Northern Woodsmanship and Skills Forum

In the past, I have brought your attention to a number of forums, blogs and YouTube channels focusing on outdoorsmanship, primarily in Finland, but also elsewhere in the boreal region. Today, I’d like to introduce you to a fine forum started by Ron from The Trying Woodsman Blog. He wanted to create a place where folks could discuss woodsmanship, bushcraft, primitive and traditional skills and anything else having to do with outdoor life in the north.

This primarily English-language forum is small, but growing (it has been experiencing a surge in activity lately). So far, there are members from Finland, Sweden, Norway, the northern US, throughout the British Isles, Germany and a host of other countries. As far as I know, this is the only north-centric forum of its type out there!

If you would like to learn from and contribute to a growing knowledge base on woodsmanship in the north in a relaxed and open atmosphere by sharing stories, projects, ideas and experiences and make friends in the process, be sure to visit the Northern Woodsmanship and Skills Forum!

Pictures from Juhannus weekend 2013

Juhannus is the Finnish name for the midsummer holiday celebrated primarily in the Nordic and Baltic countries, but in others as well. It originated as a pagan holiday celebrating the summer solstice and was Christianized as “Juhannus” (St. John’s Eve) upon the arrival of, well, Christianity. Nowadays, the festival is celebrated by drinking, eating lots of good food, playing fun games, drinking, going to the sauna, burning stuff in a bonfire, drinking and grilling sausages. Oh, and there’s drinking, plenty of drinking.

As usual, the Woodsfamily spent Juhannus at my mother-in-law’s cabin in the country. Rather than showing you pictures of folks engaging in…ahem…traditional Juhannus activities, I thought I’d do a little show and tell with some random pics I snapped at the cabin and around the city.

First, a little wildlife. I was fascinated by these beautiful metallic-looking beetles drinking nectar from flowers:

(sorry about the focus!)

Ducks enjoying a warm summer day:

And now for some plant life. Wild roses:

What’s this? A freak dusting of snow?

Nope, it’s copious quantities of seed fluff from some tree I have yet to identify. The bark looks like aspen bark, but the leaves look kind of like birch leaves. Any idea what kind of tree it is? Update: Thanks to a tip from Forest Turtle, I believe this tree is a black poplar (populus nigra), which is not native to Finland, as far as I know. Thanks FT! Update 2: Conrad pointed out that it is also known as a cottonwood poplar. Thanks!

A tradition in Finland (and perhaps other places as well) is to make a vasta (called a vihta in western Finland), which is a bunch of limber birch branches bound together and used for self-flagellation and spouse or friend abuse in a hot steamy sauna. While my mother-in-law gathered the branches, I made some cordage out of willow bark. Here’s the “Finnish’d product”. 😉

And here’s where we used them, a sauna with a wood-burning stove. I forgot to take the stool off the lower bench before taking the picture, but you get the idea.

The entire weekend, mosquitoes, black flies and gnats were on a mission to see me shrivel up like a raisin due to a lack of blood. Though I tried to resist, I ended up scratch-scratch-scratching away. I must have hit an artery at one point, because I started bleeding from one small spot and it didn’t seem to want to stop. Remembering that my favorite wild edible broadleaf plantain has astringent and wound-healing properties, I chewed up a small leaf and put the poultice on the spot in question. This stopped the bleeding immediately, and it did not continue after removing the plantain a few minutes later (excuse the bug-bitten, dirty leg…).

At one point during the weekend, I saw this boat in the city harbor. It’s a traditional Finnish-style boat which has been waterproofed with a pine tar/pitch.

And last, but not least, I leave you with a Juhannus bonfire over the water. This shot was lovingly captured by the Woodsbabe around midnight.

Hope you enjoyed this random selection of pictures!

Traditional Finnish flint-and-steel fire making

Recently, my friend Ilkka Seikku showed me a video he made about traditional Finnish flint-and-steel fire making. I don’t think I’ve seen this exact technique anywhere else. Hope you enjoy it!

In other news, some of you noticed that the images on the blog were blocked for a short time. Apparently, what happened is that the monthly bandwidth limit of my Photobucket account was exceeded. I just ordered increased bandwidth, so it shouldn’t happen again! 🙂

(Mis)adventures in primitive fishing

While working at my 9-to-5 job during the week, my mind has a tendency to wander (not infrequently in the direction of outdoor pursuits, as you may have guessed). Last week, I got the idea of making a functional primitive fishing rig from a single plant/tree using my camp knife as the only tool. I thought this would be a good way to put some basic primitive/bushcraft skills to use in a practical application. When the weekend rolled around, I hit the woods to see what I could do.

Before I get into it, let me say that this project was based on my limited knowledge and experience, as well as the resources available at the time and place. There are probably many different (i.e. better) ways to approach this!

The plan was to first find and harvest a willow sapling/branch.

Then cut off the branches.

Slit the bark from top to bottom and remove it (this is most easily done in spring/summer).

Then split the bark into thin strips.

At this point, I would normally scrape the green outer bark off the white inner bark and then boil the inner bark for a while with the outer bark scrapings and some wood ashes added to the water. I didn’t have time for all this, though, so I only scraped off most of the outer bark.

Next, carve a “gorge hook” from one of the branches.

Then spend the next few months making several meters/yards of fishing line from the inner bark (see this post for info on making cordage). I should mention that willow bark cordage like this tends to dry out by the next day, so it should be processed further to keep its flexibility and strength (so far, I have tried both waxing and oiling, which seem to work well). Anyway, after getting the line started, slightly untwist the loop end, slip the gorge hook in and twist the line back again. Then untwist the next twist up the line and insert the hook in there as well, finishing by twisting the line back again. Eh, I’m not sure if I’m explaining this very well!

Try to finish the line before it gets too dark or you lose consciousness due to a lack of blood, which the mosquitoes, black flies and gnats have been drawing from you for the past several hours.

The next morning, wake up to find yourself wet inside your bivy sack and sleeping bag liner because you didn’t put up a shelter overhead and got rained on for hours (at least the rain kept the mosquitoes at bay!). Er, I mean clean up the ends of the pole, carve a notch around the top end and tie the line to it. You’re done! (or so you think….)

When I was finished, I still had lots of bark left over to make more cordage with.

So far, so good. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, so it was time to see if it could catch a fish. I intentionally started with an overly large hook, figuring that I’d probably have to whittle it down until I got the size right. I took a small piece of bread and smushed it around the gorge hook and line, making sure the hook was nearly parallel with the line (yes, that is a mosquito in the shot; there were swarms of them around).

It appeared that the hook and bait were too large for the small fish to take into their mouths (I could see them in the shallow water), so I whittled down the hook.

Having remembered that perch prefer worms over bread (though roach readily take both), I found a worm and used a piece of it.

After making these changes, I was getting some serious bites! I was surprised by how sensitive and responsive the rig was. It was at this point that the project took a (hopefully temporary) nose-dive. Again and again, I could see a fish take the baited hook into its mouth and tug on it, but each time it would spit it out again. They just would not swallow it! With this type of setup, as opposed to a curved hook, the fish has to fully swallow the sharpened stick so it gets stuck inside the fish (which, by the way, is why you should not fish this way unless you plan on dispatching and utilizing the fish).

So why weren’t the fish swallowing the bait?! The reason, I suspected, was that the line was too thick and rigid. It gave the fish the sensation that they were trying to bite a piece off of something larger, but could not. As I said, I suspect this to be the reason. I’ve never tried anything like this, so only more trial and error will tell.

The next day, I used some of the extra willow bark to make a much finer and more flexible leader which the fish will hopefully not detect as easily. Then I spliced it into the existing line and attached the hook (which, as you can see, I had modified further by blunting the short end). The splice point is the “left corner” you can see in the second loop. I will try the rig like this and, if fish swallow it, but the hook doesn’t catch, I’ll start over with a larger hook and whittle it down until it’s just right.

To be continued!

Wild edible – Broadleaf plantain

Before I get to the meat (or vegetable, as it were) of this post, I wanted to update those of you who are interested in the LK-35 Swedish army rucksack (if you’re not, you might want to skip this paragraph). Being curious as to why I have been able to fit more gear inside this supposedly 35 L pack in comparison to other 35 L packs, I emptied it and took some measurements. I was happy to find that the maximum capacity is actually about 40.5 L. The reason for the discrepancy is the pack’s top flap, which has a range of positions to accommodate different amounts of gear inside. When the flap is at its lowest position, the volume is about 30 L, whereas at its highest position, the volume is about 40.5 L (2,470 cubic inches). Since I attach my bulky sleeping gear to the outside of the pack, 40+ L is plenty of room for my gear, food, extra clothes etc., so I plan to continue using and trialing it. While the pack was empty, I also weighed it using a bathroom scale, and it weighed in at 2.3 kg/5 pounds. Not lightweight, but I still think it’s a winner thanks to its extreme ruggedness.


My favorite of the leafy wild edibles growing here in Finland is the broadleaf plantain (plantago major).

Young broadleaf plantain leaves.

It’s one of about 200 species of plaintain (not to be confused with the fruit of the same name) growing around the world. Native to most of Europe and Northern/Central Asia, broadleaf plantain is commonly considered a weed, as it is often found growing in grassy areas in populated places.

Mature plant (linked image, not my photo)

When I see this plant, I don’t see a weed at all. I see a nutritious leafy vegetable high in vitamins A, C and K and in calcium which can be picked and eaten raw or cooked. I see a plant that can be made into a poultice which aids in healing wounds and insect bites thanks to its anti-toxic, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties (the leaves contain aucubin, allantoin and several soothing agents). Fever and respiratory infections were traditionally treated with the plant’s root. Tea made from the leaves is said to be good for treating diarrhea due to the inherent astringent properties.

So the next time you’re getting rid of “weeds” around your house, check to see if any of them are broadleaf plantain. You might have a nutritious snack and mini-pharmacy right nearby without knowing it!

Disclaimer: Consuming wild edible plants and/or using them for medical purposes is done at your own risk. Always be 100% certain of what you are eating/doing. If unsure, contact an expert.

Another hot day in the sub-Arctic, plus a few poncho shelter setups

The plan was to spend from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon in the woods, so I packed my Swedish LK-35 rucksack with my gear load-out for summer overnight trips:

Without food and water, the pack weighs about 20 pounds/9 kg. Not ultralight, but not ultraheavy either. If I swapped out each item with a lighter equivalent, I’m sure I could cut the weight in half (though I have no need or interest to do so).

Anyway, on Saturday I ended up having such a nice time at the cabin with the family and in-laws (except the part where I accidentally fell in the lake…fully clothed…while trying to fish out one of the Woodsboy’s toys) that I decided to stay at the cabin for the rest of the day and night instead. Sometimes after a long work week, it’s nice to just relax and hang around the lake, sauna and grill with the family. 🙂

The following day, I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders and hiked 10 minutes up and down the rocky terrain to my campsite, which is located elsewhere on the 35-acre property. Once again, the black flies were horrendous, as were the horse flies (and a few mosquitoes), so I donned my net hat. Stylish, eh? By the way, that’s a black fly on my chin. 🙂

A few shots of the camp area. This spot had been cleared several years back and only now can be considered to be forest-ish again. One of the interesting things about having a spot like this as a campsite is that I get to watch the new forest grow up quickly around me over the years.

Local insect life:

Rhododendron tomentosum, aka marsh Labrador tea/northern Labrador tea in bloom:

Another flower:

Late-spring bilberry blooms:

Can you spot the lizard?:

Funky lichens:

As usual, I brought my thermometer along. I got this reading in direct sun (over 110*F):

And this one in the shade (84*F):

Yes, it can and does get pretty warm in the sub-Arctic. 🙂

After taking pictures of fauna, flora etc., it was time to get down to business. As I mentioned, I didn’t sleep in the forest the night before, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t set up a shelter or seven. For a while I’ve been meaning to show you guys a few of the poncho shelter setups I’ve learned over the years, and I thought this would be a good opportunity. The poncho is the very rugged Bundeswehr German army poncho (220 x 160 cm/7’4″ x 5’4″) which weighs about 900 g/2 pounds (I know, it’s on the heavy side as ponchos go, but it’s extremely rugged, which is more important to me than weight). I scavenged the three-section tent poles, guy lines and tent stakes from another tent. The following poncho setups use only one poncho. In the future, I’ll show setups using two ponchos snapped together.

The steep lean-to:

For more protection, you can lower one of the corners:

You can lower both corners for even greater protection:

If that’s still not enough, drop one corner to the ground (apparently I picked a spot with a lot of shrubbery, as evidenced here. :)):

The next setup is completely enclosed, but is so small that it would only be suitable for the Woodsboy, a pet or as a gear shelter (it does work well as a full-sized tent when you use a larger tarp to make it, however):

My second-favorite single-poncho shelter uses only one pole, one guy line, the poncho and five tent stakes. I can almost stretch out inside it, there is room for my gear in there and it provides good protection from the elements. I believe I once saw it referred to as a “brew shelter”:

I removed the guy line, and it still stayed up perfectly:

And saving the best (in my opinion) single-poncho shelter for last, may I present the brew shelter with one corner up off the ground on a pole. This provides good protection under the lowered side, plus better air flow and a bit more room for myself and gear under the open side. This is the configuration I would have used if I had stayed overnight.

Here’s what it looks like with my bivy bag and sleeping bag liner inside:

I have to mention that none of these ideas are mine and that this is by no means an exhaustive display of single-poncho shelters. A few years back, I set up several other configurations which might interest you as well:

Simple A-frame:

A-frame with one end snapped up:

A fully enclosed, close-to-the-ground setup:

As you can see, there’s a lot you can do with a poncho or tarp! Here’s a little tip for using tent pegs in soft/shallow/rocky soil: Using more than one tent peg, angled in different directions, will improve the anchor strength.

Hope someone finds this info useful!