Sunday, October 20, 2013

Techno Feely Ya

Old guys gripe -- probably always have, and probably always will.  It's their prerogative.  They've been around long enough to have seen some stuff and, at the same time, not give much thought to what other's think of their opinions.  So they say what they think, sometimes with a good deal of artful snark.  I can't wait until I've reached the magical age where experience and lack of social imperative meet to suddenly grant me the right to bitch about whatever I like.

I once heard one of the guys in camp cheer for a Clay Matthews sack emanating from radio as we sat around the table tossing cards and shooting the bull, and in the very same breath, murmur something derogatory about the man's chosen hairstyle.  Mr Matthews had just blown up, in his manic way, what might've been a game-winning drive for the opposition, and my close friend of receding hairline and ready opinions was muttering something about goddamn hippies.

Now don't take me the wrong way, I love me my old guys, and I actually enjoy their griping most of the time.  Often it's said with a little implied wink, a snappy jab to let it be known they aren't quite ready to be pushed out on the ice floe for the good of the tribe.  And funny.  Pour a couple PBR's into the old guys in camp, and they'll rip into fly fishermen, golf, sit-coms, hot dogs... whatever... with a gleeful abandon that often leaves any novice onlookers in presumably stunned silence before the head-shaking laughter erupts.

One of the favorite topics for old guys to rip (after politicians and people from Illinois, of course) is the use of technology.  Kids these days and their... yadda yadda...  I'm positive there existed, at least one time in all the timeless generations of history, a Neanderthal elder huddled around a fire outside modern day Prague, muttering under his breath about these soft kids and their fancy-pants woven flax sandals.
Little should be taken seriously after the boot begins its circuit

I remember once professing, with no small bit of self-important authority, that every bit of technology used in the field served only to remove the user one step further from the true and honest experience of being in the woods.  It should be noted that I made this mildly idiotic proclamation while passing the boot at the Essen Haus in Madison, and therefore should be taken with the proverbial grain of brewer's yeast.

Of course technology aids us all in our every outdoor endeavor.  If it didn't, if we were true Luddites, we'd be walking to the river and bashing fish on the head with a rock -- which, come to think of it, would be a helluva lot cheaper.

We all have our own line of demarcation as to what we consider "too much" technology in the field, usually connected closely with age, experience, and personal proclivity for the use of such devices.  In fly fishing alone there exists the never-ending and sometimes heated debate between the pros and cons of using bamboo, fiberglass, or "modern" graphite and boron rods.  All choices have their moments of beauty and usefulness to varying degrees, but the truth is, if you're using any of them, you ain't rock bashing.  You've allowed technology to seep into your fishing.  For shame!

I have a buddy and extremely accomplished fisherman who states emphatically that, "if it uses batteries, it's a toy."  Implying that it's not a tool, and therefore has no place in the field.  This repeated statement comes to the fore most often in discussions concerning the use of GPS because he's an old school proponent of map and compass.  I tend to agree with him in this particular case, having been brought up with the topo and Silva myself, but I can't go so broad as to state emphatically that nothing which uses electricity belongs afield.  I have used hand-held GPS units in the past, but only to mark hot spots on the ice, never in the woods.

The mind fairly boggles when considering lists of things brought to use through modern technology that avail themselves to the current outdoorsman and woman.  It's absolutely everywhere.  Forced to narrow a list of technological advancements that have most impacted me in my life afield to a very spare few, they would be these.

  • Synthetic Clothing.  I've covered the use of modern clothing here to the point of beating a dead horse (with the aforementioned rock, of course).  Gone are the white waffle cotton base layers and felt-lined Sorrels of yesteryear.  We wear poly-pro next to our nethers now, and we are much more comfortable for it when it comes to working up a lather in the cold.  Down sucks as an insulator when it gets wet, nylon fleece does not.  And unless you work with the little yellow dude on the box of fish sticks, Gore-Tex or the like now goes on the outside in inclement weather, not PVC or rubber.
  • Fly tying materials.  As you've seen here for a couple years now, I can't tie a single fly in my preferred style without immediately and constantly reaching for materials that flash and sparkle, that were extruded through some process unknown to me in a factory somewhere full of modern polymers and glitter.
  • Real Time Sonar -- so called "Flashers."  I'm a Vexilar man, myself, but no matter the brand the modern ice man chooses, the flasher is most often his single most important, well-loved piece of gear.  Tip-up fisherman can bear to go without, but I don't know a single serious jigger of panfish or game species that would now fish without a flasher.  They're a clear and real window into what's happening below the ice.  I should mention, for the sake of being thorough, that ice fishing cameras cross my personal line of acceptable technology in the field for the rather nebulous (even to me) reasons hinted at above.
  • Social Media.  Here's a favorite gripe of the old timer, but for every time they mutter and kick at the dirt about the use of Facebook and YouTube contributing to the death of the true outdoorsman, I believe there is another instance in which some guy or girl out there is using them to learn how to fish or hunt.  Some peoples' dads didn't or couldn't teach them how to huntfishforagecamp for whatever reason, and for those folks, the internet is an invaluable recourse, a nearly bottomless font of information at the fingertips.

There are still innumerable times when the old way is the better way, or more often, the more enjoyable way.  Sometimes it's just cooler to go old school.  

If I ever find the time to add bow hunting to my still-growing list of outdoor pursuits, it will include, at least at some point, chasing deer with a traditional bow.  I'll probably start with a modern compound bow in a tree stand both because that will be the natural continuation of my rifle hunting and because that appears to be the easiest way to go; but at some point, I hope to find myself on the ground, face darkened with schmutz, stalking with longbow or recurve in hand.

For a recent evening meal, I chose to go old school with venison in cast iron on a matchless Swedish fire torch, simply for the joy of practicing a little backyard bushcraft from my teenage years.  You can now actually find Swedish fire torches (also sometimes called Swedish candles) in stores, pre-cut into the signature wedges with a chainsaw from seasoned hardwood.  They come cocooned and clean in plastic wrap for those less likely to have a hatchet or saw handy, which never fails to elicit a little mocking eye roll from yours truly.  I understand not everyone wants to be out there grubbing it up, but getting dirt stains on your knees is half the fun for me.

For the purposes of remaining a tad less yuppie-fied than that, and to keep things feeling more retro, I went with a grubby little white pine stump I'd cut during spring clean-up, and left out in the rain and weather for half a year.  If you're gonna practice a little roughing it, running out to Williams Sonoma simply won't do.  A quick buzz with the chainsaw to square up the notched end left from felling, and a few well placed whacks with the hatchet to split the log into quarters, and we were under way.

I don't think we have to wander into profound firecraft excitations here, but I will note that when it's been raining for a few days, and you're found to be coaxing a fire without matches or a lighter (whether through choice or necessity) mature milkweed seeds make for great tinder in season.  They remain dry encased in those odd rubbery pods, and catch a spark very well when properly floofed up.

Once you have your small fire going in the normal fashion, building the torch is simply a matter of smushing up the quarters of your log around it so it begins to take on the form of a reassembled chunk of wood.  Kindling can then be crosshatched up in the open spaces to bring the fire to the log.  Things will go much better for you here if everything you're working is as square and level as feasible from the start.

While the appeal of the store-bought Swedish fire torch is purely that it looks cool and burns well, it's true utilitarian roots lie in the fact that it is at once a great stable cooking surface and is also easily moved.  Once you get to this point, you can pick up the quarters individually, and as long you don't dally, move your cooking fire wherever you'd like.  The fire level is controlled by simply adjusting the proximity of the quarters to each other.  There is always sweet spot, depending on the conditions and wood, that allows the torch to get enough air and still remain close enough to burn.  That's the Goldilocks zone you want to find.

Then it's simply a matter of perching your pan on top, and getting to the business of making some grub.  I'd cut and parboiled the sprouts and sweet potato in the house here.  Seasoned them too.  I'm not a damn heathen.

  A splash of Oktoberfest for steam and sauce, some additional kindling if things are really damp.  Perfectly acceptable steps when needed.  Even though the fire burns from the inside out, as you can see here, as long as you don't flail about too much, things remain perfectly stable.  No cheffy sauté flip thing here -- use your tongs to stir.  Or a pocket knife, in this case.

I prefer my venison very rare.  Still snort-wheezing, as it were.  Under normal circumstances, I simply set it in the general proximity of a mild heat source for a few moments -- a 60-watt light bulb, say.  In an extraordinary show of selflessness, however, I actually laid my marinated steaks in the pan quickly for the purposes of this post. 

That dog'll hunt.

That wasn't exactly hanging unseasoned steaks on a forked stick over the fire, but neither was it making use of the latest and greatest technology in camp cookery.  Which, by the way, would've made me just as happy to do.

You want to go all space-age with your hunting, fishing, foraging and cooking?  I'm fine with that.  You'd like to chuck homemade darts with an atlatl?  Go nuts.  I'm just pleased you're out there doing it.  You may want to check local regs on bashing fish with rocks before you try that one.


  1. That is very cool, Lucas. I'd never heard of the Swedish fire torch. I'm going to have to try it.


  2. Good luck to you, Brett. Seasoned hardwood or fresher resinous conifer work equally well in my experience. I'll look forward to pics.


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