Monthly Archives: March 2014

Lucy Skinner, Adventurer

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Our adventures aren’t just about the places we go and the things we see. They are also about the people we meet, the stories they tell and the songs they sing. Posts about people can take a little longer to get ready and up though as they can take research and checking. We stayed with Lucy two weeks ago in Buffalo and now it is time I tell you the tale.

I’ve known Lucy all my life. Our mothers trained as nurses together and Lucy’s mother is my godmother. We grew up playing together at barbecues and gatherings and when I was 13 Lucy dyed my hair for the first time.

We grew up, Lucy trained as an Archaeologist and I as a nurse, like both of our mothers. We’ve seen little of each other in adulthood due to distance and general life, although thanks to the wonders of Facebook we know a lot about each others lives, work and loves.

Now Lucy is an art conservator specialising in the preservation of historic materials. You may not have a clue what that means but please, read on…

Having travelled adventurously around so much of the world, in particular, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Norway, she now resides in Buffalo where she teaches at the University, which is how we came about rocking up on the doorway of her lovely apartment in a unique Victorian house on one of many Avenues in this pretty American City.

And when we arrived, once the whirlwind of children had settled for the night and the wine was cracked open, the stories began… Oh the stories… Who knew Archaeology was such a hard core career???

The story I want to tell you about is a cold story, of dead dogs and rancid tins and frozen urine… but it’s a great story. A story of Antarctic adventure and history and the amazing efforts we go to in order to preserve the important stuff that represents so much. But the picture Lucy paints isn’t all bad.

The best thing about Antarctica was the landscape, totally untouched by humans. It was complete isolation and silence apart from the sound of the wind and in the summer, birds. Up on the cliff top overlooking the edge of the sea ice, I would sit for hours in the evenings, under the sun staring through my binoculars, looking down on Emperor penguins marching and waddling across the ice; later in the summer the ice had drifted away leaving open sea and I’d see killer whales surfacing just off shore.”

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Lucy’s beautiful Buffalo apartment is just what you would expect from such a well travelled adventurer – Pictures from the Antarctic decorate the shelves and wine is served in Egyption chalices. The whole place feels worldly and experienced.

In 2010 Lucy travelled to the Antarctic for a 6 month expedition. The aim: to conserve the historic huts (and their contents) from the Heroic era of polar exploration. Huh? What’s that I hear you ask… Okay so you remember Scott right? And Shackleton, polar explorer who went on to attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica, amongst other expeditions. And we all know how hard core these guys were with their basic equipment and depressing lack of knowledge about frozen landscape survival skills. They took ponies for goodness sake! The successful South Pole winners from Norway took dogs… enough dogs to feed dogs to dogs on the return journey, which is how they did it – Horses eat hay and there isn’t a lot of that at the south pole! Well all these explorers had huts and took rations and thanks to a lack of humans and extreme frozen temperatures they have been preserved very well for a hundred or so years. But to keep them longer they need a little extra care.

So what are the contents in the huts for conserving? Things like the semi decomposed remains of penguins they had killed to eat for survival. Clothing, tinned food, and 100 year old coco powder that still smells perfect… Imagine that! As she would dig to expose the remains of the ponies they had taken smells which had been trapped there were released… the smell of the horse urine from an animal that died 100 years ago rising up through the air as if if were doing it now. Dog remains are persevered too, those not eaten by their keepers before starvation.

Interestingly it’s not the work and conditions that really challenge life in the Antarctic. Lucy tells me about the aspects that were most challenging for her and I wonder if it was similar for the early explorers, that yes conditions were hard, fatally so sometimes, but it’s the interpersonal stuff that makes survival in such isolating conditions even harder The toughest elements of being there were I guess the group dynamics. Sometimes and with some people it was easy and fun. Other relationships could be difficult on occasion and when you are stuck with these same people for many months small problems get blown up inside your head into huge issues.”

Now I’m not normally someone who takes the slightest interest in celebrities and fame but there are a couple of guys out there who really get me excited. You all know I’m a big Ray Mears fan but my other top outdoor handsome hero has got to be Sir David Attenborough. Lucy met him… he ate her Antarctic home baked cookies… How majorly cool is that? Meeting David Attenborough at Cape Evans: Well it was a dream. He is certainly older than you imagine. He had an assistant who followed him around with a fold up chair so that he could rest after he’d walked about for anything longer than a few minutes. He was extremely lovely and interested in us and the work we were doing there. He held me in a firm shoulder hug while we had our photos taken. I was prepared for Sir David’s visit with my homemade Peanut blossom kiss cookies – of which he ate two and took one with him for the helicopter ride home.”

Lucy Skinner you are such a dude for having such a cool career. I know it doesn’t come without sacrifices and hard work but WOW… what an inspiration to our youth and what an amazing adventure you have had!

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Vertical Rocks and Waterfalls

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These mountains are ancient. It’s a pretty abstract concept of mountains being “born” hundreds of millions of years ago and it’s hard to imagine really isn’t it? Well step into the Smoke Hole Caverns in West Virginia, walk on a third of a mile into the depth of these ancient mountains and you can step back in time to the moment it happened. You can witness with your own mortal eyes the incredible power of the Earths crust and it’s ability to create mountains.

We had noticed the curved, rainbow shaped rocks outside our cabin (pictured above) but didn’t understand just what we were looking at. Inside the caves, two miles from the cabin you see vertical rocks which once laid flat. Pushed up by the collision of plates which united America with Africa they are awe spelling and memorising. Walking on through the active caves we find the room of a million stalactites and the worlds longest (known) ribbon stalactite as well as a rare cave coral.

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largest ribbon stalactite

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Gigantic column

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Beautiful wall of columns

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Rare cave coral, more commonly found in underwater caves in New Zealand

The caves history includes interesting tales of Senca Indians smoking their meats, a gruesome hospital ward for Civil War injuries and an ingenious site for moonshining and white lightening production.

We also got a great view of a couple of bats hanging upside down in the, surprisingly warm, cave. (I’m so sorry I forgot my camera so the pictures are from Alfie’s camera which I commandeered!). The lady who guided us through the caves was so enthusiastic, knowledgeable and engaging and the kids really enjoyed it. Absolute pitch black was a first time experience for the boys and we spotted a frog in one of the streams.

After the caves we drove on to the Blackwater Falls National Park to see the waterfalls there and I did take my camera this time. It was a nice short walk to the viewing platform and we identified some animal tracks along the way – Patrick’s favourite being his own!

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Blackwater Falls

In other news, we also had our first snowy campfire of the trip and cooked some yummy creamy chicken in a dutch oven. We also finally dropped off the travel bug we picked up back in Wales into a geocache here in the Mountains so it can explore America and clock up some miles. It’s been difficult to do sooner due to the heavy snow hiding all the caches we’ve attempted!

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First snowy campfire of the trip

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A fishing lure retrieved from the geocache we dropped Mr Frogglesworth off at

No mouse poo here – we’re in hot tub heaven!

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Now this log cabin is on a whole new scale. Sure we enjoyed the rustic charm of the cabin in the woods but lets be honest, a hot tub, roaring fire and clean, well stocked cabin is far preferable, even for the Deans!

We’re at Harman’s Luxury Log Cabins in the Monongahela National Forest and it is stunning here. Rugged rocks and vertical forests tower over the Potomac River, which runs right outside our cabin. We were heading for Shenandoah National Park but found this place and decided to stay put.

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Snow fun!

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Boys by the river. Patrick, of course, got his trousers wet in the water and by the time we went back in the bottom of his jeans had frozen solid!

It snowed heavily yesterday and we spent most of the day snuggled up around the fire inside the cabin and hoping in and out of the steamy hot tub on the porch. We did of course get outside for a snowball fight and to build a snow man but little kids chill quick. Plans are afoot for creamy chicken on the campfire today and possibly a visit to local caves.

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Snow ball fights 🙂

Enroute here we also stopped at the Beverly Heritage Center which teaches about the Civil War and history of the region. One piece of information really stuck out to Alfie and I and captured our attention. The Native Americans who lived here for 12,000 years before Europeans (ehhm) “arrived”, used to follow animal tracks in order to find the best and easiest routes around the terrain, through the woods, across rivers and so on. Over millennia these tracks were worn and became, relatively, permanent paths so that when the Europeans arrived they used the same tracks but now with horses therefore making the paths even more distinct and permanent… they then became the tarmacked mountain roads we are using today in our cars. So the roads we are driving on here were once, no that long ago, animal tracks… how cool is that! The same can’t really be said in the UK because there were so many stages between hunter-gatherers, following animal tracks, and roads. Farming settlements presumably shaped the networks across Britain and of course the Roman roads.

The Hertiage Centre is in the regions old Court Rooms and here is Patrick being the judge, probably sentencing someone to death or something.

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Moo-ving on

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It must be -10 C here at the moment. My legs were getting colder and colder on my brisk early morning walk to the cow shed, despite base layers and thick flannel lined jeans. I knew I’d warm up shortly when I snuggled into the side of Jamuna, the Brown Swiss cow I would be hand milking this morning.

They have six milking cows here at New Vrindaban and they are beautiful, healthy and happy cows. The couple who care for them have only been doing it for a year or so now and we’ve been pleased to be able to share knowledge with them from our experiences over the last few years. I surprised myself with how much I knew about health matters and calving issues, albeit a lot of theory. I’m also very interested in their dairy management as I harbour an ambition to be self sufficient for our own dairy products one day in the future, when the children are quite a bit older.

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A happy Brown Swiss cow at New Vrindaban.

The calves are allowed to feed from the mothers for six months but are restricted to a quarter (of her udder) twice a day and the remaining milk is taken for human consumption. They pasteurise the milk and make yoghurt, butter and other dairy products from them. As dairy consumption goes this really is as good as it gets. There is of course still the little matter of the off spring.

The International Society for Cow Protection is based here also and in many ways this is contrary to the production of any dairy for human consumption. They rescue dairy cows who are considered under par for production figures and they also take calves who would otherwise be culled. The cows are then allowed to live out calm, happy lives at the sanctuary. They train steers (castrated males) to work on the land, pulling equipment and so on showing the uses of cattle beyond milk and meat. It’s a fantastic use for strong cattle like these but obviously wouldn’t be a sustainable or effective use for standard dairy cattle offspring, bred purely for big udders.

Rob and I were very interested in the cleverly designed barn system for the cows during the winter. Built on a hill, the human entrance onto elevated platforms allows for the rolling out of a big bale of hay right in front of the cows without any big equipment for handling the bales (If you’re not of a farming background you may well be a little lost by now… sorry about that – we love a good barn, particularly those designed for maximum efficiency).

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We like vintage equipment too!

We will be moving on from New Vrindaban today and, much to the disappointment of many of our friends back home, we have not converted to Krishna Consciousness and will not become vegetarians just yet – we remain meat eating atheists. But we have gained a wonderful insight into this fascinating culture and peaceful lifestyle as well as the dynamics of community living and working. The food here has been fantastic and we will certainly be eating far less meat on our travels then we do at home. Our time here has however reconnected us with why we got into farming and the appeal for us to eat only our home produced products and wild meats. Long term I would like to avoid the dairy industry and have my own cow for milk, the calves would become meat though as I feel that this is a by product that dairy consumers need to understand and accept. A “ethically motivated” vegetarian diet consuming dairy products surely has to be the most hypocritical of all diets on any scale other than this – meat is inevitable where there is dairy. Personally, if I gave up meat I would have also to also give up dairy and I am not ready to do that just yet – I will endeavour to reduce my dairy consumption though.

Alfie spent three days at the school here and loved it. We felt so proud of him going on into a brand new classroom with children he’s never met before. As Rob said “I wouldn’t have done that at his age… I’d have just cried!”. Alfie just walked on in, found a spot in the circle of children, picked up an instrument and joined in the morning chanting. This experience will have far surpassed any sort of classroom based religious education he could have got back at home and has given him insight into another culture and lifestyle.

The wildlife watching here is easy and enjoyable for the children too as deer are wandering peacefully along the roads. We even spotted the local white deer yesterday.

But it’s time to move on now. We are not sure where we are going just yet as a lack of internet access has meant we can’t plan anything but we are going to head towards the Shenandoah National Park and hopefully find a cabin where we can have campfires and chill out for a few days.

I would just like to take a moment to big up our local vets back home… I hadn’t quite appreciated just how valuable it is to have such excellent vets so close to hand. The farm here has NO large animal vet in the area – the herdsmen are all on their own. Pelyn Vets (now Kernow Farm & Equine Vets) have always been so helpful for us and taken time so I could learn from them about any problems we’ve had. Without them so close to hand I’m not sure my nerves could have coped with the responsibility of farming, particularly when learning on the job! They have run excellent training courses for smallholders in the area and have always come quickly in emergencies. I’ve learned a lot from books I’ve read, my own experience and from other farmers but by far the most I have learned has been from the vets at Pelyn. I hadn’t realised quite how much I knew and it was great that I was able to share some of that with the couple here, from discussing worm burdens to manipulating a mal-presenting calf as well as the importance of the colostrum for ruminants, appropriate antibiotic use after calving and lots more. Amy Jones and Cathal O’Sé… you’d have been proud of me!  

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A log cabin on site at New Vrindaban, built by one of the original settlers to the area 200ish years ago!