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Practical Meditations on Canoeing, Fishing, Hunting, and Bushcraft
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Forest Life collects George Washington Sears’ timeless writing about the joys of exploring the wilderness, edited for a modern audience. In text both practical and inspirational, Sears’ provides enduring wisdom about trips into the woods and lakes, including equipment, campfires, fishing, camp cooking, traveling light, and canoes.
The original “forest bather,” Sears wanted others to enjoy the woods as he did. He published Woodcraft in 1884 to help prepare skillful, self-reliant woodsman and to extol the restorative power of nature. In addition to Woodcraft, Forest Life contains many of his articles from Forest and Stream, as well as his nature poetry.
Sears is especially eloquent about canoeing, which he helped popularize with published tales of his adventures. In 1883, when he was 61 years old and suffering from tuberculosis, he used a 9-foot, 10-1/2 pound canoe to travel 266 miles through the Adirondacks, writing, “The easy, gentle rocking of the canoe was the best incentive to drowsiness I ever found, and by night or day was nearly certain to send me into dreamland.”
This edition features period etchings of scenes, people, flora, and fauna of the Adirondacks, and is the ideal gift book for the outdoor enthusiast.
GEORGE WASHINGTON SEARS TRACED HIS passion for the outdoors back to his childhood mentor and teacher, a young Narragansett Indian man named Nessmuk. From him, Sears learned to not only hunt, fish, and travel in the wilderness but also to love forest life.
Sears was born in 1821 in Massachusetts. At age eight he was sent to work in a cotton mill, then trained under his father to work as a shoemaker. He later worked on a fishing boat off Cape Cod, on a whaling boat, then traveled all over the country doing various jobs. Largely self-educated, Sears considered himself unfit for an indoor working life and spent decades of his life camping in the woods, mostly alone. While he settled in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, in 1848, set up a shop as a cobbler, married and had three children, he frequently escaped to the nearby Tioga State Forest.
In 1860, Sears began writing under Nessmuk for the outdoor magazine Porter’s Spirit of the Times, among other publications. He also continued traveling, including spending months away trapping in Minnesota and traveling on the Amazon in Brazil. Outside of a column for a local paper, he didn’t publish much until 1879, when he began a relationship with Forest and Stream, the nation’s premier outdoor magazine.
During his lifetime, Sears would write more than ninety articles for Forest and Stream, a number of which appear in this collection. The stories of his adventures, his practical advice, and musing about nature helped popularize canoeing, camping, and conservation for a broad audience. Also included in Forest Life is his beloved camping guide Woodcraft (published in 1884) and selections from his book of poetry Forest Runes (published in 1887).
In the 1880s, Sears worked with boat builder J. Henry Rushton on a series of successively lighter canoes that went against the trends of the time. Sears’s lightest canoe, the Sairy Gamp, weighed ten and a half pounds; even Rushton expressed doubt that surviving a paddle in such a canoe was possible. When sixty-one-year-old Sears took the Sairy Gamp to the Adirondacks, he was ill with tuberculosis and malaria, yet traveled 266 miles in one month. In his account of the journey, published in Forest and Stream, he praised the lightweight canoe for its sturdiness and reliability and encouraged readers to travel lightweight as well. The Sairy Gamp was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and is displayed at the Adirondack Experience.
In 1886, Sears chronicled his final trip, one along the Florida coast, for the readers of Forest and Stream. Overcome by illness that had plagued him in the later part of his life, Sears died on May 1, 1890. Forest and Stream published the following announcement:
The sad intelligence, which came to us last Saturday, announcing the death of “Nessmuk,” was not altogether unexpected. For several months past it had been known to his friends that Mr. Sears was in a very feeble condition… Last summer, too weak to make a camping excursion to the woods, yet powerless to withstand the longing for a taste of the old life, he pitched his tent beneath the hemlocks of his home yard and there, with his grandson, “played” at an outing. After the long and weary confinement of the winter just past, he craved outdoor life: and on the last day of April, supported by loving arms, he went out for a while under the same trees. The next morning at 2 o’clock, May 1, he passed away. Last Saturday, in the spot he had selected beneath those same hemlocks, they laid him to rest.
Both a mountain and a lake near Sears’s Wellsboro home bear the Nessmuk name, a physical reminder of his enduring legacy. In 1915, Forest and Stream published a tribute to Sears:
Nessmuk loved Nature as few men ever did. He knew her secrets, while shy almost to the degree of self-effacement, his character was as strong as his integrity was upright. How well he loved the waters and the woods and the light of day filtering through the leaves.
ADAPTED FROM THE INTRODUCTION TO FOREST RUNES
IT IS A SAD NECESSITY THAT COMPELS A MAN TO speak often or much of himself. Most writers come to loathe the first-person singular and to look upon the capital I as a pronominal1 calamity. And yet, how can a man tell aught2 of himself without the “eternal ego”?
I am led to these remarks by a request of my publishers that I furnish some account of myself. Readers who take an interest in the book will, as a rule, wish to know something of the author’s antecedents,3 they think. It might also be thought that the man who has spent a large share of the summer and autumn months in the deep forests, and mostly alone for fifty years, ought to have a large stock of anecdote and adventure to draw on.
It is not so certain, this view of it. The average person is slow to understand how utterly monotonous and lonely is a life in the depths of a primal forest, even to the most incorrigible hunter. Few city sportsmen will believe, without practical observation, that a man may hunt faithfully in an unbroken forest for an entire week without getting a single shot, and one wet week, especially if it be cold and stormy, is usually enough to disgust him who has traveled hundreds of miles for an outing at much outlay of time and money.
And yet, this is a common experience of the most ardent still hunter.4 In the gloomy depths of an unbroken forest there is seldom a songbird to be heard. The absence of small game is remarkable, and the larger animals—deer, bears, and panthers—are scarce and shy. In such a forest I have myself hunted faithfully from Monday morning till Saturday night, from daylight until dark each day, and at the end of the last day brought the old double-barreled muzzle loader into camp with the same bullets in the gun that I drove home on the first morning. And I crept stealthily through the thickets in still-hunting moccasins on the evening of the last day with as much courage and enjoyment as on the first morning. For I knew that, sooner or later, the supreme moment would come, when the black, satiny coat of a bear, or the game-looking “short-blue”5 coat of a buck would, for an instant, offer fair for the deadly bead.
And once, in a dry, noisy, Indian summertime, I am ashamed to say, I still-hunted seventeen days without getting one shot at a deer. It was the worst luck I’d ever had, but I enjoyed the weather and the solitary camp-life. At last there came a soft November rain, the rustling leaves became like a wet rug, and the nights were pitch dark. Then the deer came forth from swamps and laurel brakes, the walking was almost noiseless, and I could kill all I could take care of.
It is only the born woods crank who can enjoy going to the depths of a lonely forest with a heavy rifle and stinted rations, season after season, to camp alone for weeks at a stretch, in a region as dreary and desolate as Broadway on a summer afternoon in May.
It is only the descendants of Ananias6 who are always meeting with hair-breadth escapes and startling adventures on their hunting trips. To the practical, skilled woodsman, their wonderful stories bear the plain imprint of lies. He knows that the deep forest is more safe than the most orderly town and that there is more danger in meeting one “bridge gang” than there would be in meeting all the wild animals in New York or Pennsylvania.
These facts will explain why I have so little to relate in the way of adventure, though my aggregate of camp-life, most of it alone, will foot up at least twelve years.
I can scarcely recall a dozen adventures from as many years’ outings, culled from the cream of fifty seasons. Incidents of woods life, and interesting ones, are of almost daily occurrence, and these, to the ardent lover of nature, form the attraction of forest life in a far greater degree than does the brutal love of slaughter for the mere pleasure of killing something just because it is alive.
Just here my literary mentor and stentor,7 who has been coolly going through my manuscript, remarks sententiously, “Better throw this stuff into the stove and start off with your biography. That is what the Editor wants.”
I answer vaguely, “Story? Lord bless you; I have none to tell, sir. Alas there is so little in an ordinary, humdrum life that is worth the telling. And there is such a wilderness of biographies and autobiographies that no one cares to read.”
“Well, you’ve agreed to do it, you know, and no one is obliged to read it. It will make filling any how; and probably that’s all the Editor wants.” Which is complimentary and encouraging.
“I must say it’s the toughest job of penwork I ever tackled: I don’t know how to begin.”
“Pooh! Begin in the usual way. Say you were born in the town of—”
“There’s where you’re out. I wasn’t born in any town whatever, but in what New Englanders call a gore—a triangular strip of land that gets left out somehow when the towns are surveyed. They reckon it in, however, when it comes to taxes, but it rather gets left on schools.”
“Ah, I can believe it. Well, fix it up to suit yourself. I suppose the Editor keeps a ‘Balaam box.’”8
Taking his leave and a handful of my Lone Jack,9 C. saunters off to the village, and I am left to myself. Perhaps his advice is good. Let’s see how it will work on a send-off. For instance, I was born in a sterile part of sterile Massachusetts, on the border of Douglas Woods, within half a mile of Nipmuc Pond and within three miles of Junkamaug Lake. This startling event happened in the “South Gore,” about sixty-four years ago. I did not have a fair average start in life at first. A snuffy old nurse who was present at my birth was fond of telling me in after years a legend like this: “Ga-a-rge, you on’y weighed fo’ pounds when you wuz born, ’n’ we put ye inter a quart mug ’n’ turned a sasser over ye.”
I could have killed her, but I didn’t. Though I was glad when she died, and assisted at her funeral with immense satisfaction.
Junkamaug Lake is six miles long, with many bays, points, and islands, with dense thickets along its shores at the time of which I speak, and a plentiful stock of pickerel, perch, and other fish. It was just the sort of country to delight the Indian mind, and here it was that a remnant of the Nipmuc Indians had a reservation, while they also had a camp on the shores of Nipmuc Pond, where they spent much time, loafing, fishing, making baskets, and setting snares for rabbits and grouse.
The word Nipmuc, or, as it is sometimes spelled, Nipmuck, means wood-duck. This, in the obsolete lingo of the once-powerful Narragansetts. The best Indian of the band was “Injun Levi,” as the whites called him. He was known among his tribe as “Nessmuk,” and I think he exerted a stronger influence on my future than any other man. As a fine physical specimen of the animal man I have seldom seen his equal. As a woodsman and a trusty friend, he was good as gold. I will add that Junkamaug is only a corruption of the Indian name, and the other names I give as I had them from the Indians themselves:
And I remain yours sincerely, Nessmuk, which means in the Narragansett tongue, or did mean, as long as there were any Narragansetts to give tongue. Wood-duck, or rather Wooddrake.
Also, it was the name of the athletic young brave, who was wont to steal me away from home before I was five years old, and carry me around Nepmug and Junkamaug lakes, day after day, until I imbibed much of his woodcraft, all his love for forest life, and alas, much of his good-natured shiftlessness.
Even now my blood flows faster as I think of the rides I had on his well-formed shoulders, a little leg on either side of his neck, and a death-grip on his strong, black mane; or rode, “belly-bumps”10 on his back across old Junkamaug, hugging him tightly around the neck, like a selfish little egotist that I was. He tire? He drown? I would as soon have thought to tire a wolf or drown a whale. At first, these excursions were not fairly concluded without a final settlement at home—said settlement consisting of a head-raking with a fine-toothed comb that left my scalp raw, and a subsequent interview, of a private nature, with Pa, behind the barn, at which a yearling apple tree sprout was always a leading factor. (My blood tingles a little at that recollection too.)
Gradually they came to understand that I was incorrigible, or, as a maiden aunt of the old school put it, given over; and, so that I did not run away from school, I was allowed to “run with them dirty Injuns,” as the aunt aforesaid expressed it.
But I did run away from school, and books of the dry sort, to study the great book of nature. Did I lose by it? I cannot tell, even now. As the world goes, perhaps yes. No man can transcend his possibilities.
I am no believer in the supernatural: mesmerism, spiritualism, and a dozen other ’isms are, to me, but as fetish. But, I sometimes ask myself, did the strong, healthy, magnetic nature of that Indian pass into my boyish life, as I rode on his powerful shoulders, or slept in his strong arms beneath the soft whispering pines of Douglas Woods?
Poor Nessmuk! Poor Lo! Fifty years ago the remnant of that tribe numbered thirty-six, housed, fed and clothed by the state. The same number of Dutchmen, under the same conditions, would have over-run the state ere this.
The Indians have passed away forever; and, when I tried to find the resting place of my old friend, with the view of putting a plain stone above his grave, no one could point out the spot.
And this is how I happen to write over the name by which he was known among his people, and the reason why a favorite dog or canoe is quite likely to be called Nessmuk.
The foregoing will partly explain how it came that, ignoring the weary, devious roads by which men attain to wealth and position, I became a devotee of nature in her wildest and roughest aspects—a lover of field sports—a hunter, angler, trapper, and canoeist—an uneducated man, withal, save the education that comes of long and close communion with nature, and a perusal of the best English authors.
Endowed by nature with an instinctive love of poetry, I early dropped into the habit of rhyming. Not with any thought or ambition to become a poet but because at times a train of ideas would keep waltzing through my head in rhyme and rhythm like a musical nightmare, until I got rid of measure and meter by transferring them to paper, or, as more than once happened, to white birch bark, when paper was not to be had.
I never yet sat down with malice prepense11 to rack and wrench my light mental machinery for the evolution of a poem through a rabid desire for literary laurel. On the contrary, much of the best verse I have ever written has gone to loss through being penciled on damp, whitey-brown paper or birch bark, in woodland camps or on canoeing cruises, and then rammed loosely into a wet pocket or knapsack, to turn up illegible or missing when wanted. When
I looked in unlikely places
Where lost things are sure to be found12
and found them not, I said, all the better for my readers, if I ever have any. Let them go with the thistle down, far a-lee.
(The rhymes, not the readers.)
I trust that the sparrow hawks of criticism, who delight equally in eulogizing laureates and scalping linnets,13 will deal gently with an illiterate backwoodsman who ventures to plant his moccasins in the realms of rhyme. Maybe they will pass me by altogether, as “a literary tomtit, the chickadee of song.”
There must be a few graybeards left who remember Nessmuk through the medium of Porter’s Spirit of the Times,14 in the long-ago fifties, and many more who have come to regard him kindly as a contributor to Forest and Stream.15 If it happens that a thousand or so of these have a curiosity to see what sort of score an old woodsman can make as an off-hand, short-range poet, it will be a complimentary feather in the cap of the author.
Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, October 9, 1886. Geo. W. Sears.
FOREST AND STREAM AND FOREST RUNES
NEW YEAR’S EVE IN CAMP
Mercury Lo’* Below Zero, Northwest Gale.
The winds are out in force to-night, the clouds, in light brigades,
Are charging from the mountain tops across the everglades.
There is a fierceness in the air—a dull, unearthly light—
The Frost-king in his whitest crown rides on the storm to-night.
Far down the gorge of Otter Run I hear the sullen roar
Of rifted snows and pattering sleet, among the branches hoar.
The giant hemlocks wag their heads against the midnight sky,
The melancholy pine trees moan, the cedars make reply.
The oaks and sugar maples toss their frozen arms in air,
The elms and beeches bow their heads, and shriek as in despair.
Scant shield to-night for flesh and blood is feather, hair, or fur:
From north to south, for many a mile, there is no life astir.
The gaudy jay with painted crest has stowed his plumes away,
The sneaking wolf forbears16 to howl, the mountain cat to prey.
The deer has sought the laurel brake, her form the timid hare,
The shaggy bear is in his den, the panther in his lair.
From east to west, from north to south, for twenty miles around,
To-night no track shall dint17 the shroud that wraps the frozen ground.
I sit and listen to the storm that roars and swells aloof,
Watching the fitful shadows play against the rustic roof,
And as I blow an idle cloud to while the hours away,
I croon an old-time ditty, in the minor key of A.
And from the embers beams a face most exquisitely fair—
The maiden face of one I knew—no matter when or where,
A face inscrutable and calm, with dark, reproachful eyes.
That gaze on me from limpid depths, or gusty autumn skies.
And there may be a reason why I shun the blatant street.
To seek a distant mountain glen where three bright waters meet
But why I shun the doors of men, their rooms a-light and warm.
To camp in forest depths alone, or face a winter storm,
Or why the heart that gnaws itself will find relief in rhyme,
I cannot tell: I but abide the footing up of Time.
ROUGH NOTES FROM THE WOODS, 1880
Moose River, July 21
FOREST AND STREAM, AUGUST 12, 1880
SHE’S ALL MY FANCY PAINTED HER, SHE’S LOVELY, she is light. She waltzes on the waves by day and rests with me at night. But I had nothing to do with her painting. The man who built her did that. And I commence with the canoe because that is about the first thing you need on entering the Northern Wilderness. From the Forge House, at the foot of the Fulton Chain, on the west to Paul Smith’s and Lower St. Regis Lake on the east is ninety-two miles. About five miles of this distance is covered by carries; the longest carry on this route is about one mile; the shortest, a few rods.18 If you hire a guide, he will furnish a boat and carry it himself. His boat will weigh from sixty to one hundred pounds and will carry two heavy men with all the dunnage19 you need. He will “take care” of you, as they express it here, and will work faithfully to forward your desires, whether you be artist, tourist, angler, or hunter. His charges are $2.50 per day and found.20 The tired, overworked man of business who gets away from the hot, dusty city for a few days or weeks cannot do better than come to this land of lake, river, and mountain and hire a guide.
What the mule or mustang is to the plainsman the boat or canoe is to guide, hunter, or tourist who proposes a sojourn in the Adirondacks. And this is why I propose to mention at some length this matter of canoeing and boating. Being a lightweight and a good canoeman, having the summer before me, designing to haunt the nameless lakes and streams not down on the maps, and not caring to hire a guide, it stands to reason that my canoe should be of the lightest, and she is. Perhaps she is the lightest cedar-built canoe in the United States, or anywhere else.
Her stems and keel are oak, her ribs red elm, her gunwale spruce, and six pairs of strips, three-sixteenths of an inch thick, with copper fastenings from stem to stem, leave her weight, when sandpapered ready for the paint, fifteen pounds, nine and one-half ounces. The paint adds about two pounds. She is ten feet long, with a twenty-six-inch beam and eight-inch rise at center, and, propelled by a light double paddle, with a one-fool power in the middle, she gets over the water like a scared loon. I propose to take her on a rather extended trip before snow flies, if she does not drown me. I reckon her carrying capacity, in ordinary weather, at one hundred fifty pounds. If she proves reasonably safe on the larger lakes of the wilderness, she is an achievement in the boat-building line.
She was built by J. H. Rushton of Canton, New York, and is by several pounds the lightest canoe ever made by him. I will only add that she is too light and frail. I would recommend ten and a half feet in length, with a thirty-inch beam, and ribs two inches apart instead of three. Such a canoe would be staunch and safe for one and need not weigh more than twenty-two pounds. She can easily be carried on the head in an inverted position, first placing a blanket or old coat on the head by way of cushion.
When I reached here just one week ago, tired with a twelve-mile ride on the corner of a trunk, while I hugged that frail boat like a faithful lover, I only meant to stop until I could get my traps carried through to the Fulton Chain, which, in the case of the canoe, was not so easy. I was in no hurry—the hotel here is neat, well kept and prices very reasonable. While waiting for the man to turn up who wanted to carry the little craft on his head to the Forge House, it dawned on me that I was well enough where I was for a few days. Parties were constantly coming and going, and all stop at Moose River, which is the halfway house between Boonville and the lakes.
For interviewing guides and taking notes of the region to the east, there could be no better point than this, and I needed practice with the canoe before taking her over the larger lakes. Moreover, I came here for a superior quality of water, air, and angling, with a little hunting thrown in at the proper season.
What if these things were at my hand, right here, and parties hurrying through posthaste to the Browns Tract or the Raquette waters were running away from what they sought? Those coming out of the woods do not, as a rule, claim notable success with the trout. Many of them would eat salt pork oftener than broiled trout were it not for the guides, and one of the latter told me that “trouting” was poor on and around Big Moose, while he thought Little Moose and Panther Lakes not worth a visit. “I could catch all the trout I wanted right around here,” he added.
- On Sale
- Oct 23, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal