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Been thinking about Proenekke.

Discussion in 'Wilderness & Survival Skills' started by jackknife, Nov 22, 2010.

  1. jackknife

    jackknife Gold Member Gold Member Basic Member

    Oct 2, 2004
    I sat and watched the video's a couple of times through, and there's lots of great stuff there. The man was great, no question about it, and he and his videos have given me a great deal to think about. As a carpenter and craftsman, I doubt he had many equals. With very few tools he carved a living out of the most hostile bush country we have.

    But I think about his tools, and I see a theme repeating itself; the right tool for the job. And no fooling around with anything in the mid range. It was all or nothing. His cutting tools went from what looks like a medium size stockman slip joint to a cruiser ax. That was it. To Dick's way of thinking, if his pocket knife was not enough, then it was time for the ax. No half measures there.

    When I look back on some of the people I've known who made a living in the outdoors, they all seemed to be of the same mind. All had a sturdy pocket knife, but somewhere in their canoe, truck, fishing boat, shack, was an ax or hatchet. Growing up in the 1940's and 50's, I don't ever remember seeing a large chopper style of sheath knife anywhere. The sheath knives I did see were of the Case and Kaybar little finn types, with the stacked leather washer handles. Maybe about 3 and 1/2 inches in the blade. But I did see a great deal of old well used Eastwings, Plumb, and Vaughn hatchets around these same people.

    Being a knife knut, I know we have the "disease", we wouldn't be here if we didn't. So I wonder if maybe our view is tilted out of plumb a wee bit from reality because of our disease. Yes, we love knives, but are they the right tool for the job in a survival situation, or would we be better off like Dick, just using a tool made for chopping. Somehow, Dick Proenekke got by in the wilds of Alaska with a stockman style pocket knife, but had real chopping tools on hand. I watched the videos carefully, and I could see no large sheath knife on him. No rifle either, but I do wonder about that, being in Griz country.

    Someplace on this forum I saw the video of the video of the guy that was dumped off in the Canadian north country with nothing in his pockets, but he was with a native indian guide who had just an ax. It was amazing what the guide did with that ax. I recall he even made a fireboard, and did fine carving with that ax. It was his one indispensable tool for survival. No knife, just an ax.

    Some years ago, our oldest son, John, was in Costa Rica for several months on business for his company. Whille he was living in San Jose, he arranged for Karen and I to fly down to visit him. Knowing that both of his folks were nature nuts, he arranged for us to take one of those rain forest tours. While in the jungle for the trip I noticed one thing. The guides all carried a 12 inch machete in a nice leather sheath on their belt, and in a nylon pouch on the belt was a sak. They all had a basic sak, like a tinker model, and they used them around camp at night for small jobs. But if the sak was too small, then they pulled out the 12 incher on the belt and had at it. There was no middle ground in cutlery. Nothing between a pocket knife and a 12 inch blade. The guide who was point durring the day on the trail had a 20 something inch trail clearing blade, but the 12 inch job seemed to be the personal knife of choice. Aside from a sak.

    Of late, both the wifde and I have been desperate to cut our packs down to just the bare absolute minimum. In our 60's, we senior citizens need to pack as light as possible if we still want to go roam around the woods now and then. I've questioned my need for some things. LIke totally doing away with all mid size cutlery. Steel is heavy, so how much don't we need? If I have a good pocket knife, do I need anything else beside an emergency chopper? Am I hunting? No, so why would I need a 4 or 5 or even 7 inch knife? Both Karen and I carry personal folding kives like Opinels, or sak's, or even my old stockman.

    I have experimented with a 12 inch Ontario vs my old boy scout Plumb hatchet, and both are very good cutters of wood. But so is our folding saws and the Sven saw.

    No real conclusions, just mental musings and food for thought on how much do we need? Looking at Dick Proenekke and John Muir, maybe not as much as we think.

    1AbominAble1 likes this.
  2. JGON


    Mar 12, 2010
    I am a younger guy at 28, and I am coming to many of the same conclusions. I have a few thoughts on this topic.

    First of all, I am the proud owner of a new Gransfor's Bruks Wildlife hatchet, and I am beginning to be amazed by how much utility is in this little guy. I am amazed how capable it is, how much it can do. It is very well suited for a multitude of tasks. The weight concentrated at the head makes it a better chopper than any knife could be, but it also has other benefits that I did not forsee when I first bought it.

    Here is a pic of it in hand. Notice there is plenty of clearance between my fingers and a cutting surface. More on that later.

    When you choke up on the hatchet like this, or even when you go further and start putting your hand around the poll, or back side of the hatchet head, you have amazing control for detail work. With a knife for carving, your hand is off to the side of where the blade is applying pressure. With an axe, your hand is almost directly ABOVE your work, making carving so much easier. Also, even food prep is a breeze with this thing... probably better than any small or mid sized knife I own for the bush, because it is sharp as hell AND there is finger clearance so I can go up and down on a cutting board quickly.

    This is my first point. In a real scenario where you are trying to sustain yourself in the wilderness, the most useful tools are going to be the most valuable to you. A good axe or hatchet is one of the most useful tools available for bushcraft when you are trying to sustain yourself outdoors.

    My second point is this... Most of us just like knives, and like to have fun with them. It doesn't always have to be about "what tool is better for the job", because it's not about that for a lot of us. I love my hatchet, and it will be with me for every outdoor experience to come, but it doesn't mean that I'm not going to bring my Junglas anymore ever. Just because I've identified that my hatchet is a more useful tool than the Junglas, doesn't mean that I don't love using a big chopping knife out in the woods!

    If you're planning on going to Alaska on a 3 month expedition, bring the most efficient tools for the jobs you are planning on encountering. If you're going on a simple day hike or over night and have extra room in your pack and can shoulder the weight no problem, bring whatever floats your boat.

    Carl, if you are looking to keep things light, I honestly feel like a hatchet and a SAK could cover you for pretty much anything.

    1AbominAble1 likes this.
  3. Echodawg


    Jul 30, 2009
    I too have wondered about Proenekke's choice of tools. He did have a rifle, was mentioned in either the book or movie, cannot remember which.

    Pocket folder and a axe seems like a winning combination for the woods. Machete and folder for the jungle.
  4. ukknifer


    Jan 30, 2010
    I am sure he would have picked a multi-tool if he had one then.

    Great survivors will have their choice of tools
    Every age has its own tools
    B Griffin likes this.
  5. texastonydobbs


    May 25, 2007
    if you watch the video ,he also had hand saw and a set of wood chisels & File ,If I remember ? The man was Talented w/o a doubt I have a 2 set series on DVD
  6. baldtaco-II


    Feb 28, 2006
    Not like it matters much to what I'm going to report about tools but for the benefit of the tape I'll say the Proenekke stuff has a lot less impact on me now that it once did. I disagree about him being an especially talented carpenter. I think the rest of the the world throws up numerous offerings in wood that blow his clean out of the water. Sure he seems to have a dab hand at the rustic crafts type of woodworking, and is demonstrably a lot more capable at that than I'm ever going to be, but that's because I'm crap it and not because the world hasn't thrown forth a lot of equivalence there at two-a-penny. The first time I watched the movie it twanged at an emotive string and I liked it. Not sure why; may be because it was set in the way back when and not some bloke in a third world country today, perhaps some of it taps into my last vestiges of nostalgia, I'm fairly sure a lot of it got to me through the way it was shot and narrated – a comforting style from childhood that precedes the adventure yarns of Grizzly Adams that a lot of us found to be a veritable wonderland of cognitive escapism when we were small. Sure the movie is good stuff a pokes hard at the spirit of adventure but I have been very guilty of reading a lot more into it than I should have. On closer scrutiny I find that he was nowhere near as alone out there than the evoked images would portend. I had wondered about that because of his relationship to the National Parks Service and the logistics of all that filming, but I didn't wonder enough. I'm now of the understanding that he was in a very good position to borrow, buy, barter, and trade with a good many other folks that were also in that immediate area. I write this not to disparage him but because of “With very few tools he carved a living out of the most hostile bush country we have”. I'm wary of such descriptions especially when they are placed so close to a description of a man being dumped off in the Canadian north with little kit because I am aware of the misleading perceptions arising from the principle of contiguity. Proenekke was far from alone out there and of special relevance was an entire community at Port Alsworth with whom he had a close association let alone odd-bods setting up their shacks nearer to him. And has been noted “Proenneke might have been nearly emotionally self-sufficient but he was tethered to the Alsworths for provisions, mail service, and friendship”. On that, I don't take much stock by his inventory of tools and gear at any one time. If he'd have wanted X for a specific task accessing it was hardly have been the issue I would have originally believed.

    That aside I find you musings on what we really need quite thought provoking. I don't think we'll ever come to any firm conclusions on that because even to accomplish the same tasks we often seem to prefer very different solutions. For myself I usually pick a 4” FB a SAK and a saw, often with a pair of secateurs thrown in. I've got a mate that will come out on the same type of trip, doing much the same stuff, and his solution is an Emerson looking thing I hate and a 6” tanto in his pack. A skinflint I know wouldn't shell out for anything more than a Victorinox boning knife for the same tasks and I had to give him that. Then there's that tasks vary so much and the nature of what constitutes a genuine task and what is really just an excuse to use a knife. Regardless of the joys of forums such as this they certainly skew the issue for sure.

    Go to another forum say canoeing, or fishing, or even hunting and military and the role of a knife is usually just to satisfy sub-goals on route. Using a knife is not an end it itself. Accordingly, despite a few notable exceptions, we usually find a situation like you described with this “When I look back on some of the people I've known who made a living in the outdoors, they all seemed to be of the same mind. All had a sturdy pocket knife, but somewhere in their canoe, truck, fishing boat, shack, was an ax or hatchet. Growing up in the 1940's and 50's, I don't ever remember seeing a large chopper style of sheath knife anywhere”. Why, because people were doing something else and playing with knives wasn't the goal of what they were doing. I have friends like that now that carry knives from farmers to birdwatchers, and if they don't have to use their knife then great because it just means there wasn't an obstacle to what they were doing that required cutting. We could also slide in here those folks that bring tents or tarps, sleeping bags, stoves, freeze dried foods and all that. Go to their forms and one can see how easily a knife becomes marginalized and scaled down by sheer dint of the fact there are very few cutting type obstacles to be faced. On the flipside, I know a few people that like knives, or at least the idea of knives, yet because they live in track-housing under draconian legislation can do very little with the ones they have save prance around the house and a postage stamp sized bit of lawn with them. When they go out in the sticks they can finally unleash all their ideas about what their knives are. Rather than doing stuff with a cutting task as a sub-goal to be satisfied the overall all goal, the entire point of the exercise, is to go and cut and chop stuff and set fire to things. They invent tasks which will suit whatever style of knife they prefer because in the absence of any real task they have nothing but some knives in a draw to stare at that they like the idea of . Nothing at all wrong in that but it goes to show that beyond the vacillations of fashion we will never achieve unanimity because in addition to their being more than one way to skin a cat people will continue to fabricate different cats simply to give credence to the things they enjoy. Ever seen someone chop chain with a knife...
  7. harpoon41


    Dec 24, 2006
    That's a real good post jackknife, and I agree completely with you.
    I don't know how many times I've had guys pull out old knives and say, "This used to do it all." Now it takes them more time to figure out what knives to take then all their other gear.
    I believe we have too much time to imagine what we THINK we going to need as opposed to what is really needed.
    Before it was about getting the job done, now we ponder too long on how to do it.
  8. NothingCoherent


    Feb 2, 2010
    Great thread. Some very interesting points made. I'll throw in my 2c.

    I'm still young and have only just started paying much attention to the tools I carry in the last few years. I think this gives me a unique perspective on the topic. I haven't spent 5-10 years using one style of tool, becoming accustomed to it and creating bias. Instead, I've been learning from other people, and trying all the different methods I see. Trying to find out what really works through my own personal experience, and not what some gear reviewing dork on youtube says is best. I own hatchets, axes, machetes, larges knives, saws... you name it. I've used them all extensively, with the exception of my machete that has only seen use on a few trips.

    And in all my experience camping, hiking, and exploring here in BC, I've come to a conclusion. I've found the axe to be the real survival tool, NOT the knife.

    I should rephrase that, actually. The dedicated chopper is the real survival tool. In the south, that's a machete. Up north, it's an axe. It just depends on your local environment. But one thing stays true just about anywhere you go: the chopping tool is what gets work done. There are exceptions to this - places where a fixed blade knife will suffice (a treeless desert comes to mind; what good is a chopper there?), but for the most part I think I'm right.

    So why a chopper for survival? For me, it means shelter. It means fire during a downpour of rain where everything is soaked. It means easily and efficiently carving through large pieces of wood. I've tried doing it with a big knife (10"+ blade), I've tried doing it with a small hatchet, and I've tried doing it with a saw and mid sized knife (5-7" blade). They all work, some better than others, but they are all more difficult processes than they need to be. The best thing I've found I can bring is an axe, with a MINIMUM length of 19". This is just enough length to be used comfortably with two hands, but is still capable of fine work.

    That axe does everything I need. When I have an axe, I can get away with simply carrying a pocket knife with it for simple work... and even then, my axe still could do that work. I've cleaned rabbit with my axe before (granted, skinning a rabbit doesn't require much blade work at all, but still), I've gutted trout, I've built shelter with it, and I've built many, many fires in conditions where fire would have seemed impossible to most. What else do you need from a tool?

    I think people tend to have too much fun with their knives, and put them through jobs that a knife is not meant for. I know I have, and I've payed for it in broken or bent blades. Get an axe; I have yet to break one of those :thumbup:
  9. fixer

    fixer Banned BANNED

    Mar 9, 2000
    watch the video again he has a rifle and films one of his hunts for caribou or something. he just doesn't spend any time on the rifle, it's simply a tool to get the job done, just like all his other tools.
  10. Cpl Punishment

    Cpl Punishment

    Jan 28, 2006
    Let's be clear of what we are talking about:
    Regardless of the details of the videos, we're discussing Wilderness Living, not bushcrafting, camping or backpacking.

    Most of the time, backpackers carry everything with them, and have little use for a knife when traveling their established trails as fast as possible before setting up their tent and eating their freeze-dried dinner. If they have a kniofe or axe, it's because they want one, and plan to play with it on the way, or it's a just in case type of deal.

    A bushcrafter carries everything he needs with him, but rather than having ready-made everything, he's going with the purpose of building shelters and such when he beds down for the night. He'll needs tools the backpacker won't due to how he works. But, he can't carry the "right" tool for every job, because he's maintaining mobility, and likes to travel light. Anything more than a 3/4 axe will be too much, and often 18"-20" will be his max.

    A camper will often have use for an axe, presuming it's a primitive camp and they are using it for firewood and for setting up a shelter if he so chooses. He's closer to the primitive liver in that he can carry more weight, as he's going to a spot, and settling into a camp, even if he hikes/hunts/fishes from that point, he'll leave most of his gear in camp. A full size axe, and maybe a splitting maul serve him well.

    For a primitive liver, sure, why not have the right tool for every job? Axes, adzes, mauls, chisels, files, hammer/mallets, etc.

    Now, this brings us back to something I've talked about a lot. Historically, and in modern times where people live in what we'd call a primitive manner, the big tool rules. Axes, machetes, kukri, etc. The small knife seems to almost be an afterthought, as it's only use for eating and small detail tasks, it doesn't have to be of superb quality. The big, workaday tool does.

    Which brings us back to the idea that you have to analyze what you are wanting to do, where you are doing it, and what kind of safety margin you want. That determines what you need to carry.

    Oh, and let me say, there is one place the big knife rules: the high desert. In the areas I'm speaking of, there's little in the way of trees or big wood to chop. However, damn near everything has spikes that run you through for looking at them hard. BBQ tongs and a long knife (not necessarily 1/4" thick, but long) are very nice to have.
  11. KEmSAT-Survival


    Sep 23, 2008
    I think maybe you're confusing planned long term living with an emergency.
    If I were going to build a permanent house, such as a log cabin, then I'd go the exact way Proenekke went -- with the addition of a couple modern conveniences; not the least of which being a solar powered portable power supply and a chainsaw.

    Proenekke planned his foray into the wilderness for a long time before he did it. A BAK (Big Ass Knife) is usually a compromise between that pocketknife/axe dynamic; simply put, it's more of an "incaseshit" than a long term use solution. There's a reason the axe, adze, wedge, etc... were invented: they were needed.

    It's not so much as a "I'm gonna build a log cabin with nothin' but my Busse!" mindset, as it is a "You never know when something might happen that requires a day or four outdoors, that might require something heavier than a tarp; and I don't feel like heaving the weight/length of an axe around."

    The right tool for the right job. My ESEE-5 won't build a log cabin, but I can easily enough build a wikkiup with it. Same for my BK-9.

    You wouldn't catch me anywhere near the Canadian backwoods without an axe. I said "axe", not "hatchet", not "tomahawk", not "BAK".

    You'll also find some indigenous peoples don't carry anything at all other than a machete. The small knives are in the kitchen. That machete is their one and only.

    Sometimes it's preference, sometimes it's necessity.
  12. valcas1


    Feb 25, 2007
    :thumbup: +1 Well said.
  13. Shotgun


    Feb 3, 2006
    My most used tool when camping is my hatchet/hawk. Well, that's if I don't bring fancy beer than my most used tool is a bottle opener.:D

    As far as a knife goes, I've never needed one. :eek: I know shocking, but true. I do however carry one most of the time. A fancy custom one. Just cuz.:D
  14. sodak


    Mar 26, 2004
    Interesting post Jackknife. I think we would have had to live with him for a while to really get into his mindset, it's hard to do with just a video and book.

    He had a sheath knife, and he talked about using it when harvesting a critter that a bunch of wolves brought down and didn't eat. He mentioned the whole episode bringing his opinion of wolves down a notch.

    His weaponry was a .357 revolver and a 30-06 rifle, which he always referred to as his "heavy artillery". He talks about caching them both while he came down the the lower 48. He also discussed a grizzly charge that he stopped with the .357 (shot into the ground) - I think it was a bluff charge at him right in front of his cabin, and he was ready to get his "heavy artillery" if the revolver didn't stop it. The man must have had nerves of steel, I'd want a .340 Weatherby if I was living there. He referred to the grizzly as the "maniac in a fur coat". :D

    I do admire Dick for what he did and sharing it with us. No doubt he was a very talented craftsman. Someday, I'd like to go up there and see his place.
  15. Cpl Punishment

    Cpl Punishment

    Jan 28, 2006
    Used correctly, they can do that too. :p
  16. Shotgun


    Feb 3, 2006
    Yeah I just edc a Farmer so it's just a lot easier(read safer:p) to use the bottle opener.
  17. SubaruSTi


    Nov 28, 2005
    I used to spend everyday in the woods in the winter/fall. I would have a sheath knife and a axe or a machete. I could have easily gotten by with a folder, the axe was better than the machete unless I was wanting to cut a ton of vines from the trees.

    IMO if you were in a survival type situation a fixed blade is better because if you loose or damage your axe you are without any larger tools. At least with a fixed blade you can split wood.
  18. Briarbrow


    Aug 18, 2010
    Ötzi as well was a small knife and ax man.

    when you visit the cabin, are all his tools and gear on display?
  19. jackknife

    jackknife Gold Member Gold Member Basic Member

    Oct 2, 2004
    I think that is what may have planted the seed in my mind to cut out the middle man, so to speak. With both ends of the spectrum covered, I wondered at the need to carry a middle size knife. Kind of like a car; if a Ford Focus in too small, why buy a midsize and not go right for a Crown Vic?

    If I have a 3 inch knife for fish cleaning and bushcraft, do I really need a 5 or 6 inch knife if I have a nice GB or small machete. I guess I am questioning the real usefulness of a midsize knife.

    But then I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandilier, so what the heck. I've been wrong before.

  20. fnc


    Nov 13, 2005
    I really like the Proenekke dvd and I read his book decades ago.

    He might have had more tools than many of you remember.
    Example: he split wood with a single bladed axe or maul,
    not with his double bit axe.

    The video maker guys had to boil down 30 years into an hour.
    Do you think they might have left something out?
    Also, you do not know what was in his pack or on his belt,
    from day to day. You see the pictures he made and they selected.

    In his (or our) hiking alone in Alaska bear country, a large knife
    would not be out of order, as a last resort defense or for
    survival. It is a judgment call: weight vs probable utility.

    Even if I preferred a long handled axe (at least 32 inches), I would
    not carry either of my "house" axes with me. I would take another
    axe, which I could afford to lose.

    Peolpe who live in wilderness, sometimes have a cache of critical
    items, away from the cabin, hidden from thieves. It is not widely
    talked about, I suspect, to keep thieves from being challenged to
    a scavenger hunt.

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