Blades of the Northwest Passage

Blades of the Northwest Passage.

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating place, to say the least.

Inuksuit in Kugluktuk
Inuksuit in Kugluktuk

I remember reading numerous accounts of early exploration, specifically Roald Amundsen’s account of this place. He was Captain of the Gjoa. The first boat to sail through the Northwest Passage. Amunsdsen was successful in this for many reasons. I would describe his approach as one of patient tenacity, with appreciation for the moment.

Empiricus.  Awaiting the 2014 Thaw in Cambridge Bay.  Photo by Red Sun Productions
Empiricus. Awaiting the 2014 Thaw in Cambridge Bay. Photo by Red Sun Productions

While reading his journals last year, in preparation for our voyage,. I read how he traded so successfully with the Inuit. He told in his logs, how nearly all loose metal objects on the boat were turned into knives. These knives were specifically made for trade, at the request of the Inuit people. They recognized that a steel blade, even an inch long, could improve their lives. And so these blades did change the lives of many families in those years.

These were a people so adaptive that they lived comfortably n the icy north for eons. Then came the so-called “superior” explorers, with all the modern inventions of man, trying to “conquer” the Northwest Passage.

Many of those men died by the shipload, steel blades and all, because they lacked the humility to learn from “Barbarians” – the term given to the Inuit by early explorers. This stark contrast in perspective between the two cultures rang powerfully with me. But not all explorers were obtuse to the ways of the native people.

Amundsen was the exception. He learned from the Inuit, co-habituated with them and developed a respectful and advantageous relationship with the people of the North.

A side note on Amundsen. I studied him in detail for one reason. He made it through. Sure many other explorers had fascinating stories full of entertaining drama. But I was not interested in studying dramatic failure. I was interested in the mindset and preparation of an exploratory tactician. And in that realm. Amundsen stands at the top of the heap.

Having done this reading beforehand, I felt very in touch with Cambridge Bay when we arrived there. In fact, from Cape Bathurst eastward, my heart was tugged toward the past, the history I knew of, and the people I had studied.

As you may remember from previous posts, we had some time to spend in Cambridge Bay. We began to blend with its people and its history. Our activities were very limited, by budget and locale. Any entertainment had to be fun, free and within walking distance.

Fortunately, we found no end to free, fun options while waiting for the crane to be repaired. One of those options was walking and exploring the beach. There was an old stone church, a grounded sailboat named the “Eagle” and some old town site ruins. But the main prize was the wreck of the “Maud.”

The Maud from online archives
The Maud from online archives

The Maud was purpose-built to Amundsen’s specifications for Arctic exploration. She was launched in June 1916 and christened by crushing a chunk of ice against her bow. Amundsen said these words on that day:
“It is not my intention to dishonour the glorious grape, but already now you shall get the taste of your real environment. For the ice you have been built, and in the ice you shall stay most of your life, and in the ice you shall solve your tasks. With the permission of our queen, I christen you: Maud.”

Maud doing her work
Maud doing her work

I found it surreal, to be staring at the Maud’s bulwarks. Just 20 feet away, Amundsen’s Maud rose slightly from the water. Her hull looming just below the surface Some number of thick strong planks lined the beach, long boat nails protruding from them. They were eaten down like an apple core in the center from corrosion, but intact none the less.

I visited the Maud several times. Both on foot, and under sail, in the lovely Scarlet Letter.

Sailing around the Maud was tricky and fun. I felt like Scarlet was a tiny toy boat, loaded with figurines, and we were all in a living room fish tank, where a giant pirate ship was the centerpiece. We sailed around her wreck, in the crystal clear, shallow water, gazing below into this fish tank of timbers, bolts, nails and history. We sailed right up to the bulwarks, just a foot above water. I took hold of the timbers and for the first time appreciated the massive scale of her construction. I was impressed to say the least. Samantha, Jason, Lisa and I all chatted about her stout build and bantered of her history.

We later learned from the museum that she had a long history of being scavenged for lumber and parts. She had served as a source of firewood in winters, and at one point she was blown up with dynamite. She was a tough ship and had lived a rough life. It was amazing that she had not disintegrated all together.

As we slipped away under sail, I felt a bit more yearning to explore her wreckage.

Then just before leaving Cambridge Bay, we visited her one last time.

I thought of a time years ago, when the boys and I sailed to Juneau, Alaska. They were very small then. We had gathered some old railroad spikes from an abandoned mine while exploring. Then, the year before last, I turned those spikes into knives and gave them to the boys for Christmas.

My first attempt at knifemaking with some railroad spikes they boys and I got near a mine in Juneau.
My first attempt at knifemaking with some railroad spikes they boys and I got near a mine in Juneau.

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Christmas time.  Dad got one too.
Christmas time. Dad got one too.

I enjoyed the process of making those knives and passing them on. The heat, the work, the pounding, the care and attention that goes into a handcrafted blade is a soul-satisfying process.

I thought of Amundsen’s creative recycling and trading with the Inuit. I also saw a beach riddled with washed up planks and the long slender nails once used to hold that mighty ship together.

I gathered a handful of nails by working them out of a few planks, hammering with rocks and twisting them bare-handed, as I had no tools with me. Two were rusted through and two were intact. I hoped to replicate what I had done with the railroad spikes, but better this time.

The nails went in my bag, and the adventure continued.

Fast forward now two months. Samantha and I are now engaged and working to cross the borders for our marriage.

I had a thousand things to do, but the Maud, her story and all we left behind in the Arctic was calling to me. I had vowed to resurrect those nails, not collect them as knick knacks. I’ve got no room in my life for knick knacks. But tools, on the other hand, always find a home in my hand. So I made a phone call to a good friend, with whom I had recently reconnected: Odean Hall of Reaper Knives, in Sterling Alaska.

Odean (usually just “Dean”) is masterful in the making of blades. Using a wide variety of materials and self-taught techniques, he creates useful art for a living and was exactly the guy I needed advice from on how to do this right.

As it worked out, Dean generously offered to coach me through the process, using his tools and know-how. I was glad to accept the offer and learn more of this niche trade from someone of his caliber. Plus it was just great to hang out with an old friend and catch up.

Here is the process I was led through.

A few weeks after that phone call, Dean and I met at the I.R.B.I. knife shop. I knew Virgil Campbell somewhat and have carried one of his of his hunting knives for 15 years. I could not have been in better company for knife making and we all got on well.

Looking over the nails
Looking over the nails

Dean, Virgil and I looked over the nails. They suggested I add some metal to the mix, to make a Damascus steel, so there would be more steel to work with, but also so that the finished product would hold an edge.

Adding some steel
Adding some steel
Welding the mass together.
Welding the mass together.

So I went to work cutting the nails into short lengths and adding some spring steel and high nickel alloy. It looked like a small stack of “Jenga” blocks when I tack-welded the mass together. Once that was done I welded on a long steel handle, and laid it in the 2000-degree forge.

Ready for heat
Ready for heat
The IRBI forge
The IRBI forge
Nails in the forge at I.R.B.I. Knives
Nails in the forge at I.R.B.I. Knives

For the next eight hours I coated the steel with flux, fired it in the forge until it was orange, then hammered it under a pneumatic hammer. I also used a press to control the shape, and make the cuts when folding. Each time it was time to fold, I would flux the cut metal and hammer it over on itself at the anvil. Then the whole process would begin again. I folded the billet of Damascus seven times, because seven is my lucky number.

Hot and noisy.  But lots of fun!
Hot and noisy. But lots of fun!
The billet ready to fold.
The billet ready to fold.
Hand folding on the anvil.
Hand folding on the anvil.

At the end of this long day I had a billet of Damascus steel and a pile of knowledge, generously shared by these two craftsmen.

The raw billet.
The raw billet.

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We acid-etched the billet, to take a look at the steel. It was beautiful, all shot through with birds-eyes and the foldings of all the combined steel.

A week later, it was over to Dean’s shop in Sterling, where the blade crafting began.

I really wanted to build these knives myself. But in the end, it was Dean’s expert hand that took them from nice to beautiful.

I began by flattening the billet on a special drum sander. Then I traced out the blades. There was just enough room for two: one smaller bush knife for Samantha and a little larger one for me. I had planned on making them both small, but could not bring my self to let any of that steel go to waste.

A note on the blade shape. For years I have studied a book called “Northern Bush Craft” by Mors L Kochanski. This is a must for adventurers in the North. In those pages, the ideal bush knife is described. The final product was a blend of Kochanski’s recommendations, Dean’s expertise and my empirical crack at knife making.

After the blades were identified, I cut them out on the band saw.

Cut out , flattened and shaped.
Cut out , flattened and shaped.

Next the cutting edges were ground. I went to work on grinding.

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Then, Dean went to work…fixing my grinding.

Shaped and ground
Shaped and ground

Once the angles were set, we stamped and hardened the blades by heating them “Past Critical” then quenching them in motor oil before cooling them slowly in vermiculite.

Hardening
Hardening
Used motor oil holds the carbon in the blade.
Used motor oil holds the carbon in the blade.

The final tempering was done in the oven. As I recall, they went to 450 degrees F for two hours, then were cooled completely, twice.

Acid etching
Acid etching

Then we acid etched the blades.

Samantha's blade
Samantha’s blade

The Acid etching, brings out the contrast in Damascus steel.

My blade Acid etched as well
My blade Acid etched as well

Next, we built guards, from scraps of Damascus that Dean had formed in the past. They were beautiful and soldered into place nicely.

Soldering the guards on
Soldering the guards on

Now it was time to choose handles. I had brought Dean a pile of solid teak for handles a few weeks before. Teak and sailing are nearly synonymous with one another. It is a high resin wood that will not rot and is a natural non-skid. It requires no finish and is beautifully simple. The choice was easy.

Handles curing
Handles curing

I welded all-thread to the end of each tang, then colored disks were dropped into place. Blue for Samantha and Green for me. They were alternated with brass sheet and the teak set on top.

We tightened the tang down with a washer and nut, after filling the void with epoxy.

I had saved the nail heads just for this purpose. They set on top of the tang, flush with the handle butt. They too were epoxied in place and left to set up.

Odean grinding some teak.
Odean grinding some teak.

The next day we ground the handles, acid-etched the blades and put the edge on them.

Final sanding
Final sanding

But the work does not stop there. There is a reason Odean Hall’s “Reaper Knives” are so sought after. They are fit and finished to the end. Sheath and all.

Cutting leather to custom fit each blade.
Cutting leather to custom fit each blade.
Dying the leather pieces.
Dying the leather pieces.

Dean coached me along as I cut and prepared the sheaths. Then he stitched them expertly on a saddle making machine that makes my Sail-rite machine look like a Barbie jeep parked next to Bigfoot.

Deans awesome stitching machine.
Deans awesome stitching machine.

At the end of another long day, I held Amundsen’s Maud in the palm of my hand. Beautiful. Balanced and ready for the bush.

In sheaths with sharpening stones.
In sheaths with sharpening stones.
Side by side.  Samantha's sporting a blue Turks head cured with epoxy.
Side by side. Samantha’s sporting a blue Turks head cured with epoxy.

I dare say, there are few moments more satisfying, then the moment when dream becomes reality. All the while follow-through being your best companion.

I would like to thank Odean Hall of Reaper Knives for his time, knowledge and effort. Susan Hall, his wonderful wife who listens to lots of banging and grinding with admirable support and patience. Roald Amundsen for inspiration and historical lessons. Mors L Kochanski, for making survival in the north practical. And Virgil Campbell of I.R.B.I. Knives for his hospitality and help in the forging process.

A look at the soldered guard.
A look at the soldered guard.
Ready for my bride to be.
Ready for my bride to be.

These beautiful tools are the product of many minds and hands. They were folded together, not unlike the Damascus I now carry in the woods. Each layer, corner, groove and swirl is a mark of inspiration and sweat. A line of signatures, hidden in the blade.

During a very difficult time in my life, I shared my woes with a very wise man. After listening for a while he asked me a question, “How do you turn iron into steel?”
I asked how. His reply: “Heat it up white hot. Then beat the hell out of it.”

The swirl of Maud DNA is always there to remind me that life can always be born from wreckage.

I believe that if you hold strong, beyond looting, flames and dynamite, those looking for strength will find you and wrecked as you may be, they will study you. If they are hungry and tenacious they will pry up a piece of you. They will take it home to their peers and hammer it into a tool that will strengthen their hull

My blade at work in the woods this spring.
My blade at work in the woods this spring.

For what is a blade? If not a tool for survival.

The beginnings of a reflective heat shelter, where my Maud blade was used for the first time.
The beginnings of a reflective heat shelter, where my Maud blade was used for the first time.

Capt. Jesse Osborn
SV Empiricus

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5 thoughts on “Blades of the Northwest Passage

  1. Loved the history lesson and your detailed account of exactly how and why you made the knives. Thanks.

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