The Walking Stick Considered

Bud killed the shrew

Bud killed the shrew

There’s a fair amount of literature pertaining to walking sticks, and a whole lot more information pertaining to commercially available walking instruments. I’ll confess to having read very little of “Walking Stick Notes” so far, and have been deficient in boosting the American economy by purchasing crafted sticks. I’ll accept the fact that Ben Franklin gave his favorite walker to George Washington and that it’s now a national treasure. I have no problem believing that sticks can be family heirlooms and collectibles worth money. For me, however, the walking stick is a practical item, a natural tool to help me get somewhere outdoors and to better appreciate the place I’m in.

The walking stick is an extension of my outdoor self, no less important than binocularsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA to a birder or fly rods to an angler. My sticks range from a beaver-chewed alder staff to a crooked sassafras pole to a “systems piece” that I’ll refer to later. I use them as supporters and shields, as tools to pick up litter, or simply as an item that feels good and elemental in the hand. The stick can also function as a pointer– an attention grabber for a trail mate who is too self-absorbed to see the interesting wildflower or the migratory bird that he or she has just shuffled by.

A walking stick was possibly mankind’s first defense weapon and support tool. Early specimens were friendly as a shepherd’s crook or fearsome as a pike or spear. Today we can still imagine them being whittled on an Appalachian porch, or we can shape them into being from a suitable branch that’s fallen near a trail-head. High-technology has produced synthetic canes, as well, some of which have medical applications for physical infirmities.

Hiking staffs are generally four to six feet in length, intended for rugged terrain. A stick isOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA often taken for granted while in use– right up to the moment when it snaps in two from being wedged in rocks as you descend a mountain with about thirty pounds of pack equipment on your shoulders.

My own preference is for a beaver-cut aspen or poplar stick about four feet long. I have several of these and am always looking for another when in the neighborhood of beaver dams and lodges. My favorite stick has the bark removed by rodent teeth. It’s knotty in convenient locations and is tapered from a thick butt (for a hand grip) to a slightly bent tip. It’s great for bushwhacking maneuvers. The wood is soft but light and durable. There’s a feeling of resiliency and life to it, and the stick slides readily through the hand when I want it to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve also got a manufactured “system stick” that my mother-in-law once gave me. Only in America can you find an item like this– a four-sided piece of finished hickory with a knob on top. It’s endowed with a compass that glows at night, with a wrist-cord and a retractable spike that’s good for wading, trash collection, and emergency hunting and fishing ventures. The stick has a replaceable rubber tip, plus an ingenious device for measuring the height of distant trees and buildings. It can double as aerobic exerciser, camera mono-pod, scale, and “thumper”– the latter being useful to ward off grizzlies, feral dogs, and serial killers. The instruction manual for this system stick includes the caveat not to use on toothy mammals larger than yourself unless you can aim straight, throw hard, and run real fast. Needless to say, I like to use the rodent sticks found in water.

I’m told that some of these factory productions come replete with built-in necessitiesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA such as sundials, swords, rulers, microscopes, and skinny violins. Perhaps swords and violins can soothe the beast on crowded mountaintops, but I’m still trying to fathom the application of sundials and microscopes in such locations.

An ordinary walking stick helps me get past all the gizmos and most of the nonsense in our lives. Tradition lives inside a simple stick. Let’s raise one in salute to each other when we chance to pass by on the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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19 Responses to The Walking Stick Considered

  1. stevegalea6953 says:

    Very nicely done. I’m with you on this one. A factory-made walking stick has no soul and is uninteresting at best..

  2. Ken G says:

    Here in the flatlands of Illinois I’ve never felt the need for a good stick. But I’m finding out this year that my back disagrees with me a bit. I have a couple of lengths of cedar that I’ll be turning into walkers soon, just in case.

    • Ken, There’s no shame in flatlander using a good stick to get around with. As I’m aging, I find that a stick helps me keep balance in more ways than one, whether on the flats or on the slope. So, yeah, take care of that back, and maybe do some whittling on the cedar.


  3. Thanks Steve! No soul for the factory-stick. Nails it on the head.

  4. Puget Keith says:

    I have three walking sticks. One is my favorite, a 4ft evergreen huckleberry stick, and another that is probably alder. I have an old one that I laid against an old tree several years ago to see how long it would take for it to turn to dust. It’s still standing there but is looking more brittle.

    Lastly are the photos about Dog Canyon Trail part of this post? I like the last photo which is my guess somewhere in the desert SW.

    • Thanks Keith, Sticks can be remarkably sturdy, considering the tests we put them through. They can last for years if we don’t lose them, but I remember one favorite sasssafras that I’d dropped on the hill one Christmas Eve and didn’t find until the following Xmas. It splintered under pressure even though the wood had been treated. Yes, the photo is from southern NM, Dog Canyon. The original photos for this write-up, other than one, vanished into another universe when I tried to upload from the camera, so I had to quickly find suitable replacements.


  5. In my teens and twenties I liked to find whatever stick looked serviceable, maybe break it down a bit, whittle it some. There are always plenty of possibilities. It seemed I picked up the habit from a hiking buddy who liked to use something from the local environment and then leave it behind, a gift back to the forest. Maybe I’m heavier (well a bit) now, or maybe more picky. But I think I need to look for some beaver-cut aspen.

    • Thanks David. I like that anecdote about your friend taking a stick from the local environment and then giving it back by leaving it in a promising location for another to use. I’ve done that quite a few times myself. This, too, reminds me I’ve got to get your blog site back on my blog roll. Somehow it disappeared of late and I’ve lost the thread of dad poet. Hope things are going well!


      • Well, then it’s a good thing I took a three week hiatus. 🙂 Seriously, thank you. I always enjoy your poetic tales of the water ways of Penn’s Woods.

      • Hiatus? As in vacation? Sounds good, I hope you’re rested, if you needed a break, as I think I do!


      • I wish it were vacation, but lots of work, a return of some migraines (getting my eyes checked this week), and a lot of work on editing and submitting work to journals and magazines left me in sort of a blog slump.

  6. Junior says:

    Who is that solitary figure symbolizing mankind’s bravery in facing something so much larger and more significant? Don’t forget to offer a brief obituary for your dearly departed walking sticks, sacrificed to the elements in the presence of a flask of whisky and a rotting “car”-cass.

    • That solitary figure faced an immense uncertainty, for sure, but even a gigantic rock could not give him pause for more than a minute or two. He understood that the trail beckoned and led to greeny springs where beer is but a cheap mirage and water is a promise (though probably undrinkable). Thanks for standing up to a grand escarpment of the desert wilds. As for an obit to a dearly departed sassafras rod, I thought about it, but I’d probably have to dredge up more than a car-cass here. It’s not fair to blame it all on whisky, which is capable of revenge. That said, R.I.P. ye crumbling walking sticks that served a worthy rambler or two!


  7. I use a beaver cut and chewed stick as well. Something that I always look for is a stick almost as tall or taller than me- with a shorter stick you risk being impaled if you trip or fall.

    • Good sticks are like fly rods in a way, although a whole lot cheaper. Nice to have them in a range of useful lengths and other features so that they can be used for different types of walks. I hadn’t thought about the danger of impaling oneself, or worse. I find the longer sticks a bit more cumbersome or heavy or both, but either way it’s good to have one at hand. Thanks for weighing in!


  8. Joseph Hord says:

    I’m not sure why, but a walking stick, even if it’s just a branch picked up the day of, seems to add a little something to a hike for me. I haven’t run across a beaver chewed stick yet, but they are becoming more plentiful here in my neck of the woods. One of these days I might find one, and if I do I plan to hang on to it.

    • Joseph, The stick is like a gift offered up by the occasion. I agree with you. And yes, if you find a beaver cut, I think you’ll like it. Lightweight, durable, a gift from our largest rodents.


  9. Mike Byrne says:

    I am on the internet looking for a nice looking stick blank to purchase.I’ve noticed that lately people are trying to pass off curved sticks as walking.hiking sticks when they would probably be better suited for use as the bow in a bow and arrow set.Just needed to vent!

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