Colonel Whelen’s Wilderness Knives Long Before the Nessmuk and Kephart Fad Came Col. Townsend Whelen’s Writings
By Steven Dick
Several years before I had ever even heard of Nessmuk or Horace Kephart, I found a copy of On Your Own in the Wilderness, a backcountry manual co-authored by Colonel Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier. Whelen and Angier were both famous camping and outdoor writers during the 1950s-60s. It was difficult to tell which of them was writing a particular chapter of the book, but there was never any doubt that Whelen penned the cutlery section. I read and reread the entire book many times and put much of it to use on my own summer jobs with the U.S. Forest Service. Even after I discovered Nessmuk’s Woodcraft and Camping, On Your Own in the Wilderness remained my personal “bushcraft” bible. It just seemed more relevant to the 20th century and the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest.
I know it is sacrilege to say it these days, but I don’t consider Nessmuk or Kephart all that experienced in real wilderness living. Whelen, on the other hand, took a sabbatical from his military career in the very early part of the 20th century and just disappeared into the British Columbia forests for months at a time. If you read his hunting books you will find he talks about shooting large numbers of deer, moose, sheep, goats, bear, and all manner of small game on these pilgrimages. I often wondered what Canadian game laws were like that they allowed this kind of safari. It was only recently did I discover he was given something called a “free miner” permit that allowed the bearer to harvest anything he felt he needed for subsistence. I have a feeling Whelen kind of pushed the envelope on that. Later in his military career he did much the same thing in the jungles of the Panama Canal Zone.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of KNIFE Magazine. Premium Online Members can read the whole thing by clicking the blue box below.