ELIZABETHTON — According to Steve Ricker, the people who roamed the ridges of 18th century East Tennessee not only knew how to survive, they really knew how to live.
“They’ve got these shows on TV ... and they show the most extreme survival situations. But the long hunters and the native people didn’t do what you’d call roughing it. They were smoothing it.
“Everything you need is still here. Food, clothing, shelter. You‘ve just got to know how to find it,” said Ricker, who earns his livelihood as a living history interpreter, traditional skills instructor and artisan.
Ricker has put together a fascinating course in Primitive Hunting, Fishing and Trapping skills, which is usually offered at least once a year at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton. When his schedule allows, he shares his knowledge with scout troops and church groups.
He admits it sounds corny, but insists he was first introduced to traditional woods skills and crafts by “an Old Cherokee guy” when Ricker was 13 years old. The 53-year-old Greene County native is now recognized as one of Tennessee’s foremost living history specialists. His hand crafted artifacts — historical replicas made with traditional materials and methods — are prized by collectors and historical reenactment enthusiasts.
The artifacts are as durable as they are ruggedly beautiful. The knowledge behind them is fragile. Ricker said he retains only a fraction of the primitive lore that existed before individual strands of the transmitted tradition were interrupted by modernity. Some knowledge is probably lost forever, he said.
These days, more people than ever seem to be interested in what he knows of the old ways. Ordinary people. Extraordinary people.
“Jennifer (Pharr) Davis, who recently completed the Appalachian Trail in 46 days to set the women’s record, wants me to teach her about edible plants,” Ricker said. “The only other place that has more plant life than the Southern Appalachians is the Amazon rainforest. The Cherokees used 400 plants in these mountains for 800 different medicines.”
Denizens of a digital age seem to be yearning for an older, analog way of life. Recent years have witnessed renewed interest in old-school primitive camping experts like George Washington Sears and Horace Kephart. Backpacks made of canvas and leather are making a comeback. Over in Great Britain, office workers are spending their weekends using axes and knives to build fires, erect basic shelters, even to carve wooden cooking and eating utensils.
Ricker’s gig reaches back to a time when the cultural exchange between Anglo-European frontiersmen and native peoples was a day-to-day reality. So was doing things yourself. Nearly every article of Ricker’s traditional clothing was made by his own hand. Most of his gear was likewise self-fabricated, either whole or in part.
Like a contemporary bush crafter, he lightens his load by making some of what he needs when he gets where he’s going.
“I go into the woods and I look at a tree I don’t just see a tree. I see all these little pot hooks and cooking pieces. All these different things,” Ricker said. “But if I don’t need it, I don’t just go cut it.”
Ricker’s historical approach to the outdoors is very “hook and bullet” in that hunting, trapping and fishing were integral to that world. As his Cherokee mentor told him, no matter how civilized our cultures may become, we are all hunter gatherers at heart. Whether you choose to call him a romantic or a realist, the native view informs Ricker’s hunting ethos.
“When I’m shooting at a paper target, I don’t care if I miss. But if I’m taking something’s life, something’s spirit, I don’t want to miss. I don’t want to have to track that animal down. I don’t want it to suffer and I don’t want any of it to go to waste,” said Ricker. “I’ve been in a lot of shooting matches and never won. But I’ve never had to shoot an animal more than once with a primitive weapon.
Not only can you expect Ricker to tan the hide — usually with the animal’s own brains — he treats the entire carcass as an economic windfall. Antlers can become knife handles. Splintered shinbones can become sewing needles. Sinew, which is carefully separated from the meat, can become bow strings, fishing line or a means of securing flint broad heads to cedar shafts. A deer’s toe bone, meanwhile, can be fashioned into a fishhook.
Nowadays Ricker doesn’t spend as much time hunting as he did when he was younger. But he still gets out at least twice a year.
“We go up to Ralph Marcum’s in Kentucky and float the river on a squirrel hunt. One will paddle the canoe and the other will shoot. Then I go up and there’s a big rock house that five or six of us stay under and deer hunt for two or three days,” Ricker said. “It’s a shame I don’t get to hunt more. But people are always giving me deer and other game, and I stay so busy. I never dreamed this would turn into a career.”
When he does hunt, he carries a 20 gauge smoothbore flintlock musket. He originally built it for turkey hunting but gradually started using it for everything. When loaded with a patched .62 caliber round ball, he deems it more than accurate enough for the ranges at which he’d normally shoot a deer. The patterns it throws with assorted sizes of loose shot make it an outstanding fowler and small game piece.
When it comes time to process the game, he uses knives that he forged himself with the coaching of his older brother, master blacksmith Fred Ricker.
“I’m not really a blacksmith. I made my knife blades and tomahawks and belt axes and strikers and cooking irons and all that stuff. A true blacksmith like my brother does stuff with metal that boggles my mind,” Ricker said. “But I still think there is no greater satisfaction than taking a deer with a gun you built yourself and dressing it with a knife you forged yourself.”