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A Man of the Wilderness
Tue, 03 May 2016 09:32:59 EDT
A Man of the Wilderness
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By Tom Lounsbury
George Washington Sears was born in 1821 in Massachusetts and was the eldest of 10 children. While still a child, Sears had to work in a factory, and due to that experience, he enjoyed reading Charles Dickens novels, and grew to not care much for the urban experience. Somewhere along the line he was befriended by a Native American named Nessmuk who taught him a lot about the outdoors.
At age twelve, he went to work for commercial fishermen on Cape Cod, and in 1841 signed up for a three year whaling voyage to the South Pacific (Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick would sail out of the same port and in the same year on a similar whaling voyage).
When Sears returned from his whaling voyage, he moved with his family to Pennsylvania, where he lived the rest of his life. Being 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing only 103 pounds, Sears wasn’t a large man, and had developed “consumption” (a combination of tuberculosis and asthma), so he was also a bit frail. Due to this ailment, he would head for the wilderness at every opportunity because he knew the atmosphere would assist in his healthy wellbeing.
Sears clearly had a bucket list because he would have plenty of adventures in the Adirondack wilderness, as well as in Ontario and even made a couple trips to the West Indies and Brazil (where he explored a tributary of the Amazon River). Throughout all this experience he would quite literally become a very knowledgeable and diversified outdoorsman. I do believe it is a blessing Sears began to write about his adventures and how to do matters.
He wrote articles under the pen name “Nessmuk” (in honor of his Native American friend) for Forest and Stream magazine during the 1880’s, and in 1884 wrote his book “Woodcraft” that is still popular and remains in print today (it’s now called Woodcraft and Camping and a paperback version is available on amazon.com for about $5). I first discovered this book in the school library when I was in the ninth grade, eventually had to have my own and I have been rereading and referring to it ever since. Nessmuk’s wonderful writing style makes it seem like he is actually talking to you, and giving clear how-to instructions (albeit in the lingo of his day).
He was a stickler about his outdoor clothing and gear, and actually created some of his own, because what was commercially available didn’t suit his needs. An example is his specially designed double-bitted “pocket axe” that had a course edge for heavy duty work, and a fine edge for everything else. He also had a hunting knife custom made to his specs and he believed in a two-bladed pocket knife for typical cutting chores. That entailed his entire cutlery in the field.
He believed in wearing mid-weight, “soft” woolen garments involving drawers (union suit underwear), socks, shirt, pants, vest and jacket that had to be in earth tone colors of gray or brown to blend in with the forest. The hat had to be of soft felt and have a relatively low crown and broad brim and of the same color as the garments (this is why I usually wear a felt fedora, which sure beats today’s popular ball cap in regards to effectively warding off the elements).
He also used a wool Mackinaw “blanket-bag” which was a blanket folded over and the edges sewn together, and with the ends left open (I believe this was the forerunner of today’s sleeping bag). He also used a 6 x 8 feet waterproofed cotton sheet to use over the blanket bag or as a shelter to stay dry. For extended stays in the wilderness, Nessmuk only carried an extra wool shirt, one set of “drawers” and one pair of socks. The extra clothes, blanket-bag and cotton sheet only weighed 8 pounds and weight was critical to Nessmuk when everything he needed for wilderness survival was carried on his back in a specially designed waterproof canvas knapsack (he disdained the popular pack-baskets) .
Nessmuk knew how to survive off the land and besides a variety of compact tackle for fishing, he counted on a “Billinghurst” muzzleloader for hunting, despite the fact metallic cartridge-using firearms were readily available during the latter quarter of the 19th Century. In the wilderness at that time, extra cartridges might not be all that available, and a muzzleloader suited Nessmuk’s needs, and he carried his own bullet-mould to make more lead round balls if he needed them. As was the case for his day he doesn’t state the caliber of his muzzleloader, but instead says a pound of lead made 60 round balls for it. By doing some simple math, I’m calculating it was a .42 or .43 caliber rifle (gun makers back then offered all kinds of calibers we might think unusual today, and their muzzleloaders usually featured custom bullet-moulds to match them).
A favorite chapter for me in “Woodcraft” is about when Nessmuk travelled to Michigan to visit a couple longtime friends he’d been getting letters from and inviting him. Pete Williams, with his wife and two young sons, was hewing out a farm in the wilds near Saginaw and Joe Davis was operating a sawmill near the other side of the state in the pine forest on the Muskegon River. I’m guessing Nessmuk’s Michigan visit occurred during the 1870’s, because he mentions accomplishing matters before the big forest fires, which he believes if they had occurred in his vicinity when he was in the middle of nowhere, could have spelled his doom.
His travel from Pennsylvania to Michigan began first by train and then by “propeller” boat and he disembarked on the “Lower Saginaw”. This was followed by a half day buckboard ride to reach the clearing of Pete Williams. Nessmuk had brought fruit and melons for the Williams family because the last letter he had received stated that both the young boys were “ague-stricken” (malaria was not an uncommon affliction for Michigan pioneers). Wildlife in the Saginaw wilderness was as plentiful as Pete Williams had written, but Nessmuk refrained from hunting and simply enjoyed a 10-day visit with the family.
Once again sensing his wanderlust besetting him, Nessmuk sought the advice of a local and well noted backwoodsman in the Saginaw area named Bill Hance. Hance had made round trips across the state and had helped and guided surveying parties. As a rule, most folks didn’t try to hike across the state because it was a formidable wilderness, but it was Nessmuk’s desire to do so in order to visit Joe Davis on the Muskegon. According to Hance, it was about a 3-day hike if you kept up a good pace and followed an “Indian trail”. With a few days rations in his knapsack, Nessmuk bid the Williams family a sad farewell and headed off into the dense forest.
The Indian trail Hance had directed him to quickly faded then completely petered out and Nessmuk was happy to just do what he knew best, which was to follow his nose and his compass. He had a map, but in those days maps were a bit vague, often with a lot of gray areas in the middle, and this was certainly the case in the Michigan wilderness that Nessmuk described as being the wildest country he had ever ventured in. Nessmuk soon discovered due to detours around countless bogs and rough country, for every 15 miles he hiked, he only covered about 6 miles in the westerly direction he wanted to go. Despite the first frosts of autumn already occurring, he was blessed with splendid weather for the entire trip that would take 10 days instead of 3.
Nessmuk encountered more deer than he had ever seen before, and at times he had more than he could count in view, and all acting unafraid of him. He also saw black bears every day, countless wild turkeys, grouse, quail and large flocks of passenger pigeons were everywhere. The woods also had a large bounty of nuts for all. Nessmuk carried only 12 round balls for his rifle and would fire only 3 shots on his journey and kill 3 “young” deer. He lamented at the waste because he would only cut off what he could carry, and eat before it spoiled, in order to survive. The rest of the carcass was set upon by wolves before he could get out of earshot.
Nessmuk eventually reached what he knew to be the Muskegon River, and due to the lumbering activity he discovered on its banks, he guessed the sawmill was most likely downstream. He constructed a raft and set out with the current. Before nightfall, he had a happy reunion with his friend Joe Davis. Upon reflection, he was quite satisfied with his hike across Michigan, but admits he wouldn’t want to try it again.
Nessmuk would pass away at his home in Pennsylvania in 1890 (a mountain near there is named after him). However his words of woodcraft wisdom he wrote down to share with all, remain quite viable today and are fortunately still in print. Nessmuk was truly a man of the wilderness.
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First published in 1884, "Woodcraft and Camping" by Nessmuk is still in
print and available today, and remains a very viable reference resource.