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High ON THE Wild Life : Dream returns him to days of yesteryear in buckskin trappings

September 03, 1987|CHRISTINE VICARS | Vicars is an Agoura Hills free-lance writer.

He has a freezer stocked with deer hides, a filing cabinet stuffed with how-to information on survival and a mind filled with ideas wrested from more than 25 years of patient tracking of his dream.

For Randy Childs, 20th-Century wilderness expert, it is the early 19th Century. His dream is to relive the days when self-reliant trappers roamed the wilderness. Meanwhile, he teaches urban dwellers the skills he himself has mastered.

During Childs' half-day class for the Wilderness Institute, a nonprofit organization formed in 1984 to teach appreciation of the wilderness, students learn to throw a tomahawk, cast lead shot, start a fire without matches and make beef jerky.

Childs, 39, who moved to Thousand Oaks in 1986 from a rural stretch of Michigan, has been fascinated by the lives of the mountain men since childhood.

These men lived alone in the wilderness over the harsh winter months. Many, if not most of the successful trappers, he said, learned their survival skills from Indians.

"They had to respect nature," he said. "Those who fought nature were the ones who went under."

The trappers mainly collected beaver furs for a voracious European market which used them to make then fashionable felt top hats. But the fashion--and with it, the era of the mountain trappers--declined quickly. The era lasted about 25 years, "just a blip in time," Childs said, through the early part of the last century.

It was long enough, however, to cast an almost spellbinding hold on future generations, people such as Childs and members of the American Mountain Men Assn.

Begun in 1968 by Walt "Griz" Hayward, the association has only a few hundred members scattered throughout the United States, and is difficult to join. Authenticity of dress and equipment is demanded, and membership is by invitation only.

Buckskin Life Style

Would-be mountain men had only to pay $17 ($10 for children) to sample a taste of the life style Saturday. And, although Childs wasn't sure if Californians would be interested in this sort of thing, the class at Malibu Creek State Park filled up quickly with a diverse mixture of men, women and young boys.

The trick to throwing a tomahawk, Childs explained, is to relax:

"Let your body flow," he said, tomahawk in hand. "Center yourself, and do what comes naturally."

Then he showed how, letting the tomahawk fly. It arched, flipped and dug its blade with a satisfying thud into the cross-grained and battered wooden target, drawing smiles and applause from the class.

But few others were able to duplicate the feat. One after another, tomahawks flopped and spun, and gracelessly thudded onto the ground around the target.

Later, using a tool of string and wood like a primitive violin bow, Childs sawed furiously back and forth, spinning a pencil-shaped piece of wood in the fire hole of another, flat piece.

A small curl of smoke crept up and then began to fatten and billow.

Intermittently, Childs passed along arcane bits of mountain wisdom. Who knew, for example, that mountain men used the fringes on their buckskins as a quick source of twine? Or that wolf fur won't trap the humidity from your breath? And if you "give it to him up to Green River," well then, you've sunk a knife into someone up to the well-known Green River name etched on the blade.

Fire Making

Judy Allegra, a Saugus mother of two small boys and a 3-month-old baby girl, doesn't really want to be a mountain man. She came to the class to learn fire-making without matches. She hoped to be able to use the skill on family camping trips with boys.

The other reason, she said, laughing, was "just to have a day off from the kids."

Ten-year-old Shawn Garrett, a red-haired boy who just returned from a family fishing trip, said he wanted to "learn more about nature and wilderness and stuff."

Childs said he fell in love with the mystery and romance of the mountain man when he was in the "third or fourth grade."

"I just liked the look of fringed buckskin, I suppose," he said.

It was not much of a reason to start, perhaps. But once the fascination took hold, it remained. After high school, Childs earned a degree in environmental science, then a master's degree in education, and became a director of a camp teaching pioneer skills in rural Michigan.

Nine months ago, he moved with his wife and two children to California and his position as instructor at the Wilderness Institute.

At his office in Woodland Hills he keeps a picture over his desk of a mountain man leading a pack-horse weighed down with furs.

The picture, he said, symbolized the "freedom and dignity" of the trapper.

"He is a person who has everything he needs. He is completely self-reliant," he said.

Trying to emulate that self-reliance, Childs has found himself at times astride two centuries in a way that can seem bizarre--like his ongoing attempt to make an authentic buckskin outfit.

Frozen Hides

Half of the eight deer hides he needs for the task sit in his freezer, salted and tied tightly in 20th Century plastic garbage bags, awaiting the day he can tan them at home using an authentic 19th Century recipe.

Then he will stitch them into a buckskin outfit.

For now, he has to be content with an outfit that is authentic only to the extent that Childs acquired it through the time-honored "collect and scrounge" method of acquisition, a mountain man's favorite technique.

"To tell the truth," he said, "this vest is probably a leftover from the '60s."

But he is not concerned. It is the spirit of exploring the past, he said, that is important.

"I used to think that I was escaping from reality, and playing out my fantasies," Childs said at the beginning of the mountain-man class, wearing his approximation of the mountain-man attire. "Now, I think that perhaps you're not escaping but discovering reality when you do something like this."

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