It was already snowing when I arrived at the campsite to join the Survival and Naturalist Immersion Course crew for the second day of their stone and bone toolmaking weekend. As I chatted with Chelsea and Tyler about what to expect from the day, the group dispersed for their “sit spots.” This, Chelsea informed me, was a time for students to be alone in nature and practice awareness. It was also a time to collect scat. “For making pitch glue,” she assured me, but having once been sent on a mission to find a left-handed screwdriver, I was skeptical. While everyone else hunted for droppings, I was left to contemplate Tyler’s handiwork—an intimidating spread of various spearheads, arrowheads, bone tools, knapped colored glass blades, and ornamental stone knapped pieces.
Returning from their excursions, the group congregated around the fire, warming their empty hands. Nobody discovered any droppings, but one student returned with a deer leg and part of a spine, providing us with the perfect segue to the bone toolmaking portion of our day. Tyler dragged a large bin of assorted bones next to the fire pit and motioned for us to grab our own. As we picked through, he explained which bones naturally lend themselves towards making which tools — an elk jaw is already a saw, and can tear through green wood as easily in death as it did in life. Bones can be filed to points with the rough surface of basalt, or if you’ve got one handy and don’t mind a little historical anachronism, a steel rasp. File a few notches in the flat edge of that jawbone and you’ve got yourself an even finer sawblade that doubles as a throwing stick. Tiny bones make great fish hooks, needles, and awls. Long hollow bones can be cracked strategically by scoring select areas and giving them a good whack, then sharpened to a blade or a point. The marrow inside makes for some of the best bait you could ever want for your traps, a point quickly proven by the camp dog Hoosier, who delightedly snapped up all the bits of marrow now littering the frozen ground. One student made a handle for a knife blade. Another made a multitool out of a large scapula. I made… a pointy bone.
While we rasped away at our various bone tools, Chelsea tended the camp stove. When our bones were satisfactorily sharp, we turned our attention to the dark sludge she had diligently stirred for the past hour. The recipe is simple enough: charcoal, sap, and scat. Only go for dried out herbivore scat, they explained. The broken-down plant fibers found in there give pitch glue additional strength. Once all the ingredients are sourced, the next step is to make a double boiler. For you home chefs out there—yes, it’s just like tempering chocolate, only with, you know, scat. For those of us who are less kitchen inclined, a double boiler is essentially just a pot of boiling water with a second pot on top, so you can heat something gently over the steam rather than putting it directly on the heat source. If you have a spare pot you’re willing to turn into a designated pitch glue pot (you probably won’t want to eat oatmeal out of this anytime soon), go for it. In a pinch, you can make your own double boiler out of a few strategically cut beer cans, or as one student used, some lovely diced tomato cans.
Once the ingredients were thoroughly warmed and combined, Tyler dipped a stick into the tarry mixture, twisting it around like a fork in pasta. As it cooled, the pitch glue firmed up enough to be molded around the stick, until it hardened into what looked to me like a forbidden pocky. Just to be clear, do not eat this, folks. You may, however, hold a lighter up to your pitch stuck until the glue melts enough to be applied to wherever you may need.
We didn't get very far into the finer points of pitch glue application before Chelsea and Tyler announced they had a surprise for us, and that we’d need to clean the campsite and head over to another location before we lost the little remaining daylight. A flurry of cleaning and tent-packing ensued. Students sorted through piles of flaked obsidian and opal leftover from the previous day’s lithic reduction lessons, snagging the useable pieces before raking the rest of the debitage into a pile. Tyler buried the heap alongside a modern coin to ensure anyone who discovered the pile wouldn’t mistake it for an archeological site.
Our campsite restored to order, we caravaned over to a trailhead in the Oregon Badlands and set out into the misty plains. Through thickets of waving grass and sparse junipers, we eyed the dense, low-hanging cloud looming ahead. Undeterred, we marched towards it, identifying rabbitbrush, antelope brush, and cheatgrass along the way. Before long we came to the mouth of a great cave, sealed off with metal bars to protect the colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats hibernating within, a sign explained. Or is it to keep something from getting out? Something to consider… In any case, we moved on, further into the mist, until we encountered another cave, larger than the first, this one with its gaping maw unencumbered by metal grates.
Chelsea looped a rope around the base of a sturdy bush, and we lowered ourselves down the snow-slicked descent to the mouth of the cave. In the clearing by the cave entrance sat an enormous fernbush. Chelsea and Tyler had never encountered one so big nor so far north, leading them to speculate that the people who lived there may have cultivated it some several thousand years ago. And then, there behind the fernbush, were the petroglyphs. At first, I could only make out a glimpse of ochre stripes, then as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I began to recognize more shapes. A humanoid figure, a four-legged creature of sorts, and a handful of others that I won’t attempt to describe for fear of unwittingly revealing glimpses of my psyche à la Rorschach. Taking care not to touch the walls of the cave, we examined the etchings in relative silence, marveling at the thought of communicating across centuries.
When we had seen our fill, we hoisted ourselves out of the hollow and found ourselves deeper than ever inside the fog cloud. Navigating carefully by the few trees we could see, Tyler guided us towards a clearing for our final lesson of the day. This field, Tyler said, was full of debitage. Thousands of pieces of obsidian, remnants of what must have been an old common area where tools were made, lay just beneath our feet. We spent the last moments of daylight scouring the area for the tiny stone flakes, each one a connection to the past and the people who, like us, had surely spent snowy days crafting tools around a fire.
About the Author...
Megan Freeman is a curious researcher, writer, and aspiring naturalist, by which she mostly means she hopes to continue finding delight in birds, mushrooms, and lichens. After an unexpected turn of events landed Megan in central Oregon, she took to familiarizing herself with the flora and fauna as a way to make her new circumstances feel like home. A quick web search for local naturalist resources led her to Nighthawk Naturalist School, where she was thrilled to find like-minded but infinitely more knowledgeable naturalists.