In today's mechanical, Solo Stove world, a campfire burning deep in the North Country woods on a damp and chilly late October day was scarcely recognizable as such. Nestled on ground scraped clear of the bronze leaves of autumn, it was fed not with the beefy logs of bonfires, but with twigs and shreds of yellow birch bark known for combusting even when wet.
And it was wet. " it rained in the 1700s too," said Melanie Sawyer, explaining why the Thunderhawk living history unit wouldn't think of calling off an event no matter how ominous the forecast.
Indeed, it added in the realism that is Thunderhawk's calling card, a meticulously researched portrayal of life in the frontier during the French and Indian War in the middle of the 18th century.
When Thunderhawk Guide Brian McCormack, for example went to demonstrate his period flintlock, the damp powder didn't catch. The cowboy and Indian movies seldom show the guns that didn't shoot. By contrast, McCormack did something that must have been done thousands of times on the frontier-he call for a backup gun, which produced the amended result
Thunderhawk Living History and Nature School is a group of 10 reenactors, or guides, who explore the fault line of the frontier that would have existed 270 years ago, bringing new appreciation and a new accuracy to a largely forgotten or misportrayed way of life.
A particularly popular venue is Fort William Henry Museum, Lake George, where Sawyer said Director Lindsay Doyle has made a very big effort towards welcoming Native American history being taught at the Fort
Next year Thundethark well be teaching and holding large historical reenactment encampments representing all aspects of the Adirondacks in the 1700s, including a historically correct mobile forge at the newly renovated Frontier Town Gateway, spearheaded by Muhammad Ahmad, with the aim to help bring more tourism in the eastern part of Essex County and the Adirondack Coast. The group has also been invited to teach at the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake in the coming year, Sawyer said.
Guides speak native tongues from their respective heritages and set up camps where even the tiniest, almost imperceptible details matter.
For many of the guides it's personal, having traced their own lineage to the time period, or having discovered that coexistence with nature purest state is the most satisfying way to live
Cody Van Buren, who traces his Anglo, Scottish and Mohawk bloodline back through to 1739, said when his life was working out the way he wanted, he turned it around by walking into the woods on his family's land and not emerging for eight months. "I had always been drawn to Native American cultures -Surviving by fishing and foraging, the longer he stayed, the more the divides between man and nature melted away.. After a few weeks, woodland creatures had largely lost their fear of him, and the time alone restored his balance.
"You see the world from a whole different view and it makes you a different person," he said. "It gives you a certain level of toughness and makes you think how tough our ancestors were. When they were hungry, there was no going to the supermarket's.
He sought people who felt the same way, and found it in Thunderhawk, where he teaches primitive navigation, shelter building, fire starting, hunting, trapping, fishing, finger weaving, beading, copper smithing, period archery and tool making
When not traveling to teaching engagements, McCormack and Sawyer live on a farm and forest off the grid west of Port Henry. there, they set up a native hunting camp much as the Mohawk would have done in summer before returning to their permanent homes for the winter in lower elevations.
The fire is small as it was in those days, McCormack said, to avoid detection. It's a enough to cook on, and a can be pat out quickly on the approach of an enemy." Its location is strategic, beneath hemlock boughs that dissipate the smoke. Even so, the fire is potent enough to roast a ruffed grouse and heat the chocolate that was a desirable trade item at the time, as were pineapples, oddly enough.
The tents are made of fabric steeped in a soup of blackberries and walnut hulls for an effective camouflage. The canvas tarp is sloped low on one end to ward off wind and rain, and higher at the other to catch and recirculate the heat of a small fire.
Modern society holds that bigger is better, but in native cultures, the apposite was true. If the party had to move, it often had to more quickly, the tent becoming a backpack. "Everything is designed to break down quickly and travel light," McCormack said.
Around the October fire stood an eclectic band of individuals in character-Native Americans, of course, but also Scottish traders, British allies and men in search of adventure
"Hollywood typically depicts the lines of conflict as White vs Red, but the reality was far more complicated. By the time of the French and Indian War, both races had been living side by side for a century, McCormack said. They traded, often intermarried and formed alliances in ways that did not fit into easy categories. It was a very complex society at that time," McCormack said. "People growing up together on the frontier were like family."
The French and Indian War was part of the Seven Years War which in itself is considered to be the true first world war. The French, British and their surrogates did battle in not just North America and continental Europe, but in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines
In North America, the war was framed largely as a fight between English colonists intent on pushing west, and French allied Native Americans not disposed to be pushed. But again, the lines weren't that neat and clean. Thunderhawk's Mohawks-part of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British colonists, as did some other tribes to the south and west
Waterways being the interstates of the time, the war manifested in New York, largely as a struggle over control of Lake Champlain, the French gaining the early advantage only to be pushed back as British expeditions headed north, taking French forts in Ticonderoga and Crown Point. "This is where worlds collided." McCormack said.
Playing smaller roles were the Dutch, who arrive before the French and English and were more interested in trade than conquest, and frontier trappers and explorers. Chris Morris, who was portraying a Scottish fur trader, said commerce in the 1700s ran parallel to conflict. An area of specialty for Morris is hunting and fishing, along with food preparation and preservation. Fish for example would have been a significant commodity, and massive runs of smelt were netted, smoked and sent back to the old world.
Echoing other guides, Morris finds colonial life more satisfying than the modern world, and camaraderie among those who feel as he does "This feels like home, and these people feel like family." be said
For Alex Nischa Meechgalame Warrington and his son Dean, it is family, both modern and historic. His lineage includes the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, as well as French and Germanic. Alex is passing heritage and native language to his son, whose native name means water sake "since I can't keep him out of the water." Dean said he is keen to follow his father's lead, and preserve what is otherwise likely to be lost. "I want to follow in his shadow as I get older and he gets older" he said.
Passing down knowledge from one generation to another has fueled Dwight McGee, whose career includes 20 years as a Civil War reactor and 15 years portraying a mountain man and teaching the skills employed by hunters and trappers, lone agents who went west in pursuit of fur and laid eyes on the Great Lakes region and the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys well in advance of any White settlement.
Today, there is still adventure to be found exploring history and family genealogies, McGee has turned up the 17th century Frenchman Pierre-Georges Roy in his lineage a trapper who married a Native American woman, whose family knew the French explorer Antoine Laumet, better known as Cadillac "It totally blew me away: I'm riveted and can't wait to learn more," he said.
Thunderhawk strives to impart that passion for knowledge on young people, "This really gives them a different perspective, McCormack said. "It just clicks with them "The biggest thing for us is to see those smiles" McGee said.
Before they can learn, they first have to unlearn pop culture conceptions of what colonial life was like. "They think the settlers were living in forts, like what they see on TV, McCormack said. "We try to give a full immersion into the 18th century. Some of the people who come to see us are history buffs, and for some it's a brand new experience"
People who attend a Thunderhawk reenactment learn arts such as fire starting, bow making, blacksmithing, weaving and foraging. Foraging, said Sawyer, has come something of full circle, as today there is renewed appreciation of forest products that blur the line between food and medicine. The chaga fungus that grows on birch trees is used as a tea that people drink in part because it is believed to stop the growth of cancer cells
"All these traditionally foraged foods are becoming delicacies today Sawyer said. "The old ways are becoming new ways to younger people."
At the camp is a flour made up of dehydrated puffbull mushrooms and acorns, and a variety of other edible mushrooms that would have complemented game, crawfish or anything else that could be scavenged.
It is educational for their visitors, but also a satisfying experience for the guides themselves, who find the native and natural way to be the better way.
"After being out here." McCormack said, "we don't want to go back to modern life.