Survivalists descend on Schoharie County

Photo of an American Mountain Man from the Adirondack Museum.

This weekend, the Schoharie Creek Dam will ring with musket blasts and the thwunk of tomahawks, as the American Mountain Men pitch their tents at the Blenheim-Gilboa Visitor's Center to give us tenderfeet a lesson in 19th-century survival skills. The American Mountain Men, a fraternity some 600 strong, is a national brotherhood devoted to preserving the way of life of fur-trapping Western pioneers in the early 1800s. And if that doesn't sound sufficiently badass, consider this: They're men enough to advertise public demonstrations of "Beaver Skinning and Fleshing."  We tracked down American Mountain Man Frank Galea, the group's "New York Brigade Booshway," to get the scoop on the festivities.

Watershed Post: How many Mountain Men are there going to be tomorrow?
Frank Galea: Probably around eight or nine. One gentleman is going to be demonstrating how to make baskets out of cattails. We'll do flint knapping. We're going to do live shooting, and tomahawk and knife throwing.

WP: And beaver skinning, right? Where do you get the beavers from?
FG: One of our people does nuisance trapping. It's in the freezer. You always worry about the reaction to things like skinning the beaver and shooting firearms. Our first year at the Adirondack Museum, I was afraid that wouldn't go over well, but it's generally worked out well for us, and it's going to be our tenth year there.

WP: You can't really be a mountain man and swear off animal killing.
FG: That's the way it was back then.

WP: How long have the American Mountain Men been around?
FG: We were started about the 1960s. It was done as a modern survivalist group, where you store canned food in your basement -- that sort of thing. In the '70s, they became more of a historical survival group. We consider ourselves more of a living history than a reenactment group.

WP: Are people more interested in you as a result of the financial meltdown? Self-sufficiency is pretty big lately.

FG: It's funny. My old boss was so worried about Y2K. He said, "If anything happens, I'm coming your way."

WP: The list of requirements for full brotherhood is pretty hardcore. What was the hardest one for you?
FG: Don't laugh. It was doing my paper on knives of the period between 1810 and 1840. Staying out for three days and stuff, that's no big deal.  But writing the research paper, that was tough. I guess most of us are better in the field than at a computer.

WP: Are there any Mountain Women?
FG: Okay, I knew that was coming. Women can participate in any of our events, but they can't become a member. There's a historical reason for that: The first white woman to cross the Rockies was Narcissa Whitman, and that was at the end of the fur trade period. But the ladyfolks participate every chance they can.

WP: Is there competition in the group to be the most period-correct?
FG: Only on our annual rendezvous. We have an award for the most period-correct camp. Last year, for the first time, we had our American Mountain Man Eastern here in New York. A lot of folks have never been to New York State. A fellow came from Arizona, and he said, "I cannot believe all I can see is rivers and trees and mountains." He didn't realize there's a lot more to New York than New York City.