Prepping Bow Staves

After you have carefully selected the tree, cut it down, and (hopefully) had time to age the wood it is time to prep the bow staves. 

Prepping bow staves is a fair amount of work but made easier with the right tools and a little experience.  The examples below aged for nearly seven years in a dark, dry barn.  These are nearly all hickory and therefore, are generally easy to split if the grain is respected.  I use an old froe, mallet, and hammer for most of my splitting and only resort to steel wedges or power tools in rare, generally green cases.  As most of the staves that I cut personally are 6’6″ – 7′ long, this is the time when they are sawed to a rough length; generally 65 – 70″.  They are left long initially to account for any splitting of the ends that occurs during the drying process that will interfere with the finished bow.

Splitting hickory.

These staves were massive and can generally be made into two or three bows in the end;  two from the outer portion and one from the inner.  This isn’t always true for some older hickories as the heartwood “sets” and becomes dark and brittle.  Taken in a deep valley, this tree was large enough and fast growing so doesn’t seem to be a problem.  It is difficult to tell from the photo above but this is an extremely large piece of wood.  It was weighed a few days after felling at 79.5 lbs.  It was weighed again, just prior to splitting, almost seven years later at 48 lbs.  That is nearly 30 lbs (5 gallons) of water that evaporated.

A clean break with the froe.

The above photo shows the froe in use, prying the two halves apart without much effort.  Once started with a mallet in the end, it is just a matter of prying and moving down the staff.

I was doing these rather quickly and didn’t even move to my work shed for the process as they would be loaded up almost immediately.

The staves can now be safely de-barked and are generally ready to be roughed out, a relatively easy task on hickory, but not so with Osage orange (photo below).  Osage needs to be shaved down to a single layer within the wood.  In this case about a half inch inside the bark to find a suitable growth ring.

Osage orange, showing the contrast between the new and old growth.

One of the troubles with Osage orange wood is the transitional new growth on the outer (back) of the stave, visible as the white rings.  This wood is not useful for bow making and needs to be cleanly removed down to a single growth ring.  In the case above, several old growth rings will be removed as well as they are inconsistent and pinch out on the right side of this stave.  It is generally wise to choose one of the thicker rings to serve as the back as it is under a lot of tension during the draw.

New bow blanks stand next to a full-size stave as they are roughed out.

This is about half the useful bow staves made in a single run with a “whole” stave on the right to show how they begin.  This one weighed about 80 lbs green but only about 50 lbs dry.

On to layout and the next steps.

Making a Self-Bow

A pictorial step-by-step of the bow-making process. 

This quick look isn’t intended to replace the one-on-one learning of a real teacher or to cover all aspects of the art that come from years of practice.  Expect both success and failure and don’t let either one dominate your learning.  Education is a process, not an instance.

splitting stave

Felled stave that has aged a couple years in the dark and relative dryness of the barn.

Splitting the seasoned Osage orange (Bois d’Arc) stave is shown above.  Not visible here are short hickory wedges that are jammed into the growing crack to keep the stave from snapping shut.  With some woods the staves will simply pop apart but it seems that, more often than not, the splitter must overcome the tenacity of the fibrous wood.  Power sawing is definitely a possibility but requires more tools, more energy, and does not show the irregularities as well.  Splitting puts you in touch with the soul of the wood.

 

split open

Laid open, it is time to examine for undiscovered twists, knots, and other irregularities.

 

Splitting can be a tough process. As can be seen in the photo above, I use an axe, froe, and hammer.  I’m awful when it comes t remembering to stop and take photographs.  After cleaning up and heading to the next phase, I had to re-stage this photo and forgot to put the wedges back in.

de-barking

Stripping down to reveal the beauty underneath.

Some species of white woods debark quite easily and the bow can be made directly from the outer growth rings.  Not so with Osage orange. The whiter new wood is visible in the stave above as the outer rings are worked down to a single thick growth ring.  This process is easiest with a sharp draw knife working downward.  Your weight can be used to pull through the bark.  Gravity is your friend.

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Revealing the different look, color, and texture of the growth rings.

Above is a close-up of working down to a single growth ring. With Osage, there is a white, porous, vesicular layer between hard wood rings. This is just visible here as the white wood.  It should be worked down to a single, dark and dense layer; preferably a thick, slow-growth year ring.

 

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Sighting down the clean stave.

Not perfectly straight, but then it would hardly be Osage otherwise.  I can work with this. It’s time to imagine a perfectly straight line down the back of the bow.  This will be your starting point when laying it out.

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Another look at growth rings revealed.

The growth rings are quite visible in this low, raking light. The smooth area nearest the viewer is down to the desired ring.  This will be the “back” of the bow, meaning the side facing away from the shooter.  Crossing the rings could cause the limb to “lift” and crack as the rings are stressed and pulled apart.

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Shaping and thinning.

This is nearing its final shape. This is a different stave from the one shown above but gets the point across.  I’ve documented the next part of the process elsewhere but will recap soon.

If you want to make a bow, dive in, don’t be afraid.  Get a piece of wood and go to it.

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Photo Gallery

I’ve added a photo gallery in the sidebar to the right of the main blog feed.  I think nearly all these projects have been shared here over the years but this makes for easy viewing.  I’ll continue to add images and re-post some older work as I get time so please check back feel free to continue the feedback, and I hope you enjoy.

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Or just click the image to get to the gallery.

Arrows from Planks

Dowel Cutter – A useful tool for large-scale production

A version of this post appeared here in 2012 but here is an update as prelude to a coming post.

I’ve been using a Veritas dowel and tenon cutter to rough out arrow shafts from planks.  Quite a while ago I posted about the jig I built for cutting the shafts and thought it might need some follow-up.  Although I didn’t have much in the way of appropriate wood available for arrows on the day the cutter arrived, I did have one well-aged straight-grained poplar board that had been set aside to age for arrows to experiment with.  The cutter, once set up, takes a piece of square stock of 7/16″ – 1/2″ and cuts it down to a 3/8″ dowel.

Looking through the feed end of the dowel cutter.

When the shaft comes out of the cutter it tends to start wobbling and the effect increases quickly.  The solution is to create some sort of guide for the shaft so I came up with wooden blocks, as seen below with slightly oversized holes drilled inline with the cutter.  There is a second identical block set back a few inches further to increase stability.  After the first few experiments I could really tell that the stabilized shafts were much smoother than the unstabilized ones.

Shavings as they exit the cutter.

The wood can be turned by hand or a wrench or, as in this case, it can be driven by a drill motor chucked with a square socket (not pictured).  The drill motor is not only faster but seems to cut smoother due to the high rate of rotation.

Before and after a light sanding.

The above photo is blurry but the right shaft demonstrates the rough “fuzzy” state as they come out of the the jig and the left is after a few minutes with some 100 and 220 grit sandpaper.  They are subsequently burnished and await nock reinforcements as the next step.  After putting a better edge on the blade, the shafts come out a littler smoother but it really seem to vary with the type of wood being used.

Image from the English War Bow Society. Click the image to link to their site and find out more about English warbows.

I was able to turn out eight experimental shafts in a short time.  Two were rejected immediately as they has little kinks in the grain and two were rejected during sanding due to blemishes in the wood.  They’ll probably be okay for light weight kid’s bows but are not acceptable for heavy, fast bows.  The spine feels a little light to me but I’ll hold out to see what comes of them.  The goal is to create some fairly standard issue British war bow arrows and see how they perform.  Since I use wooden dowels to peg together many other projects, very few shafts have gone to waste since this purchase.

Note: many great arrows have been cut with the Veritas cutter since the original post in 2012 and I will do my best to continue documenting the work.

Updates to follow soon…

Bamboo Arrow Construction

Several years ago I starting documenting some of the arrow-making I do. I wrote the original version of this piece in 2012 but as it always draws a lot of interest I have re-edited it and am posting it again.

Arrows have been much on my mind after seeing how ratty some of mine have become.  Even though shooting takes its toll on the fletchings, it seems they get at least as much damage in storing and travel.

I was intending to start with a set of British longbow style arrows but having received some beautiful arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica) from a friend who grows the stuff, I changed plans to suit the new material.  Prior to this project I had never used real arrow bamboo but have used it’s distant cousin the american bamboo or rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea).  It could not be much more perfect for the job.

Since I hoped to do this right, I decided to photo document the process as best I could.  Good arrow making isn’t easy or fast so unless you are dedicated to perfection, you are probably better off buying them.

Matching shafts.

High-grading the materials

The first thing to do is to select shafts.  I didn’t have hundreds to choose from but these were pre-selected for diameter (hence spine), straightness, node alignment, etc. so this made my work easy.  I parsed out a half-dozen I liked for starters and cut them to length.  Note similarity in diameter and node alignment.  The scale above the shafts is in inches.  I could hardly ask for better.

A preview of shafts selected, straightened, and cut to length.

Attributes to look for in bamboo or cane shafts

Your arrows should be a consistent diameter, consistent weight, similar spine, long lengths between nodes, similar node placement, with very little taper overall.  Most people seem to think that bamboo is straight coming right out of the ground but this is rarely the case.  Expect to heat straighten and you shafts. Your best work will be done in groups to get a consistent set, not just a one-off product.

After a lot of reading, I decided to approximate Korean style arrows with inserted wood nocks.  These have worked well for me in the past but I have never started with this great of bamboo.

Remove the flares at the node sections.

Cleaning up the shafts

Raw bamboo has a flair at each leaf node that must be removed for a smooth arrow shaft.  I do most of this with a knife but a small plane or file will suffice.  You don’t want something bumping over the hand or bow as the arrows is loosed.

Smoothed node.

The node above is cut smooth.

Further smoothing.

I have a neat little shaft plane (made by Dick Baugh) that helps at this stage but a rasp or sandpaper will work too.  You might have a divot at the joint but this won’t really affect your arrow.

Nodes are smooth.

The nodes of the set are now relatively smooth.  Now, any final straightening should be done over gentle heat.  This can take several hours so don’t rush it.  Keep  fixing little bends and make sure to heat the entire shaft to temper it.  I stand over the stove for this but have used coals from the fire in a pot to achieve the same purpose.  Wear gloves and be patient.

Whittling nock inserts.

I selected Osage orange for the nocks.  Horn or other hardwoods can be used here as well.  The above photo shows a blank and finished nock preform.

More whittling.

This photo shows the basic method.  With a very sharp knife, score a ring around the nock.  Whittle away from the score to narrow the piece slowly.  Repeat until it fits the shafts.  At this point I will say that I omitted a photo of an optional, but I think important, step.  That is, to wrap the end of each shaft with sinew and hide glue to prevent the shaft from splitting while pressing in the wood.  If, for some reason, sinew isn’t available, silk thread can be used in its place but you should top the silk with a little thinned white glue to help prevent it unraveling through abrasion.  As sinew is free and carried around inside all the higher life forms, it should be pretty easy to get some.

Almost a tight fit.

As you get close, keep test fitting the nocks until they are a perfect fit.

A perfect fit.

You can see the sinewed shaft ends being fit with the inserts.  Glue the nocks in place with a water-soluble wood glue for easier repair.

Steps in forming the notch.

At this point, several simple steps create a nice notch.  First, wrap the joint with more sinew and coat in a thin layer of hide glue. Second, drill a small hole through the nock, preferably at 45 degrees across the grain.  Make a small saw incision to start the carving and remove the waste with a small knife.  Use a very small file or sandpaper to open the notch and smooth the surfaces.

The finished product.

At this point, you have the essence of an arrow.

Foreshafts, points, and fletchings

The next step to make these fancy sticks into arrows is to fletch them with feathers.  To make fletchings, the best feathers must be selected.  I am using some goose wing feathers given to me by a friend which have been graded to the last three per wing.  Perhaps common knowledge in the fletching world but it worth noting that all three feathers must be from the same side of the bird (i.e., all right wing or all left wing).  I cut a template from Bristol board to serve as a guide so that all the fletchings are the same size and shape.  After the quills are split and trimmed, the bases (where they will be glued to the shaft) must be trimmed smooth and sanded flat to lie against the arrow.  This is a very time-consuming task but critical in proper fletching.

Feathers to fletchings.

Again, there are only about three feathers on each wing suitable for fletchings and all three on an arrow need to come from the same wing to have the same shape and twist.  To produce the needed 18 fletchings I cut about 24 as some may go to waste.  I always ruin a few in the final trimming or end up weeding them out due to defects.  Save them for later repairs if you have any left over.

Serving the feathers with silk.

After gluing them in place by hand, the ends are served with two layers of fine silk.  This is a slow and tedious job and neatness really shows but the end product will be sturdy and handle a lot of abuse through shooting.

Silk in the sunlight.

The arrow above is now fletched, reinforced, and has a sturdy wooden nock.  Real silk is strong and shimmers beautifully in the light and comes in virtually any color.

Inserted wood nock and goose fletching.

It takes me nearly an hour for each arrow so I took a break after the first four.

Footings

The foot is the front portion of the arrow that reinforces the shaft and connects to the point or head.  This was done exactly as the nocks above but instead of drilling and cutting a slit, they are tapered to match the heads they are to be attached to.

Bodkin, foot, and sinew reinforcement.

As for points, I chose some traditional bodkins since they are good looking and very efficient.  Many cultures came up with this essential design.  These are English copies and are known to punch through heavy armor.  They are surprisingly sharp and tear through most targets easily.

Bodkins test fitted.  The joint at the wooden “foot” is reinforced with sinew.

For the photo, I dropped these from about six inches above and they all stuck in the oak.  I should mention that these points haven’t had the final fitting yet and are just stuck on by friction.  If you look closely in this photo, the ferrules don’t quite fit the foreshafts yet.

First four finished.

Arrows are difficult to photograph so I took this high oblique shot to show them as nearly done.  I hope these images help a fledgling fletcher somewhere as it isn’t an easy task.  Be patient, don’t lose hope, and be consistent.  Good things take time and it really shows in their performance and longevity.

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A bit of red ochre paint completes the set.

I marked my shafts with a little ochre paint made with a base of boiled linseed oil with a drop of turpentine and ground pigment.  I love the natural look of ochre and enjoy knowing I found and ground the pigment myself.

These remarkably fast and true arrows suit my bow very well.  A little luck, experience, and patience pay off big rewards in the end.

Now, time to shoot.

Arrowology

Some Thoughts on Making Arrows, an Underappreciated Art –

I have been making my own arrows from scratch for a couple decades (since 1987 to be precise) and thought I’d showcase some I have made over the past few years.  I don’t generally make them to sell and I rarely hunt these days but there is something very satisfying and meditative in gathering the materials and constructing something so practical, with such fine tuning and narrow parameters in functionality.  I learned many tough lessons along the way, having no actual teacher, but I gleaned all I could from the historical resources I could find.  Most cultures of the world have a martial tradition of archery and each have their advantages and limitations.

A set of seven hand-turned poplar arrows in the English tradition.

The poplar arrows above were made from aged, straight-grained wood that was split along the grain then turned in a dowel cutter.  The nocks are reinforced with Bois d’arc (Osage orange) wood for added strength.  The heads are conical bodkins, fletchings are prime turkey wing secured with glue and silk binding.

A “primitive” set of cane arrows with hardwood foreshafts tipped with a variety of point types.

Making matched sets –

I sometimes come across beginning arrow-makers (fletchers) who only produce “one-offs” without attempting a matched set.  This is fine as an experiment or as a learning tool but does not suffice for someone who plans to actually use them for precise or regular use.  The minimum I make is three but I try to produce arrows in sets of six or twelve.  Since the plank used for the the arrows above worked out to produce exactly seven shafts, I kept the group together.

I believe it was a writing by Arthur Young where I first learned that to have a truly great set that sometimes you had to sacrifice a few as imperfect.  With all the work that goes into an arrow, it is painful to cull one out but sometimes it must be done.  The weights may match, the spine may feel the same, but one may just not fly as perfectly from the bow as the rest.  In the past, I have marked these and they become stump shooters of ones that you don’t mind risking on a long or difficult shot.

Finding a perfect set of rivercane shafts can involve a lot of looking, sorting, and luck.  People who want to purchase these hand-crafted materials and products rarely appreciate how much work goes into just gathering the materials.  A dozen matched cane shafts may come from sorting a hundred plants, then aging, curing, and straightening before the arrow can even be started.

Rivercane (Arundinaria) arrows with reinforced self nocks.

Fletchings –

To produce enough fletchings for the above, one has to acquire three feathers per arrow, matched by side (all rights or lefts) and placement on the wing of the bird (e.g., second or third wing feather).  This could mean wings from seven to fifteen animals depending on how picky one is just to produce five sets of fletchings.

Antler point.

Points –

Finally, the points are considered based on the needs of the archer.  Will these be for hunting large or small game, target shooting, or just all around fun shooting?  I use bone, antler, stone, wood, and steel depending on the intended use of the set.  Although I purchase most of the metal points I use, a lot of time can go into making matched heads from natural materials.

More thoughts to come…

The Magic of Sinew

SINEW

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Elk leg sinews dried and ready for processing.

Sinew  is the term used to describe tendon or ligament in more formal English. It is the cord that connects muscle to bone or bone to bone in skeletal animals.  Like rope, it is made up of bundles of bundles of bundles as shown in this anatomical illustration.

Foot Anatomy

For our purposes, sinew is a true gift to the primitive technologist, survivalist, or low-tech hunter as it provides us with so many possibilities.  Sinew is the fiber stripped from animal tendons and used as a strong thread or it can be braided or plied together to make a stronger cord or rope.  It can be used to make bow strings, tie objects together permanently, backing and strengthening a bow, or lashing spear or arrow points onto their shafts.  It binds well with hide glue, having almost identical chemistry (collagen).  This causes it to act a lot like duct tape, binding and sticking to most surfaces.

It is also important to know that every human on Earth had access to and likely utilized sinew in the pre-modern world.  It is a gift of nature that aided our ancestors in the making of compound and composite tools.

Here are two recently hafted spear points points.  If you haven’t worked with sinew, its difficult to convey just how amazing and useful this material is.  It has been called the “duct tape” of prehistory but it is even better than that.  It not only holds well and is remarkably strong, but shrinks and strengthens as it cures.  The points above were hafted (tied on) with sinew dipped in hide glue to create a solid  and tight hold on points.  This method holds up very well for throwing darts or spears and is nearly impossible to break.

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Sinew backing and binding on a Nez Perce bow. Courtesy of NPS.

If you hunt (or know someone who does), you can acquire this from the legs and back straps (the strap covering the tenderloins) of nearly any animal of size.  Elk, bison, and deer are obvious candidates for long pieces and are readily available in North America. Smaller animals such as rabbit can be used, but as in so may things, longer can really be better.  The main issue I have with the shorter sinews is that it is more difficult to work wet as it must be continually added while binding.

Plate LXIXThe more you know…

Primitive Arts

Today I’m prepping to present some primitive skills on Saturday, from raw materials to finished goods. I’m also getting some kid’s activities together to draw in the latest generation.

An assortment of stone-age technology laid out to take to the public.

Learning by Replication

I study the technology of prehistory.  Because of this, I believe strongly in the benefits of experiential archaeology.  It gives perspective on a very deep level.  We can walk in the shoes of our ancestors, so to speak.  I say experiential here not experimental and I’m glad to hear this word coming into the dialog of other primitive technology people.  While not trying to dwell on the words themselves, it is an important distinction.  Experimental generally implies the ability to replicate an actual experiment (i.e., testing a hypothesis to see what you find).

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Experimental pottery; gathering materials, construction, paint, and firing.  Click the image to see more about this project.

True experiments are things like:

  • Can a tree be cut down using an exact replica of a prehistoric axe?
  • Is it possible to move a ten ton stone over long distances using only the technology and manpower available in the Neolithic? 
  • Can fire be made by rubbing sticks together? 
  • Will a Medieval arrow penetrate 14 gauge armor plate?

You certainly gain the experience through these experiments but you are also testing something specific with something like a yes or no answer.  Experimental archaeology can create some popular misconceptions as well.  Just because something could be done, doesn’t mean that prehistoric people must have done it that way.

Replicated woven sandals from the Southern High Plains and the greater Southwest.  Produced from narrow-leaf yucca.

Replicated woven sandals as found on the Southern High Plains and throughout the greater Southwest. Produced from narrow-leaf yucca (by Stacey Bennett).

Experiential archaeology integrates this and everything else learned along the way.  E.g., How comfortable are these shoes, is there more or less back pain using a tump line on a pack, what kind of wear can be expected on arrow fletchings over time?  This allows us to ask even more questions and have a fuller knowledge of ancient peoples.

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Testing silk lashed goose feather fletching. Clicking the image links to bamboo arrow making.

I really enjoy the various directions replication takes the maker.  Learning the finer points of cutting and scraping with stone flakes or abraders, working with antler and wood, creating glues and mastics, and developing an appropriate paint or sealer as on the spear thrower below.

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Upper Paleolithic-style spear thrower.  Image links to the “how to” for making this thrower.

Whatever you do and whenever you learn, it’s all good.

Raised With Wilderness Skills

Don’t leave the kids out of the things you find important…

Nota bene! The following ramble was written at three in the morning and may contain sentiment, ramblings, and a bit of opinion. I don’t want this to sound preachy.  What was intended as a few childhood pictures from primitive technology events ran away with itself in the dark hours between sleeps.  ~G


Learning to shoot at an early age. Skills like this build coordination, confidence, and an understanding of the greater things in life.

There is a certain amount of balance that can become of the unique skills we gain along the path of our lives.  Some people come to events, take classes, and return to the ‘normal’ life at the end of the week relatively unscathed by the learning they paid for and the time spent.

The first brain-tanned shirt and wearing it with pride. It was a hand-me-down from a friend’s daughter.

To closely paraphrase a linguistic anthropologist I knew long ago,

“Some things we love are embraced the way most people embrace their religion, they take away some message, feel strongly about it, but leave it for Sundays. When we find the thing that is our passion, we embrace it like a lover; it encompasses all our thoughts and becomes our entire life.”  ~L.F.

This is how I feel about primitive skills, wilderness living, and pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Without consciously trying, it just became a part of life growing ever stronger from teenage into full adulthood.  While living in the consumer world, this alternative floated in the background of the mind and continued to influence activities when our child came along.

We were not perfect parents.  Far from it.  But we were consciously better than our own.  We really tried.  We learned.  I sometimes wish I had it to do all over again.  Overall, I think we did pretty well and were lucky in many ways.  We encouraged exploration, learning, and self-reliance.  By not child-proofing everything or creating needless prohibitions, we were forced to be more aware and in the present.  Yes, it is probably more work and yes, it can be exhausting but children should learn their most valuable lessons at home from family, whatever ‘family’ may mean to you and yours.

Every kid and every family is different.  They aren’t robots and it is clear to any observer that they have a mind and ideas of their own from a very early age.  We can only steer them as best we can, present them with our ideas and beliefs, and provide the types of opportunities we think will give them a good grounding for their future lives before setting them free to try their skills in the world.

Examining a fish-hook cactus in the Sonoran desert.

It makes me sad hear or to read in social media that parents that I actually know are so down on the next generation.  Complaining that they don’t go outdoors, have useful lifeskills, proudly hitting them, or even ridiculing them for using the technology they themselves provided.  If that is the case, the blame is only ours!  We cannot place the blame on media and movies and video games, schools, government or a general millennial malaise.  It is not anyone else’s job to raise our children well.  We are, to a large degree, culpable.  When I hear a parent complain that their kid watches too much TV, or plays too many video games, I am baffled.

None of us are perfect, but we can give the following generations the values and ideals we may only cherish in the abstract.

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Modelling the yucca fiber skirt with her buckskin shirt.  A monumental amount of yucca processing.

The intended descriptions have strayed into a hopelessly sentimental post, but anyway, enjoy some of my favorite photos I dug out recently.

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Making fire in the Arizona desert 2009.

I leave you with this broad paraphrasing of Edward Abbey:

Give them the skills and encouragement to get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with friends.  Let them ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.   And at the end of the day, sit quietly for a while with them and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space we call earth.

We are fed by those that surround us. Choose wisely.

We are fed by those that surround us. Choose wisely.

Blacksmithing her first knife.

I hope to see a few of you in the great outdoors very soon.  And don’t forget to bring the family if you can.

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