Primitive Skills on Bois Blanc Island!
[Bump. This is a report from last year's event. This year it's Aug. 7-10. This year our whole family is going! : ) ]
Here are some pics and a new report about the amazing Great Lakes Primitive Skills Gathering on Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac.
A summary if you want to skip the report: This is the best 4-day tenting-learning session that I could imagine, for the whole family. It costs about $140 ($100 for kids) and you get nonstop classes in all kinds of cool things plus 2 meals a day. The big thing was that folks of all ages and types were working together the whole time. Kids, teens, college kids, parents, singles, grandparents---all freely teaching and learning from each other, playing and having fun in constructive ways. I'd guess there were about 50 people attending.
Here's a website with much tasty info about how it goes down: http://www.msu.edu/~oberg/boisblanc.html.
These guys are also directly involved: http://www.michiganatlatl.org/
PS: I uploaded my pics in 2 sessions and, sadly, my website ordered the second one before the first, so my presentation starts in the middle. The pics were supposed to START with the kayak pic showing how I arrived, and END with the kayak in the clear water as I was leaving. But maybe what you don't know won't hurt you? Except I just told you... : ) Sigh.
Another major news item is that from what I can tell these kinds of events happen regularly across the nation and probably the globe. There are primitive skills folks everywhere. They like getting together in campouts and sharing and learning. Fees cover costs. So, find one in your area if you want something you can take the whole family to and where they can spark up a sense of learning and interacting with diverse folks like you just don't get everywhere these days.
25 years ago I worked on Mackinac Island nearby. It was a great few summers that I explored the people and nature of that place. I even migrated out to Colorado with a posse' of them for a few winters. In my wanderings since I came back to Michigan I bumped into occasional mentions of primitive skills. Then I saw a notice about what looked like a big summary to-do up in the Straits. I was magnetically attracted. I hadn't been back to the Island much since having kids and I really wanted to re-connect with folks up there. For some reason I decided I wanted to do both things at the same time.
There's one other thing I always wanted to do: paddle the Straits.
PADDLE YOUR OWN BOAT
I've come to learn that solo kayaking on big water is dangerous, but I've often done major outings of other types on my own. I'd never done kayak touring and was itching to use a friend's sweet old boat that I bought off him at his moving sale. This year serendipity was finally giving me a shot at attending the event so I asked around my kayak pals but got no takers. On my own, it was!
I put in at St. Ignace. It was neat to make the first big jump over to Mackinac in the calm, warm weather. The waters were clear to 30 feet down. I took a break on Mackinac and met up with one old pal and got excited about finding others on my return trip, but it was going to be dinner time soon. So I paddled the 15 approximate miles in 4 hours to the Gathering on Bois Blanc. I was wasted! (Further seakayak report and boat pics elsewhere on the site.)
The folks there were casual and welcoming and I just made it in time for dinner!
Tents were set up willynilly, tucked just inside the woodline of a lovely gravelly shore, with a little beat-in pebbly walking trail back to the meeting field.
SKILLS? WHAT SKILLS?
The next day I didn't quite know where to begin. I saw a long list of skills that had already been taught, and new ones scheduled for the day and others for the next day. I was lost. But finally I just jumped in and joined up with a group. I soon came to realize that it didn't really matter what skill you were learning. They were all the same, in essence. Some folks might think that primitive life was highly segregated in skills. To an extent, sure. But in truth every person knew how to do everything...and regularly did it all, too, at least on a yearly basis. All these skills are part of the same fabric of life, one whole life. I felt the truth of this quickly in my bones as I got just a tiny bit used to the idea of fiddling with my fingers and making things all while keeping an eye out for the bigger picture. In primitive skills you might start with something small but it's usually part of something bigger that comes next. You have to think ahead, feel ahead, with what you're doing. Sometimes I didn't see it right away but just chatting with teachers while we learned skills we would soon see how each skill fit in with the others effortlessly. Take cordage, for example. You learn the basics. Then you go small to see what making sewing thread is like. Then you go big and make some bridge rope. You make snares...which segues into the skill of meat-making. You learn about sewing cattail mats...with which you make your home. To get the materials for making cord, you learn about plants, about cutting down trees, about soaking bark in water, about fermentation, about the toxins of some roots and the need for the basics of sanitizing. It all connects together!
I relaxed and started moving from one session to another. Then I kinda saw that the set-up was even somewhat looser than I'd thought. A class might be finished, but if you find an instructor while he/she isn't busy they would just hook you up with what you needed then set you on your way.
There was rattle-making, arrow-making, fabric-dying, turtle-shell pouch making, batik painting, cedar flute making...and many other skills.
The flintknapping seemed to go in an ebb and flow the whole time. If a skilled person got onto a roll, into the zone, some learners might drift in around him and start in on the basics. The teachers would be doing their own thing but then take a beginner's piece of flint, show what to do next, explain a bit of a rule, then everyone would set back to their own level of work. Sometimes a teacher would be flaking away, take a beginner's stone and just start flaking on that, skipping the teaching part and just keeping the flaking roll going like they were in a trance. You'd have to say, Hey, I'm supposed to try to do that!
THE BIG RULE
In the cordage class I heard what has to be the main rule of all skills. The teacher said something like "If I can get a student to do it every day for a month, or just to do a couple dozen sessions, they'll have it. It'll be instinctive and they'll be dialed in." But to me this also shows the major stumbling block. Primitive folks had their skills because their skills were their life. For us to get those skills they pretty much have to be our life, too. But we can have fun skirting around the crude perimeter anyway. No matter how good your teacher is, or your book or DVD---you gotta do it over and over to own it. ...And as soon as you stop doing something regularly, you lose it, pretty much. Not to be a gloomy gus about it... That's why I've always said that 90% of hunting and fishing success is scouting, is knowledge, is prior familiarity, is GROWING UP doing it in the particular area in question. The actual catching of fish or shooting of guns and bows is the least part of the equation.
But in terms of gadgets... I did notice that nearly everyone sported a Mora knife. It was basically the only kind of knife I saw around. And many people had several laying around. (These are nifty $10 knives that I write about elsewhere here.)
THE WAY OF A GATHERING
Everyone would gather and line up for meals then line up again for the dish-washing station. It worked like a charm.
There was also a Trade Blanket where people could put down items worth about $20 and pick up comparable value goodies. Other folks just had blankets out with this or that for sale on them. I passed up a lovely raw beaver hide for $25. It would've been tough jamming it into a kayak hatch. Then there was a huge auction of dozens of goodies with proceeds going to the club.
Some of the skills hit a rhythm, or level of flashiness, where most everyone would be drawn to them---like the clay baking in the big bonfire. Everyone wanted to see the glowing pots! They turned out great. The big 4-man fire-drill was fun, too---but all we did was burn every part of the bow-drill rig but our tinder. Each of the evenings saw an atlatl competition, with results filed on a national level. A 10-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother became the state champs at another meet the next weekend!
DO IT FOR THE KIDS
The kids did skills and also just swarmed around in playgroups. Several of the girls made an imaginary village in the dark of the mossy forest, with all kinds of details and flower bouquets and "rooms" outlined by white pebbles. They even slept out there one night.
I asked one set of siblings what they had in their possibles bags they carried. I was blown away! They quietly showed me the most amazing journals and sketchbooks, full of watercolors. They'd decorated their own leather bookcovers. They had their own mini-paintsets and sheathknives, with decorated homemade sheaths. Plus all kinds of other little essentials for kids who play and study in the woods. It was all most inspiring.
There was swimming on and off the whole time. People used bio-soap to clean up with. We were treated with wonderful sunsets featuring the majestic Mackinac Bridge.
It was a great vacation and learning experience. I set off paddling back to St. Ignace in a freshening headwind. I took a break again on Mackinac Island and had a great time photographing the dock porter bikes (story elsewhere here) and finding old pals.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
I didn't find many of my old pals but I had something just as good happen. I found their kids. I'd never really met them, yet as I wandered the thronging Main Street I kept recognizing them! I could see their parents in them. I was able to say Hi to a few of them. They all seemed like such decent young people, all different from each other, all engaged in life. One looked like he was going to easily be as much trouble as his big-trouble dad and very intense mom. It was really wonderful to see all that uppityness and panache getting ready to spring on the world. At one point I saw the teens of another set of friends as they were biking away through the crowd, sitting proud, wearing fresh and nice clothes...looking like a king and queen, really, so handsome and full of life. A date clearly in the making! But I lost them in the crowd. I went on my way just beaming inside. I'd encountered quite a few impressive kids this weekend. The word that came to mind that sunny day: magnificent!
...Then, as I was paddling out of the harbor an hour later, a sailboat was coming back in...with those same 2 teens aboard. I had to laugh. I shouted a Hi to them and introduced myself and asked them to say Hi to their parents for me. They waved and grinned back. Then I paddled away into the freshest blue-sky breeze imaginable. Our world is actually in perfectly good hands.