Dec 14, 2010

Wilderness-skills on the FST5 channel : Part 1 Snowshoes and winter travel

Yesterday (the 13 of December 2010) an episode of the Uteliv was broadcasted on the FST 5 channel which is visible in Finland and parts on Sweden. During that episode I and the reporter "Sebu" travel across deep snow using makeshift snow-shoes and slept in a Quinzee. I decided to make a synopsis of the show in my blog.

Screenshot 1. So you forgot your snowshoes huh?
Part 1 Snowshoes and winter travel

We start of a few miles from the campsite. Sebu arrives by car and waits for a while for me to appear. Sebu has forgot to bring his snowshoes so we have to make a pair out of willows in a hurry.
Screenshot 2. Making poles

We made a fairly easy, but effective survival-model developed by Tom Roycraft. As the terrain is difficult we also need to make poles for additional support in traversing difficult spots in the terrain.
Screenshot 3. Tying the sticks together  in the end.

Making the survival-snowshoes took about 20 minutes each so we were able to make good time as we rushed to get to the campsite before nightfall. The snow-conditions in the South of Finland in March 2010 were unusual to say the least. There had not been any real thaw during the winter so the snow that blanketed the forest was just like powder all the way to the bottom, it was also very deep, 80 cm in places. There was however a thin crust on top of the snow in spots where the mid-day sun was able to reach the surface.
Screenshot 4. Tying the shoes on. 

I was wearing large traditional raw-hide laced snowshoes made by the Snowcraft Company of Norway, Maine. These where borrow from Pentti Kronqvist at the Nanoq museum in Jakobstad, Finland. I was packing aprox. 25kg of gear so my total weight exceeded 105kg, and these snowshoes only bearly managed to keep me on top of the snowdrifts. Sebus makeshift shoes worked surprisingly well as they had a large surface area. I noticed that the film-crew that used modern, smaller snowshoes made 10 cm deep tracks in the snow whereas my large shoes only made 2cm deep imprints.
Screenshot 5. Snowshoeing with poles for support.

The simple rope binding worked well for Sebu, which I also had to recourse to as my old and brittle binding made out of leather failed during the walk. 

Screenshot 6. Comparing the surface areas of the snowshoes.
The following lessons where learned;

1. Always bring cord and rope when snowshoeing.
2. If you have to make a pair, use the Roycraft model, it's simple and has a large surface area, don´t bother with the small bent-wood models when dealing with deep, powder snow.
3. Make poles, the are well worh the effort and give good support. 

Nov 12, 2010

Old Finnish Mouse Traps

As winter approaches many rural house-owners have to deal with familiar infliction; mice.
Rodents seek shelter in the warm houses and obviously give cause for some real concern as they pose a considerable health risk. It's fairly today easy to go to the local hardware-store or the supermarket to pick up some traps and poison, but not to far back in time in Finland buying traps to fend of the mice was not an real option. Cats were put to the task and they kept the rodents at bay. But cats were not allowed to roam everywhere such as indoors in the pantry and other measures had to be taken to secure the valuable food supply.
Image 1. Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), these guys visit us every year.

Less than a century ago people had to make their own mice-traps, which in many cases are scaled down models of larger traps used for hunting small game. The mechanism of these small traps is virtually identical with the mechanism on larger traps. These types of traps where commonly called nakki. Linguistic studies show that this type of traps are truly ancient among Fenno-Ugric peoples; the Komi and the Udmurt call it nal´k, the Khanty and the Mansi know it as n’al’. In Finland these old traps originally used for hunting were redesigned and adapted to the needs of the agrarian lifestyle.
Image 2.The Kuhmois trap.
These three traps are all constructed without using a single nail. The first trap (image 2) originated from Kuhmois and is very simple in design. Is consists of two boards, some string, a small and thin piece of wood, an arched shoot or a twig and a small pin. The boards are sewed together at one end. A string is attached to the trigger pin and the other end of the string is attached to the arch, the length of the string is adjusted so the pin is able too ”hook” to the small piece of wood that works as the trigger release. The end of the pin fits in to a notch int the trigger release. The weight of the board presses down on the trigger pin, and as the pin is attached to a string and is in a slant outward position the pin wants to flip around the board. The pin is held in place by the notch in the trigger release (image 3). As mice go for the bait on the trigger release the press it down and thus releasing the pin and bringing down the board on themselves. The efficiency of this trap is an issue if just relying on the weight of the board. In order for this trap to work properly a weight should be added on top of the board such a flat piece of rock or brick.
Image 3. Detail of the trigger mechanism on the Kuhmois trap.

The second trap is a model from Korpilahti (image 4) and is virtually identical to the first, other than the frame forms a box that traps the prey alive. The trigger release has to pass through a whole at the end of the board and that hole can´t be made too big since the mice might be able to escape. Adolescent mice can squeeze through a hole the size of your fingertips.
Image 4. The Korpilahti trap.
The third trap from Vammala is the most advanced model as it has a primitive spring mechanism (image 5). The frame is made out of a single piece of carved wood (image 6) and has to fit the spring cable, which traditionally was made out of horsehair. The spring cable is wrapped around the board which has grooves in one end. The spring cable is held in place by pins that can be rotated to increase the strenght of the trap. This trigger mechanism is an ingenious adaptation of the two former ones. This type of compact traps where used in pantry's and behind furniture inside the houses. 
Image 5. The Vammala trap.
I have tested all of these three traps and discovered that they all perform well, although hygienic factors have to be taken in to account as sterilizing wooden traps is virtually impossible. They are however fun to build and have and kids enjoy playing with them. Happy trapping!
Image 6. The Vammala trap under construction.

Image 7. All three traps ready for action.

An article of the same subject has previously been published in Swedish language in the Finnish Magazine ”Trapper” Issue 4 of 2009.

Further Readings 
Sirelius, U.T. 1919. Suomen kansanomaista kulttuuria. Esineellisen kansatieteen tuloksia I. Otava. Helsinki 1919.

Photo Credits

Image 1-7: Marcus Lepola

Oct 27, 2010


Image1. Me in my finished baidarka!
I figured it might be of interest to someone if I would post my baidarka building-project of 2003. The kayak is now on display in the Arctic Museum Nanoq in Jakobstad (Pietarsaari), Finland.
I was keen to build the kayak as we had just moved to our new home in the Turku archipelago so the there was a lot of beautiful scenery to paddle in. As I did not have any experience building kayaks i relied solely on the great book by Wolfgang Brinck; the Aleutian kayak. 
The book is excellent and gives detailed step by step instructions on how to build a canvas covered-baidarka. As this was my first kayak I didn´t want to experiment to much and stuck to the plan in the book so the kayak is pretty much the same size as the baidarka in Brincks book.
I did want to use as much ”traditional” raw materials for the kayak as possible. Sealskin was not an option however so I got my hands on two processed cow hides. As I was lucky I also got my hands on some seal fat from Baltic Grey Seal. I also had lots of sinew at hand an a pile of junk wood to work with.
The only wood I had to buy was the wood for the gunwales and I also bought 8 stringers from the local lumberyard. I made the kayak ribs out of rowan shoots, which grows in large quantities around here. I like rowan because it's a though wood that bends and retains shape fairly easily. 
Image 2. The finished frame.
It took a few months to finish the frame as I had a lot of other work to do as well.  I used sinew to lash the wooden parts together, but I did use some linen thread as well to tie the ribs to the gunwales and to the stringers. I used red color powder mixed with water to color the frame All in all the kayak frame was 100% organic. As the frame took form I was ready to sew the skin on the baidarka. The skins were delivered in a barrel and there was some lye in the liquid they where in so I had to rinse the skins a couple of times to get the lye out. As result of the "lye bath" the skins where really wet and soggy when I proceeded to sew the skins together. I first sew the two hides together in the ends to make a long, slim skin. I placed the whole large skin on the garage floor and lifted the frame on top of the skin. After that I simply folded the skin over the frame and proceeded to cut of the excess skin along the middle of the baidarka. Sewing the skin was hard, and keeping the seams as small as possible was difficult because of the soggy skin, it was in places as sewing in snot, that'show wet it was! 
Image 3. The two piece bow.
Image 4.The wet skin folded over the frame.
I sew the seams with twisted sinew thread and folded the seams once over as instructed in Brincks book.
Image 5. The skin was sewn with sinew thread.
When the skin was sewn on the kayak it was so heavy I could not lift it. The following day the skin had dried enough so i was able to lift the kayak outside to dry in the wind

Image 6. Air drying the kay
When the skin was taunt as a drum i smeared two layers of boiled seal fat on the skin. The cent of that is quite unique and I am sure any old kayaker would have felt right at home with the aroma. For my part I will always associate that particular scent with kayaking and having later tried out glass-fiber kayaks i have noticed that I have in some ways missed the cent of the seal fat on the skin. I guess it's the same with people who have traditional wooden boats, they also develop a fondness for the smell of tar. 
Image 7. Out for a spin!

During the exiting first test drive the kayak felt a bit dippy but once in the water I felt right at home. The seam at the middle of the baidarka did however not hold water so small quantities leaked in and as a result the kayak skin became soggy, because the skin had only been oiled on the outside. As the skin became soggy I could feel the draft increasing. Well I made it back on land and got the kayak back home to dry. As it had dried I smeared a little mixture of my own on the inside on the seam and this worked all right, but it had to be re-checked after the kayak had been in water because the skin would get a little moist and stretch, as it dried it got taunt and this effected the filling I had in the seams. The skin also needed some oiling from time to time. The oil made the skin transparent in some places. 
Image 8. A view towards the stern of the baidarka.

 I also used the baidarka in colder weather during the spring of 2004. It was an amazing experience to paddle a real skin kayak among ice-sheets. It felt truly nice. But as real skins have to be renewed after a while I decided to deposit it at the Arctic Museum Nanoq in Pietarsaari
Image 9. The baidarka resting on an icy beach.

 To make the kayak I used approx. 35 m hand twined sinew thread, 7 m of lines made out of hide, 70 meters of linen thread and two whole cow skins.  It took about 200 hours to make the kayak, not including the time it took to gather the materials. It is  509 cm long and the dry weight of the kayak is around 14 kg.
Reading tips and literature about baidarkas 
Brinck, Wolfgang 1995. The Aleutian Kayak: Origins, Construction, and Use of the Traditional Seagoing Baidarka. Ragged Mountain Press.
Jochelson, Waldemar 1933. History, Ethnology and Anthropology of the Aleut. Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Lantis, Margeret 1988. Aleut. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, p.161-84. Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
Varjola, Pirjo 1990. The Etholén Collection; The ethnographic Alaskan collections of Adolf Etholén and his contemporaries in the National Museum of Finland. National Board of Antiquities, Vammalan kirjapaino Oy.
Zimmerly, David W & Gardinier, Paul 2000. Qayaq : Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.
Photo credits
Image 1: Folke Pahlman
Image 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9: Marcus Lepola
Image 7: John Hackman

Oct 26, 2010

Alaskan Willow Bow

Image 1. Tanaina  bows
I first got curious of the Alaskan Athabaskan bows in the collections of the Finnish National Museum. There are two bows made out of birch with guard. These bows are both ascribed belonging to the Tanaina. These bows are interesting as the influence of Pacific Eskimo culture is strongly evident in th use of sinew string lashing wrapped all around the bow-limbs, a very unique trait among American Indian bows. The VK201 (to the left) is 151 cm long and the VK 202 is 142 cm long. These bows where donated by Etholén in 1846. 

According to Otis Tufton Mason (North American Bows Arrows and Quivers, 1893) these bows are typical of the upper inlet Tanaina. He also describes bows made out of willow equipped with the typical wooden string guard, attached with lashings below the handle section of the bow.

I was curious as to how efficient a bow made of willow might be, I also found it interesting that Northern Athabaskans did not use sinew backing on their bows, with the exception of the Tanaina bows with sinew lashings. I soon found myself looking through bushes around our house for a suitable candidate of a willow bow. I soon found a suitable stave of what I guess is the species Salix pentandra. The stave was 6 cm wide.

The stave had a natural recurve to it so I adjusted the lenght of the bow (150cm) so the handle section was placed in the middle of the bend. It's easy to find long, almost knot free staves of willow and working the soft bow material down to a ruff tiller shape is fast. I guess the bow attained its rough shape in just 1 hr after i cut the tree down. The only tools used was the knife, the axe and a small hand plane.

I can see that there are some benefits to making bows that are as simple to make as this model. Bows in the Arctic and Subarctic are often very work-intensive such as the Eskimo cable backed bows or the Eurasian composite bows. This bow represents a totally different approach to the bowyers problems; making a serviceable bow out of a single stave of poor quality wood by hardening the wood through simple heat tempering and compression of the wood fibres.

Image 3. Heat tempering the belly.
Image 2. The recurved stave
According to Mason the Copper River Indians work the wood by heating or toasting, boiling, greasing and rubbing down they convert these poor materials in to excellent arms. I put the fresh stave in the Sauna and removed it after few hours and let it dry for a day. After checking the stave the following day I realised that is was a bit crooked. I managed to get a tillering-string on the bow to roughly tiller the ends to bend fairly even. I then tied it down on a board, using clamps to straighten the bow. I heat-tempered the bow with a warm-air pistol, careful not so scorch the belly surface too much. I left the bow to straighten out for the night and the following morning the bow was as straight as it needed to be.
Image 4. The string guard at the handle

I rubbed the whole bow with a piece of bone along it's whole length as I figured the rubbing would compress wood fibers and make a more durable bow out of  the soft material. I checked the tiller and had to scrape of a bit of wood of the belly, after which I repeated the heat-treatment on the belly sections I had scraped. Later that evening I also added the guard, which I made of the same material as the bow and attached with a moose-skin thong.      

The bow was ready for use and I tested it with some light arrows. The bow felt very light in my hand, and as I drew it I felt that it was not very heavy bow. So my expectations were not too high as I released the first arrow and.....ZING!!
?It was fast?!
Well it was not as fast as some of my longbows, but still the arrows flew straight and fast in to the target 20 meters away. The guard worked well, despite the low string angle of the bow my arm was untouched by the string. 

Image 5. The unfinished bow and the source.
The bow drew 30 pounds at 23 inches. Not very impressive, but there are some leveling factors, such as the set back handle design and the low mass of the bow limbs seemed to add speed and performance. I believe that it is possible to make a heavier bow out of willow. The material should be able to withstand the tensions of a 45 pound draw weigh . A bow of the same type with heavier draw weight would probably work well enough to bring down large game such as moose. The bow I made can only be used for deer, provided the shot distance is short. Mason notes that the bows of the Hong Kutchin"will not send an arrow with sufficient force to kill a deer more than from 50-60 yards". I believe that the bow I made is considerably weaker than the bows described my Mason. I will attempt to make another one to see if the poundage can be increased. Another factor that has to be considered is that the species of willow I used to make the bow might not fully correspond to the one used in Alaska. But the difference should not be that considerable.
Image 6, bows on plate LXIV.

The bows to the right are illustrated in Masons book. The one to the left is of willow, has a double curve (same as the replica) and a string guard fastened on the inside of the bow. The string is made of raw-hide. Lenght 4 feet, 5 inches. Kutchin, inland Alaska.

The second bow is evidently unfinished, a weak weapon with a bowstring of cotton thread. Length 4 feet 1 inch. Kutchin, inland Alaska.

Image 7. The finished bow.
I tried to copy the burnt decorations to the bow I made, but I was sceptical to if this type of decoration could severely damage the bow so I did not proceed with decorating the whole limbs.

I feel that I also need to make a bow out of birch to see how it performs and see if there is a difference. 

Image 8. The bow at 20 inch draw,
  Photo Credits

Image 1: The Etholén collection, Pirjo Varjola, National Board of Antiquities, Helsinki 1990
Image 2-5, 7,8: Marcus Lepola
Image 6: North American Bows Arrows and Quivers, Otis Tufton Mason, Smithsonian 1893.

Oct 19, 2010

The Finno-Ugric Bow

Two Finno-Ugric bows, the one to the left still needs to be wrappen in birch-bark.
The bows used in Finland and parts of Scandinavia during historic times were of a composite design and with strong Asian influences. This bow type occupied a wast range of territory from the Northern rims of the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic coast of Scandinavia.

There are some variations in construction and design of this bow type and it can be divided in two subcategories, the Finno-Ugric composite bow and the Siberian composite bow. A common term for these two types could be North Eurasian composite bows.

Both subcategories are very similar in shape and size but they are constructed differently. The Finno-Ugric composite is a wood lamination constructed by joining two or up to four different pieces of wood. In Finland and among the Saami the back was made out of birch and the belly out of pine, cut out of a tree that had grown in a slant position and thus produced a special reaction wood that is much darker, harder and more saturated with sap than normal pine. This type of reaction wood pine endures a lot of compression but breaks easily. The birch slat that is glued on the back endures a lot of stretching and keeps the bow intact. The rigid siyahs are either added to the bow or are shaped of the prolongued ends of birch back slate.

As the perch skin glue that was used to hold the parts together is very sensitive to moisture the finished bow was wrapped in birch bark. The covering also aided in holding the bow intact even in cold dry weather when the wood became more brittle. The range of this model extends from Scandinavia eastward to the middle ground between the Ob and the Yenisei river. 

 Establishing the boarder area at the Ob river is based on the studies of the Finnish ethnographer U.T. Sirelius, and he also recognizes the Finno-Ugric bows as a distinct type. His studies only range as far as to the Khanty who live along the Ob and their bow is of the Fenno-Ugric subcategory.

The Siberian bow type was found in the eastern parts of Siberia all the way to Pacific Ocean with some interesting intermediary forms along the borders. This bow type also occurs in some unique variations among Siberian Eskimo.

The Siberian composite bow appears almost identical to the Finno-Ugric model, but there are differences in construction. The bow is usually made of one piece of wood with recurved ends. The bow is fitted with a sinew back covering. The sinew backing or the whole bow is sometimes covered with rawhide or thin strips of birch bark.

The composite design seems to have reached Scandinavia from the East in the iron age, a discovery of a part of the bow-belly from Finland was dated to 200-300 years B.C.

There are nine archaeological findings of Finno-Ugric bows from Sweden, Norway and Finland. For most parts the findings have been dated to iron-age and medieval times. 

Bows are constructed in various lengts, and some are actually quite long, one Khanty-bow in the museum of Zurich is 195cm. For most parts the bows where constructed to be as strong as possible as the arrows used were also heavy.

"Själen" – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea

Foreword The following post is intended as a more academic source of information on traditional sealing in Finland and the Northern Baltic...