December 19, 2018
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Puckerbrush Primitive Festival boasts bushcraft in eastern Maine

Arrows fletched with red feathers arced through the air at the moving target, a disk of foam hurtling across the shooting range. Every arrow missed and plummeted to spear the grass-covered ground.

Sounds of disappointment came from the line of archers, yet all of them smiled. The game was addictive.

“Can you think of anything more cool than this?” Thea Hetzner said Saturday as she watched her two young sons ready their next arrows.

Traditional archery was one of many activities offered at the Puckerbrush Primitive Festival, a new event held in Washington County last weekend. People traveled from near and far to attend the small festival, which celebrated outdoor survival skills and craftsmanship.

Hetzner and her sons were from Queens, New York, and were in Maine visiting her parents in Steuben. When they heard of the festival, she thought it sounded like a fun way to spend the afternoon.

“It’s actually against the rules where we live to touch the grass,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. So I bring them up here whenever I can.”

Her sons, ages 9 and 11, had never even held bows before. They stood alongside teens and adults to shoot at the moving targets, cheering when someone occasionally hit one. Most of the archers were using hand-made primitive bows made by Stim Wilcox of Machiasport, who led a demonstration on bow-making earlier that day.

“They’re having the time of their lives,” Hetzner said. “I was not kidding when I said they’d stay here all night if they could.”

The new festival was hosted by the Pleasant River Fish & Game Conservation Association at their club grounds in Columbia. Organizers saw it as a way to broaden the club’s horizons and attract new members.

Founded in the mid-1950s, PRFGCA has a history of shaping hunting and fishing laws in eastern Maine. The club also is known for hosting shooting events and hunting seminars and sponsoring youth to attend outdoor camps. Today, the club has about 500 members.

“Locally, we’re kind of known as the gun club,” Larry Balchen, president of PRFGCA, said. “I think we’ve reached the limit for membership that we can expect for that, which means we really need to expand and diversify to get some more people, younger people, involved.”

“You’ve got to be more diverse to survive,” Columbia resident Steve Plumhoff, who joined PRFGCA 15 years ago, said. “There are a lot of people here who have a lot of things to offer. It’s time to draw some of those people in.”

The Puckerbrush Primitive Festival was a big step away from the club’s normal activities. In fact, firearms were not permitted at the event.

“We’re putting our toes in the water, so to speak,” Balchen said. “Really, our intent is to get on the map, and I think we’re doing that.”

About 50 guests attended the event, Balchen said, some coming from as far away as Rhode Island and Connecticut. An additional 20 or more people either were leading workshops or helping run the festival as volunteers. Admission was $10 for adults and free for children.

“We’re really pleased with the turnout for a first-time event,” Balchen said, smiling. “Actually, I think we’re in the black. We paid for our porta-potties by lunchtime.”

A longtime resident of Jonesport, Balchen has been interested in bushcraft — a general term for wilderness skills — since he was child and his father gave him “The Book of Camping and Woodcraft” by Horace Kephart. Originally published in 1906, the book is a compilation of the practical outdoor skills Kephart learned while living in the Great Smoky Mountains, sprinkled with quotes from classic literary works, including “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Merry Adventures of Robinhood.”

Over the years, Belchan has continued to learn a variety of wilderness skills and has found his niche in knifemaking. He often connects with like-minded people on BushcraftUSA.com, a forum with more than 50,000 members.

To plan the Puckerbrush Primitive Festival in Columbia, Belchan looked to larger bushcraft gatherings held in the west, such as Rabbitstick and Wood Smoke, both held in Idaho, and the Winter Count in Arizona.

Belchan invited anyone in the area with wilderness skills — from flint knapping to shelter building — to share their knowledge at the Maine festival. Talks and hands-on demonstrations were planned throughout the weekend.

“There are a lot of people bringing some really mad skills to the table,” he said. “This has been a good thing.”

Each festival attendee was handed a schedule, which included demonstrations on hide preparation, birch bark container construction, primitive shelter building and stone projectile knapping.

“I’ve learned so much today in just the hours I’ve been here,” Kody Priddle, who drove 3½ hours from his home in Lisbon to be at the event, said. “I’ve done friction fire before, but it’s so refreshing to learn new perspectives on a skill.”

One of the most popular demonstrations at the festival was primitive fire-starting led by Jay Beal, 21, of Marion Township. He learned the skill of fire starting from his father, Tim Beal, who picked it up at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity about 20 years ago.

“If you really need a fire, you want to put everything you can in your favor,” Jay Beal said while sitting on the grass and whittling a drill, or spindle, from the trunk of a dead balsam fir tree he harvested from the nearby forest.

Starting with the tree, he constructed a bow drill set: a harth board, drill, handhold and bow.

He then used the tools to create friction. With his bare foot holding down the hearth board, he wrapped the bow’s string around the drill and placed the bottom of the drill on the hearth board. He then sandwiched the drill with the handhold and started moving the bow back and forth, slowly, spinning the drill. Soon, smoke started to rise from where the bottom of the drill spun against the hearth board, creating a round groove in the balsam wood.

“Balsam smoke stings the eyes,” he said, moving his head back to catch a breath. “Cedar wood’s more pleasant.”

After only a minute or so, the friction produced enough heat and wood dust to create a tiny glowing coal.

“This is a time to relax and take a breath, because the most important part is not over,” Beal said.

Slowly, he lifted the coal and placed it in a nest of cedar bark. Cupping the smoking bundle in his hands, he held it in front of his face and blew on it ever so gently. The smoke thickened and an orange flame flickered to life.

“We will definitely be holding it again next year,” Balchen said after the weekend’s festivities were over. “There’s been a lot of after-the-fact buzz on the bushcrafting discussion forums, and many there are expressing interest in a 2016 event.”

Learn more about the Pleasant River Fish and Game Conservation Association at prfgca.org.


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