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Bows and Baskets: More Tools Around a Fire

Day one began as all good days begin, by building a fire outdoors with friends. After a brief struggle with the Ferro rod, we were in business and settled in around the flames to watch as a couple of students began target practice with their own bows. Both were intimidatingly good.

Once the entire gang arrived Tyler began the lesson, starting with an overview of the different styles of bows. He had an impressive collection spread across the table, ranging from machine-made recurve bows to hand-carved survival bows—even one made of strategically melted PVC pipe. We would be making two types today: bundle bows, made by adding layers to the bow to build strength, and quickie survival bows, which are the opposite, made by taking one big piece of wood and reducing it enough that it bends evenly.

We spent the first half of the day making our own bundle bows—a style of laminated bow popularized by its use in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Predator. After that, Tyler noted, they appeared in a boy scout guidebook, and from then on bundle bows were canonized into survival bow sainthood. Bundle bows are made, as the name implies, by bundling several pieces of material together to increase the strength of the bow and tapering them out towards the ends to make the bow flexible. In my case, I used sticks of arrow cane, also known as river cane, bound together with duct tape, and strung with neon pink paracord. Another student used hazel and opted to lash the sticks together with cord.

The camp settled into a comfortable silence as we all wrestled with our respective materials. While Tyler helped another student identify hinges, or points of high stress in their bow, I found mine quite by accident when I attempted to string my bow and was greeted with a heartbreaking crack. The first bow casualty of the day, but not the last. Luckily, my bow was easily repaired by trimming the broken arrow cane and adding a few more layers of duct tape, resulting in a shorter, more powerful bow than before.

By the time we had all finished and taken a few test shots with varying degrees of success, it was time for a quick lunch break. When we returned, we were ready to tackle our next style of bow. Tyler unveiled a pile of Oregon ash, still green. “Carves like butter,” he raved. He sure loves his Oregon ash. Because we worked with green wood, these bows would only be temporarily functional. “Quickies,” he called them. Once they are fully dry they’ll crack if bent too far.

To begin, we sawed notches down the length of the wood perpendicular to the grain, leaving a space in the center for the bow handle. Next, we used whatever was on hand—backs of hatchets, firewood—to whack our knives down the grain and split the chunks apart, continually checking to make sure the wood doesn't twist. Several hours passed in this manner, just carving and whacking away by the fire.

We paused again for Tyler to teach us how to make Flemish loops at the ends of bowstrings that allow them to hook onto the notches on the ends of the bow. He crafted one with jute twine to demonstrate, his fingers moving mesmerizingly fast, explaining as he worked. Dogbane makes the best plant-based bowstring in the Pacific Northwest, he said, followed by stinging nettle, though lots of types of cordage will work in a pinch.

Returning to our own bows, we finished up as much as we could. Not everyone had reduced enough from their staves for the bow to bend enough to be strung, but those who had attempted to string them. Several bows snapped here, with the sound of a breaking heart. We soldiered on, and by the end of the day, everyone had made at least one functional bow.

To end the day, we had ourselves a little competition to see who could shoot a foam-tipped arrow the farthest. Many of us were pleasantly surprised by our own efforts, and we left eagerly anticipating the satisfaction of making more useful things by hand during tomorrow’s basketry lessons.


Day two began much the same as the first, though this time the fire was even more necessary. A cloud cover had descended, along with a damp chill that promised to make fine motor skills a bit of a challenge.

Chelsea took the lead today, guiding us over to a table spread with different types of baskets of her own making. Today we would attempt two styles, beginning with pine needle baskets.

To begin the baskets, we each grabbed a pre-cut circle of leather and an awl. Chelsea provided awls made of bone and teeth, as well as modern ones, and encouraged us to try them both to see the difference. Once we had all punctured a ring of holes around the leather’s edge, we were ready for the walls of our baskets. Chelsea bundled a few clusters of Ponderosa pine needles, secured them with a slip knot, and began to sew them to the leather. Continuing in this manner, she coiled the pine needles around the base, flaring outward as she went.

We returned to our own baskets, working around the fire, as we had the day before. This time, no silence settled over us. Instead, we chatted and laughed as we sewed, swapping small stories to pass the time. It was overwhelmingly peaceful and communal. Before we knew it our conversation had carried us through the morning and into lunchtime. My basket turned into more of a beer koozie than a basket, but everyone seemed pleased with their efforts.

After lunch, we regrouped in front of a tarp spread with long strands of English ivy that had been soaked in a bin of water for two days to keep them pliable. Chelsea and Tyler had harvested them in Portland, where it grows abundantly and invasively. These baskets began by creating a spoked structure with 6 sturdy vines and lashing them in an X shape using a smaller vine. Once that structure was secure, we began to weave more vines through the spokes, twining them around each other to form sturdy walls.

By now the sun had burned through the clouds and began to dry out the ivy, so we continually misted the strands with a spray bottle in often-vain attempts to keep them from snapping as we wove. I found this style of basket to be more difficult than the pine needle baskets, but the results were very satisfying. As we wove, Tyler told us a real-life survival story that kept us enraptured and distracted from the frustration of snapping vines.

After Chelsea showed us how to finish off our basket edges, we wrapped up our day by forming a circle and sharing things we were grateful for. I was grateful for a great many things. The lack of snow, the fire, the chance to learn something totally new. But the one thing that we were all grateful for was the feeling of community we felt as we talked and worked around the fire.

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