Wednesday, June 19, 2013


We went camping this past weekend with two other families. All three families have only boys, so our campsite consisted of six sleep-deprived parents and eight single-digit-age, wild and excited boys. So we gave them all knives.

Two of the brothers had received their very own Swiss Army-style pocket knives from the Yosemite gift shop on their last camping trip, so they brought them along. This led to all the other boys clamoring to have a turn with the knives. Not wanting anyone grabbing for a fast moving blade, in the interest of safety, us dads dug through our camping gear and gave them each their own pocket knife, and taught them the manly art of whittling.

It went something like this:

“Dad, can I use your pocket knife?”
“Sure son.”
(Glare from wife)
“Hey, son, if that knife gets dull, you can use one of the daggers your mom is staring at me with.”
“Never mind. Here, check this out. This kind of single-blade knife is cool, because if you put your index finger on this little lever and flick your wrist like this… bam, like a switchblade.”
(Icier, dagger-ier glare from wife)
“Never do that, though. Sorry, honey.”

As is so often the case, the fatherly approach to this type of situation differed slightly from the motherly approach. We dads thought the proper approach was to give our sons detailed instructions on proper knife safety and whittling technique, make sure the first aid kits were fully stocked, then sit back and watch them learn by doing.

As near as I could tell, the mothers’ approach was to attempt to keep them away from all sharp objects until they turn 25.

The dads finally won out, once we promised to take an active role in the refereeing of all knife-related activities, and soon all the boys were happily seated in their camp chairs around the fire pit, whittling like mad. We did, however, run into a few unexpected issues that we never got fully worked out.

For starters, we couldn’t get them to keep their elbows resting on their knees, allowing them to whittle straight out away from themselves. They kept leaning back and bringing the work closer to them and higher, ending up with the stick up by their face and the knife whipping rapidly past the tip of their nose.

They would also get easily distracted, but would continue to whittle, while their eyes wandered off to something more interesting beyond the fire pit. We kept having to say, “Either stop whittling or watch what you’re doing.” Again, the learn-by-doing method would have taught this quite a bit faster, but I guess the moms wanted to save the Band-Aids in case of a bear attack or something.

The kids would also regularly get up and walk around the inner perimeter of the campfire chair circle. It turns out that seven-year-old whittlers have little to no awareness of their surroundings, and neither do five-year-old walkers while in a campfire chair ring of whittlers. Most of our time was spent yelling, “Stop walking! Watch the knife! Be careful! Don’t stab your brother!” etc.

We had to make sure that the whittling remained the standard “sharpen the end of the stick,” or “get all the bark off the stick,” because some of the other things they came up with were not optimal. I found Son Number One with the stick pressed against the top of his knee, sawing a notch all the way around the stick with the knife blade. He was almost through when I stopped him. “Let’s try not to test out dad’s tourniquet skills on this trip, OK buddy? Besides, your mommy would faint and hit her head on a rock. We don’t want that.”

The next day Son Number One and Two both decided that they wanted to make miniature canoes out of ¾” diameter sticks that were 6” long. I just couldn’t see the interior of the mini canoe getting hollowed out very safely, and I figured our first aid kit would probably fall a little short if we had to attend to a knife sticking all the way through a hand. “Why don’t we just stick with ‘standard whittling’ instead, OK?”

For the boys, almost as exciting as being allowed to whittle was the prospect of simply having the knife with them in their pockets. My boys kept asking me if they could take the knives with them into the woods.
“Aw, dad. Why not?”
“Because you are not allowed to whittle unsupervised, or more than 50 feet from the first aid kit, and whittling is all you're allowed to use the knife for. Why do you want it?”
“For bears.”
“If you see a bear, I would like you to call to me, instead of trying to take it on with a 2-1/2” dull blade… Unless we tied the knife to the end of a long sturdy stick…”
(Icy dagger glare from wife)
“Never do that, though. Sorry, honey.”

It was a fun weekend. The boys started to learn a new skill, and they all lived to tell about it. As a side bonus, the activity of whittling did serve to slightly lessen the requests to throw another pine cone on the fire, although wanting to throw the other guy’s whittling stick in the fire did result in a few near knife fights.

Even though their mothers refuse to believe it, they were in far more danger after the whittling than during, from running around with the sharp, smooth sticks they made. Our knives were pretty dull.

All in all, it was a successful trip. We came home with all eight boys with the same number of holes in their bodies as they arrived with, and by the end of the weekend they had successfully whittled hundreds of sticks, which was fun for them. They had also successfully whittled their mothers’ nerves down to sharp, raw edges.

Thankfully, we don’t whittle at home.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2013 Marc Schmatjen

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