Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Back in May I wrote in the blog titled "The Art of Howism" a brief paragraph about a knifemaker named Jason Knight. For a such a distinguished person, I felt like he deserved his own entry, a moment under the spotlight. I wrote this article in hopes of publication with one of many sportsman magazines. We'll see what develops.

Knifemaker Jason Knight forged his first knife in high school after a brief and ironic stint with Cutco.

Nowadays you won’t find the South Carolina native knocking at your door to prove his knives can cut through aluminum cans. In fact, when asked to show a collection of his work, he timidly pulls out two blades from his workbench and admits, “I can’t keep a knife long enough to put on display. These need to go out tomorrow.”

Knight belongs to an elite group of only 120 knifemaker artisans worldwide with the certified and illustrious title of Mastersmith.

Visit his home in Harleyville, South Carolina, and prepare to have your feeble hand disappear into his iron grip. Cracked and permanently blackened, his fleshy mitts reveal scars and calluses from years of forging raw steel into intricate and graceful works of art.

Born and raised in the backwoods of South Carolina, Jason Knight is the Palmetto State’s first and only Mastersmith. At an early age Knight slogged through the tangles and eerie landscape of Four Holes Swamp uncovering bayonets and other artifacts dating back to the Revolutionary War. Spending his childhood traversing the sloughs and braided channels, he traces his fascination with knives back to imaginary battles with fanciful beasts lurking amidst the cypress knees and blackwater.

Today, Knight hammers out orders and ships them to sportsmen and collectors all over the world. Rather than outsourcing the handle or guard like many knife makers, he insists on handcrafting every detail. “I forge the steel, I carve the wood, I inlay the handles, and I do my own leather sheaths. So when I put my name on the knife, I know it belongs there,” he proudly states.

His modest workshop is a veritable battlefield littered with fragments of bone, splintered wood, and shards of steel. Amidst the wreckage rests in medieval fashion a forge bearing the head of a dragon, a 425-pound anvil, and a cantankerous power hammer from 1919. Surprisingly, these archaic tools are producing the sinuous and sophisticated pieces of art Knight has become famous for. The craft of forging metal into functional weapons and tools predates written history, but over the millennia little has changed in the overall metallurgy process. For this reason, carving out a name in the cutthroat profession of knifemaking proves extremely difficult.

At 37 years of age, Jason Knight is one of the youngest members of the distinguished club of Mastersmiths. His design and technique carry the mark now internationally exalted as the Knight Method. Incorporating woods, Damascus steel, and precious stones from all corners of the globe, he uses natural forms found in nature to define his style.

“I consider my style to be simplistic. When I make a handle I think of the arms of a praying mantis or the curves of a woman’s leg: the subtle arches, smooth edges, and elegance. I like my knives to look and feel fast like a Ferrari while being practical at the same time. A fast car isn’t any fun if you don’t drive it.”

While most outdoor enthusiasts would not take their Ferrari into the wilderness, Knight designs his knives with the highest standards to accompany hunters, top chefs, and even U.S. soldiers. To demonstrate, he gingerly approaches a brush pile and begins hacking away at three-inch pine limbs. In a matter of minutes with a modest blade he manages to rival the efficiency of a machete without losing any sharpness. His most popular seller, the Bowie knife, is his personal favorite.

“Every culture has a knife they can indentify with. For us, it’s hard because we’re a culture of all different kinds of backgrounds—but the Bowie knife sticks out because it’s fantastical. We fall in love with the idea of it. The idea of being able to fight, the idea of chopping our way through the woods, the idea of being able to explore the unexplored.”

When I propose the idea that the general population might consider wielding a Bowie knife in public as barbarous, Knight scoffs. “I think it’s barbaric when I see people using their teeth, struggling to open a package or to clip fishing line. God didn’t give me sharp teeth, he gave me a brain so I could use tools.”

Currently, Knight is producing a series of eight Bowie knives fabricated using carbon steel and scraps from the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. He says, “I’m not trying to key in on a popular trend. It’s just more interesting to me when my knives have a story. I’m calling it the 9/12 Bowie because the day after 9/11 is when everyone woke up.”

Despite the awards and international acclaim that his work attracts, Knight remains humble, energetic, and altruistic. Recently, he traveled to Nicaragua solely to teach a handful of underprivileged locals the art of knifemaking.

“My ability is something that should be shared, and I want other people to have that knowledge and skill set. I want them to be able to build homes and feed their families, just like I do.”

Domestically, he offers a special customer program designed to support U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to own the Desert Eagle knife, one must pay the price for two and Knight will personally send the second knife to a soldier abroad. As if that weren’t enough, just last year for fear of a rapidly metastasizing ego, Knight gathered up all his awards and trophies and casually burned them with trash. He says, “It’s good to be proud of what you make, but I just reveled in those awards and all I got out of it was some plastic. I needed to be humble. I was fatheaded and lived with that pride to where I just started to stagnate. I’m a spiritual person, and I didn’t give credit where the credit was due.”

Since his fiery catharsis, Knight has returned to his passion with a new vitality. Back at the anvil, he hammers out a drab lump of steel into another elegant knife for enthusiasts and aficionados to covet.

As a chef pines over a new stove, or an angler envies a cutting-edge rod, the potential energy exuded by Knight’s knives is nothing short of intoxicating. Most of us may never engage in personal combat or find the need to blaze a trail through the thickets of a swamp. Our imaginations help carry us to that whimsical place, indulging our primal instincts to be constantly vigilant and always prepared.

Whether dredging the depths of some childhood urge to explore or simply satisfying aesthetic appetites, Knight designs and fabricates the ultimate knife that his customers will never want to keep sheathed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Traffic Jams

The park’s peak months are from June to August, autumn also holds a special lure for tourists wanting to see aspens changing color and large populations of elk. People travel from all over the world to tour the park and escape the chaos and crowded streets of major cities. It just so happens that 3 million other people annually also have the same idea at one point or another. Perhaps it’s a little ironic then, that one would end up at the end of an 80-car standstill in the middle of a national park. One thing you won’t find, however, is angry drivers or the sound of car-horns blaring. Instead, excited heads pop through sunroofs and through passenger windows with cameras ready to see what everyone else sees.

By the fifth day in the park we stopped looking for elk altogether and drove until we found other cars pulled off on the side of the road. While a little discomforting to think of traffic in such a beautiful place, it was refreshing to see such a crazed enthusiasm for wildlife.

On Friday morning, I woke up before sunrise to search for my own herd of elk off the beaten path and far from the crowds. Just beyond Barry’s house an open grazing ground proved a perfect spot. Hiking through the trees I came to a clearing and there they were.

Three bull elk lumbered amongst a small harem of cows, pronouncing their dominion over the others with shrieking bugle calls. Desensitized to humans, they let me approach without worry.

I watched as they sparred, clashing full racks of bone, performing for their female audience. I spent 20 minutes photographing in the cold morning alone with these wonderful creatures. I thanked them for the private session and headed back up the hill to my car.

Turning onto the main road I drove for a few minutes until coming to a complete stop. Stuck behind twenty other vehicles I slowly inched forward until I saw a large gathering of people photographing a bull elk that had just walked across the road.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"It's so cold, I can't feel feelings!"

For cheap entertainment take two people from the southeast, drop them off in the Rockies, and watch them assume that the weather in the valley equals the weather in the mountains.

I’m not inexperienced; I’m just forgetful sometimes.

We ignored the weather reports because we saw blue skies. We also ignored the fact that no one else was going up the mountain. Everyone else in their right mind was on their way down with rosy cheeks and hurried feet. Our agenda, however, was adventure and we were determined to find it somewhere around Loch Lake, 4 miles from the parking lot and 1,000 feet up.

Our fishing licenses expired the next morning, so of course we brought our rods. Several hikers commented on this saying “You’re going fishing up there?! Good luck!” Obviously they had never seen anyone cast into gale force winds.

The first hour, a scenic and gradual climb, we passed small creeks and enjoyed the peaceful quiet of snow falling gently around the trail.

As soon as we ascended into the basin of The Loch, soft snow soon turned into howling zephyrs reaching sixty miles per hour. White caps ripped across the lake and ponderosa pines clung to exposed boulders.

The view was spectacular. Dramatic and dangerous, dark clouds and partial sunshine appeared to jump out of Albert Bierstadt’s personal collection. While making an image, worried that my shivering hand would blur the photograph, I set my camera on a timer. The wind had no problem lifting up my tripod and tossing it to the side, luckily landing on the tree.

It didn’t take long for my cotton glove liners to soak up the cold forcing me to keep my hands buried in my armpits. Despite the misery, we were still determined (I was still determined) to go fishing, but getting a line out on the exposed lake would have been impossible. We hiked towards the south end of the lake that appeared wooded with an icy creek flowing through the middle. Stopping at a nice spillover, I struggled to tie on a fly with my frozen fingers, which felt as hopeless as trying to walk on a leg that had fallen asleep. Hannah found refuge from the wind under a small overhang and huddled into a ball without uttering one word of discomfort. After a few short casts, my line had frozen solid and I almost reached the point of surrender when I felt a stiff tug.

I fought the fish for a couple of minutes before trying to remove the fly. All species of trout have a slimy coating to protect them from bacteria and other sicknesses, which is why anglers always wet their hands before handling fish. Unfortunately, the only water I had readily available was the icy cold glacier flow in front of me. Quickly I dunked my hands in, removed the fly, and held the fish for a photo I rigged up with the tripod. The fish survived and I immediately shoved my hands under my bare armpits to regain circulation.

We caught the fish, hiked the lake, and braved a violent snowstorm. It was time to go home. Our first stop would be the Coffee on the Rocks café for a steaming cup of hot chocolate. What a day.