Axes and Knives

As horse wrangler not only did I have to bring in the horses, but I was required to keep the wood box stocked with kindling and split wood for the cook.  It was also my responsibility to haul water from the creek and always have fresh water on hand.  Terry, the outfitter, had bought me a splitting ax in town and told me I had to ride with it always.  Thankfully his brother and guide, Don, fashioned me a sheath/carrier to hang on my saddle.  It took a little while getting used to riding with an ax tucked under my leg and few adjustments to get it too hang just right so it wouldn’t rub my knee raw, but I eventually mastered it.  Same as learning to cut kindling from soggy, knobby balsam wood.

My trusty ax and knives I used while I wrangled in the Yukon

Terry patiently taught me how to position the chunk of wood on another larger log and look for cracks extending from the bark to the dense core.  Then I would aim the sharp edge of my ax for that crack and hopefully successfully split the log in half.  Easy enough if the wood was dry and small in diameter.  Not so easy if it was massive and a bit soggy from the pervasive damp of the Yukon.  My only hope with my little ax was to sink it in firmly and raise the log and ax above my head and bring it down on it’s butt using the weight of the log to split itself.  Sometimes I had to do this little routine many times before  a stubborn piece of wood would split.  Adding a little hop jump at the end for emphasis always seemed to help.

Some of the log rounds I was required to split up into itty-bitty pieces of kindling for the cook stove were bigger than I could wrap my arms around and in no way could lift off the ground.  I remember one time in particular wacking away at a log that big.  There were no cracks in this log.  It was dense and solid.  I’d sink my ax into it with a disheartening thud and then have to spend the next few minutes trying to wrench and lever it out.  With a creak and groan the wood obstinately gave up my ax for another try.  The frustrating part of all this was that there were 3 very big guys sitting on the porch of the cabin yelling out catty comments.  Something about how I swung like a girl.  Of course I did!  I AM a girl and weighed about 50-100 some odd pounds less than them!!  No matter how strong I got, I could never get as strong as them.  I had to use brains and ingenuity to make up for my lack of power in areas that required brute strength.  AND they never told me that there was such things as splitting mauls and wedges to accomplish a job like this one! 

Eventually the guys realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere and there would be no wood for supper, so Don came to my rescue, fired up the chainsaw and kindly sawed the log into fours so I could hack away at the quarters and mince them into kindling sized pieces.  Maybe it was kindness, maybe it was self-preservation, I’ll never know.  But supper did get made that night!

I wasn’t allowed to use the chainsaw as I was also not allowed to use the other guides’ axes.  We had our own equipment and no one shared.  It was a matter of survival.  If you broke your own tool you fixed it or ordered another one on the SAT phone for the next time the plane dropped off supplies.  And the plane often didn’t come in for weeks at a time, so it was imperative to keep our tools in working order at all time.  Our axes were kept to a razor sharp edge at all times.  That was one of the things I learned to do was keep my ax and my Swiss tool, that I carried on my belt, sharp at all times.  Sometimes the guides would help me sharpen my ax or knife as they were far superior in skill in that area. I also had a knife that I carried in my saddle bags for whenever we got an animal down and I had to help with the skinning.  Another of my wrangler duties.

I went out on every hunt, with the exception of a couple of days after I got trampled by a horse, and once, when I nearly froze in a morning blizzard bringing horses in.  Hunting days usually followed a routine somewhat like this:

4AM-ish wake up, get dressed, walk out from camp to track horses, un-hobble and run them in.  If I was lucky I caught a horse and rode in bareback, most times I just ran.

530AM-ish Tie up horses for the day and saddle them.  Gobble down breakfast.  Load up backpack with gear.

6AM-ish leave camp scouting for game with guide and hunter

1030AM-ish If we haven’t spotted game or aren’t pulling a stalk, make small camp fire (ax comes in handy) and have a pot of tea. (easy and less messy than coffee)  Yep those were good times.  I was supposed to help with the glassing (looking for game with binoculars) but I perfected the method of sleeping with my binoculars in front of my face.  After a while I just gave up and curled up in a tuft of tundra and slept.

Jake having a morning Tea Break with hunter John

Afternoon – Again if we haven’t spotted game or aren’t on a stalk, we would eat lunch, maybe light another fire if it was chilly and spend hours glassing or riding to another spot.

Snack on chocolate bars or open a can of fruit as we rode (or walked, I walked a lot because I was always cold).  I ate a chocolate bar or two a day.  Loved it!  Can’t do that now.  I don’t exercise quite as much.

Twilight– if we haven’t got an animal head back for camp.  Chop wood, haul water, Guide cooks supper, eat, make lunches for next day.  Sleep.  Oh Sweet sweet sleep!  And start all over a few hours later.

BUT if we got an animal it changed the game plan.  Then we had to gut the animal and take it’s horns (if they were too big like moose horns or caribou we would set them apart from the meat while we would head back to camp and get pack horses to come load up the animal.  Sometimes that was a two day job as the animal was downed maybe 6 hours of riding from camp.)

Guide Floyd skinning a mountain caribou

Then I would help skin the animals and take the cape and quarter the animal to load into pack boxes.  Sometimes we had to cut the quarters into smaller chunks because there was too much meat to load on the horses.  Usually a pack box could weigh 90-150 pounds and a horse carried two, plus often a top pack of the horns or cape.  That was where brute strength came in as I had to lift a loaded pack box onto the side of a horse and hold it steady and balanced while I looped the ropes and pulled it tight at the same time the guide was working on the other side.  Then I worked with the guide as a team throwing a diamond hitch around both boxes to secure it tight.

Sharp knives and axes were essential.

We had to chop trees down to butcher the moose.

Often we had to cut trees down so we could butcher the animal or get the horses close to it.  Knives were kept at razor sharpness and often had to be sharpened on the spot as we butchered the animal.  Fat dulls knives quick!

Back in camp it was my job to help “flesh” the cape and then rub salt into it to help preserve it until we could have it flown

Jake cleaning up an elk cape, Alberta

out to the taxidermist in town.  I had to scrape the underside of the skin of any meat so it wouldn’t rot.  Then while the guide did the detailed work of fleshing the cape off the skull and then  around the ears, eyes, mouth and horns, I would take the skull and have to clean the meat off it and pull the brains out.  Dirty, messy job.  But rather fascinating.  Like getting a hands on biology lesson, I got to learn fascinating facts about animals.  Like how a bears skull is a third the size of it’s head when it has

Cleaned Bear Skulls, BC

fur on it and it’s brain hole is so small I needed a straw to suck it’s brains out.  (Just kidding, the guides wanted me to do that, but I had gained enough “balls” to tell them off at that point).  Also when the guide would cape out the paws of a bear it looked just like human hands and feet lying on the ground, except where our hands form into nails, theirs turned into claws.  A mountain goats hooves are very squishy and almost suction cup-like on the bottom and their ribs are extremely sprung (very round almost barrel shaped).  Wolves just stink.  It’s a stink that you can’t seem to get off your hands.

Sitting in a moose horn rocking chair

Alaska-Yukon Moose are incredibly large animals and it amazes me how silent they are in the forest.  Like dark ghosts.  One minute they are there and then they are not.  Their horns are incredibly huge.  I could sit in one side of them like an arm chair.  And caribou fur is so soft and warm.  The hairs are hollow trapping air to create warmth but it crushes easily.

Salted Caribou Cape drying in the foreground at the Hyland Lake Cabin

Anyways, back on topic.  Axes and knives are an essential tool in the bush.  When the guide was cape-ing an animal he had to be very precise and steady.  Like a surgeon.  He used scalpels or knives honed to a scalpel’s edge.  SHARP!  He didn’t want to make a hole in the cape.  A mistake could cost hundreds of dollars to fix.  A hunter paid a lot of money for his trophies and it was his guide’s responsibility to produce a fine cape for him.  So he refined his skills and he kept his knife sharp at all times.  The guides I worked with were first rate, some of the best I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years and they took their job very seriously.

I was reminded of this when I was reading Hebrews 4:12 in the Message “His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey.  Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word.  We can’t get away from it no matter what.”

I recalled the times I had to use my knife like a scalpel, with finesse and precision, and the times I had to use my ax with brute strength to split wood.  The difference to me is obvious—Surgeon’s tools heal but an ax splits things apart.  I need to make sure I use the Word of God like a scalpel rather than an ax, with precision and not blunt force.   I think many people in history or in our day have used Scriptures bluntly with little thought or consideration to who they are hurting or the things they are splitting apart.  However, there have been great men and women of God who learned to use His Words with great attention and discernment and have brought healing to many people and situations.  It is my desire to have God teach me how to use His words to bring healing to those in my life.  To be meticulous in learning the character of Christ.  To let the words I speak be ones that build others up, not tear them down.

“Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple.  Stay clear of pious talk that is only talk.  Words are not mere words, you know.  If they’re not backed by a godly life, they accumulate as poison in the soul.” 2 Timothy 2:15 (the Message)

Guide Joel glassing for Dall Sheep

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6 Responses to Axes and Knives

  1. Marie says:

    I had no idea you had a blog! This was a really interesting and enjoyable read….look forward to reading more.

  2. Terry and Ruth Wilkinson says:

    Keep up the good stories!! Terry actually laughed out loud a few times!! Love your applications!!

  3. Steve says:

    You’ve always had a gift of being able to articulate things on paper that gets your attention. Even though I can’t see the mountains from home, reading this makes me feel like I am right out in the middle of them!

  4. Donn Wilkinson says:

    I got a couple good laughs out of this one. We have never been able to convince any one to do the grizzly brains with a straw but who knows maybe someday. Keep the stories coming.

  5. Pingback: lessonslearnedinthebush

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