Night in a (mostly) primitive fire-based shelter

With some valuable lessons learned, I drove myself to the same spot on the M-M trail as last time, and immediately hiked to the very same Stevens Swamp. I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for a shelter spot (like last time) but I did want to hike all the way around the swamp once to scope out the area.

During my trek around the swamp, I realized this ice-hardened snow would never allow me to set up a fire-based shelter next to a boulder. That had been my strategy up to this point - find a decent flat-faced boulder and build a lean-to facing it. Have the fire next to the rock, so it would reflect the heat back onto the lean-to.

The problem was that the snow was much deeper around every single boulder I found than in the surrounding area. Compounding the issue, thick ice often encrusted that snow.

As I discovered during my previous outing, digging this stuff up in a timely manner was impossible.

This would be a fantastic fire reflector wall...if the ice-hardened snow adjacent to it wasn't so deep and tough

This looked promising - less snow under the log. Still, there would be too much digging.

There is a frozen pool at the base of this one.

Again, promising, but it's impossible to dig the surrounding snow and ice up
My new plan was to find a spot where wind and/or sun removed some or all of the ice and snow for me.

I struggled mightily to overcome the urge to wait for the perfect shelter spot, and I settled for the first decent snow-cleared area I found.

In most places, the ice and snow was 18 inches deep. Not here!

some nice beech debris exposed

This spot even had a small rock in the snow-cleared area
I walked back and forth among several candidate spots in this area before deciding on a relatively flat, low spot with a decent rock for fire reflection.

I'd learned and practiced a new knot for lashing sticks together perpendicularly.

I put it to good use here, after taking down a beech sapling with my knife and a whomping stick.

this would be the base for the first lean-to wall

essentially a clove hitch with an added single overhand knot to hold the branch in place before wrapping

after wrapping, I held the tension with a power cinch knot
Next, I took down another beech sapling and lashed it perpendicular to the first branch. This would hold an adjacent lean-to wall.

The beginnings of the two lean-to walls
I didn't have a saw, hatchet or axe. 

Thus, I did very little cutting when searching for building supplies. Giant, semi-rotted oak branches were perfect. Strong enough for the shelter, but weak enough that I could wedge a limb between two trees and pull on it to break it.

Though I'd taken out nearly all the shelter-supporting gear from my pack, I did have two small foil emergency blankets. 

I took one out and secured it to the wall facing us in the above picture. Then I covered that with hemlock boughs to make one hell of a fire-reflector wall.

I still had to stuff some cracks with hemlock boughs here

the back side of this fire reflector wall
This would be the main wall, the one I would sleep under.

After packing every little crack with more hemlock boughs, this wall was fairly airtight. 

I did not use a foil blanket for the adjacent wall, but did cover it with hemlock boughs to make a decent wind break.

A note on collecting hemlock boughs when all you have is a knife. 

There was no way I could take down a medium size hemlock tree to get at all its boughs, like Alex did here with an axe. I'd noticed while hiking around the swamp that the bushiest small-size hemlock saplings tended to cluster on the border between hemlock and deciduous (mainly beech and birch, with some oak) sections of the forest. This is where I hunted for my evergreen boughs.

The labor was not too intense. Those bushy young saplings have lots of tender, needle-filled branches, unlike the shade-damaged half-dead limbs on hemlock saplings within hemlock stands. It was quick work. I didn't feel good about negatively affecting the little ecosystem, so I did my best to select saplings from crowded areas where one or more would have to eventually die anyway.

I must have taken down at least a dozen saplings before I had adequate supplies.

Before I put together my hemlock bough mattress, I collected a decent amount of beech and oak leaves from the few nearby exposed areas of ground. I put the hemlock boughs on top of this first layer.

During the process of de-limbing the hemlock saplings and sorting usable boughs from thick branches, I intentionally held a low standard for comfort. 

Meaning, I allowed a lot of fairly thick branches to be part of the mattress. I figured I was trading some comfort for better dead-air space and less work. I wasn't disappointed. I never felt any cold from the ground at any point during the night, and was comfortable enough to get some sleep.

My mattress was only 3 or 4 inches thick, compressed.

2 lean-to walls completed, with mattress

A third rough wall added as a wind break (didn't work)
I'd started building the shelter a little after noon. By around 2, I had my shelter built, complete with mattress.

But, this is a fire-based shelter, which means I still needed a TON of firewood. 

I spent another 2 or 3 hours collecting firewood in the form of long (15 feet or more), semi-rotted oak logs. I was unable to harvest most of the dry, aged hardwood I found because it was attached to trees. With only a knife, I could not hack 3-6 inch limbs from fallen trees.

Thus, I had to settle for moist, semi-rotted hardwood logs which I could either drag or break free.

My plan was to burn these logs at full length. When they burned in half, I'd just move the smaller sections into the fire.

Lighting the long-log fire

This bed of coals could burn ANYTHING
I was warm almost the entire night.

In fact, the first part of the night was spent figuring out just the right amount of logs to put on the fire to AVOID overheating! 

I woke up cold once or twice after the logs burned down, but was able to get them going again fairly quickly.

Around 3AM, I ran out of firewood. 

Armed with my headlamp, I spent a half hour collecting more wood, which lasted until I got up at around 7AM.

I did my best to position the shelter such that the prevailing wind would blow the smoke away from where I was sleeping. It worked until the wind started shifting directions.

I got a little bit of sleep, but then got smoked out a few times. 

At around midnight, I added the second foil emergency blanket to the rough wall. This worked as a wind break, and allowed me to be mostly smoke-free the rest of the night.

My midnight fix: wind break
The temperature dropped to around 20 F that night, so this wasn't the coldest winter camping experience. But I was pleased to have survived the night fairly comfortably.

Almost no shivering, and I even got some sleep!

Before breaking camp, I boiled up a big pot of hemlock needle tea - all I had to do was reach into my mattress for a few limbs! I had awoken with a bit of a headache, and this cured it almost immediately.

hemlock needle tea is delicious
Things to think about for the next winter outing (probably not til next winter, since it's almost April now).

It was so simple to build the airtight lean-to wall which I slept under. It took relatively little time. I don't think it would be much more work to construct a body-heat based shelter constructed mainly of hemlock boughs - especially if I have the luxury of a couple space blankets. I'd be willing to bet it would require less overall effort than this fire-based shelter (when you include firewood). But that's something I'll need to experiment quite a bit more with in varying conditions.

Late winter/early spring food sources

With some valuable lessons learned, I drove myself to the same spot on the M-M trail as last time. I hiked right back to Stevens Swamp. While scoping the swamp's perimeter and seeking a good shelter location, I found two non-animal food sources.

The first I am always hunting for.

It is is available year-round in large quantities, and is actually quite filling. 

It does not have any poisonous look-alikes. It is a lichen called rock tripe. It grows in big clusters on certain rocks and rock faces.

An entire wall of rock tripe
A typical boulder face covered in rock tripe
I easily gathered a gallon (compressed) of rock tripe without seriously impacting the population on this rock
Rock tripe has a, well, rock dissolving acid in it. 

You must remove it by boiling before you can eat the stuff. Plus, it is hard, rubbery and flaky until boiled. Boiling reduces it to a very chewable texture, one my girlfriend describes as "eating velvet" (not in a good way, apparently).

boiling rock tripe later that night

eat up!

I saved half for breakfast
Though I've eaten plenty of rock tripe in the past, I was a little nervous about eating such a large quantity. I ate about half and saved the rest for morning, partly in case I had any digestive upset and partly because I was tired of eating the stuff!

I was full!

Freshly boiled rock tripe is fairly tasteless, and like I said, about the texture of wet velvet. It goes down without much thought.

Cold rock tripe leftovers are incredibly slimy and take on a powerful flavor somewhere between mushroom and dirt. 

I had a hard time getting the leftovers down the next morning, though I did eat the whole bag.

I wonder how you'd process rock tripe without a pot for boiling. Leave it in the river overnight? Something to experiment with next time.

I almost always find wintergreen and partridge berries in the fall and early winter, but imagine my surprise when I found two substantial patches of frozen, perfectly preserved berries in late March!

As mentioned here, I'd found several handfuls of wintergreen and partridge berries a few days before this trip. During my excursion around the swamp this time, I found another big patch of wintergreen berries on the opposite shore (no partridge berries here though).

The 18 inches of snow and ice were worn away by wind and sun in this spot...
...revealing a substantial quantity of frozen wintergreen berries!
If I was spending a second night out here, I would have gotten fairly desperate for some meat. Maybe a whole day of setting snares and deadfalls would actually get me some. Maybe not.

I think I would have cooked up another pot of rock tripe.

I also would have harvested some white pine or hemlock cambium (inner bark), and tried roasting it on a hot rock. 

I recently read that this way of cooking pine cambium makes it more edible - as in you can actually eat the stuff rather than just chew on small pieces for an hour before spitting them out. But I haven't had a chance to try it out yet. Next time...

Porcupine & other animal signs

With some valuable lessons learned, I drove myself to the same spot on the M-M trail as last time, and immediately hiked to the very same Stevens Swamp. I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for a shelter spot (like last time) but I did want to hike all the way around the swamp once to scope out the area.

The amount and variety of animal sign around the swamp was stunning. I saw evidence of moose, porcupine, beaver, raccoon, coyote, deer, muskrat, squirrel, chipmunk, mouse, and woodpecker. And these tracks were preserved beautifully in the ice-hardened snow.

Here is a porcupine den. The porcupine has a pungent odor which I could smell 10 feet from the den's opening.

home base for momma porcupine
The porcupine plows a distinct path through the snow with her belly (thanks to Josh Wood and his tracking class for showing this to me the first time).

individual porcupine tracks in the plowed path
very distinct & well-worn path to den
There was an unbelievable amount of moose sign: tracks, droppings, lays, hair, and even bloated wood ticks.

big ol' moose track

a stunning moose lay - you can see all 4 legs, the head, and even the antlers!

Another moose lay - I found a dozen or so of these

blecch: this blood-filled tick was the size of my thumb's top joint

Another one - there were 10 or so laying around in this spot

needs no description
I spotted two raccoon trails as well. Here is the first.

Raccoon trail leading to the swamp

The unique hand print of a raccoon

Rear raccoon track (I think)

Stevens swamp empties into another swamp to the south, via a small river. Along this river I found one decent spot to cross: a huge downed oak trunk. I was not the only one - a funnel of various animal paths led across the log as well. I noted raccoon, coyote, squirrel, and even deer tracks across the bridge.

The track funnel
Also at this river, I spotted what I can only guess to be muskrat sign. I don't know what other medium sized critter lives in the mud on the shore of a small river that would leave trails like this.

Muskrat path?
Here is a decent coyote track. The near-perfect oval shape of individual tracks and purposeful, direct gait pattern is what suggested coyote to me, though I am not expert enough to be 100% confident.

The perfect oval compression of a coyote

Note the purposeful, straight line of the coyote trail. I think a domestic dog would be zig-zagging all over the place.
I put all this tracking & sign material in this post because it relates to food (well, and it's just really cool). All these tracks and signs revealed themselves while I was hunting for a shelter location. If there was sufficient time after I got the shelter up, I'd come back to one or more of these spots to set up a snare or deadfall. Maybe, if I was lucky, I'd have an animal to roast for breakfast the next day.


The most promising spot for a snare seemed to be the porcupine den. This was the freshest sign, and I imagined the animal would have to come in and out of the den at least one more time before the next morning. A little nervous, I set about installing a snare right in the den's entryway.

I was unsure of how wide to make the noose, or exactly where to place it
I didn't get a picture of the trigger mechanism, but I used a similar version to that posted here. I tried to set it up as quickly as possible and get the heck out of there, so as to not leave too strong a scent.

I'd read about a deer snare made from a branch and paracord, but never set one up before. I don't know enough about deer's habits or about this area to place a snare in just the right spot. Nonetheless, I figure it would be good practice to set one up, even if chances of it working are next to nothing.

I lashed a sapling across 2 trees and draped a large noose over it.

zoomed out
This snare struck me as cruel when I first read about it. Supposedly, though, when a deer gets snared it panics and strangles itself in a few seconds. Survival is cruel sometimes I guess. I have mixed feelings about it.

The next morning, after breaking camp, I checked the porcupine snare. Nothing. The porcupine had simply pushed the noose to the side before entering/exiting the den. It appeared she did not try to put her head through. I was fascinated to discover that the paracord itself had taken on the musk of the porcupine just from briefly touching her, still strong days later at home.

The noose was apparently pushed aside
I was ambivalent about my lack of meat. On the one hand, I was really hungry and a little frustrated by yet another snare failure. On the other, I'd have been really sad to have killed a porcupine. And, on the other OTHER hand, this was by far the closest I've ever come to snaring a critter as big as a porcupine.

I don't know for sure what a better noose placement would look like in this case. Probably it should have been smaller, and more thoughtfully placed. How can I predict where exactly the porcupine head would be on exit/entrance? Food for thought, haha.

I didn't find any surprises near the deer snare either. No fresh sign. I don't think a deer passed within 100 meters of that snare while it was up. I think to have a better chance of working, this would need to be placed in an area not only with heavy deer traffic (I did that) but also such that deer have to travel through a narrow opening. It will be a while before I figure this one out.

Every snare information source says snaring/trapping is a numbers game. I know this, but I just did not have any time to put up more snares that night. I wanted to put a snare or two around the animal track funnel (pictured above). That seemed promising, but I did not have time to hike over there. I barely got back to my shelter before dark as it was.

I've said this before, but I will need to stay out for 2 nights to get sufficient traps and snares up. That way, the first day is focused on shelter. That evening, trap and snare parts can be carved and de-scented in the fire. Then the entire next day could be spent setting up a dozen traps. It's going to have to wait for summer vacation I guess.

In the meantime, I've signed up for a Massachusetts basic trapper education course. Perhaps I can get proficient at trapping with modern tools. That would enable me to focus on the details of good trap placement, without getting hung up in constructing primitive trap components.