Friday, December 11, 2009

Small Game in Primitive Living, Part 1: The Paiute Deadfall

Some of you may recall the post I wrote on Matt Graham, called "Talking Nutrition with a Wild Man," in which I describe his 6-month primitive living experience and explain how he attained adequate nutritional support in the wilderness of southern Utah. Most of what he ate consisted of small game: mice, squirrels, rabbits. What I didn't get into was the methods Matt utilized to capture these animals and the specific nutrients and calories that they supplied him with. In this post I'll describe one of the methods he used -- my friend and yours, the figure-four Paiute deadfall. In a later post, we'll dive deeper into the nutrional contents and caloric contribution of small game commonly caught by such a trap.

Mouse Pancakes and Squirrel Flapjacks

When I was 19-years-old, I learned how to make my first trap from my long-time mentor and friend, Vince Pinto (who now owns and operates Raven's Way Wild Journeys). It was a simple little contraption. Two sticks, each around six inches long and some agave fiber cordage made for the basis of a trap that I would use to procure many rodents in many primitive living trips in the years that followed. Named the figure-four Paiute deadfall after the very crafty, very omnivorious Northern Paiute natives who apparently pioneered it, this ingenious trap is hailed by modern-day abos everywhere as a reliable way to provide food in the bush. Matt Graham certainly endorses it. In fact, on his primitive trip, Matt only used two traps to supply his meat quarry: the Paiute deadfall and a spring snare. Knowing how to set a few traps really well, in his opinion, is better than knowing how to set many types of traps poorly. Quality not quantity.

Taking into consideration all the Paiute deadfalls I've set over the years, I'd say that this trap has squashed a mouse or a squirrel 50% of the time. Set six traps, get three little critters in my stomach. Matt and other masters of this trap with plenty of "dirt time" in the wilderness probably have a much higher success rate due to intimate knowledge of their regions as well as years of refinement and experimentation.

The Paiute deadfall components, in all its glory (aside from the rock needed to set it), is pictured below:

Yup, that's it. A few sticks and some cordage with a "toggle" piece attached. The sticks, made from pine, can be fashioned out of any sturdy type of wood. The uppermost stick in the photo -- the top-piece -- has cordage tied on and a notch carved into it for reasons you'll understand in a little bit. The other stick -- the foundation piece -- is carved to a flat point to fit nicely into the top-piece's notch; it's two stubby "legs" give it more stability when setting the trap. The cordage is made from artificial sinew, but any strong natural fibers will do. When I lived in the Sonoran desert, I was a big fan of yucca and agave fibers. I'll leave natural cordage-making skills for another time, though.

The dimensions pictured are by no means the only way to go about making this trap, but they seem to work well for me. All of the fancy carvings on the sticks aren't really neccesary, but I find them helpful in allowing me to adjust the length of cord on-the-fly by wrapping it around the top-piece, as well as securing the cord better on the bottom foundation piece. Below is what the trap looks like once it's set (here, you can see more clearly how I used the carvings):

You'll notice that, to complete the trap, I had to (1) find a rock with a nice flat bottom and wide base and (2) attain a long, thin bait stick to thread underneath the rock. Obviously, if I was actually setting this trap to procure an animal, I'd have speared some bait onto the bait stick before setting, such as local wild plants that a small animal might like -- maybe pinyon pine nuts, seed heads of various grasses -- or food I might have with me as trail snacks, such as raisins or peanut butter. Mice seem to really love raisins. Although no rodents came along after I set it, to my good fortune (and perhaps to the benefit of the more squeamish readers of this blog), this particular trap attracted a wild desert tangerine!

Notice the rocks I stacked on top of the main rock after setting the trap. This increases the weight and, thus, crushing force and speed of the deadfall. It also allows me to evaluate the stability of the trap. Now let's trigger the trap, lift the rock, and see what happens to the unsuspecting tangerine:

Ouch! As you can see, when the bait stick is tugged at or nudged in any way, the trap is triggered and the rock falls abrubtly, leaving very little time for the animal (or, in this case, fruit) to escape. The main components of the Paiute deadfall spring neatly into the air and out of the way of the rock, allowing the rock to lay perfectly flesh with the ground (or, ideally, a hard, flat rock underneath) -- only the thin bait stick, along with the bait, actually receives the impact. The unlucky creature who happened to trigger the trap is instantly crushed to death. Squish! Mouse pancakes!

More Resources For the Paiute Deadfall

For brevity's sake, I'm going to leave a more detailed discussion of this trap to Jim Riggs, one of the great influences of the primitive skills movement and a man with a lot of "dirt time." His article "Rocking On with the Paiute Deadfall" is by far the most thorough and well-written piece I have seen on this subject. Those of you out there in cyberland who want to experiment with a Paiute deadfall will benefit greatly from Mr. Riggs' description of the trap.

Also, a very good explanation of the Paiute deadfall is given in this video. I've never met the man who made this tutorial (Mark Lummio of Bushcraft Northwest), but he seems to really know what he's talking about. Absolutely fantastic video.

In the next post, I'll get into the nutritional and caloric details of small game animals that a person might find underneath his or her deadfall rocks day to day; and I'll evaluate the realities inherent in living off of such fare as Matt Graham did: processing, cooking, and eating trapped animals to thrive -- not just survive -- in the wilderness primitively.

Thanks to my good pal, Jeff Macdonald, for helping with the pictures.