From the autumn of 1904 to the winter of 1906 I lived, most of the time, alone in a little cabin on the Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, surrounded by one of the finest primeval forests in the world. My few neighbors were born backwoodsmen. Most of them dwelt in log cabins of one or two rooms, roofed with clapboards riven with a froe, and heated by hardwood logs in wide stone fireplaces. Many had no cooking-stoves, but baked on the hearth and fried their meat over the embers.
Nearly every man in the settlement was a skilled axeman and a crack shot. Some of them still used home-made muzzle-loading rifles with barrels over four feet long. Some of the women still worked at home-made spinning-wheels and looms. Coon-skins and ginseng passed as currency at the little wayside stores. Our manner of life was not essentially changed from that of the old colonial frontier.
To complete this historic setting, we had for neighbors the Eastern Band of Cherokees, who still hold a bit of their ancient patrimony, on the Okona Lufty. These Indians, while classed as civilized, have by no means forgotten all their aboriginal arts. You may find them, even now, betimes, slipping like shadows through the forest, killing small game with cane blow-guns, much longer than themselves, and small arrows with thistle-down wrapped round the butts so as to fit the bore.
To one coming from cities, it was a strange environment, almost as though he had been carried back, asleep, upon the wings of time, and had awakened in the eighteenth century, to meet Daniel Boone in flesh and blood.*
In such a situation it was natural, nay imperative, that one should pick up and practice certain, arts long lost and forgotten by civilized communities but quite essential in our backwoods way of living. I began, to be sure, with the advantage of experience gained on many hunting and Camping trips in other lands; but in this new field I had to make shift in a different way, and fashion many appliances from materials found on the spot. The forest itself was not only my hunting-ground but my workshop and my garden.
Into this novel and fascinating game I entered with keenest zest, and soon was going even "farther back" than the native woodsmen themselves. I gathered, cooked, and ate (with certain qualms, be it confessed, but never with serious mishap) a great variety of wild plants that country folk in general do not know to be edible. I learned better ways of dressing and keeping game and fish, and worked out odd makeshifts in cooking with rude utensils, or with none at all. I tested the fuel vames and other qualities of a great many kinds of wood and bark, made leather and rawhide from game that fell to my rifle, and became more or less adept in other backwoods handicrafts, seeking not novelties but practical results.
To what degree I was reverting to the primitive came home to me one day when a white dame, finding Will Tahlahlah giving me a lesson in Cherokee, remarked rather sourly to the redskin: "You needn't teach him anything; he's more of an Indian than you are".
*For an account of this experience, with descriptions of the southern mountains and their primitive inhabitants, see Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart (Outing Publishing Co.. New York}.
Seldom during those three years as a forest exile did I feel lonesome in daytime; but when supper would be over, and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep him in good cheer: and that is how I came to write my first little book on Camping and woodcraft.
Since then I have spent several more years in "the sticks," at much the same kind of life, save that now I had as partner one of the best woodsmen in this country, a man so genuinely a scholar in his chosen lore that he could well afford to say, as once he did to me: "I've studied these woods and mountains all my life, Kep, like you do your books, and I don't know them all yet, no sirree." And I now say to the reader, for myself, just what Bob said to me about himself, save that my experience covers a less period of time.
In the school of the woods there is no graduation day. What would be good woodcraft in one region might be bad bungling in another. A Maine guide may scour all the forests of northeastern America, and feel quite at home in any of them; but put him in a Mississippi canebrake, and it is long odds that he would be, for a time, Perplexed, bewildered, till he scarce doth know His right forefinger from his left big toe.
And a southern cane-cracker would be quite as much at sea if he were turned loose in a spruce forest in winter. But it would not take long for either of these men to "catch on" to the new conditions; for both are shifty, both are cool-headed, and both are keen observers. Any man may blunder once, when confronted by strange conditions; bu* none will repeat the error unless he be possessed by the notion that he has nothing new to learn.
Woodcraft may be defined as the art of finding one's way in the wilderness and getting along well by utilizing Nature's storehouse. When we say that Daniel Boone, for example, was a master woodsman, we mean that he could confidently enter an unmapped wilderness, with no outfit but what was carried by his horse, his canoe, or on his own back, and with the intention of a protracted stay; that he could find his way through the dense forest without man-made marks to guide him; that he knew the habits and properties of trees and plants, and the ways of fish and game; that he was a good trailer and a good shot; that he could dress game and cure peltry, cook wholesome meals over an open fire, build adequate shelter against wind and rain, and keep himself warm through the bitter nights of winter—in short, that he knew how to utilize the gifts of Nature, and could bide comfortably in the wilderness without help from outside.
When one travels with a guide, it is the guide's woodcraft that pulls him through. When he goes on his own hook, he must play the woodsman himself. Woodcraft shows at its best when we "go light" through difficult and unknown country. Its supreme test is in an emergency, when the equipment, or essential parts of it, have been lost or destroyed through some disaster.
As for book-learning in such an art, it is useful only to those who do not expect too much of it. No book can teach a man how to swing an axe or follow a faint trail. Nor is it of much account to one who merely learns by rote, without using his own wits and common sense as he follows the pages. Yet a good book is the best stepping-stone for a beginner. Without it he might bog and flounder a long time without aim or method. It gives a clear idea of general principles. It can show, at least, how not to do a thing—and there is a good deal in that—half of woodcraft, as of any other art, is in knowing what to avoid. That is the difference between a true knot and a granny knot, and it can be shown by a sketch as well as with string in hand.
In this work I have preferred to give full details, so far as the book goes. One's health and comfort in the wilds very often depend upon close observance of just such details as breathless people would skip or scurry over. Moreover, since this is not a guidebook to any particular region, I have tried to keep in mind a variety of conditions existing in different kinds of country, and have suggested alternative methods or materials, to be used according to circumstances. One might, perhaps, compress into a vest-pocket manual all the expedients of woodcraft that would have to be practised in one certain locality, say the Adirondacks, but it would be of little use in a different sort of country.
Of course, no one person is likely to find all of this volume directly useful to himself. I must ask him to accept my assurance, based on a considerable correspondence with outdoor men in many countries, that there is no chapter in it but is of interest to somebody. Each reader is supposed to pick out for himself what bears on his own problems.
The first volume of this work, Camping, is intended mainly for parties who go well equipped and are guided by natives of the country, and who have adequate means of transportation, or for those who go into fixed camp and stay there until the vacation is over. This one, on Woodcraft, is for those who travel light, in the real wilderness, rove about a good deal, and sometimes scatter, every man for himself, with his life in his own hands.
In the following chapters I offer suggestions on forest travel, pathfinding, route sketching, what to do if lost, outfits for trips afoot, marksmanship in the woods, emergency foods, qualities and utilization of wood and bark, camp making with tomahawk or axe. cabins and rustic furniture, caches and masked camps, knots and lashings, buckskin and rawhide, tanning pelts, bee hunting, living off the country, cave exploration, first aid to the injured, and other shifts and expedients that are handy when one is far from shops and from hired help.
I have little to say, here, about the selection of arms and tackle, about hunting, fishing, trailing, trapping, mountaineering, and nothing about field photography, canoeing, snowshoeing, or the management of horses and pack trains, because each of these topics deserves a book by itself, and we now have good ones on all of them.*
Woodcraft properly relates only to the forest wilderness. The literature of outdoor sport is getting us used to such correlative terms as plainscraft, mountaincraft, and even icecraft and snowcraft. This sort of thing can be overdone; but we need a generic term to express the art, in general, of getting on well in wild regions of any and all kinds, whether in forests, deserts, mountains, plains, tropics or arctics; and for this I would suggest the plain English compound wildcraft.
If any one should get the impression from these pages that Camping out with a light outfit means little but a daily grind of camp chores, questionable meals, a hard bed, torment from insects, and a good chance of starvation and broken bones at the end, he will not have caught the spirit of my intent. It is not here my purpose to dwell on the charms of free life in a wild country; rather, taking all that for granted, I would point out some short-cuts, and offer a lift, here and there, over rough parts of the trail. No one need be told how to enjoy the smooth ones. Hence it is that I treat chiefly of difficulties, and how to overcome them.
*See the series of Outing Handbooks, and lists of outdoor books in outfitters' catalogues.