Possumhaw: Travel slow, travel light


Shannon Bardwell



"Let us leave the hot pavements, the baking, blistering walls, and sweltering sleeping, or sleepless, rooms. Let us, i' God's name, take to the cool waters and calm shades of the forest."


-- Nessmuk, Nov. 18, 1880




Sitting on the front porch drinking my morning coffee, I noticed a tremendous number of pollinators. Bees covered the gardenias, the mandevilla and the magnolia blossoms. I don't ever remember seeing bees on the magnolias. I take this as a very good sign for our future.


In my early days I pondered my own future. Part of me wanted to be in New York City working in the fashion industry; the other wanted to live in the woods, off the land, wholly enjoying nature.


I thought of this while reading "Forest Life: Practical Meditations on Canoeing, Fishing, Hunting and Bushcraft," by George Washington Sears, known as Nessmuk. The book was a gift to Sam, but I found myself engrossed in a book on living in the woods. It was originally published in 1884 and republished in 2018.


Nessmuk took his name from a Narragansett Indian he considered his childhood mentor. He said of himself he wasn't suited for indoor life and spent decades living in the woods, mostly alone. He became a writer for "Forest and Stream," described as the nation's premier outdoor magazine at the time. Nessmuk was largely without formal education but wrote articles and poetry and tested canoes, often designing them for canoe-makers. Nessmuk lived in the Adirondacks in northeast New York state. It is mountainous country filled with lakes and streams; bountiful fishing and hunting. A guide could be hired for $2.50 a day, but Nessmuk needed no guide.


On a road atlas I found the Adirondacks and a few of the streams and lakes mentioned, like Raquette Lake and Eighth lake. I could see how Nessmuk could navigate 660 miles of water, only occasionally having to do a "carry" for as much as 10 miles. For such a trip, a canoe would need to be not only strong but light. Nessmuk was determined a canoe could be made weighing less than 20 pounds. A builder said he thought he could build a canoe fitting Nessmuk's design but would make no guarantees of its endurance and safety. The canoe weighed in at 17 pounds, 13 3/4 ounces.


Nessmuk could "ride in rough water, sleep in afloat, and carry with ease for miles." The log for 1880 showed Nessmuk's cruised over 550 miles. He said, "Perhaps more than 50 years of devotion to 'woodcraft' may enable me to give a few useful hints and suggestions to those whose dreams, during the close season of work, are camp-life by flood, field, and forest."


Nessmuk concocted a recipe for "venomous little wretches" like mosquitoes and black flies that never failed: 3 ounces of pine tar, 2 ounces castor oil, 1 ounce pennyroyal oil (an herbal extract), simmered together and bottled. One application lasted him for seven weeks and nary a bite, nor a shower.


Nessmuk concludes, "In a word, act coolly and rationally. So shall your outing be a delight in conception and the fulfillment thereof; while the memory of it shall come back to you in pleasant dreams, when legs and shoulders are too stiff and old for knapsack and rifle."



Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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