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3 October 2010
The start of autumn is always a great time to be out wandering around. There are conkers and acorns to collect, the greenery starts to die back revealing a bit more of the woods and the temperatures are more conducive to walking - added to which there's the fun of mushroom hunting.
The Night Before
One of the things which always surprises me is how insects adapt to the change in temperature. There was a fair bit of activity out and about and we saw some bees, butterflies and even a caterpillar. The autumn sunshine gave me some good opportunities for photos. I always think the late frenzy of insect activity in the autumn is similar to shoppers on the 24th of December, a frenzy of action just before it's all too late.
These photos were taken on my new camera, a 10 megapixel Samsung with a 10x zoom. It's let me get some lovely crisp pictures and some of the zoomed in photos. It's a lot easier to take, charge the battery and upload stuff so expect to see a few more photos on here soon!
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23 June 2010
A regular question on various bushcraft communities and forums concerns which are the best bushcraft books, as I've got about 70-80 related books and probably around 5-6 GB of files and e-books there's a fair bit to pick from. Below are my top 5 for someone with a general interest, each one designed to offer something different and with the intention of there being minimal overlap and a different style between each book.
Bushcraft - Mors Kochanski
If you were only to get one book this would be it, it's not the densest book but it contains a wealth of information that you simply won't get anywhere else. It deals with a myriad of things from crafts to cooking to tree identification and tools and does a good job of illustrating what a wide subject bush lore is.
Primitive Technology: A Book of Earth Skills
This one focuses on the primitive aspect and deals with many crafts made with stone tools. It is certainly still relevant if you're using modern tools and contains more inspiration and ideas for projects than any other book I've ever come across. There is a second volume which is just as good as the first if you enjoy it.
Camping and Woodcraft: Horace Kephart
This is a veritable encyclopedia of information of early 20th century woodcraft and camping. It contains huge amounts of information on practically every subject under the sun and notably, a good section of recipes. Maybe not one to read from cover to cover but an excellent resource book.
Indian Fishing: Hilary Stewart
This book shows you the sheer range of things which can be crafted from nature using only simple hand tools. It covers nets, spears, hooks and all other methods of catching fish as well as the related art and cooking techniques. More than any other book this shows you an end goal for your knife skills and a true element of wilderness living skill. There's a preview on google books and Mungo has discussed the book on his blog.
Cache Lake Country: JJ Rowlands
This is the diary of a timber cruiser who spent a year living in a cabin in the Northwoods. It contains a huge range of nature observations as well as stories and has some beautiful woodcuts. Although it is a journal in includes plans on how to carve different items, fashion moccasins and sleds and cook various meals. It's truly a must-read for anyone interested in wilderness living.
It's a pity to restrict it to 5 but without knowing someone's location and interests it's necessary to leave out a lot of good books - my personal favourite is perhaps the Snow Walker's Companion, I read it every winter when the snow falls, but if you're not looking for information on hot-tent winter camping in deep snow then it's not going to be as useful as the books above.
Hopefully these books also show a variety of approaches and viewpoints and demonstrate what a broad and deep subject bushcraft and wilderness living is.
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13 June 2010
One of my favourite bloggers, Torjus Gaaren, has been blogging again recently at his Living Primitively page. Along with American Bushman and Pablo's Woodlife his was one of the first bushcraft blogs that I read back in 2006. His blog contains a variety of material on his prmitive lifestyle hunting and gathering in Norway.
Although I'm not a practicioner of primitive skills that has not stopped me from reading a lot about the subject as it combines two of my passions, bushcraft and history. Sometimes it does make me wish there was suitable stone for tool making near here!
Torjus has produced 2 E-books, one on working wood with stone tools and a new one on making moccasins and sewing implements.
The Basics of Woodworking with Stone Age Tools
This is the first of Torjus' Ebooks, and is available as a free download through his blog. This book concentrates on the various techniques available to primitive wood workers and deals with them in a logical framework. The book doesn't look heavily at tool manufacture and does approach things in an interesting way. The reliance on methods such as splitting with wedges and abrading have important applications for any bushcrafters who don't regularly take an axe with them. It's well worth a read and offers some good guidance and inspiration
Making a Primitive Sewing Kit and Pair of Moccasins
This is the newest E-book and is available as an download through Lulu for the price of $5. It's not a very long book but contains good instructions and pictures. The moccasin pattern is something I'd love to try but getting hold of suitable material is easier said than done. It's not the moccasin section which is the highlight though, it's the designs for bone needles, awl and a needle case in the Saami style. The information in here is not unique, but I doubt you'll find it done anywhere else using stone and bone tools. The biggest reason to buy this book is that it will help the writer further his research and experience and hopefully prompt another book.
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3 June 2010
Summer is coming, at least in theory although with the rain and storms here you wouldn't know it. Summer means more woods time for many of us and more creature activity as well. Sadly, not all creatures are equally welcome.
Pablo, of Woodlife fame, has launched a campaign raising awareness of ticks and tickborne diseases. For more information than you can shake a stick at you should head on over to the TickWatch homepage.
I've had a Care Plus Tick Remover for a couple of years as part of my first aid kit, it weighs next to nothing and costs less than £3. If you can get hold of one a pair of pointed tweezers are also an option and are even recommended as part of a first aid kit by Mors Kochanski.
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31 March 2010
I have a student who is involved in orienteering and adventure racing, he's experienced and successful in his sport and has a well organised approach to it. Check out the website at team360.pl for more details. By virtue of taking the line of speed over comfort and short term advantage over long term use he represents the opposite end of the curve to the average bushcrafter.
It is a pretty common question for bushcrafters, why do you have this old-fashioned kit? In truth, there are several reasons and one of the most eloquent explanations of both the ecological benefits as well as the more direct positives is in "the Snowwalker's Companion". I first started moving down this road several years ago and remember a conversation in a high street camping store that helped clarify a few things for me.
A sales assistant was trying to sell me some type of waterproof jacket and I mentioned that, in my experience, such jackets were prone to condensation. He told me that the jacket had to be worn over the company's man-made base layer and fleece in order for the breathe ability to be optimal! I asked him why people who worked outdoors didn't seem to wear the dayglo polycarbon clothing he was peddling and he opined that it was through a lack of knowledge. Experiences like this are why I pretty much gave up on the mainstream outdoor retailers; a weekend's wear isn't taxing for a lot of items and many people expect to be uncomfortable outside so presume there is no other way.
Natural materials offer many advantages, the first of which is breathe ability. Wool is obviously breathable, otherwise sheep would be rather strange waterlogged creatures. Cotton and canvas are also breathe able although different coatings may affect this somewhat. Leather, being skin, contains pores designed to allow moisture to pass through so is both breathable and windproof, a difficult combination to find. Nature even provides us with some nice waterproofing agents such as lanolin, a wax from wool.
Natural materials also offer some longevity benefits. Although they may be heavier, they are tougher and easier to repair. Whilst not ideal for commerce this benefits the woodsman as not only is it less likely to break, but there is more chance of fixing canvas or leather than nylon or polythene. I've got an old Swiss army, Salt and Pepper backpack which demonstrates this well. It's not light and trendy but it does blend in and has the sort of construction that makes you think it could survive Armageddon.
It's the same with boots. I've got a pair of gor-tex lined leather boots with a rubber gaiter over the edge of the sole and the bottom of the leather. Of course, after some cold weather and a couple of years this rubber has split allowing water to ingress. I went to a walking boot shop and asked and was informed that the rubber was "sacrificial". Sorry, I want something designed to work, I don't mind taking care of it but I don't expect an impossible to repair add-on that's designed to fail. I asked if they had any simple, low-tech, all leather boots and got a funny look - obviously not the profitable and fashionable thing.
This is hardly a new problem. I recall Thoreau railing against the attitudes of clothing makers in his day and in most areas there has been a trend towards cheap Chinese synthetics. Don't believe me? Try finding a wool jumper in a high street store.
There are advantages in terms of colour when using natural materials. By the virtue of being natural they tend not to hold onto odours as badly too, making a good choice for watching wildlife or hunting in areas where subdued colours are safe. Natural materials also tend to be quieter and russle-free. Man-made fibres can also melt or cause some pretty horrific injuries when subjected to flames, high heat or sparks - pretty common in wilderness living. Long term wilderness living also puts demands on gear that weekend recreational stuff can't cope with, something mentioned with regularity in Call of the Wild.
Natural fibres also offer ecological bonuses. They decompose at the end of their life, avoiding filling landfills for centuries to come and they don't require any oil to make. You could even see wool as a waste-product of the sheep farming industry, such is the low price that it garners for farmers.
Sadly, it's not always easy to find this old-tech kit. Keep an eye out though, it's better in the long run.
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9 February 2010
Having talked about families of birds briefly in my last post I thought a more thorough look into the topic could be beneficial here. All lifeforms on Earth have been categorised using a special system, aside from giving biology students something to study for tests, this system also makes it easier for us to recognise what type of plant or animal we're looking at.
Things are categorised using a binomial system where the organism is named using 2 Latin names. These are usually italicised and the first written with a capital letter and the 2nd with lower case. The first name tells you the family and the second the species. A good example is the carrion crow, Corvus corone. Above the family comes the order. This is the big group of animals with similar physiology. For example all rodents come together, as do whales and dolphins, as do carnivores. For those of you with an interest in linguistics or Latin the names do have a meaning. Sometimes it is rather dull, with Corvus simply being Latin for Raven whereas sometimes the name is more descriptive with willows being known as Salix sp. which is derived from the word "to jump" which is used to describe the ease with which shoots and cuttings of the plant will take root.
Botany in a Day
This system of plant families is very useful when recognising plant types and it is this system of teaching familial characteristics which forms the basis of Thomas Elpel's "Botany in a Day". This an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend and is a text featured on Jack Mountain Bushcraft's reading list. It is an accessible yet detailed book and free from the personal comments that put some off his other books. If you are in any way interested in knowing the names of plants, recognising those with medicinal, culinary or other uses I cannot think of a better learning framework to recommend.
Knowing plant families is very useful if you are looking for wild edibles. Some families such as Viola, tend to be edible whilst others such as the Umbelliferae are a mixed bag with some valuable food plants and some being very dangerous. The same applies in the world of Fungi with Boletus being a good family to be able to identify as it contains many edible varieties and few dangerous ones. The converse is true of the Amanita family which contains most of the most dangerous fungi, it's therefore important to know the features of this family so knowing how to avoid them.
Different classes of animals also produce different types of prints and tracks. Different groups of animals move in different ways, such as plantigrade animals which place all 5 toes on the ground when walking. having an awareness of the classification system also helps when searching for animals based on their habits. By knowing the habitat, mode of locomotion and other details it makes it possible to find the family and aid identification.It was through this process that I was able to identify Nuthatches recently - by looking at shape, habitat and feeding habits I was able to gradually narrow the search down.
The everyday name of plants does give you some important information, particularly about past uses. An example often given in books is the Dandelion. The name is thought to describe the leaves being "dente de lion" describing the lion tooth shape of the leaves. The modern name the French use is "pissenlit" literally meaning wet the bed, hinting at the plant's diuretic properties. In Polish, the common name I've been introduced to is "Mlecz" being derived from the word for milk (mleko) and referring to the milky white latex sap of the plant. Sometimes the Latin name is a fairly direct translation of the English name (or vice versa) as in the case of Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris. The literal meaning would be; little box, purse-shepherd's. Understanding both names can also serve as a mnemonic to aid learning and recognising plants and animals. The odd name is of course, completely silly. This seems particularly common when dealing with dinosaurs - I guess the heat and dust do something to the brain when involved in the naming process. Dracorex hogwartsia is my case in point here!
As you can see a little knowledge of this system will enable you to develop and use other skills more effectively. As with so many things in Bushcraft, it is a combination of skills and knowledge from various sources that helps you get the end result. For me this is an especially important skill as the system is international. I have books in different languages and from descriptions it can be hard to make sure you have the exact equivalent common names. Although common names give you some important cultural information the Latin name is the international key that enables you to check. It can also be useful when the same common name is used for more than one plant.
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8 February 2010
Last Thursday my wife and I went for a walk through Lazienki Park. It may not seem the most exciting of places but as the paths are quite strictly marked and there are lots of undisturbed snow areas around them then you can still track quite well.
Sometimes it doesn't take a lot of expertise to find what animal made a track. The only animal whose tracks tend to look like a one legged moose but goes from the bottom of one tree to another is a squirrel. In deeper snow their fore and rear paw prints tend to come together to produce one print, quite like that one a moose. They seem to do this whether running or leaping. It is a bit disconcerting to find tracks starting just in the middle of nowhere though, I guess the squirrel had dropped off a branch.
The Corvid Family
A lot of walkers through the park are keen on the birds there. Aside from the ornamental peacocks, mallard ducks and pigeons there is quite a selection of other birds. Most of the corvid family were present and noisy. Carrion crows, jackdaws, magpies, possibly rooks and a rather magnificent Jay. The Jay was very impressive, sporting multi-coloured feathers and a punkish tuft on his head. It seems all the effort goes into the colour though as he made no nicer sound than any of the other birds in his family. His Latin name is Garrulus glandarius which makes reference to the noisy habits. The snow also allows you to compare the tracks of crows to pigeons, quite useful as the 2 birds are very common yet have utterly different modes of locomotion. The crows leave tracks which run almost as if on rails with each foot leaving a parallel line of tracks like so ====== pigeons on the other hand put one foot in front of the other although it does leave a drunken weave to the track.
The Tit Family
Lower down the trees and bushes there were a variety of small tits. There were blue tits and great tits side by side and very busily looking for food. They were bold birds and would fly to people, seem to hover for a second, then dart away again. Some walkers were trying to coax the little birds to take seed from the palms of their hands. I wonder if the birds are seasonal visitors to the area, due to the presence of feeders, or simply more noticeable without the leaves and puffed up to keep warm
Wing Tips and Tracking Tips
A first for me was being able to see wing tip tracks in the snow. It revealed that not all birds land gracefully, one leaving a body shaped "splat" where it misjudged the landing slightly! I wasn't able to discern the species although one set of wing tip prints were in line with squirrel tracks and possibly associated with them in some way. I first saw pictures of wing tip tracks on Ray Mears' Bushcraft episode set in Sweden. Most of the information I need and use for snow tracking comes from Animal Tracks and Signs, an excellent book for tracking in wintry conditions and which deals with a real variety of European wildlife. It is the only serious tracking book I have and due to its ready availability is probably one of the more popular bushcraft tracking books. For those of you who'd like to get a more in depth or locally relevant book then the Woodlife network has a tracker's bibliography on the Information and Guides section of the resources page.
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4 February 2010
Want the ultimate in outdoor water bottles?
Super light weight yet nigh on unbreakable?
Able to purify water without chemicals or messy filters?
Then choose the Bush-Bottle 1000, capable of holding 1000ml of pure refreshment and endorsed by various wilderness gurus!
Not just trendy, also environmentally friendly?
Too Good to be True?
Not everything in bushcraft needs to be expensive - something of a shock for the growing bushcraft business bandwagon. Very effective tools can be made, modified or obtained very cheaply and in an environentally beneficial way.
First, Catch your Bottle
First you need to find a bottle. It needs to be with a wide mouth to make it easier to fill up. If you are going to fill a bottle with snow then a wider bottle top is a must. The next thing to look for is the type of plastic - we need a clear PET plastic bottle. Clear is good because you can see how much is in it and for another reason - SODIS. A 1 litre bottle is a good size, not too big and not too heavy when full.
Clean and Pure
SODIS is short for Solar Disinfection. By exposing a clear PET bottle of water to sunlight for 6 hours then the UV light will kill off the bad bugs and bacteria in the water. The battle needs to be placed horizontally, ideally on a reflective surface and must be in a bottle of less than 3 litres capacity in order for the UV waves to penetrate fully. This method is effective in sunlight so better in summer. The water needs to be of low turbidity i.e. not full of bits and cloudy for the same reason. Water can be boiled in the bottle on a fire, in order to avoid melting the bottle the flames need to be kept low, below the water level. Check out a video on the subject.
To make filling the bottle and carrying it a little easier I've added a sling to mine, a handle sling around the neck and the bottle to help dip the bottle and I've also added a loop with a pile hitch a bit further down. They're just in garden string and I'll experiment with which one works best.
So here it is, the Bush-Bottle 1000, this one's still got the milk in it, but after you use it and wash the bottle out then you're ready to go. Not quite as flashy as a $400 backpack or knife but it'll do its job., and when it's too old and scratched just put it in the recycle bin and go back for another one.
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23 January 2010
As much as it is the big things we discuss when we're talking about bushcraft or survival, the little 1% items do add up to making a big difference.
Typically these are things which make up the contents of my pockets; my every day carry items (E.D.C.). These items are not all a big deal but as with so many things, “the devil is in the details”
From the Soles of My Feet
It's an old truism that warm feet make for a warm body and there are 2 main ways which you loose heat through your shoes. The first is through conduction through the soles of the shoes into the ground and the second through faster conduction over the whole foot when it gets damp. An easy way of reducing the effect of both of these is to increase the insulation around your foot – especially the bottom of it. I've found that felt insoles are very effective in this, adding comfort as well as insulation from the ground. They also provide insulation against any moisture condensing on the impermeable shoe soles.
A Square Foot of Cotton
As with many people who wear glasses, I'm a fan of cotton handkerchiefs and always have a clean one or two in my pockets. Aside from the obvious functions they have a few extra uses. A fresh handkerchief provides a ready made dressing for any cut or injury (remember to boil wash them if you've been blowing your nose!) a bit of extra insulation around your shirt collar and, if cut up, some emergency cordage.
Protection from Ice and Wind
Chapped lips, split fingers or chafed shoulders are never a lot of fun and if you're spending a decent amount of time outside then you need to make some allowance for these things. Protecting yourself from these things is just about forethought, a small pot of vaseline or Carmex fits easily inside your pocket and can make a big difference to your comfort.
Navigation is a question of finding your place. It's not just a question of direction but also distance and sometimes the easiest way to measure distance is in time. As I have previously mentioned, time can be used in relation to walking speed, to figure out how far has been travelled in a given direction. If you are travelling through flat, fairly open, terrain then you can be fairly comfortable that an hour in one direction I going to be the same distance as an hour back again. In the winter months of shortened daylight it is also well worth keeping an eye on the time to ensure you don't get stuck out in the woods in the dark and facing an avoidable overnight stay.
It's only a ten minute walk from our flat to the woods and on the way I typically grab a drink in the shop. It's sensible to be well hydrated when your out as you'll feel happier and healthier – at the moment when we've got six inches of snow on the ground we've got no danger of not being able to find water. A handy container makes it a lot easier to melt snow and avoids any blistering or waste of calories through lost body heat when melting snow.
Fire and Light
Another little thing I tend to pick up in the shop, particularly at the moment when I don't have access to my full range of kit, is either a lighter or a box of matches. I'm sure you all know how important the ability to make fire is and neither of these methods ways more than a few grams and is pretty cheap as far as insurance policies go. I also keep a fresnel lens in my wallet, not a great lot of use when there's 90% cloud cover but useful for examining things and removing splinters too.
A Friendly Folder
As American Bushman has recently been talking about, some knives are more “sheeple friendly” than others (The Moose 06/01/10). The knives tend to be the old fashioned ones, slip-joint folders, swiss army knives or perhaps the British army folding knife. All good, non-locking, everyday knives which are fine for a wide variety of tasks. The knife is most definitely a question of personal preference – my choice is for an SAK Electrician Plus – a large blade and a small blade enhance the whittling possibilities whilst a saw and awl really add to the number of things you can easily craft.
It's a tool that can ride in your trouser pocket without wearing a hole through them or requiring a big tactical belt to hold them up. A little folder will handle the majority of everyday chores without offending anyone. I admit, I'd rather take my Leuku or Mora for serious carving, fire building or shelter building but my SAK is a lot more practical.
A Little Extra Makes a Big Boost
I'm sure none of these items is a real shock to you, it's always worth looking through the every day contents of your pockets and thinking of the benefits and possibilities they offer you.
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12 January 2010
For the last 3 and a bit years I've had a blog of some description to document my outdoors
activities. However, as a bit of a traditionalist and someone who spends ample time at work with a pen in my hand I have always been keen on a more physical record.
I know that Pablo has been doing the same thing for a couple of years and his posts are a good start on the subject. I've had a moleskines notebook in my coat pocket for a coupl
e of years, It's a little the worse for wear now and I must say it hasn't proved as robust as I'd hoped and the spine has broken.
As I've not had a decent digital camera in a long while I've also been sketching quite a lot in the notebook and transferring that to a more substantial leather bound A6 notebook I bo
ught from WH Smiths. I've also put some important notes in the pages as well as the observations I make and ideas I have.
The Pen is Mightier than the Pen Drive
The emotional and mental impact of making real written notes is also worth remembering. As many involved in education and training are aware, the very act of writing something down helps to fix it in the mind. It was also educational for me to realise, when we were packing our possessions, that I keep letters and cards from my family for years whilst I empty out my e-mails and SMS folders on a regular basis. A written record offers something both more permanent and empirical.
The final argument in favour of a written record, excluding massive power cuts, is that it ties in with the learning I have been doing through the Jack Mountain Bushcraft online course. Their student handbook explains the needs and benefits of written records, in particular a log book to demonstrate how knowledge and expertise have been gradually accumulated.
The images in the article are scans of my tracking and wildlife notes from my last trip out in the snow. Sadly, my hand writing looks even worse when put on a computer screen.
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9 January 2010
Thursday morning I got out into the forest again for a decent length walk, there wasn't any wind there the temperature was only about -6 centigrade and there had been a lot of snow fall the night before.
Despite the fact there was 6" on snow off the paths there was a lot of good tracking to be done - probably my greatest tracking achievements! I found a set of rabbit tracks in their traditional triangular shape and managed to back-track them to a bury underneath a fallen tree. The total length was around 300m and it was interesting to note that the rabbit kept largely to the packed trails (1-2" hard snow) rather than the deeper stuff where it could. I also managed to pick up some feeding sign (birch buds) that was in association with the tracks.
At one point the track was intersected by a deer trail which I was able to follow for about half an hour, until getting to the meadow on the edge of the wood where there were a huge number of criss-crossing deer tracks. These tracks were obviously made at low speeds - mostly walking or standing and it was interesting to see how small a space deer can fit through.
I managed to find a deer bed which was very easy to see - a large scrape with all the snow cleared all the way down to the frozen earth. It must have been quite an effort. I also managed to find some feeding sign in association with these tracks, the shoots had been cut off much more cleanly than the rabbit signs and there were clear standing prints by the shoots.
Birds on the trees
I also had the chance to look out for the ever present wood peckers (green today, last week I'd seen a jet black one) whose noise carries a huge distance in the cold. More entertaining than the woodpeckers are the little blue and yellow birds standing upside down on pine trees and pulling off slithers of bark. Their very fast chirping song is quite distinctive and after having gone through the RSPB Bird Identifier I believe that they are nuthatches.
Mors' Predator Call
Whilst walking around I also had a go at carving what Mors Kochanski refers to as a "predator call" in the Hare chapter of Bushcraft. Mine was a bit oversized as I only had my pocket knife with me and was working on dead standing beech wood (chosen to minimize impact). I batoned the SAK through without difficulty though batons and folders are probably not an advisable combination. I then carved out a "V" shape and tied the 2 halves back together using some willow bark I stripped off bushes on a field margin. I picked a piece of long thin birch bark to use as a reed and was delighted to get a sound out quite easily. It sounded like a mix between a kazoo and a whistle. I'll try making a smaller one again in the near future and see If I can figure out how to change the tone more easily and get more of a squeal.
Sadly, I don't have any photos as our cameras are in transit from Britain to Poland; I have a notebook with sketches which I'll talk about in a future post and maybe scan at a later date.
I've got a collection of sketches of track patterns and shapes, the longer trail patterns, pictures of the bitten off shoot ends as well as the deer bed. I also drew my version of the predator call and added some bird sketches to the notes on their behaviour. I hope to one day add some sketches to the blog in the style of the old fashioned woodcraft books.
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