Outdoors Photo by: Christopher Nyerges

Nature's pipes

Dude McClean takes his suspect wilderness water on the rocks

By Christopher Nyerges 06/18/2009

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In a wilderness situation, it’s essential to know how to find and purify water. Fortunately, every backpacking store — and even most supermarkets — sell products that enable us to do that.

But how do you purify suspect wilderness water when you’ve not planned ahead? Boiling is the universal way to purify water, meaning you need to be able to make a fire and you need a container to hold the water.

Dude McLean of Toluca Lake, a former Marine and a life-long adventurer, told me that he has practiced some of the primitive methods of water purification over the past 20 years. For example, Native Americans of the past would stretch out the stomach of an animal so that it would hold liquids. Then they would drop hot rocks into it to heat up what most often was stew, soup or just water.

The Indians, who didn’t have metals in North America before the advent of Europeans, carved wooden bowls to use for cooking liquids. McLean experimented with this heat transfer method using heated rocks with a Dixie cup and found that when he dropped a fire-heated rock into the cup, the water boiled. His first experiments were with commercially made bowls into which he dropped hot rocks. “It’s really a very simple technology,” said McLean. “I have also made my own wooden bowls by burning out a piece of wood and then heating water in the bowl with hot rocks.”

More interesting is how McLean used a mature yucca stalk for purifying water. The yucca plant is very common in the front country of the Angeles National Forest and in local canyons. For most of its 25-or-so-year life, the yucca plant appears as a giant pincushion of long narrow sharp-tipped leaves. When the plant is mature, it sends up a tall flower stalk, and then the plant dies that summer or fall. The stalk can be 15 feet or taller and about 10 inches thick at the thickest part. This dried stalk is lightweight with a hard rind and a pithy interior.

“Some years ago, I had cut a few of these yucca stalks in order to make a quiver for my arrows,” said McLean. “I had only started to hollow it out and it was setting outside during the rain. When I saw that rain had collected inside the hollow, I knew it could be used for a water purifier,” explained McLean with a boyish excitement that belied his senior-citizen status.

McLean then took a section of yucca stalk about two feet long and split it with a large Swiss Army knife. Again using the knife, he easily scooped out the soft insides, turning it into a trough.

“You can also make this trough using a discoidal blade, in case you are lost with nothing,” said McLean. A discoidal blade is simply a sharp shard of a rock that is created by whacking the right type of rock onto another, so a thin sharp flake comes off. “It just takes longer that way,” he explained.

Once the yucca trough is made, it is filled with water. Though you might think that the water would soak through the soft inner pith of the yucca and leak out, it doesn’t because the fibers swell with water, making an effective seal. Then a fire is built and small, golfball-sized rocks are heated for about an hour. Using tongs or a trowel, these rocks are then dropped into the yucca trough until you see the water boiling. McLean has heated water this way for purification and to make wilderness soup.

 “Yes, you could use a log or hardwood to do this,” added McLean, “but that takes a lot longer. If the dried yucca stalk is available, it provides a quick and amazingly simple way to purify water.”

Of course, McLean quickly points out, in a real survival situation he’d look for something like a beer can, which can be used as is for water boiling.

McLean can be reached at dirttime.com.

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and author of “How To Survive Anywhere.” Contact him through christophernyerges.com or send mail to PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.

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