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The Things We Carry

The Cutting Edge — Blades for Big Jobs

By Tamia Nelson

February 22, 2005

From my earliest childhood I've been fascinated by edged tools. This first surfaced in the family kitchen, where my father, an enthusiastic cook, wielded his prized filleting knife with an easy efficiency born of long practice. His handiwork in swiftly separating salmon flesh from bone and skin was a treat to watch, but what really grabbed my attention was the knife he held. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest. And knives were only the starting point. Ever since that day in my parents' kitchen, in my own small way, I've been recapitulating human history. After all, our distant ancestors made and used an incredible catalog of edged implements, every one of them cutting-edge in its day. Scrapers, knives, scribers, axes, adzes, projectile points. Each was formed for a particular task — working hides, butchering meat, processing vegetables, carving bone, felling trees, shaping wood, killing game, and, yes, making war. All these jobs were vital to our species'survival, and the tools we used were every bit as important as the jobs they did. They are no less so today.

Of course, as a young girl I knew next to nothing about archaeology or history. I dreamed of lighting out for the Territories when I grew up, however, and I figured I'd need to get my hands on a few explorer's tools before I left. And one by one I did. I got a knife first, and though it was my pride and joy, I realized that my little knife wasn't up to the job of notching logs for a cabin in the mountains. So I got a hatchet, too, and when experience taught me the hatchet's limitations, I added an ax. Soon I owned a whole battery of axes, each one adapted to a particular chore, from splitting billets of cordwood to felling trees and shaping timbers. Then — I was older by now, but I still lit out for the Territories every chance I got — I found myself cutting survey lines through spruce hells and cedar swamps. I quickly discovered there were times when a machete trumped an ax. The result? I acquired more edged tools.

Each one of these tools has its uses. Some of them are generalists, while others do only one job well. Each is worth having when the need is there. Let's consider them in turn.

Axes and Hatchets

My felling ax is only a memory now, but the picture in my mind's eye is as sharp as the edge. The head had a single fine-tapered bit. It was no lightweight: it tipped the scales at three and one-half pounds, and that didn't include the weight of the 32-inch-long hickory helve. I never built a cabin with it, but it saw a fair amount of use in the years when we heated with wood, as did the maul I used for splitting. This was heavier still. It had a six-pound head, with an edge that was more like a cold chisel than a razor. Even billets of elm yielded to its blows.

Neither of these tools ever accompanied me on a paddling trip, but others did — and do. Sometimes, when I travel through a forested landscape where nightly campfires are both legal and prudent, I bring along a smaller ax, a two-pounder in the Hudson Bay pattern. It's light enough not to be a burden, but heavy enough to split substantial billets of dead and downed wood. It's not a tool for beginners, however. The short poll means that the helve will work loose if you don't strike true, and the 22-inch length is just right for splitting your shinbone if you're careless. Still, it's arguably better than my childhood hatchet. Nessmuk's prized "limber-go-shiftless" pocket-ax notwithstanding, a hatchet is nearly as dangerous as a loaded pistol, and for much the same reason. The light weight and small size make it difficult to control. It also lacks striking power. Nessmuk was happy with his hatchet, to be sure, but he was a cobbler by trade, accustomed to hitting tiny nails on the head for hours at a time. You and I might not be so lucky.

In fact, I seldom carry any type of ax these days. I find a portable stove easier to cook on than a wood fire. On the rare occasions when I want a campfire for some other purpose, it's usually simple enough to scrounge suitable twigs and branches from the forest floor and use my knife to shave off slivers of wood for tinder. And what about those even rarer times when something larger than a knife is needed? That's when I turn to my…


By whatever name it's known — machete, panga, or bolo — this long blade is the constant companion of farmers, ranchers, and forest travelers in the world's most remote corners. In practiced hands, machetes can chop saplings, split limbwood, peel logs, clear brush, and fillet a big fish, not to mention husk a green coconut. In other words, they can do all the jobs of a hatchet, and many more besides. They're light in the pack and easy to stow, too. Yet the virtues of the machete won't mean much to the novice, in whose hands the big blade is almost certain to prove a bloody nuisance, with the emphasis decidedly on "bloody." Even more than the hatchet, the machete requires a thoughtful apprenticeship. I served mine while conducting archaeological surveys along miles of pipeline and utility corridors. In the process, I learned to love the Woodman's Pal, an unlikely hybrid of machete and billhook with a bit of cutlass thrown in for good measure, all wrapped up in a sturdy reinforced-canvas sheath that boasts a pocket for a whetstone. Before long I was bringing my Pal with me on early-season canoe and kayak trips, when portage trails are often choked by the detritus of winter storms. The Woodman's Pal always sees me through. But beware! Like its more conventional cousins, the Pal will prove a false friend if handled carelessly. Farwell, who's no stranger to the nasty tricks that machetes can play, came close to putting the hook though his good eye on his very first backswing.

Big Blades

Odd as it looks, though, the Pal isn't the strangest big blade around. The edgier outfitters' catalogs and most military surplus stores contain an arsenal of…

Exotic Blades

There's the so-called "slimline machete," for instance. To my eye, it looks remarkably like a no-frills katana, a near copy of the long, lethal Japanese sword. Whatever else it may be, it's certainly not my idea of a useful camp tool. And then there's the curved kukri, the hallmark of the British Empire's most famous elite fighting force, the Nepalese Gurkha. It, too, has a formidable blade, but unlike the "slimline machete" it has all the makings of a good utility chopper as well. The same can be said for the military e-tool, or folding shovel. Surprised to see a shovel in a list of edged tools? You wouldn't be if you'd ever dug ditches for a living. A dull shovel is a scourge and an abomination, but a well-sharpened e-tool is just the ticket for digging a group latrine (where such things are both legal and warranted, that is), or doing a spot of impromptu trail maintenance. It can even serve as a throne away from home — but be sure to mind the sharp edges.

Want more choices? The catalogs display page after page of unwieldy Arkansas toothpicks and saw-backed "survival knives" whose hollow handles are packed with everything from rabbit snares to fishing lures, as well as cased cutlery sets for backcountry butchers, each offering a wider selection of bone saws and catlings than most nineteenth-century naval surgeon's chests. They're all very useful in their place, I'm sure — but that place isn't in my pack. Then again, utility isn't everything, is it? There's a little bit of Walter Mitty in us all. Tradition plays a role in our likes and dislikes, too, as do esthetics. And the divide may not be as wide as I'm implying. Here as elsewhere form follows function, and tradition is often grounded in utility. There are good reasons why a northwoodsman will look askance at anything but an ax, and a tropical boatman feel naked without his bolo.

Today, of course, practical considerations necessarily embrace certain legal and ethical questions. In more and more places, any blade larger than a penknife is regarded with extreme suspicion; a kukri or machete will certainly not be welcome. And even the little penknife is understandably proscribed in commercial airliners. Farwell can remember boarding domestic flights carrying both an e-tool and machete without so much as raising an eyebrow. Those days are gone forever, though, as are the days when each evening's camp could be carved out of the forest, with furniture crafted from freshly cut saplings. One way or another, most of the world's Dangerous Rivers have been tamed, and some of them are now mighty crowded. Paddlers and hikers have long since stripped popular campsites of all downed wood, in addition to felling many of the standing trees for bonfires — or just for the hell of it. The upshot? The best test of a camper's skill nowadays isn't her ability to drop a pine on a dime, but her determination to keep her ax in her pack until it's really needed, until both the time and the place are right. But I doubt that I have to remind any reader of this. We all know that we'll want to come back someday.

Big jobs demand good tools, and good tools deserve good treatment. Big blades need the same regular care that you give your smaller knives. Keep them sharp, clean them after every use, oil them regularly, and store them out of harm's way. Big blades also demand respect. Carelessness invites big trouble. You only get to make one mistake with an ax or machete, and that one mistake could easily be your last. Follow these few simple guidelines, though, and all your tools will serve you long and well. Then, when you next have a big job to do, you'll know you have what it takes to get the work done quickly, efficiently, and safely. That's the cutting-edge advantage of big blades.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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