A small group of men and women in animal hide pants and 19th century dresses and jackets make their way through the woods, each with a rifle in their hands.
Light smoke lingers in the trees.
The air smells of freshly ignited gunpowder — the pungent odour of burnt sulphur stings the nostrils.
As they make their way along the well-packed trail to the next target, they poke fun at each other and joke about who is a better shot.
Suddenly, the laughter is silenced by the sharp crack of a gun going off. Then another. And another. The bullets snap through the crisp morning air, some hitting the metal targets with a ‘ping’ sound.
The group is one of many taking part in the Fraser Valley Frontiersmen Black Powder Club’s 40th annual Buffalo Shoot.
About 80 folks from western Canada and the U.S. are camping out at the Chilliwack Fish and Game Club in the Chilliwack River Valley for three days of shooting, archery, knife-and-tomahawk throwing, and fun competitions.
They are wearing replica clothes from the fur trade era, firing single-shot rifles and pistols, and living how North Americans lived 200 years ago.
It’s not just about the black powder firearms and the shooting.
Shannon Storozynski enjoys learning about how everyday items were made — the clothing, jewellery, blankets, furniture — and she often teaches herself how to make things by researching as much as she can to figure out the best way to create the items.
She’s made ‘brain-tanned’ leather pants, dresses and jackets. Brain tanning is a process that uses animal brains or other fatty materials to alter the leather. The resulting supple, suede-like hide is usually smoked heavily to prevent it from rotting.
Storozynski also has a wool dress she made entirely by hand — and without a pattern. It’s a rich burgundy colour with dark blue accents. Hundreds of tiny glass beads have been hand-strung and sewn along the edge of the dress. Dozens of small shells are attached to the chest and they clink together delicately when the garment moves.
“I can’t teach you how to make a dress, but I can tell you how not to make a dress,” says Storozynski. She put more than 100 hours into making the wool dress — many of those hours were spent doing something wrong, taking it apart, and then doing it correctly.
“I don’t ever think that I can’t do something,” she says.
She and her husband, Doug, are located in the primitive camp where their off-white canvas tent stands among a half dozen others. Some people have little stores and tables step up in the camp where they sell knives, clothing, metal and wood cups, jewellery, and more.
Yvonne Brown has a clothing rack packed full of jackets, shirts, dresses and pants for sale — every single item was made by her.
During the fur trade, they used as much of the animal as possible, like the bones for buttons and the teeth for jewellery or decorating clothing. Many of Brown’s pieces are adorned with these items.
Tim Smith appreciates the clothing — or lack thereof.
He is walking around camp without any pants on. But he’s not naked. He’s wearing a breechcloth (like a loincloth) and leather leggings, which are basically crotchless pant legs attached to, and held up by, a belt.
Although he’s the only one in a breechcloth at this weekend’s event, no one seems to mind. Everyone appears to be quite comfortable with his attire.
In fact, at one rendezvous event in Heffley Creek, B.C. where the rules about wearing modern clothing are much more strict than the rules at this Buffalo Shoot, there is a woman who goes around and checks to see if anyone is wearing something they shouldn’t, says Smith.
She’ll come up to someone in a breechcloth, and gently slide her hand underneath the cloth and onto their bottom to see if they’re wearing underwear. If they are, she’ll cut it off of them, right then and there. If she feels nothing but bare skin, she removes her hand and lets them be.
Perhaps it’s a bit too personal for some, but it demonstrates the comfort level these black powder enthusiasts have with each other. They’re like family.
“It’s not just the shooting, it’s the camaraderie and the history,” says Mark Lewis.
“It’s where you go to unplug,” says Smith. “You take your watch off, turn your phone off, get away from the electricity and internet and cable. Your form of entertainment is visiting with people and talking with people.”
Smith and Lewis chat with others around several lit candles and a campfire.
The sky grows a deeper blue as the sun tucks itself behind the Cascade mountains. The canvas tents glow a warm orange as the sky turns almost black and the stars become visible.
One couple stands up and bids goodnight to their friends.
“We’ll see you in the morning for breakfast,” one says.
And with that they turn and walk back to their sleeping quarters, listening to the chatter and laughter of their black powder family fade into the night.
See the above photographic slide show on Flickr.