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26000 words
Rob F. Sanderson
National Airport
Hangar2, Box 217
Washington, D.C.


Living Off The Land
by
Rob F. Sanderson

           Returning servicemen and other adventurous people who are tired of ordinary life routines:

           Pioneering is not finished in the United States. If you want to lead a completely independent life in the great out-of-doors, hunting and fishing everyday just like the early woodsmen and pioneers - it's not too late.

           Here's one example of such a life, living on a houseboat, nomading nature's water highways and living off the bounty of Mother Earth. Maybe this is just the sort of life you are looking for

Living Off The Land

           The other day as we bumped along in an army truck on the dusty road from the airbase to Casa Blanco, I overheard a corporal talking to a pfc. about his postwar personal plans.

           "People talk about jobs for servicemen after the war," he was saying. "I don't want a job working for someone else. I want to make my own living, out where I can hunt and fish, live off the land and travel around some. I wonder if I could?"

           Sure you can, corporal. There are hundreds of places in the USA where a man can, with no more than five hundred dollars capital, make an independent living the old American pioneer way by trapping, fishing, hunting, pearling, bee hunting, collecting valuable roods and barks, getting bounty money for pests, and lead an entirely independent life in the great outdoors with only himself and mother nature to please.

           A lot of servicemen, and others too, think the same way the young corporal does. I have talked to them in Panama, Africa and Europe, and most of their postwar plans have ideas along this line. Most of them hunted and fished before the war, but army life has converted many newcomers to independent ways of outdoor living.

           Often we hear it said; "I was born fifty years too late. There's no more adventure or romance left in the United States." Undoubtedly these people are dreaming of frontier days when all a man needed was a rifle and an axe to "live off the land". Well, it can still be done, but a bit more equipment is recommended. There is no big line on the map out west with the word "frontier" written along it, but there are lots of little frontiers, where the land has not been suitable for agriculture, where a man can still live off the land and have a swell time doing it, if he never expects to get rich in a financial way.

           But who can judge riches by dollars when a man has food the best wild game and bounty of the earth, a cozy place to live in, all his essential wants satisfied, lives his life amid the plenty of the outdoors and can go hunting and fishing every day of the year?

           For a man who likes this sort of life and does not want to be tied down to any one place, I know of nothing better than a snug house boat on one of America's winding rivers. I was born along a good sized river, spent most of my times as a youth in river boats of one type or another, and have house boated the Mississippi as far south as Louisiana. It is a most pleasant, easy life, and I take pleasure in describing it for others.

           Our boat was large enough for two men to eat, sleep, and live in, well roofed and completely screened in. Although ours was somewhat smaller, for two men living permanently aboard, a size 24 feet long and 8 foot abeam is recommended. We moved the boat around at will; if the fishing was better in the next bayou we moved our craft over to the fishing and often fished right off the rear deck. With a short line we caught all the catfish and turtles we could eat. We had a live box to keep the fish in until we used them for the table. The turtles, which made fine soups and also tasted well roasted, were kept in a burlap sack in the rear hold. Sometimes we found the round white eggs of large turtles, too, about the size and appearance of ping-pong balls.

           >Keeping house was never simpler. We sawed out a trap door in the side by the table, and we just reached outside to wash the dishes in the water there, then put them in the sun to dry and sterilize. Scraps, sweepings, and fish cleanings were whisked away by the cool current; it was no trouble to keep the environs clean. When we wanted a swim, we jumped overboard, and most of the summer we wore nothing but a pair of shorts and went barefooted as we seldom walked on land. All along the shore were huge piles of driftwood left by floodwater. This dry, seasoned wood was excellent firewood and a load could be picked up easily in a few minutes with our small skiff.

           When we went anywhere, we found travel in the skiff easier than walking. If the distance was short, or across a shallow passageway or bar, we rowed; if not we used a low horse powered outboard motor which was economical and powerful enough to push the skiff along at eight miles per hour, or to steer the big boat going downstream. In fall there is an abundance of waterfowl in season, as well as a wide variety of shore game, which inhabits the river bottoms. Most of the rivers have wide bottomlands which flood periodically and so are unused and grown to an almost jungle like tangle of big trees, vines, cane breaks, and thickets. Among these wild bottom woods are many little lakes, formerly a part of the riverbed, which were "cut-off" during high water. The outlets silted in and soon became overgrown with cane and trees. Many of these lakes support a large population of fish and furbearers.

           During fall and winter seasons, good trapping prevails. Fifty or more steel traps of sizes one to three are required, depending on the length of the line and the animals trapped for. If there are many muskrats about, more traps will be used, as the population of these profitable little animals, if conditions are favorable, is very dense. I once caught forty-odd muskrats in three nights with eighteen traps set in one slough.

           Other animals frequenting rivers are the valuable little mink, occasionally his big cousin the otter, the ring-tailed raccoon, and in the adjoining bottoms are fox, many possum, skunks, civets, and often wildcats. The bottomlands along our southern rivers are far wilder than is commonly supposed by persons living in other sections of the country.

           On a good north-south flowing river, house boaters often move along south by easy stages, staying just ahead of the real nippy weather and skimming the cream off the fur crop as they go. For tending water traps there is nothing better than a small skiff powered with an outboard, which will navigate the shallowest water and inlets beyond the reach of a regular powerboat, and can be easily oared and maneuvered. A motor with a reverse is handy since the nose of the boat can run into the bank alongside the trap being tended, and after the bowman tends the trap, the stern man reverses the motor and backs away without having to recrank the motor. With an irreversible motor the same principal can be used by pushing the bow back out with a pike pole.

           Many house boaters prefer to hunt for their fur instead of trapping. Raccoon, opossum, skunks, bobcats, fox, can all be successfully hunted at night by dogs, although water animals such as muskrat and otter cannot. These dogs are usually of some hound breed, such as blond and tan, redbone, blue tick, or English foxhound, often of some hound cross. They are accustomed to water, sometimes swimming while trailing their quarry, driving it until it trees, and barking treed until the hunter arrived, shines the animal with a focusing spotlight and shoots it out. This night hunting is a great sport and very popular among river men. Gray foxes and bobcats will tree, but red fox usually have to be shot on the run.

           With the advent of warming spring weather, the trapping ceases as the furs begin to turn color and shed. But soon high water will come torrenting down from spring rains and melting snows in the headwaters. Every flood brings a load of valuable and useful floating articles. Boats break loose and float for hundreds of miles; sheds, boathouses, lumber, logs, and other objects come down with the current. This property, if unclaimed by the rightful owner, becomes the property of the finder. This is an excellent time of the year to pick up big logs, and by guarding a good shore eddy or backwater where the current circles back upstream for a short distance you can usually pick up enough logs for a good sized wood raft which you can either use for yourself or take downriver and sell.

           As soon as the water goes down in the spring the fish begin to run and several good hoop nets set in the right location will pick up many pounds of saleable catfish each day. In addition to nets, many fishermen use set lines, strong lines several hundred feet long with many short "stagings" (short lines with hook and bait) strung along it. Best nightline baits are beef melt, cheese bait, and soured clams. Fishermen who do best tend their lines all night long, taking off caught fish and rebaiting. Others simply run the line at dawn. Catfish range in size from one-pound fiddlers to old grand-daddies weighing several hundred pounds, although the biggest I have ever seen weighed but one hundred and ten pounds. Best eating are the four-pound size channel or forth tail cat. Near cities there is usually a brisk demand for fresh channel cat, as the meat is very edible.

           Fishing continues all summer, although early spring catches are best. During summer, many valuable roots and herbs can be gathered which have good markets value when dried in the proper manner. Good dried ginseng, for example, sells for as much as ten dollars a pound.

           When regular sports fishing is poor, there is always a big run on live bait. After the ordinary artificial lures cease to get strikes and rises, local sports fishermen are eager to purchase live bait such as minnows, crawfish, and frogs; and who has better knowledge about where to fish them than the man who lives on the river? A minnow seine costs but several dollars, and with minnows at two-bits a dozen, it will earn its price many times in one day.

           Midsummer is a good time for pearling. Waters are low and the big beds or colonies of clams easily found. A crowfoot drag is the customary implement, although if the bed is very thick long handled clamming tongs can be used. The crowfoot is a long bar with many multi-hooked little grapnels on it. Lying on the bottom, clams have one side of their shell partly open. As soon as the grapnel point enter the shell, the clam immediately closes down on it, hanging on with vise-like grip until the pealer in the boat has a good load. When you find a good bed some distance offshore, be sure to mark it well by cross-bearings or you may never be able to find it again.

           Clams have three uses. There is always the chance of nice fresh water pearl, as many excellent pearls come from our southern rivers. River families usually have several nice pearls in their family, found by themselves. Large scale pearlers use a cooker, which cooks and soften the clams until they can be easily opened and explored for pearls. The shells are of value for buttons and mother of pearl for handles; several companies buy many tons of clamshells each year for this purpose. The interior of the clam makes excellent fish bait, especially when soured.

           >Early fall is bee hunting time. The bees have laid up a big supply of honey during the summer and buzz heavily around the early fall flowers. A bee box, about the size of a codfish box, and having a sliding top and bottom, is used. A little trough full of honey is placed inside. Often the bottom slide, place it quickly over the flower with a bee on it and shut the lid. For a while the trapped bee will buzz angrily, then settle down to fill up on the honey. Put the box on a stump and open the top lid. When he has filled, the bee will fly away to the bee tree, bringing back many of his fellow workers to remove the rest of the honey. Soon there will be a constant stream of bees buzzing back and forth, all using the same route. With care you can follow them back to the hollow home tree, and sometimes two trees can be worked from the same bee box. Cutting a bee tree is not hard, but the first time you had better take some one experienced in the procedure. The bees must first be smoked to a stupor. Wild honey is very flavorsome and as even one tree is too much for your own use, you can bottle and sell the rest or trade it to farmers for farm products.

           Fall finds us again preparing for the hunting and trapping season again. The seasons out-of-doors have passed so quickly that we do not realize a full year has gone by. We are healthy and independent and happy to a degree never experienced before - living off the land.

           There are dozens of good rivers in the USA, but for comfort I would not recommend any where the water freezes during the winter, for even though a friend of mine lived a whole winter frozen into the Missouri River in his houseboat off Popular, Montana, where the thermometer went down to forty below, you will be better off and have a better income further south.

           On the east coast, south from Chesapeake Bay, are rivers like the Santee, Savannah, Altamaha; in Florida the St. Johns and Swanee; along the Gulf Coast the Apalachicola, Tombigbee, Pearl Mississippi and Sabine and their tributaries. In the Southwest is the Colorado River where I hunted and trapped and winter and found the climate unequalled; in California the Sacramento.

           For the man with wanderlust, the Mississippi River System offers the most thousands of miles of waterways. The 'Sippi herself is a little large, too subject to bad blows and weather conditions. The inexperienced river men in particular will get along better on one of the smaller tributaries. The Red, Yazoo, Arkansas, White, and St. Francis rivers are of ideal size. Many good rivers flow into the Ohio from the south but are a bit cold for winter. On the lower 'Sippi a shanty boater can take his craft back into the bayous and wander around them for months without seeing the main river. Before settling on one river, it is a good idea to buy an old rowboat upstream somewhere and float down, fishing, talking to the natives, and sizing things up in general. Perhaps some other river will suit you better.

           Your boat, whether you build it yourself or bought one already in use, should not cost you over two hundred dollars. If you build it, do not finish the inside too thoroughly as by living in it a short time first you will be better able to design the folding beds, folding tables, storage, lockers which can be used for wall seats, and other architectural trimming to your fancy. A skiff should not cost over thirty dollars; I have bought and sold good ones for less. My twin cylinder motor cost fifty dollars used and runs well. Five hundred dollars should outfit two men very well and leave some reserve, which you may need as it may take you about a year to get onto the ropes.

           The income? Not high in money, but enough to get by on as with no rent and few groceries, fifty cents a day will see you through.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob