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.


PaleoRD said...

Ryan, this was a fascinating article. It's so easy to pick up food up from the supermarket, we forget that it used to be a little harder to come by.

I am also commenting here because I just saw your comment at about finding healthy control groups. This is amusing to me because he wrote that Kitavan post in response to a comment that I had made on a previous post. It was your typical "how can you preach low carb eating but ignore the observational evidence of people that eat a lot of carbs" type of comment. I seemed to have touched a nerve, so much that he titles his post "I'm so bored with the Kitavans," as if they have nothing to offer in furthering health knowledge.

The problems I find with the paleo and low carb crowds (both of which I have previously been a part of) is that they wear huge blinders. All of the stuff that Taubes, Eades, Cordain, Atkins and Banting wrote make sense and sound great, a simple cure by removing carbs. But it does not jive with what was observed by Price and others! When you bring that up the low carbers and paleos justify it away with enough zeal to make a lawyer envious. They carry on about what the science shows and what the research shows about how wheat and insulin and the mega killers in this world. Science this, science that, blah blah blah. The only low carb (possibly) population that we know of who has lived long term on a high meat diet are the various Tribes that live in the very cold northern climates, specifically the Inuit. ALL of the other tribes that price observed ate copious carbs and were perfectly healthy. But they say, "show me the science that a high carb lifestyle does not lead to diabetes and heart disease," and "sure the Kitavans were healthy, but how do we know they would not have been even healthier on a low carb diet?" Yes, good question, how do we know that? Like you mentioned, there are some questions that modern science is not equipped to answer with the way it is currently practiced. Low carbers and paleo admit that, but then cheer about any research that supports their cause and discredit any research that does not. Such an easy trap to fall into when there is such an unshakable belief that carbs (especially gluten ones!) are the ultimate evil.

I say give me a break! When you stop ignoring information that you do not like, wonderful things can happen, such as breaking out of dietary dogma. (by the way, when someone shows me a long term study showing that people eating white flour and vegetable oil for 90% of their calories are healthy, I will give it a look)


Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Hi Scott,

I agree with much of what you say. Low-carb proponents can quickly lose sight of the bigger picture of human dietary history. The Kitavans are only one example of how human beings can eat high-carb, whole-food diets without harming their health. Many traditional cultures lived on such a diet without a hitch, depending on how you look at it.

I understand where Kurt and other paleo, low-carbers are coming from, though. Basically what they're saying is that a high-carb diet isn't optimal and that a meat/fat-based diet is. This is based on the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution in which meat was the mainstay in our food supply. Carbohydrates, in that sense, are relative newcomers, and I can see how genetically we might do best on such a diet.

Yet, we have folks like Matt Stone and Stephan Guyenet who acknowledge that a high-carb diet isn't necessarily unhealthy for human beings. These guys recognize that the human body is an amazing, adaptable machine that can thrive on a wide variety of foods -- tubers, grains, and fruits included. I can certainly agree with that as well.

Stephan and Matt diverge when it comes to the subject of whether or not gluten -- and unfermented wheat in general -- is harmful to the human body. Stephan says it is. Matt says it isn't. I tend to side with Stephan in this case, although Matt has some interesting theories that keep me guessing. I'm pretty well convinced that wheat in its unfermented (read: nontraditional) form is detrimental to most -- perhaps all -- modern human beings. Stephan has some great science backing up his argument. I think that wheat, trans fats and isolated fructose are the absolute worst of the worst. These foods seem to be connected with many of our modern ailments.

What it comes down to, I think, are our personal health goals. If we want to have optimal health, maybe that means that we eat like our paleolithic ancestors did (a subject of great debate in and of itself). Or maybe we're happy just eating a neolithic diet and reaping the benefits of traditional foods, finding our own macronutrient balance.

Personally, I simply avoid the big nasties I listed above and eat a higher-carb diet. However, this is due to intestinal problems I seem to have ingesting large amounts of fat and protein. The absorption of both of these macronutrients are affected by the integrity of my duodenum, which I believe has been damaged through poor diet for much of my life. If I had no problems, I'd probably be drinking heavy cream and eating lots of fatty meat all day long! I absolutely love the way a high-fat diet, high-calorie diet makes me feel. It just twists up my intestines so much that I can't sustain it comfortably. Hopefully someday I'll figure out just what in the heck is going on, and I'll be free to eat such a diet.

And, yes, I don't think that science has the final answer when it comes to evaluating health. Even Eades states that the most convincing evidence of optimal human health and nutrition comes from anthropological observations. I believe that, too. How can we evaluate human health with numbers, after all? I've met indigenous peoples -- Tarahumara natives and Sudanese refugees and others -- and there is something very "different" about them that I view as "healthier" than most other people who I've encountered in my life. It's inexplicable through words and numbers -- it's very much a feeling.

I guess that's where I stand on all these ideas about what optimal health is. It isn't a number. It isn't measurable. It's something that is sensed, felt, and, in a way, a deep remembering of the kind of physical and emotional condition that is our birthright. Something that was lost along the way and survives in human beings who are relatively untouched by modern foods and still have a connection with the earth...

...the folks with the facial structure that is the human genetic blueprint!

PaleoRD said...

HAHA I just saw this on PaNu:

"Your first post was two pages long, late to the party, aggressive in tone, called me by my first name when I am a physician, demanded that I retract statements and did not contribute any new information of a substantive nature - it was just a long and argumentative opinion piece.

Calling someone untruthful is a "nice" and passive aggressive way of calling them a liar.

Addressing a 48 year old man you do not know as "dude" is disrespectful. Would you call Dr. Eades "dude" on his blog? I doubt it. Perhaps you are just young, but I know plenty of 18 year olds that know how to communicate."

That first sentence says exactly what type of guy he is.


Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Seems like I touched a sore spot with Dr. Harris! I was pretty surprised that he took offense to my comments, as I didn't intend them to be disrespectful. Then, when I attempted to clear the air, he found those comments offensive as well.

An ornery fellow he is!

I do appreciate him addressing my comments in the blog post, and I think he provides a lot of valuable information and "food for thought" on his blog in general, although I disagree with most of what he writes due to the heavy low-carb slant. Not to mention that he holds Gary Taubes up on a pedestel -- a man whose theory has more holes than swiss cheese.

And if he wants to be called Dr., then I'll honor that. I don't have a big enough ego to battle his. And I don't have to be "right".

Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan,

Great post and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

I'm worried that I might end up with a dead cat or two if I set some traps. A fox or badger might not be too good either.

The idea of mice, squirrels, rabbit meat etc. sounds good, but I'd need to get over the skinning, butchering aspect.


Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Good point, anonymous. If you want to experiment with the deadfall trap around your house, definitely set it in a place where cats can't get to it!