Thursday, 16 March 2017

Bush etiquette

By request ..

Whether you've moved to the country or you're just visiting, there are do's and don't's surrounding how to get the best out of a ramble. I spent my childhood in rural areas, then spent the next 30-some years in cities. When we moved out here to the wilderness - it really is wilderness as soon as you set foot outside this village - there were some things I remembered, but there was a lot I had to re-learn about the vulnerabilities humans face in what we Canadians call 'the bush'.

This isn't the city, nor it is a National Park designed for humans' recreational enjoyment in a quasi-wilderness environment. It's a land unto itself, it's the land, and it's bigger than you might think. It's gorgeous but it doesn't suffer fools gladly!

Since coming up here, we've had occasional visitors come up from the city who have astounded me, really, with the truly risky - or rude - behaviour they exhibit. It's not their fault, they simply don't know that they are in a completely different context from what they are used to. I've watched in horror as someone stomped along, off the path, crushing delicate spring wildflowers underfoot (trout lilies, they're tiny and so oh pretty) while they yabbered on to their companions about some trivial matter, just because they're so used to talking all the time. (Hint - if you've visiting someone in the country and they invite you to go for a walk, it's so they can show you where they live. Save the chatting for the kitchen table over tea.)

I've seen - and stopped - someone from setting off into the thick undergrowth 'to explore the forest', not knowing that without even so much as a deer path, finding her way out again would have been a challenge, not to mention the fact that she was heading straight into a blackberry patch.

City people, through no fault of their own, don't always know how to dress, either. Sandals & shorts are not appropriate even on the hottest day; the wild animals have thick hides and fur for good reason, you know!

I've been doing some pretty serious foraging for about 15 yrs now, and the more time I spend at it the more respect I've had to develop for the many ways the wilderness can surprise and sometimes inflict damage on the delicate human body. I know how easy it is to get turned around in a forest, how painful deer fly bites are (really nasty things deer flies), how easy it can be to twist an ankle in a hidden groundhog burrow; in short, that it takes a sharp eye, a careful step and a thick hide for a walk in the country to be all that it can be.

So go slowly. Look down at your footing. Look up at the treetops and everywhere in between.

Our best rambles often occur on drives; we love the solitude of the gravel roads in the back country. We'll drive til some scene stops us in our tracks, then get out and wander for a while, me poking about with plants, Paul taking photos (he really has a great eye!). Those drives & rambles have been a great way to get to know our area, so if you've just moved to (or are looking for a home in) the country, I highly recommend it. 10 years, no, make that 11 years in, (wow time flies) we now have dozens of favourite drives and countless places to stop and poke around. Changing, as everything does, over time and with the seasons, I doubt we'll ever get tired of this place.

Here are some pointers we've learned over the years, some of them seem obvious, some not so much, some we've learned the hard way, some we've learned from local folks who've been here forever and were kind enough to share their wisdom. There's a steady trickle of city people moving up here and sadly, a steady trickle who grow disenchanted and leave after a couple of years, simply because they didn't know how to make the necessary adjustments to their habits and 'lifestyles'.

Sometimes I think I should print out a little pamphlet of the do's and don't's for the newcomers and give it to them when they arrive. If I did, it would look something like this:

1) Walk facing traffic - Sure, we're all supposed to know this, but it's amazing how often I've seen some newcomer walking or jogging with their backs to the flow of traffic, headphones on. Argh! City or country, gravel road or paved, if there's no sidewalk, just face the damn traffic, okay? And wear bright colours. And skip the canned music! (sorry for the ranty tone, it's a pet peeve)

2) Carry a walking stick - Otherwise known as a poking stick, there's a hundred and one uses for that stick. I keep telling myself some day I'll have a permanent walking stick, but my habit is to just find a good fallen branch whenever I set out.

No, it's not a weapon. In winter, it's a way to measure the snow-depth, and believe me, snow depth will vary in unexpected ways according to temperature, wind driven drifts and the lay of the land. Even if you're wearing snowshoes, it's good to know what you're dealing with, snow wise. Your walking stick might keep you from hitting the ground if you're on icy terrain, too.

(Speaking of ice, stay off it. River, lake or swamp, ice is unpredictable and kills people, every year. If you're into ice fishing, learn from and go with the locals. Not the local beer drinking yahoo, of course, but yahoos are a post for another day.)

Your stick is a way to measure the depth of that grassy ditch you want to clamber through to get to the chokecherries (and find out if there's water there, and if so, how deep). It's a way to pull down the branches of said chokecherries, too, if it has a hook to it, which it should. The stick is handy for investigating leaves of potential poison ivy or anything else you're not sure you ought to touch but you really want to investigate. The stick is handy for poking at any animal spoor (droppings) too. That's not yucky, it's interesting. Spoor identification is good to know; what's in it is a clue to who left it. Since you'll see fewer tracks out there than you might expect, spoor is a great way to find out who else is in the neighbourhood.

3) Know your first aid plants - If you find yourself with a mean bug bite or you've had a run-in with invisible stinging nettles, what can you reach for to relieve it? Plantain, sure, but plantain doesn't always grow where you'd expect, so what else can you use? How about bleeding, which plants can stop bleeding? Or get you back on your feet if you twist your ankle? No one wants to carry a first aid kit every time they go for a walk, but believe me, stuff happens. First aid is all around you, though, if you know how to look.

4) Dawn and dusk belong to the predators (and skunks) - That's when you have the best chance of seeing deer or birds, too, but the early morning and the evening are when the bears & coyotes and whatever other large animals you may have in your area are out hunting. Or berry picking. Yes, coyotes eat fruit, as of course, do bears. So to be on the safe side, I just don't go out at those times, especially during berry or wild plum season. When we first had our cottage the lady next door told me "when I go for a walk, I sing and pray aloud, so's to let the bears know I'm coming". Good advice. I love bears but I do not, ever, want to meet one on the trail. Neither do you. If you have a lot of bears in your area, I recommend you talk to your local expert about how to deal with them. Dealing with bears is not my area of expertise, avoiding them is my only strategy.

Granted, most of the time the birds - who see everything - will have announced your presence and the direction you're taking to the whole world, and the breeze (if there is one) carries your scent to a certain degree. However, it is still possible, if you're downwind or the bird message doesn't get through, to surprise a skunk or porcupine or raccoon. If you have a dog with you, keep it leashed.

5) Black flies and mosquitoes love the smell of shampoo - so don't wash your hair until after your walk. No smelly soaps, no deodorant, no sunscreen, no detergent smell or fabric softener on your clothes either. (I always wear yesterday's clothes during peak bug season). Biting insects prefer the people who've had a drink the night before (especially beer drinkers) over the tea-totallers, too, which is good to know, so don't ramble with a hangover. Or go ahead, but I bet you'll only do that once!

A handy trick my step-father taught me (oh lord, the bugs at his place!) is to cut a 'switch' of something; he taught me to use cedar but just about any green branch about as long as your forearm, with some foliage attached, will do. Flick it back and forth and around you, like a horse switches its tail. It won't save you but it might help you stay sane. Oh yeah, and deerflies love blueberry patches, so don't be thinking picking wild blueberries is a romantic past time. It can be hell on wheels.

The uniform in bug season, I'm sorry to say, is long sleeves, (I like a man's shirt, preferably white) long pants tucked into socks, sturdy shoes, a hat, a bandanna or scarf for your neck that if things get really bad, you might want to put up over your mouth and nose, because yes, blackflies will go up your nose and in your mouth and in your hair and oh god I am not looking forward to blackfly season, can you tell? In other words, keep bare skin at a minimum. Old Oliver, who knew a thing or two about the bush, shared with me his unique approach to keeping the blackflies off the back of his neck. He'd tuck a dryer sheet, a really stinky one, into his baseball cap so it hung down to about his collar. I know I just said they're attracted to the smell of fabric softener, but when it's that strong, he swore it kept them off. If you have to be out there working for any length of time, try it.

Blackflies take chunks out of tender skin and leave you bleeding. Deer and horseflies take chunks and leave a welt that can get hot, swell up, hurt and itch at the same time. I don't have to tell you about mosquitoes, of course. Each has their own season, each has their own favourite environment (mosquitoes favour anywhere there is cedar, blackflies love shady pine forests, deerflies will be waiting for you in the meadow, etc.), all of which you'll get to know. And none of that is written in stone, either, they have their preferences but it's not like they stick only to certain areas.

You can predict the weather by insect behaviour too; if the mosquitoes suddenly get really fierce, for example, it's probably about to rain. But that's enough about the insects, I'm getting itchy writing this bit!

6) Watch for trap-lines - This might not apply everywhere but it's something to keep in mind. Fur trapping still goes on, believe it or not - where do you think the fur trim for your hood comes from? It's probably coyote. Muskrat, mink, beaver and fox are still good money makers, too, so is bear. Sad but true. It's perfectly legal in many counties and municipalities and even some provincial and national parks (and of course there are plenty of illegal trap lines as well). This is something it's good to ask the locals about. Of course, locals can lie .. so better to be safe.

Trap lines are most often set up along the margins of ponds, near streams and culverts. The main season for them is winter, but sometimes they're still there in the other seasons. By law, they're supposed to be marked, but generally not with a nice big flashing neon sign that says "warning, do not step here, danger of lethal steel traps you could lose a foot in". No, it's more likely to be 'marked' with something like a beer bottle or pop can stuck on a branch at about shoulder height (give or take). Or it might be a ribbon or a piece of cloth. The traps are well hidden under vegetation and/or snow, or sometimes under the surface of the water; you will rarely be able to see them. If you have the urge to poke around near a culvert or beaver pond (and who doesn't?) please, check carefully for anything that could pass for a marker.

Often enough you'll see those types of markers and they mean something else, like "this way to the pot plantation" (or hunt camp or love shack). In any case, keep your eyes open along the road, especially near streams and culverts and if you see anything that could be a marker, stay the hell out of that zone. And again, keep your dog leashed. I know of someone who lost her border collie that way, because dogs don't see the markers. It was incredibly sad.

7) Respect private property - Don't wander onto anyone's land without permission, and stay out of picturesque falling down houses and barns. Period. Ask permission to get close enough to photograph any old buildings, or to pick those luscious plums on the other side of the fence, you'll usually get it, but if you don't or can't, stay out. Once you have permission, be respectful. And remember, it is very easy to get turned around in the forest. Mark your trail somehow as you go in so you can find your way back out, or even better stick to the old logging road (most forests have them).

8) Farther is not necessarily better - If you're just looking for exercise, pick a walk-able route and have at 'er. But if you're more interested in learning about the plants, the lay of the land and the wildlife, you'll learn more by taking short walks over the same ground frequently than you will on a longer ramble. Learning to use all your senses, you don't have to go far at all to find lots of different stuff to poke at, taste or wonder about, and if you're like me, you find even more on the way back. It's the slow, careful walker who finds the usnea tufts on the dead pine, the chaga on the birch, the wild ginger in the undergrowth. Stake out your berry patches early by learning what their leaves look like, then come back and check them often so the animals don't beat you to it. And if you sing as you go (see above), the birds will be curious and hang out with you.

9) Walk with a partner - As you get to know the territory, it's best to walk with someone else. Go alone later on. You don't have to talk to each other, in fact silence is golden on the trail (but it's nice to hold hands!).

10) Snakes! -  We don't have any dangerous snakes in our area, but a reader, "forrealone" does, and she has offered some important info on the subject: please scroll down through comments to see it.

There's more of course. Much more. There's how to deal with the talkative old man who stops his car and bends your ear (be polite and don't believe half of what he tells you), there's dogs (ignore, keep walking is a good policy), there's .. oh I don't know, I'm sure someone will add to this list in comments!


  1. Don't try to save baby animals. Mama's around.

    1. RIGHT! I knew I forgot something important!

    2. Probably one of the most dangerous scenes I witness all summer long is tourists stopping on the side of a busy highway to take pictures of moose mamas with their calves. Cute as can be, but mama moose is very protective and often the calf gets spooked and runs into traffic. But crowding a mama moose and her calf to get a nice selfie never ends well.

    3. Aw jeeze! Some people just don't have the sense they were born with.

      Do you stop and tell them off? I would.

    4. I have, but usually when one tourist stops, more stop, and soon it's a gaggle. Us locals know what it means when there's a bunch cars stopped and people with cameras taking pics on the side of the road. So we slow down and try to let oncoming traffic know there are a bunch of "idjits" on the road, but lots of accidents every year.

    5. Somebody needs to get some of the local ornery seniors together for some vigilante tourist control. It really is shameful.

      We're getting a smattering of tourists up here in recent summers. I hope we haven't been 'discovered'.

    6. Moose are scary all right. I was driving west once with some acquaintance who had an iffy car. We were on a 150 mile stretch of highway, (no farms or houses or anything) between Hearst and Longlac on the northern Ontario Trans-Canada route,and it was pitch black. The alternator (or generator, I forget) decided to die and the headlights dimmed to nothing. We could keep on driving, in the dark,(car will run but no charge goes to the battery or accessories) or stop and never get started again. There was no traffic at all in either direction at that time of night,(and not much in the day either).
      We opted to slow down and keep going. There were clouds that night, so we did not even have the moon. At 40 miles an hour we thought we might make it to Longlac, where there was ONE gas station that I remembered from another trip. Suddenly the tingly feeling of something made the driver turn on the headlights for one second. There was a moose the size of a barn smack in the middle of the road 20 feet in front of us. The car stopped. The moose looked at us for a minute and wandered off in the bush. Behind it was a mooselet. Good thing it did not feel threatened.

  2. Birds announcing the world my presence,blueberry picking with deerflies side by side. Haha! I see myself wearing my husband's yesterday shirt down to my knees, my face is covered with a cheescloth, a fabric softener hanging down my neck, and a John Deere (freebee) hat is loosely sitting on my head. Hehehe! Thank you for the chuckle.

    1. Tuck that shirt in and you're good to go!

  3. Still laughing at myself. So, my neighbour suggested to hike together. I dont suppose you suggest I hold her hand while hiking :)
    In all seriousness, I want to thank you for the great tips and pointers. Finding a stick with a hook is my next mission before heading out again.

    1. No problem, and Tim's tip (above) is an important one too.

      It's harder to find a stick without a sort of hook in it! I usually leave my day's stick where I think I'll find it next time, but it's always gone.

  4. You sure can tell you have been at this for a long time! I do believe what you have learned would certainly be helpful to many.

    1. I'm hoping for more comments about considerations that would be relevant to different areas. For instances, we have no poisonous snakes here, so I can't address that. Or quicksand lol.

    2. Well, we have a few venemous snakes around where we live. In our yard, I have encountered copperheads and water moccasins. Your walking stick idea is perfect to scare them off since they are not aggressive towards humans and will slither away quite quickly. However, one would be very unwise to move aside large rocks or wood with your hand. Many snakes hide beneath there. Again, a decent stick comes in handy. Getting bitten, which happened to one of my neighbors, by a poisonous snake requires immediate medical attention. If you are going into the woods, you best be dressed appropriately and KNOW what to do if bitten. Unfortunately with most folks terrified of snakes, their first reaction is to kill first, check for danger after. I have rescued many a snake from instant death. My neighbors know I will take care of the problem if they will let me. There is a proper way to handle snakes primarily to protect them from harm. Best thing to do is leave them alone. Walk away. They don't chase after you! Lol

    3. Excellent comment Linda, thank you! I'll put a note in the blog post to guide folks here.

  5. To all country confident people out there. Hear a story from a city born, grown person: There was once a very naive city woman who grew up in a far away land, and ended up living in a different far away land. Canada! She loved the squirells playing catch in her city narrow street. One rainy day, her door was knocked on gently. When she opened the door, she saw the most beautiful, vulnerable eyes that carried all sadness, love and innocence and more. It was a baby racoon. It asked to come inside, but she closed the door on it gently.
    Whenever this city person goes out to bush, she carries those moments with her. A bit of guilt, a bit of awe, a wide smile. No fear. How about that!

    1. Aww. Lovely.

      And smart - baby raccoons have craaaazeee bad manners.