Trapped in time

Trapped in time

La Crescenta’s Paul Campbell picks up where Native Americans left off

By Christopher Nyerges 12/17/2009

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La Crescenta resident Paul Campbell, author of “Survival Skills of Native California,” has had a lifelong interest in the outdoors, with a particular focus on the American Indians who lived here in Southern California. 
“They were so in tune with nature,” says Campbell as he displays a simple bird trap that he made based on local native designs.
“They lived here for at least 10,000 years. And it seemed to me that after they lived here that long, using simple technologies, they figured out the best ways to live in this environment. If I wanted to be in tune with this environment,” he adds, “I realized that I should at least begin where they left off.”
About 10 years ago, Campbell decided to begin seriously practicing some of the skills and making the tools used by aboriginal peoples here for millennia.
“What I read in most books was insufficient,” explains Campbell, so he began his quest with extensive research that included trips to Mexico, where he studied with the Indians who still lived and practiced many of the old skills.
“When my research reached what I call a critical mass, I’d go out and make these tools, like bows, traps and rabbit sticks, and I found that they worked well. The more I practiced under difficult conditions, the better I got. I improved by experience and I was able to refine certain subtleties in these skills and tools,” he says.
Campbell showed me a lightweight willow bow he made using stone tools. The stones were first collected within a few yards of where the willows grew. He’d whack the stones together to create sharp edges and he used those sharpened rocks to cut the willow, split it, then shape it into a bow. He used smooth rocks to smooth the bow. 
“Each rock tool is slightly different, designed to perform a separate function,” says Campbell. “My purpose in doing this was to demonstrate the usefulness of the universal tool kit composed of shattered rocks,” he explains, while showing me a river rock with an edge nearly as sharp as a metal knife.
Campbell explains that a simple bow became the universal weapon, though the bow probably did not come into California until the 3rd or 4th century AD. “The bow was one of the most important of all the primitive weapons. It was used to hunt game at a short distance,” he says.
Campbell showed me a small boy’s bow (about 4 ½ feet long), which he made in about eight hours with stone rasps and stone scrapers. Large game bows would be about 6 feet long and take a bit longer to make. Campbell explained that the bow was and is a fairly accurate weapon in the hands of even a novice. Hunting in the old days involved stalking and then calling in the game so that they could be hunted at close range.
Campbell also showed me some simple arrows that he made from the shafts of the mule fat stems. There was no arrowhead, only a sharpened, fire-hardened point. And there were no feathers, just a nock cut into the end where it met the bowstring. Campbell explained that these simple arrows were used for short-distance hunting.
As for traps, Campbell says the best is the box trap, typically used for catching birds. He set up a simple box trap, which was constructed of mule fat twigs and had the appearance of a log cabin. It was supported by a scarf joint trigger, attached to a hand-woven dogbane string, which a bird would bump once under the trap. 
“Birds are a lot dumber than most mammals,” said Campbell, who explained that this box trap was used originally for quail, but will catch other birds and whatever goes under it. Within 10 minutes of setting up the box trap and scattering some seed under it, Campbell and I watched as blue jays crowded around eating the seed. He captured several birds within minutes and then released them.
“This box trap for birds is a sure thing, with an approximately 80 percent success rate, depending on the location and season.” 
By comparison, other snares and deadfalls for mammals are about 10 percent successful.
“Indians reported that sometimes they would get so much quail in these box traps that the entire trap would nearly fly away,” he said with a laugh.
Christopher Nyerges is a field guide, editor of Wilderness Way magazine and author of “Self-Sufficient Home” and other books. He can be reached at P.O. Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA, 90041, or


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