“It is an age of hurry and worry. Anything slower than steam is apt to get ‘left out.’”
A few years back, a friend and former coworker gave me a copy of Nessmuk’s Woodcraft and Camping, the book in which that observation appears. It is a slender treatise on the fundamentals of “roughing it” first published in 1884 under the title Woodcraft, and even then its author lamented an “overworked nation” that “shuns the shadow of oak and pine.”
Nessmuk was the alter ego of George Washington Sears (1821-1890), a writer, outdoorsman and conservationist who is underappreciated today. First in his contributions to Forest and Stream magazine, and later in the ideology-cum-guidebook Woodcraft, Sears helped popularize sport canoeing in the United States and was instrumental in the movement toward ultralight camping and backpacking (“Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment,” he advises in Woodcraft).
Sears borrowed the name Nessmuk from an “athletic young brave,” likely a member of the Nipmuc people, whom Sears befriended during his boyhood in south-central Massachusetts. In his poetry collection Forest Runes, which was printed by Forest and Stream’s publishing imprint in 1887 under his given name, Sears recalls a “trusty friend” from whom he “imbibed much of his woodcraft, all of his love for forest life, and alas, much of his good-natured shiftlessness.” In short, Sears says of his pen namesake, “he exerted a stronger influence on my future than any other man.”
Sears/Nessmuk is easy to overlook among contemporaries that include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir. He was neither as philosophical as Emerson nor as fervid as Thoreau; he lacked Whitman’s lyricism and Muir’s preservationist drive. But he shared their deep affection for the natural world and its restorative powers. In Woodcraft, he concludes:
“Wherefore, let us be thankful that there are still thousands of cool, green nooks beside crystal springs, where the weary soul may hide for a time, away from debts, duns and deviltries, and a while commune with nature in her undress.”
Nessmuk is More Part II: Cluster Nessmuk
Nessmuk aspired to poetry, as we all should, although pragmatism seemed to pump through his veins. I wish I had been more Nessmuk-ian in my preparations for a recent outing with Wyatt, a hastily plotted hike that was profitable for “the weary soul” but taxing on the physical form.
Fueled by coffee and tiny doughnuts and a month-long dream of a day away from a computer, I outpaced dawn from Denver to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness about 100 miles to the southwest (turning it on in the stretch, Michael Phelps-style, when it looked like it could be anyone’s game; if driving was an Olympic event, the U.S. team would be me, Brad Keselowski, Paul Newman’s ghost, and Ryan Gosling in Drive).
Wyatt and I set off along the well-named Rough and Tumbling Creek as the second-place sun gave shape to the foothills to the east. From the trailhead, the path climbs against the creek, which tumbles roughly downhill from the base of the 13,000-foot Buffalo Peaks to meet the South Platte River.
After a couple miles, what I believed to be the trail became overgrown and obstructed by fallen trees. I knew from the map that I apparently should have examined in closer detail that the trail (mostly) follows the creek, so we pressed on for another half-hour or so of arduous ascent, until I noticed a clearing across the creek; the trail cut right through it. Wyatt waded through the stream, and I found a series of rocks that seemed stable and free of slippery moss.
The first stone gave way as I stepped on it, and my foot glided over the surface of the second rock as I shifted my weight. I took a rough tumble into Rough and Tumbling Creek. Nessmuk, incidentally, recommends packing an extra pair of socks when you’ll be on or near water.
Nessmuk is More Part III: Bless this Nessmuk
The trail, thankfully, soon plateaued into a broad meadow and veered away from the creek. We trailed the stream to a gathering of sun-baked boulders.
I turned Wyatt loose to harass the local chipmunks as I emptied my boots and set my socks out to dry. One boulder was like a Flintstones-style Barcalounger; I reclined and shut my eyes. Before long, I felt Wyatt curl up at my feet.
We lingered in this spot for perhaps an hour, lulled by the burble of the creek, and the songs and squabbles of birds (the magpies seemed especially argumentative, and some jays were not having Steller days).
The hike would eventually be about 5 miles longer than I expected, somehow mostly uphill, and it included another plunge (this time into the ankle-deep waters of the ironically named Rich Creek) and a close encounter with a moose that I would describe as harrowing had I possessed the energy to register fear at that point. But the travails of the day, and lingering pain that prevented walking upright for a couple days afterward, were worth it to hear nature preach what Nessmuk called the “gospel of relaxation.”
From Sears’s “A Summer Camp:”
“I leave the town with its hundred noises,
Its clatter and whir of wheel and steam,
For woodland quiet and silvery voices,
With a camp of bark by a crystal stream.
And I rest in the hope that each good fellow
Will some time dwell in another land,
Where the hearts that are generous, true and mellow,
Will know each other, and understand.”