Old-School DIY

Your guide to surviving Canada throughout the ages.

Written by Brooke Campbell, Kaitlin Vitt, and Mark Reid. Illustrations by Tierra Connor.

January 17, 2019

You’ve dreamed about escaping the bustle of everyday life, imagining a time when you weren’t constantly battling with your kids over screen time, without long days at the office toiling under fluorescent lights, and free of traffic jams and taxes.

You yearn for the simple life, with plenty more time for friends and family. The days would be filled with hearty shared meals, time spent in nature, honest work, and a sense of community. Sounds like paradise, right?

Or would it be?

The truth is, the past is a tougher place than most of us realize — filled with intense manual labour at work and around the home, often-gruelling modes of transportation, illnesses that could easily turn fatal, limited creature comforts, and unreliable communication.

But, if you still insist that life was better in the past, here are some tips and tricks you’ll need to survive in early Canada.

How to make spruce beer

It’s 1535, and you’re part of Jacques Cartier’s exploration crew arriving in what will eventually become Quebec. The weeks-long voyage across the Atlantic has been perilous. Now, to make matters worse, you feel exhausted, weak, and irritable. You bleed easily, and your joints ache. Some members of the crew are losing teeth from their rotting gums.

That’s right — you have scurvy, which we now know to be the result of a vitamin C deficiency.

Thankfully, the Haudenosaunee take pity on you and share their cure: spruce beer, which can be brewed during winter months when fresh produce — also a source of vitamin C — isn’t available. For a non-alcoholic drink, simply boil spruce twigs in water and then strain off the liquid. The alcoholic version has a few more steps.

  1. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add spruce twigs until the water just covers them.
  2. Roast oats in a pan. Add to pot.
  3. Toast a few slices of bread. Add to pot.
  4. Boil until about half of the original amount of water remains and bark loosens from the twigs. Strain.
  5. Add molasses or brown sugar to the liquid. Put the mixture into a barrel. Add yeast. Remove scum from the liquid.
  6. Allow mixture to ferment for several days before drinking.

How to cure cod

It’s the 1850s in a Newfoundland outport. Although you’re no pirate, day after day you feel like you’ve struck gold with a scaly fortune of your own: seemingly endless stocks of cod like the catch you’re hauling home.

Thick, yellow-tinged Newfoundland cod is popular worldwide, and the industry employs thousands. Mechanical refrigeration doesn’t exist, so to preserve your fish you must cure your catch using a centuries-old salting method. “Making fish,” the process of drying and salting cod, is a seasonal business that involves the entire family.

Although there are many ways of curing fish, you and your family will be making lightly pickled cod. It is a complex and technical process but yields a high-quality product.

  1. Find at least two other people to help you to dress the cod. One cuts the throat of the fish and makes a cut down its belly. A second person guts and beheads it. The third splits the fish open to its tail and cuts out the bones.
  2. In the bottom of a watertight barrel, lay a row of fish with the scaly side down. Sprinkle salt lightly on thin parts and more heavily where the fish is thicker. Layer another row of fish and salt it, repeating the process until the barrel is full. Leave for three to five days.
  3. In a large tub, rinse away the brine and scrub off any salt that has accumulated on the fish.
  4. Leave the fish in a pile, called a “waterhorse,” on the fishing stage (a wooden platform at the water’s edge) to drain.
  5. Carefully spread the fish across flakes (wooden platforms for drying fish). Dry the fish, scales down, until they become stiff, then flip them so their scales face up. If it starts to rain or snow, pile the fish to protect them and then spread them out again. Drying the fish completely takes between two and six weeks.

How to start a fire with a bow drill

It’s the eleventh century, and back at Straumfjörðr — the Norse community in northwestern Newfoundland that will someday be known as L’Anse aux Meadows — the villagers are preparing for winter. Your assignment: Head inland and return with meat.

Although there’s not as much big game as back in Scandinavia, you should be able to catch some beaver, red fox, or Arctic hare. On occasion, you might come across the tracks of black bears or wolves. There are vast herds of caribou across the water in Markland, in what will eventually be called Labrador. But the moose that will be so prevalent on this island in the future will not be introduced until the 1870s. As night begins to fall, you prepare to make camp.

Alas! You’ve forgotten your flint back at Straumfjörðr. Looks like you’ll need to start your fire the old-fashioned way. With a sigh, you set to work building a bow drill.

  1. Find two sticks — one straight and dry, about fifteen centimetres long, and the other slightly curved, roughly sixty centimetres in length. You’ll also need two short, flat pieces of wood — one bone-dry, to be placed on the ground, and the other slightly damp, to be used to apply downward pressure while operating your bow drill. If you can’t find flat pieces of wood, you can always use your axe to split some off a log. Willow, balsam fir, aspen, or spruce are the preferred species.
  2. Collect dry dead plant matter such as leaves or grasses for a tinder bundle.
  3. Cut a small notch in your dry, flat board and then remove a small wedge from your notch. It should be no more than one eighth of the circumference of the notch. Place the board on the ground. Make a small notch in the other board as well.
  4. Tie a length of string to each end of the curved stick, leaving a bit of slack. Loop the string once around the straight stick, or “spindle.”
  5. Hold the dry board in place with your foot and insert the bottom end of your spindle into the notch. Take the second notched board and place it on top of the spindle as a cap.
  6. Grasping the curved bow in your dominant hand, make a sawing motion, turning the spindle in the notch while pushing down with your opposite hand.
  7. Saw the bow drill for an unbearably long time. Keep going. No, seriously — just keep going forever. Eventually, a small pile of hot wood dust should begin to accumulate. This is your “coal.”
  8. With a knife, transfer the coal to your tinder and blow gently until flames ignite.
  9. Remember not to forget your flint ever again!

Editor’s Note: Enjoy “Old-School DIY” but remember that this is informational only, for your reading pleasure. Influenza, muskets, unknown plants — even igloos — can be hazardous to one’s health. These instructions are simplified and condensed.

The full feature appears in the February-March 2019 issue of Canada’s History. For more details about the steps outlined in “Old-School DIY,” visit the resources below.

How to make spruce beer
How to cure cod
How to treat the flu
How to make pemmican
How to start a fire with a bow drill
How to build an igloo
How to build a birchbark canoe
How to make a feed-sack dress
How to survive a dust storm
How to prepare land for seeding
How to fire a musket

“Old-School DIY” originally appeared in the February-March 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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