Arts & Culture
7:40 pm
Sun September 15, 2013

Finding beauty & camaraderie in the woods, in the old-school ways

Jim Miller does not wish he was alive several hundred or even several thousand years ago. But he loves the old-school ways. And Miller teaches people, as he likes to say, "about the skills of our ancestors."

Miller teaches adults and children how to make fire by friction (which is not an easy thing to do); how to take the bark from a tree without killing it and create bark baskets. There's also the chance to learn primitive pottery, hide tanning, beaver trapping, and how to turn stone chips into arrows and spears.

Miller hosts camps on his property, travels to schools and museums, and calls his entire operation Willow Winds. He lives in the small town of Mikado, which is close to Lake Huron and is technically located inside the Huron National Forest.

On the property there's a modern house, but there's also the rustic wood cabin Miller built with his own  hands (which reminds me of the house the Ingalls family had on "Little House On The Prairie"). He's also built his own Scandinavian-style sauna. One of his favorite things to do is take the stunning traditional birch bark canoe he built himself for a paddle in the Au Sable River.

So why is this guy so passionate about traditional wilderness skills?

His answer: beauty and camaraderie.

Hands-on basket making
Credit Jim Miller

"When you can see the beauty of what’s out here it enhances your walk," he says. "I remember when I would go on walks and only saw trees and plants. But once you start to really see these things, and you learn the uses of these plants and trees, it's amazing and endless.  As you begin to learn these things they start to come alive."

Miller says one of his favorite things is when he teaches at-risk youth and he can see them connect with a particular activity.

"We watch for that twinkle in their eye to come out when they work with birch bark, or go for a paddle on the river, or cook over a fire. A lot of times it's with pottery, when they hold it in their hand and watch it change."

Miller says he also enjoyed sharing his love of the woods with his sister, who recently passed away, at age 63.

"We have good memories, it's bittersweet. You mourn for awhile and then you celebrate. But she came out here all the time and she did these things. And that's what you hope: you hope you can share it with your family and your loved ones and complete strangers. And when you leave if they did a fire and you did a fire, man, you're tight forever!"

Making fire
Credit Jim Miller

--Kyle Norris

knorris@umich.edu