My ancient ancestors spent their lives living in various types of native shelters and I’d like to share my experience camping in a tipi over the years.
First of all, I’m a native Micmac (MiqMaq) and although I don’t live on or near a reservation a good bit of my family do and I try to visit at least once a year. The tipi is actually a Plains Indian type dwelling, but in these latter years it’s become very popular with many different tribes and we have adopted it as our favorite shelter when attending various native events and sometimes for camping.
The tipi is a relatively easy structure to set up once you have all the components in place. Depending on the size of the structure it can take anywhere from thirteen to twenty poles. Three poles are first tied up as a tripod and then the other poles are carefully put in place around it. The fabric of the tipi itself is laid on the ground on a “lift” pole opposite the entrance and then it’s carefully lifted into place.
Over the years I’ve camped out in my uncle’s tipi at least thirty or forty times in all weather conditions, by myself occasionally, but more often with my father and uncle. My least favorite time of year is spring when the mosquitoes will eat you alive and my favorite season – by far – is late fall or early winter when it starts to get really cold. The tipi is set up along the banks of the Miramichi River in N.B. Canada, so when I say it gets cold you can believe that it does.
It’s a great way to leave civilization for awhile and in order to get there you have to park the car and backpack in. In the summer it’s only a half mile through the woods from the nearest parking spot (a gravel pit well off the road) , but in the winter it’s a good mile or more by snowshoe in order to get there. Or you can canoe in if you’re experienced poling a canoe up a river.
I always love the hike in as the trail is very rough and in some places if you’re not careful you can actually wander off the not-so-beaten path. You’re walking through the woods with a cold breeze in your face and then you look up and there it is… the tipi, white against the evergreens that surround it. You’ve suddenly been transported back to the 1800’s.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot while camping in the tipi and I’m already starting to pass these lessons on to my son as my father taught them to me. Lighting a fire, respect for nature, how to handle an axe and a knife, how to get the fire set up, how to cook over an open fire, how to properly ventilate the tipi using the smoke hole, and on and on.
This summer my uncle gave me a small tipi and I set it up behind my house. Today my son and I cooked some hotdogs in it after I got the fire going with my firesteel. As I was blowing the fire to life he watched intently and then knelt down next to me and tried blowing into it too. I smiled because it’s only the beginning of his lessons and I’ll have as much fun teaching him as –hopefully – he’ll have learning them.
You don’t have to be a tough guy to sleep in a tipi, but it’s definitely not the Hilton. If the wind shifts towards the direction of your smoke hole you’ll wind up with a backdraft and a lot of smoke. If the fire goes out in the winter the temperature will plunge to well below zero degrees or whatever the ambient outdoor temperature happens to be at the time. In the spring you need a smoky fire to keep the skeeters out or they’ll eat you alive because there are no screens to keep them out. And it’s not unheard of for a black bear to come woofing around late at night either, so don’t be freaked out by animal noises. It’s a good place to learn how to do without all the trappings of civilization that make our modern life so comfortable.
I doubt we’d ever live in a tipi post TEOTWAWKI; however, it’s a great place to learn how to handle yourself in the wilderness and if it ever did come down to it… why, I’m all set up and ready to go.
Fire in the tipi. Make sure the smoke flaps are set right!