Tread Lightly and Carry a Big Bag of Batteries

Rethinking technology in the wilderness

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

In 1845 explorer John Franklin and crew went off to find the Northwest Passage, braving the Arctic cold outfitted with Delftware teacups, silver dessert spoons, calf-lined bedroom slippers, clothes brushes, pocket combs, Bibles, and copies of The Vicar of Wakefield and Christian Melodies.

Some things haven't changed.

Twenty-first-century trekkers, climbers, and campers head to the bush with a bewildering array of gear. Seeking personal Northwest Passages, acting in accordance with the 'leave no trace' ethos that has been drilled into them, they stuff their packs with propane stoves, freeze-dried food, filtration devices, air mattresses, 'go light' tents and sleeping bags, and electronic contraptions that allow them to find landmarks and signal for help when they get lost.

'The modern backpacker is an astronaut of sorts,' says Montana wilderness survival teacher David Cronenwett. Many agree. Los Angeles-based 'primitive skills' teacher Christopher Nyerges says outdoor gear stores are crammed with nonessentials. When he heads for the hills, Nyerges takes knives, cord, and a pruning tool, but not much else.

'Think of it this way,' Nyerges says. 'If I bring a plate, I do not have to think about all the flat objects in nature that can serve as a plate, such as a rock or bark. If I bring a lantern, I do not think about how to make my light in camp, or how to let my eyes adjust to dark. If I bring a compass, I do not pay as much attention to direction. If I bring a tent, I do not pay as much attention to locations. If I bring matches and a gas stove, I do not pay attention to woods and how to make a fire primitively. If I bring all my food, I do not look to see how nature can feed me.'

Cronenwett and Nyerges are part of a quiet but thriving subculture -- people who not only practice 'bushcraft' but also teach shelter construction, friction fire making, tracking, trapping, and other old skills. An event called Rabbitstick held in Idaho each fall brings together their spiritual kin, teachers of tanning, gourdcraft, 'flintknapping,' atlatl making, edible plant use, and other techniques that allow people to live intimately on the land.

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