Bowman’s Company Trek
By Paul Nelson
Some of the members of Joseph Bowman’s Company came up with a different way of
ending the NWTA re-enactment season this year. Instead of going to The Feast, we
decided to go on a unit trek. Historical trekking means nothing more than just hiking
and camping, sometimes with a little hunting thrown in, but it is done with only
the clothing, gear, food, etc., that is appropriate for the historical period that
you are recreating. Historical trekking provides one with the opportunity to actually
live with the gear that he presents to the public during NWTA activities. It’s a
hardcore way of further delving into the hobby, in that you actually live the lifestyle
(as close as we can today at any rate) of the period you wish to recreate for an
entire weekend. Unlike the NWTA, there’s no time at which your camp must be authentic–it
always is–and there’s no “quitting time” at the end of the day when out pop the coolers,
blue jeans, and people singing “Puff The Magic Dragon” around the campfire. Due to
the intense nature of a trek, one learns things about his clothing and equipment
that he would never learn otherwise. Carrying 65 lbs. worth of equipment (the weight
of pack, bedroll, food, water, weapon, shooting bag, horns, etc.) up and down steep
hills, through thick vegetation, for 5-10 miles a day teaches lessons not gleaned
by rolling it out from the back of your car at your roped-off campsite. Historical
trekking has completely changed the gear I use, and consequently the interpretation
I present to the public at NWTA events. These two different facets of the hobby–trekking
and NWTA events–complement each other very well. Many of the more mundane aspects
of life in any historical period never get recorded, and therefore cannot be readily
learned by reading alone. Sometimes we must learn by doing, through the trial and
error of trying to perform a task or skill long since forgotten. Historical trekking
provides an opportunity for the re-enactor to learn these lessons through the crucible
of living in the wilderness with no modern equipment, and with only what you can
carry on your back–what some have termed “experimental
Bowman’s Company experienced a resurgence this year, doubling our membership from the beginning of the year. The new members are a hardy lot, willing to learn not just the facts of our regiment’s historical existence, but also what it felt like in some small way. We decided to go on a trek to get back in touch with the roots of the real Illinois Regiment, and better allow us to interpret it to the public. The site was Big Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area near Bellevue, Iowa. It is 900 acres of steep hills, dense woods, thick undergrowth, and rock outcroppings, with a little spring-fed stream running through the middle of it. It is very reminiscent of the terrain of southern Illinois and Kentucky. The trek was scheduled to be two-nighter from Oct. 8-10, although due to work conflicts some couldn’t make the first night.
Those who did make it on Friday–former Bowman’s member and trekking veteran John Brus and I–arrived at Big Mill about 10:30 am. Equipment was strapped on, and the adventure began. A trip down a farm road and through a corn field led to a steep, narrow, rocky path down into the valley. At the foot of the hill lay the ruins of an old stone farmhouse, which must have been quite nice in its day. We have not yet been able to determine its age, but the consensus was that it’s antebellum. From there we passed the spring which would supply our water needs for the weekend and crossed the creek. On previous treks through this area, my companions and I have carried a five-gallon wooden barrel lashed to a pole across the field, down the hill, and through the thick vegetation the two miles from the parking area to our campsite. We quickly decided that this was ridiculous, and inherently inauthentic. We decided, as we did on this trek, to travel more authentically by getting our drinking water as we moved. The spring is probably safe to drink from, but none of us was willing to risk sickness to find out. Instead we brought along a small, modern, water purification pump–our only concession to modernity. The problem with authenticity is that dying of dysentery in your thirties is also very authentic, and only the stupid would not draw the line there. The ironic thing is that this modern device allows us to travel in a much more authentic manner, albeit without risk of illness. This was a trade-off that we were all willing to make.
After crossing the creek, we ascended the wooded hillside beyond, and then crossed over it into grassy fields. We found many black walnuts lying on the ground there; I stopped to crack one open and eat it, finding it to be very tasty and a good potential source of calories should the need ever arise. Simon Kenton lived in part off of the meager nutrition provided by these after fleeing an Indian attack on his camp. We made a big loop from west to east along this ridge, and then came back down into the valley at the far east end. After moving through the tall brush in the bottomland, we again crossed the creek, this time over one of two beaver dams we spotted. This made for wet feet, but only foreshadowed what was to come. We traveled westward along the creek until we again reached the spring, stopping this time to fill our canteens. The temperatures had been in the low 70’s, and rehydration was in order after the long hike. I drank a quart at the spring, and then filled my canteen again for the night. Then we walked a short distance back up the trail that had originally led us down into the valley to establish our camp for the night. We selected a soft, flat spot, sparsely vegetated, between two very large rocks. It was defensible, gave a good view of the trail leading into the valley, and provided good escape routes. Our scenario during the first day was that we were scouting an area where the likelihood of enemy contact was high, and therefore no fire was allowed. We prepared a cold camp, and supped on the same thing we had for lunch–- jerky, dried fruits, and biscuit (hardtack). Mmmmmm...good tasting and good for you!
We passed some dark hours until it came time for us to travel back up to the parking area to meet up with two more of our party–Jarrick Williams & Ethan Auby–who were scheduled to arrive at 10 or 11:00 p.m. The cooler night air caused a very heavy dew, and the tall grasses around the cornfield at the top of the hill ensured that we were soaked from mid-thigh down. My feet were swimming in my center-seams, but fortunately the wool stockings still provided insulation. Upon reaching the parking area, a very heavy fog settled in. We waited until midnight, and then decided that the other two must not be coming until morning. The coolness conspired with the wet leather on our legs (trousers for me, leggings for John) to give us the chills, and held out the possibility of hypothermia. We waited no longer, and headed back for our camp. Joe Kleffman was due to arrive at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, and we assumed that Garrick and Ethan would be there by then as well. John and I stumbled back to our camp in the dark and the fog, being surprised at how difficult it was to find again. Normally we could have dried our clothes by the fire before retiring, but our cold camp scenario prevented this. Instead, we removed our wet clothing, put on dry socks, and placed our wet clothing in our bedrolls with us. This way, our body heat began to dry them overnight, but at the same time the cold, wet items were not against our skin. Years ago I tried to dry wet buckskins with body heat by wearing them through the night, but three days sick in bed taught me my lesson. This night would be different!
I awoke early on Saturday morning–about 5:00 I imagine. I thought a light rain was settling in, but after a while I discovered it was just the moisture in the heavy air
condensing on the leaves and dripping to the ground. John and I were up and dressing at 7:00. Our clothing and footwear didn’t dry much overnight, and there’s nothing like
slipping into cold, wet leather pants to shake that last bit of sleep out of your head. After just a few minutes though the cold, wet leather became warm, wet leather, and things began to look up. Breakfast followed (you guessed it–jerky, biscuit, dried fruits & berries), and we were back on the trail to pick up our
The wet grasses on the trip back up negated whatever meager drying had occurred to our clothing overnight. The fog was still heavy, and our tactical rendezvous degenerated into John and I calling out to them in the fog. After the previous night, we were in no mood for searching for people in the pea soup fog, and wanted to get the remainder of the trek underway. Joe Kleffman, Garrick, & Ethan heard our voices and, not seeing us pass by in the fog, they followed us back to the parking area where we finally met up. There I explained the scenario to them: we were Bowman’s Company, and the regiment had already taken Kaskaskia. The regiment was moving up to take Cahokia, and we were a scouting party sent to reconnoiter in support of the advance. Enemy contact, namely hostile Indians, was possible, so we were to exercise due caution when crossing open areas, danger spots, and while halted. The terrain and vegetation dictated our movement formation; sometimes it was a file, and sometimes it was an open diamond. Regardless, we always moved with our local French guide (John) in the lead, with a flanker to watch each side for signs of ambush, and a rear guard. Every time we stopped, we would crouch down and provide 360 degree security of our position. No matter what we did, whether it was gathering wood, getting water, or relieving ourselves, our long arms were always within arm’s reach.
We traveled back across the valley the same way John and I had gone the previous day, and occupied a rock overhang on the north side of the valley. There we broke for lunch (more of the same), and dropped our packs, as this would be the location of our campsite for the night. John remained behind to tend to the camp, while Joe, Garrick, Ethan, and I continued on. We made the same loop that John and I had the previous day, only this time in reverse order. The temperatures were again in the low 70’s, and the trees were very near peak color. Moving along the north ridge line provided a scenic view of blue sky merging with the golds, reds, and oranges of God’s October palette. We ended in a cedar grove on the hilltop just above our campsite, and there we cut cedar boughs to use for bedding. Finally we moved back to camp to prepare for the night.
The rock overhang is a great camping spot. It guarantees dryness, but at the cost of a not-so-soft sleeping surface. To compensate for this, we laid down cedar boughs and placed our bedrolls on top of them. Not only did this cushion the rocky ground, but it also created a layer of dead air space to separate us from the cold ground. Next was a trip to the spring to fill our canteens and cooking pots for the night, and then Joe & Ethan gathered up dead fall for firewood. A fire was allowed for this second night, so everyone could get hot food and a good night’s sleep before the journey home the following morning. John had stretched a long, flat rock across the sides of our fire pit, which made a handy and effective shelf for heating our cooking pots. Joe, Garrick, & Ethan began the night on top of the rock overhang, and used a long stick supported by a forked pole and anchored by a rock to hold their cooking pots over the fire. The nearby trees provided plenty of spots to hang their clothes to dry.
After supper, we congregated under the overhang to laugh, tell stories, and partake of some hot tea and pipe smoke. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear night–the perfect end to a perfect day. John and I remained under the rock to spend the night, while Joe, Garrick, & Ethan went back up on top. The day’s temperatures followed by the night’s campfires dried out our clothes; for John and I it was the first time we had been dry in nearly 24 hours. As I laid down I felt the cold ground give way as my body heat warmed the dead air space created by the cedar boughs. With my deerskin backpack as my pillow, I settled in for a most comfortable night. During the middle of the night I was awakened by voices, and discovered that Joe, Garrick, & Ethan had come down from up top, mistaking the dripping condensation for coming rain as I had the night before. As they settled in we stoked up the fire and shared a few more laughs before the dwindling flames matched our dwindling spirits, and we again drifted off to sleep.
We woke to more morning fog, a replay of the previous day, and got our gear ready to move. We did not have breakfast, as we would eat at a diner in downtown Bellevue on the way out. We retraced our approach to the overhang across the creek, up the hill trail, and across the cornfield. We stopped just short of the parking area while I retrieved a camera & tripod from my car. We took some group and individual photos to remember the occasion by, and then loaded up our cars. At the Bellevue diner, pancakes, eggs, and biscuits & gravy filled our bellies as we enjoyed more conversation. Afterwards we said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. Good friends and good times in a shared experience build group cohesion, and that was the main purpose of this trek. We also learned about ourselves, our gear, and about the people whose exploits we try to recreate in some small way. There was much discussion about making this company trek an annual event, and plans were already made for next year. We couldn’t have ended the year on a better note.
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