I was camping with my family one weekend, and I needed to use a rope. We had towed our pop-up trailer camper north to Mackinaw City, MI, for the 1998 Labor Day bridge walk. It was windy, which is usual for the Straits of Mackinac, and I was afraid the wind would blow down the awning on our camper. I decided to move our picnic table next to the awning, and tie the awning to the table. I used my standard utility knot, which is the modified snarl.
Over the years, I’ve found that a snarl is the quickest and easiest method to secure something with a rope. It’s also the oldest and most natural of knots. If you were to put a length of rope in a corner and left it there for any amount of time, say overnight, in the morning you’d find that it had spontaneously convoluted itself into a snarl. Indeed, some rope is so adept at this that it seems to join its ends together, leaving only an endless loop that will probably never be unsnarled.
The snarl is also the oldest form of knot. It was likely discovered by early tree-dwellers soon after they first ventured onto the ground. They probably used vines
to get down from the trees, and to climb back up into them. I can imagine them moving to a new tree that did not yet have vines hanging from it. One wise tree-dweller thought to bring a vine “from the old place” to make it easier to get up into the new tree. He discovered that it snagged on bushes, sticks, etc. while dragging it, so he gathered it up into a pile to make it easier to carry. Voila! The first snarl was born!
A few days later, after the vine was eventually unsnarled, the tree-dweller looped it over a tree branch, and tried to climb it. He promptly fell back to the ground. Angry and humbled, he put the vine in a crotch of a tree for the night. The next morning, a snarl had formed around the branch, and the rest is history.
Speaking of history, knots have been used throughout time. A knot, after all, is just a snarl that someone made on purpose. Pictures of snarls have been found on the walls inside the pyramids of Egypt. A lesser known egyptologist I know speculated that the first pyramid was really just an early theme park that failed, and the first mummies found inside it were merchants that were victims of excessively vicious snarls of decorative ribbons that they were trying to sell to the tourists.
In modern times, there are many hobbies that require a knowledge of knots and snarls. Sailors and boaters must be able to snarl together ropes of many different sizes. A really good boater can snarl a rope together with a chain, and the best can snarl a rope, a chain, an anchor, and a reef in such a way that it can take days to free the boat. When enough boaters do this in the same place, they build docks between the boats and call it a marina.
Mountain and rock climbers must learn to make certain knots very well, too. This is because tying the wrong knot could lead to grave injury, or worse. One recent summer some friends and I planned a 4 day backpacking & climbing trip. I volunteered to get the food supplies. I put beef jerky, dehydrated pasta, and freeze dried vegetables in the back of my pickup truck. I also threw 2 cases of cold beverages in a cooler, for that last night party at the trailhead before we set out the next morning. Everything got tied down with a couple of quick snarls. The last few miles leading to the trailhead were little better than a washed out gully, and the suspension on my old truck had seen better days. When I got to the trailhead, my very thirsty companions very nearly lynched me when they found the cooler had somehow bounced out of the truck several miles back. The only thing that saved me was that they couldn’t unsnarl enough rope to reach the lowest tree branch.
Some people are very adept at dealing with snarls. A few of them come by this skill naturally. Alexander the Great was one such person. His method of dealing with the Gordian Knot is taught in schools to this day. Some learn to deal with snarls after years of practice. Many of them get this practice by fly fishing with me. The first time I went fly fishing, I caught two things. The first was a 15-foot blue spruce that somehow moved closer to me after I began casting. The second thing I caught was hell from my fishing buddy. He had to climb that tree to retrieved his prized “Canadian Dipsy Doodle Bug” dry fly that he had loaned me, and that was now in the middle of a snarl of fishing line near its top.
Finally, some people go to school to learn how to undo snarls. In fact, I’m meeting with one of these people this afternoon. She’s not a climber, a sailor, or fisherman. She’s not an outdoors person at all. However, she’s one of the most skilled unsnarlers I’ve ever met in my life, and I value her services highly. She’s my tax accountant.