Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Walking Sticks

I feel naked when I'm not carrying a rifle or pistol. But there are ever more places where it's illegal or impractical. So I do what any self-respecting Neanderthal - er, I mean, woodsman - would do: Carry a big stick. A politically-correct big stick. A walking stick. A hand-made wooden one, with character. The kind Daniel Boone would have whittled for himself if he'd somehow become separated from Old Betsy.
If Daniel had had access to modern technology, I have no doubt that he would have been the proud owner of a fine scoped bolt-action rifle. But I just can't picture him using neon-colored, carbon-fiber, adjustable-length trekking poles with built-in shock-absorbing springs, compass and whistle. Daniel Boone wasn't a yuppy.
A walking stick's usefulness isn't limited to taking the weight off your knees and keeping mean dogs at bay. You can also use it as a crutch if the second dog you didn't see gets you. And to:
Cross rivers by bracing downstream.
Test ice - and then have something to prevent you from going all the way through if it breaks anyway.
Probe in mud or water.
Pole a canoe in shallow water.
Harvest a gourmet dinner by adding a frog gig.
Hang a pot over a fire.
Replace your tent pole.
Prop up a sagging tarp.
Lift pots off a fire.
Steady a rifle, pistol or camera.
Mark the circle for building an igloo.
Poke a ventilation hole in the ceiling of the igloo.
Help yourself up if you fall while snowshoeing in deep powder.
Break "squaw wood" (the dead, dry branches) off pine trees.
Clear spider webs from your path.
Protect your face when plowing through thick brush.
Carry a bundle over your shoulder (Hobos weren't the only ones who did that -  Roman legionaries did, too).
Measure (burn inch and/or centimeter ruler marks on it).
Test depth of streams.
Feel your way in the dark.
Build a shelter.
If you can think of anything I've missed, add it in a comment.
Almost any kind of wood will do. Of course, some are lighter, stronger, straighter, more attractive, etc. than others. Hardwoods like Hickory and Ash are great. Spruce is light and strong for it's weight. Saplings about as big around as a pitchfork handle and with root knobs are good candidates. Some species of bamboo are strong enough to resist splitting, and still very light.

For length, probably somewhere from shoulder to head height. Mine tend to be at least as long as I am tall. Heavier, but more versatile.  Long enough to get both hands on when bracing in a swift stream. Long enough so you won't smack your face on the end if you stumble. Remember while you're making it that staffs can be shortened, but not lengthened. Leave it a little too long until you've used it a bit, then trim it to suit you.
Green wood is easier to work than wood that is already seasoned. A good way to do both at the same time is with plastic bags. Simply keep your project wrapped up in plastic when you aren't working on it (or using it), and in a few weeks it'll be seasoned without checking. ("Checking", or cracking, occurs because the outside of a piece of wood dries and shrinks faster than the inside.) Hanging it with a cinderblock tied to the bottom while it seasons will keep it straight.
Rubber tips are for indoors. Unless you do your hiking in malls and airports, a simple brass ferrule fitted over the tip is a better way to prevent wear.
Wrapping with parachute cord will provide you with not only a secure, comfortable grip, but also cordage in an emergency. Wrapping with strips of innertube will provide you with tinder in an emergency.
Sticks can be peeled or not, sealed or not, sanded or not. They can be hardened by holding over the heat of a fire until they turn slightly darker. A notch or knob on the end is useful for lifting hot pots. A wrist strap is nice, but attach it with a constrictor knot rather than weaken the staff with a hole. Hang a bell on it in grizzly country.
If and when you break, wear out or get tired of your stick, do what you'd like to do with your ex - throw it in the woods and let it return it to nature.

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