Thursday, June 27, 2013

Way back in the woods

Let the road narrow and become dust,
let the trees tower tall and green,
let me at those wild lakes,
and let my cares give way,
when the vessel of time begins to careen.

Annual camping collective on the Keweenaw Peninsula


The treetop busted free from the tree trunk and I went running. Instinctively, I put my arm over my head as I ducked and high stepped over the underbrush in my way. I had only made it a few steps though, before I realized there was no crashing sound, no avalanche of debris, and when I turned to look back I saw the top of the dead spruce suspended by a network of branches; I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed how ridiculous I must have looked after having been so keen on kicking the rotted bottom.

The camp was only a couple dozen yards away, but I was screened by a dense swath of ferns, undergrowth, and small firs - embarrassment avoided.

"Not too suave on that one, Seth." I muttered to my boots. Then I realized, it doesn't matter how dumb the incident might have looked, we were deep in the woods. Who was I trying to impress after all, these were my friends, they knew just how graceful I could be (sarcasm).

And yet, there was some work that needed to be done. We needed dry wood to get a dinner fire going for 11 people, and I was downright hungry. Since making camp on the wooded cliff overlooking Lake Superior two days prior, we had made it a point to not travel into town for anything save ice, so our firewood had to be foraged daily from the Keweenaw timber surrounding us.

Treetop crisis abated and firewood resolve reinstated, I turned back to the tasty morsel of tree hanging overhead. Its fine, bare, crispy branches were all the size of my pinky finger, and I knew they would make excellent kindling. I backed up against a small hill to get a running start, then ran and launched myself at the bottom of the dangling trunk, leading with my right hand outstretched. At the apex of my jump, I felt bare fingers close around dry bark, and I let my bodyweight do the rest of the work.

I like to believe I appeared as a flannelled spider man soaring through the air...


Upon landing, my hand was a bit chewed up from the spiny bark, but I had the spruce top I so coveted. Along with the top, I gathered up the semi-punky trunk and another bundle of sticks, and dragged them pridefully back to camp.

Bursting victoriously from the woods with my haul of dead trees, I found a camp bustling with pre-dinner activities. A few of my friends were cleaning up the kitchen area (a table with a plywood lean-to over it), one was raking out the area around the fire pit, one was breaking up kindling for the fire, and another was attending the beer keg buried in the ground (a very important post).

I set to work limbing the dead spruce and snapping sticks to suitable sizes. I used a hatchet to gnaw at the middle of some of the longer dead timbers I'd dragged out, then stomped on the weak spots to snap them in half. Pretty soon I had a nice pile of small- to medium-sized firewood to go with the logs we had left over from the night before.

At the camp there were a few common tasks that had to be completed on a daily basis. Namely, taking care of the food, the fire, the shelter. Beyond that we also had entertainment concerns that were filled by the imaginative minds of those of us who had stories to share, or others who spent their time making an extensive rulebook for Ladder Toss.

In fact, Ladder Toss (which became known by many different names throughout our four-day tournament) became such a central event for the trip that we began recording rules and terminology in a notebook. The game served as a way to settle disputes, to untie unlikely pairs of people, and generated quite the gambling pool of chores, bragging rights, and social status within our little collective.

*Side note: Ryan and I were the undisputed champions at 8-0, even, on one occasion, answering the challenger's call at midnight by tiki torch light.

A few of the printable terms/rules recorded were: "Throw for cycle" which is landing one of each of your bolas for a round on each bar; "Bouncing Betty" which is a bola that hits the ground and bounces up to wrap around the third (bottom) bar; "Goose it" which is getting all your bolas on a single bar; "Skunk round" which is all bolas on both teams missing, forcing the ever-important social drink; "Rejection" which is a toss that hits a bar and then bounces off; "Psych outs" which is any action by opposing players to distract the other team (this one was later amended to disallow physical contact when games increased in intensity); "Chinese Finger Trap" which is all of a single player's bolas becoming attached in one way or another; "Beans above the frank" which is where a bola wraps around another bola yet neither is touching the ground; "The clincher" replacing your opponent's bola with your own to win the game; "The Hail Mary" throwing it way way way back into the woods.

In short, the game was a heck of a lot of fun. It became the centerpiece event at the campsite, and we even took it to the beach with us to play in the sand. I'd like to go into how this was an important social piece for the weekend, but I think I'll just leave it as a playful story and a list of ridiculous rules to look back on years from now.

In the woods it doesn't matter how ridiculous you look or act, and that's the best part - acting a fool. After all, some of the funniest stories are best left way way way back in the woods.

 “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
- W. H. Auden

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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