ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Steve Burke does things the old-fashioned way.
His fascination with the primitive apparently skipped some generations because his dad thinks he’s crazy.
Burke turned out at the Patriots Day celebration on St. Simons Island last weekend decked out in a buckskin hunting shirt and leggings that he made and with a lice comb hanging from his waist.
On weekends when couples decide where they’ll eat out, Burke is eating way out, as in the woods along the Ogeechee River.
“I’m a practicing survivalist,” Burke said with a foxtail dangling from his tricorn hat. “I make all the tools and weapons our forefathers and Native Americans made from scratch.”
He goes into the woods and sometimes kills deer with his hand-made bow and arrow, rabbits and squirrels bagged in deadfall traps, turtles or snakes he caught by hand or, if times get desperate, worms he’s dug up or snails.
Sometimes he roasts his meat over a fire. Other times he heats rocks and drops them into his skin cook pot to stew the meat.
Burke said he normally loses a few pounds on his extra lean diet.
“The problem is getting enough fat,” so sometimes he eats fatty beaver or raccoons, he said.
On St. Simons, he brought along a big collection of caps made from raccoon, fox, beaver and even skunk skins. Not all is from his survivor weekends. It’s mostly roadkill he finds driving the roads between Statesboro and Savannah working in the engineering department for the Planters Electrical Membership Cooperative.
“If it’s usable, I’ll just pick it up and put it in an ice cooler on the back of my truck,” he said. “I don’t throw anything away that can be saved.”
He takes it home, checks it out to make sure the hair is intact and then he goes to work tanning it. He showed off a dog soldier suit complete with head he made for his son out of a coyote pelt.
And not just the hides. He makes glue from hooves, intestines, fish scales and animal testes, makes homemade rubber with pine tar that he uses to waterproof his shoes.
He coats his house shoes with spider webs, which he says makes an excellent cap, and the outdoor footwear gets a coating of sand for traction.
He had a thick piece of beaver rawhide that was soft and a deep, rich brown. He used the tannins from acorn oil to tan it.
“It’s just one of the most useful things you can have,” he said.
He had a richly colored rattlesnake hide, another nice roadkill, and skins from other snakes.
Burke lives in Mansfield, Ga., near Swainsboro, but practices his survival skills on property he owns on the Ogeechee.
“I’ll stay several days living off the land. I purify my own water and catch my own food,” he said.
He tries to pass along survival skills to his son and stepson and their friends in the event they’re ever stranded in the wild. He shows them how to make a fire from just sticks but he also demonstrates how to use stuff off the convenience store shelves, such as steel wool and a 9-volt battery, if that’s all that’s available. Passing even a small current through the tiny wires of steel wool results in enough heat to start a fire.
“I always have one say, ‘Why don’t you just get a lighter?’ ” he said.
The answer is a question, “What if you can’t get a lighter?”
Those survival skills come in handy in school programs in his work area, and last week he did a program for the Emanuel County Historical Society. At Patriots Day he brought along a lot of hats, some with toy plastic eyes, for people to try. Some members of the Col. Elijah Clarke Militia wore his hats or tried on some of his foxtails for a musket salute.
Standing in his full Continental Army uniform, Sons of the American Revolution member Bill Ramsaur marveled at Burke.
“He’s really authentic,” Ramsaur said. “And here I am in my polyester.”
Burke said he developed an interest at an early age in how the early woodsmen did things.
“My father just couldn’t understand it,” and neither could his brother, Don Ivy Burke, he said.
“My brother is a genius. He always caught onto the latest things. He went high tech. I went to the woods,” Burke said.
His father, Jessie Earl Burke, grew up on a farm in middle Georgia, was in the Army on the tail end of World War II and worked as a stone mason afterward until going back to the farm.
Although four of his father’s ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, he doesn’t hold nearly the same level of fascination with the old ways and thinks it’s a little strange, but Burke said that hasn’t deterred him.
“I began to accept the term eccentric as a good thing,” he said.