Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The balsam fir -- call it the first aid tree

balsam fir trunk
balsam fir blisters

Growing just about everywhere in the Boreal Forest are balsam fir trees.
Visitors to Bow Narrows Camp might know these from their massive number of branches, often covered in grey arboreal lichens known collectively as Old Man's Beard. The trees also have very pointed tops.

Balsams are also a favorite Christmas Tree and are sold for this purpose everywhere.

They have a wonderful fragrance and soft, flat needles.

Something that isn't as well known is that they also provide a great wilderness first aid salve for cuts.

The trunk of the balsam, especially older trees, is covered with bumps or blisters, and in each of these blisters is a clear sap. That sap makes a first-class antiseptic salve.

Take a knife blade or even just a sharp twig and puncture the blister. You'll end up with a drop of the sticky sap clinging to your blade or twig. Spread this on a bandage and place over the wound.

I've done this countless times and, in my experience, it works wonderfully. The wound heals quickly and never even becomes sore.

I first learned of this from old Bill Stupack, the prospector-trapper who first built Bow Narrows Camp. Bill spent most of his life living alone in the bush and swore there was nothing better for treating wounds.

One bitterly cold winter he was on his trapline at Prairie Lake, about 20 miles west of Red Lake, and accidentally cut himself badly on the head with an axe. He had been swinging the axe when it struck a branch and came down right on the top of his head, creating a large gash.

It was a 40-mile snowshoe to medical help (this was before snowmobiles) so that was pretty much out of the question. So Bill ended up stitching up the cut on his own with needle and thread. Then he found a balsam and cut a slab of bark to bring back in his little log cabin. He needed to thaw out the sap before it could be used. After plastering the sewn-up gash with balsam he bandaged it and made his plans to head to town. But then the weather took a turn for the worse and he ended up staying put for a week.

When the storm finally cleared Bill decided the cut was healing up just fine and took out his stitches and stayed another couple of months trapping.

They made them tough in those days.

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