OSCODA – When a new community event is first introduced to the public, it can require several attempts before momentum is gained and a respectable number of attendees show up. With the inaugural Michigan Bushcraft Spring Gathering, however, the first run couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
“Thank you so very much. I’m blown away,” coordinator Charles Oncina told the crowd, referencing the impressive turnout at the event this past weekend, held at Lumberman’s Monument in Oscoda.
For nearly eight full hours on Saturday, guests enjoyed presentations by multiple speakers on a range of topics, took part in hands-on activities and had a chance to win a plethora of raffle prizes, ranging from knives and sharpeners to magazines, T-shirts, handcrafted axes, high-end outdoor gear and more.
To top it off, everything was free, the affair appealed to those of all ages and the weather was ideal for the duration of the event.
Guests could also browse the unique merchandise offered by some of the presenters and sponsors, and take advantage of free camping opportunities all weekend.
An example of this was found with Sebastion Grace, 12, Grosse Isle. He was joined by his siblings, father, grandfather and cousins, all of whom made the trip to Oscoda just for the Bushcraft event.
Since they were in the area, they decided to make a weekend out of it by camping, fishing and exploring the other outdoor offerings in Oscoda.
Grace’s family, like many others who were seen at the event, stayed for the entire day, making it well-worth the drive.
What may have stood out most, though, was the camaraderie among the bushcrafters, and the welcoming feeling experienced by event goers. Everyone mingled with each other, the crowd gave authentic cheers when someone won a raffle prize and guests had a sincere interest in learning more about the bushcraft world.
Also in the spirit of friendship and togetherness, Oncina invited attendees to stick around after the programs for a bonfire at the adjacent campground.
For the headlining presenter of the spring gathering, Oncina found the ideal candidate in Michigan native Melissa Miller, who has appeared on Discovery TV’s “Naked and Afraid” and “Naked and Afraid XL: All-Stars.”
“We’re very lucky to have her here,” Oncina expressed.
Miller, who resides in Grand Blanc, has stories to last a lifetime thanks to the show. But her career as an environmental educator is where her true passion lies. She shared that – in addition to her other roles with the For-Mar Nature Preserve & Arboretum in Burton – she designs and presents nature-based curriculum for people of all ages and abilities, teaches wilderness survival lessons and promotes environmental conservation.
Miller said that, while she did not come from a family of outdoor enthusiasts, she has been obsessed with nature ever since she was a child running around barefoot, catching frogs and snakes.
Her self-driven love of the wild clearly had a hand in Miller’s decision to be on “Naked and Afraid,” with her first experience on the show taking her and a partner to the Ecuadorian Amazon to brave the elements for 21 days.
She explained that the nudity of the show is to make the challenge more difficult, since clothing acts as a sunscreen, provides warmth and so on. Without this, participants are genuinely on their own in the wild.
In true survivalist fashion, Miller prepped for what awaited her by going barefoot everywhere she went, building shelters in swamplands and remaining in the woods 24 hours a day.
Because she did well during her first run on the show, Miller was asked back for “Naked and Afraid XL: All-Stars,” where the stakes were raised even higher as she and other competitors had to endure 40 days in a harsh, dangerous region of South Africa.
Miller, per her contract with Discovery TV, couldn’t get into too much detail about the latest show, especially since it hadn’t yet aired at the time of her presentation. The program premiered the following evening, on Sunday.
Miller first recounted her adventures in the Amazon, where she faced such obstacles as not being able to purify water for three days, due to the wet tinder and firewood she had to dry out; extreme humidity; hundreds of embedded thorns in her feet, the last of which didn’t come out until four weeks after she returned home; a 20-pound weight loss; infected bug bites, three of which required extractions of the cysts; and burnt off fingerprints from constantly tending a fire, which required hours of work each day just to gather wood.
Despite this, Miller said the pain she endured is what made the experience so real and worth it. In fact, the reason she did the show to begin with is because she wanted to take on the most raw, primitive survival challenge she could.
She also gave accounts of when she waded through piranha-infested waters to retrieve her fishing hook, how she and her partner dined on such fare as a rainbow boa and why constructing a primitive torch came in handy for a myriad of uses.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” she recalled of her last day, knowing she had completed her mission.
As for her time in South Africa, Miller told the audience about how she crafted shoes from an arrow quiver, found indigenous pottery in a cave, dealt with extreme temperature fluctuations from morning to night, stumbled upon countless black mamba snakeskins and consumed scorpions, which she said taste just like mashed potatoes.
As difficult as it was, Miller said she has never been more connected with herself, nature and God than when she was in South Africa, and that it was an experience unlike any other.
She had the crowd enamored during her talk as the headliner, but visitors were also heavily engaged with the other presenters.
This included John Chagnon, editor of the trapping section of Michigan Woods-N-Water News. He provided tips on how to get started with trapping, while also telling guests about some of his most memorable experiences.
Also taking the stage was Tim Parsell, of Parsell Artisan Works, who has mastered the craft of carving axe handles and restoring axes.
“Who here has used an axe?” he said to the crowd. “Who here has broken a handle?” he asked. This garnered laughs from the audience, as nearly the same number of hands were raised each time.
Parsell took guests through the entire process of carving an axe handle by hand, and it was fascinating to witness a large piece of wood being converted into a useful tool.
He also answered questions about the pros and cons of larger handles versus thinner versions, provided tips for restoring axes and gave details on how crucial the grain orientation of a piece of wood is when one is making cuts to form a handle.
While this requires a lot of work and beginners may have some trouble starting out, “You never learn if you don’t mess up,” Parsell stressed.
An intriguing lesson on the history of atlatls, also referred to as spear-throwers, was then given by U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Archaeologist Jim Renn.
“With this simple tool, we increased our hunting efficiency off the scale,” he said of the powerful weapons, created 40,000 years ago and utilized to take down the massive animals which roamed the Earth at that time.
While this was not an ethical form of hunting, as it caused the prey to become stressed, exhausted and injured in the arduous process, Renn said our ancestors were only concerned with filling their bellies. Not to mention that the success of mankind depended on the killing of these animals.
Event goers, using a target, had a chance to try out the historic tool and it didn’t take them long to realize what a challenge it can be. “Once you guys try this, you’ll see why we hunted in packs!” Renn said of the hard work.
Following this, Daisy Fryer, a USFS park ranger stationed at Lumberman’s Monument, offered a tour of the property and a history lesson on the logging era in Michigan, particularly the work which occurred along the AuSable River.
Ben Piersma of Ben’s Backwoods was the next presenter, and he advised guests about which axes work best in what situations, proper techniques for felling trees, the correct way to swing an axe when splitting firewood and maintenance tips to ensure these tools will be of use for years to come.
A presentation on wild edibles, given by Heather “Blu” of Mi.cology, wrapped up the day’s demonstrations.
“Eighty percent of what we walk over is edible in some sort of way,” she pointed out of the plants and fungi which can be used for food or medicines.
Fairly new to the foraging process herself, she also offered tips for beginners.
“Hopefully we’ll have this next year,” Miller said of the Michigan Bushcraft Spring Gathering.
Oncina confidently agreed, saying he plans to bring the event to Oscoda every year now, during the first weekend in May. “This will be a regular thing,” he assured.