they are fortunate enough to survive childhood they live from 2 to 5 years.