Tag Archives: Bushcraft

Canoeing and Wild Camping

To celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary this year Rob and I left the kids with the grandparents and embarked on a canoe expedition course to learn the necessary skills to head off on our own adventures. In that week we fell in love with canoeing and on our return invested in two canoes and the various paraphernalia required such as life jackets, dry bags and so on. The kids have been desperate to get out on the water with us but I’m in the final stages of dissertation writing for my MSc and with weather and tide considerations a couple of weeks passed before we had a chance. That chance came last weekend and we went for it, full bore!

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We set off just before high tide going up stream with the flow which made for easy initial paddling. Although as we rounded a corner the wind caught us and with only my 8 year old in the front of mine we were much lighter than I had anticipated and we kept getting turned. Even with the camping kit there wasn’t a lot of weight in the canoe and it was very much in the middle (kit) and back (me)… first lesson learned in terms of kit positioning.

drifting paddling

Eventually after spinning in the water for a while and even walking along a stretch of shore until we were past the bend in the river that was catching the wind, we were back on route and arrived at our camping spot.

tide going out drying sicks high tide

Traffic on the river was busy around high tide and we didn’t want to draw too much attention so we didn’t set up the tarp until much later but we set about collecting and processing firewood. We lit the fire with a flint and steel using tinder we found around us and the kids played in the water before the tide went too far out. Rob strung them up a simple rope swing which proved fun for hours (and also caused irritating “my turn” arguments!!)

processing wood

Boys processing wood for a fire

rope swing water fun summer fun whittling

Dinner was a basic chicken curry and here I learned another lesson… when taking curry powder in a pot seal the pot in bag or decent container… the curry powder spilt in one of the dry sacks and covered EVERYTHING! I salvaged enough for dinner and sucked up the lesson. We had taken about 10 litres of water with us but actually on such a hot day and with cooking dinner and washing up this was only just enough. On our course we had learned about finding water on an expedition, filtering and sterilising but the river we were on is largely salt water so that wasn’t an option. There was a stream feeding into the river nearby that we could have got water from had we been desperate and next time we’ll take a suitable filtration system in case we need it.

cooking dinner

Cooking dinner on the fire

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Curry with a view

After dinner and some bird watching we set up the tarp and as the sun set we got the kids to bed and us shortly after… we had to be up at 5am to catch the outgoing tide back home or we would be stranded until mid-afternoon!

bird watching setting up tarp camp sleepign babies

The early start was brilliant, we had the camp packed down and ready to set off in half an hour and we made sure that we left no trace that we had been there… an important principle we are pressing hard on the children!

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Up and ready to set off at 5.30am

The trip back was effortless on a mirror still river drifting with the tide. Of course at 5.30am we were the only human life on the river but it was teeming with bird life and the beauty of a canoe is that you can silently drift along without disturbing them.

morning shot misty morning one of me still waters

We were back at the car by 7am and heading home for a big old breakfast and a nap.

heading home for breakfast

heading home for some breakfast

Lessons learned the hard way

birch-not-lighting

We hired a canoe (well in fact we exchanged canoe hire for some knowledge and experience!) and we set off up a creek… I’m not telling you which one… it was against the tide and seriously hard work! There is a lot of mud in Cornwall along the river banks and therefore not that many places to moor up. We’re talking 4 foot deep river mud in places and it’s dangerous to get stuck in it. So, in the end we found a little stream trickling down to the creek from the woods, disembarked and carried the canoe up the hard stream bed, sliding it along the soft mud where we could.

On reaching the bank we found a nice hard spot, off loaded the kit and set about collecting fire wood and tinder. Now the theory for collecting firewood in very damp conditions is to collect dead standing wood. That is bits of trees which have died a while ago but are still attached to the tree or have got caught and therefore not fallen on the ground. This wood may be damp on the outside if it’s been raining (apparently sometimes it doesn’t rain!) but inside it should be dry and seasoned ready for burning. You can chop it up to get kindling from the dry inside and it’s meant to be a reliable way of getting a fire going in wet UK conditions.

Amazingly (for this part of Cornwall) we also stumbled across a mature silver birch tree… the treasure chest of fire lighting materials. Silver birch drop lots of matchstick thin, dark brown twigs all over the floor beneath them and collecting them is easy and satisfying. These twigs contain lots of the fabulous fire starting oils that make the silver birch the firelighter’s best friend and in theory will catch light easily even when wet.

birch-twigs

Birch twigs usually make for easy fire building even in wet conditions

So, as you can imagine, we were feeling pretty darn confident when it came to actually lighting the fire… less than twenty minutes of preparation had given us plenty of kindling of various sizes and a nice stack of firewood which had never touched the damp ground. Rob had got a snazzy little tinder box for his birthday that morning so he wanted to use that with a fire flash to light the fire… given that we frequently use much more challenging methods, such as a flint and steel, just to light the fire in the sitting room of an evening it didn’t even occur to us that this would prove to be a challenge!

And boy was it a challenge! The tinder went up fine… but the birch twigs, kindling and all the wood we had collected was so sodden all the way through that it simply steamed until the pathetic embers snuffed out.

We got there in the end, hand picking the driest finest twigs, removing out bark from wet twigs to expose the dry slivers of inner heart. Rob hiked up the hill to find standing dead wood from higher and therefore dryer ground and from the edge of the wood where the wind will have dried it out better. We split this down and meticulously carved off damp bark and outer layers. Everything was just so WET!

Finally we had a fire and eventually it produced some heat. We cooked lunch, had a cup of tea and discussed the challenges and alternative solutions. We reflected on how helpful a folding bow saw would have been (and have since purchased one!). We watched the tide reach its lowest point and start to return. Eventually we packed up, hauled the canoe back down to the water’s edge and put very little effort into drifting on the tide home.

cooking

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day!

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Since our amazing trip to America I’ve had very little time for more adventure and travel. Instead I published two books, expanded the Charity I run including opening an office on our farm and taking on a full time employee and I’ve embarked on an MSc in Clinical Research at Plymouth University… So I’ve been a bit too busy to blog!

But this year, to stretch myself further I’m going to try to get back into it. We’ve got loads of adventures planned and booked, from staying in a shepherds hut on Bodmin Moor this spring to a Safari in South Africa in October!

I’m also hoping to get my camera back out as it’s not had a lot of use since our big trip and I miss it! I didn’t actually decide this until after this weekend though so this post is rather lacking decent pictures, sorry.

Bushcraft is a major passion of mine and this year has various bushcraft adventures in store including attending the Bushcraft Show in May and a week-long canoeing and bushcraft course in July for Rob and My 10 year wedding anniversary.

We kicked off our bushcraft fun this weekend with an Encounter Cornwall Kayak trip from Golant to Lerryn where we scouted out some ideal spots for a bit of wild camping later in the year. The kids loved it and Alfie and Patrick are both pretty good with a paddle. It was pretty cold so Orla was wrapped up in a blanket.

When we got home we cooked a rabbit stew on a fire that Alfie and I lit with a flint and steel. I’ll post the recipe soon. We slept out under a tarp in the garden that night and although it was cold it was also good fun. We have a tree that seems to be a key spot for owls to declare their territory and I was woken up about 6 times alternately by barn owls and tawny owls declaring their presence a matter of feet from our camp.

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Alf and I sleeping under a tarp in January

The next day we had a go at making a little stove from an aluminium drinks can which we had seen on a friends blog, Chasing Wilderness. It worked brilliantly and Alfie is planning to make a little video for his own blog on how to make one yourself. Check his blog out at www.bushcraftalfie.co.uk

can-stove

A little stove made from a drinks can… Alfie is going to blog about how we made this

Once we’d tried it we headed out into some local woods to cook lunch. If I’m honest it’s more suited to cooking for 1-2 people rather than a family of five but we managed it and cooked pasta in the woods while the boys whittled. Then we had a little fire to warm water for tea as the mini stove wasn’t likely to cope with another 5 cup brew. Alfie is intending to blog about all sorts of bushcraft stuff like how to clear up a fire to leave no trace, so I’ll leave that for him to cover.

Finally we spent the evening on Sunday watching Survival Lilly videos on You Tube and planning were we could build our own “bug out camp”.

I can’t promise that I’m going to be great at keeping this blog up to date in any regular kind of way… I’m mid-way through my MSc and am as busy as ever but I really enjoy blogging about our adventures and it’s a great way of storing memories for the kids so I’ll do my best, feel free to follow and I expect that will inspire me to provide more!

Happy Tuesday folks!

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2015 – Bushcraft and Bird Watching Adventures

alf-at-goliatha

Well, it’s been some months since we returned to the UK and in that time I’ve worked harder than I thought possible, publishing my book, putting in funding bids, attending awards dos and holding conferences, oh and doing the odd TV and radio appearance too… There hasn’t been much time left over for adventure and fun. But now it’s a new year that is set to change.

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

This year, instead of the massive, all consuming adventure of travelling the USA, Team Dean is going to have a series of mini adventures closer to home and fitting around school and work so as to balance the load a bit better. Last year was a year of extremes, the first half on the road, juggling work and adventure, writing and blogging from tents and motels. The second half of the year was so utterly consumed with work that there was no time left for adventures, let alone writing and blogging about them! How I wish I could type in my sleep, or simply not have to sleep at all…

So what new adventures in 2015? Well, we want to focus on bird watching this year and have already started with a day at Slimbridge Wetland Centre on Sunday. Now I’m going to be honest… Bird watching with three small kids isn’t quite what it was in the pre-parenthood days, where we could settle into a hide and wait patiently for the birding experiences to come to us. The days when we had the time to accurately identify birds we were unsure of in our books and then listen and learn their sounds too. Oh how I enjoyed those days…

A Bewick Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick's are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A Bewick’s Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick’s are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A black headed gull (their heads aren't black in winter though!)

A black headed gull (their heads aren’t black in winter though!)

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole "don't say boo to a goose" thing, every time we see a goose... it never seems to get boring!

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole “don’t say boo to a goose” thing, every time we see a goose… it never seems to get boring!

Bird watching with three kids in tow is more a matter of taking it in turns to either briefly attempt to spot and identify something interesting or attend to the varying needs of the younger two… who want to take their shoes off the moment they’re in a (freezing cold) hide, then want snack, then want to climb the wooden walls and play post box with the little viewing slits and need picking up when they trip and then have snot pouring from their nose, then one needs a wee and the other needs a poo… you get the gist.

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn't use the tripod where we were standing

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn’t use the tripod where we were standing

On the plus side all three kids were impressively quiet in the hides, much to our amazement and admiration. For those who know our kids, “quiet” is not a word that would generally be associated with them (or us for that matter). But in and around the bird hides they really did do well!

I focused on photography for the day and despite it being a cloudy, dull day I was pleased with some of the shots I got. Alfie did exceptionally well and was interested and engaged all day which was rewarding.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn't get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn’t get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

Another area we plan to focus on this year, like last year, is our bushcraft skills. Alfie’s fire lighting is excellent now and he’s really good with the axe he got for Christmas, chopping most of our kindling for us and lighting the fires most evenings.

I’ve booked myself on a carving master class with Ray Mears, which I’m mega excited about and hope that I can then relay techniques to Alfie, who is also getting pretty good with his knife. I’m hoping to do a family bushcraft course with Alfie in the summer and I’d really like to learn tracking skills which we can practice in woods close to home.

The tricky part is going to be finding a balance between work and play. I’m so passionate about the work I do helping women with hyperemesis that it can be hard to switch off and say no… I’m always so aware that there is always more I can do and stopping is hard when you haven’t finished. But I’ll never be “finished” and accepting that will help with stopping from time to time, it’ll be there to start again on Monday.

Boys at Golitha Falls

Boys at Golitha Falls

So I’m going to balance it… I’ll work hard in the week while the kids are at school and come the weekends it’s bushcraft and birdwatching time. And in the holidays we’re booking things to do. At Easter we’re going to travel the Wild Atlantic Way along Ireland’s west coast in a camper van. Before that we need to book something for the Feb half term… suggestions welcome. And then we’re heading into Summer where our outdoor kitchen can house us for periods of times and we can live off our own land away from the house…

2015… it’s going to be a great year!

mushrooms

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck... "Because they are really tough?" he asked!

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck… “Because they are really tough?” he asked!

Pigeons are pretty up close

Pigeons are pretty up close

Goliatha falls... I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

Goliatha falls… I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

Achieving our goals

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This week Alfie achieved something amazing. He carved a spoon from a piece of wood using his pen knife. It took this determined 6 year old three whole days of fairly constant work. He has blisters on his little hands and his arm is aching. But it was worth it. It is beautiful. And it is practical! Rob and I supported him, we helped a little with the curvy neck bit and I gouged out the bowl with the finger slicing crook knife but ultimately he did it himself through his own focus and skill. He listened when we gave him instruction and he worked carefully and safely with his penknife.

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Early on with his lump of wood – a half log you would likely throw on the fire – it didn’t resemble a spoon in the slightest and the task looked almost impossible, he didn’t lose hope. He just sat by the fire and pressed on. And with each stroke of his knife on the hard, dry wood the spoon came a little more into his sight. In the middle, when you could sort of see the shape but there was still an awfully long way to go doing more of the same, he didn’t get bored, he kept on carving, through snow and wind and hail, warmed by the fire he worked thoughtfully. Towards the end when the spoon shape was there but he then had four rounds of sanding to go before it was finished he didn’t give up, or try to rush through it. He worked carefully with the different grades of sand paper to get the beautiful smooth finish it deserved.

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The long sanding process

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When it was finally finished I helped him carve an A on the top for Alfie, we stained it with charcoal to make it stand out. We washed the spoon, oiled it and he ate his dinner with it that night. We are going to buy him a proper bushcraft knife for carving when we find the right one for him, he has earned it. And he has decided that when he grows up he wants to be an instructor at Woodlore, Ray Mears’ school of bushcraft.

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Finished!

Reflecting on our goals from my post back in January we are all managing to do the things we came here to achieve. We’ve seen wildlife ranging from coyotes and moose to chipmunks and marmots. We’ve encountered bald eagles and golden eagles, mountain blue birds and road runners. Bats and owls, lizards and alligators, we really have seen so much! Robs doing well with identification and both boys are great with binoculars. Admittedly though Orla is louder than ever so we have a little work there still!

The geology we’ve experienced has ranged from the northern forests in the depth of a snowy winter, southern swamps coming to life in Spring, deep red canyons and bleak and scorching deserts with giant cactus. We’ve driven high winding passes on the snow capped Rockies and long straight highways across the Great Plains. We’ve smelled the Californian orange blossom and explored deep caves created during the birth of mountains.

Our children have witnessed fire produced from friction and developed skills in wildlife watching. They are resilient and developing skills in self reliance. They are great spotters and have such an interest in the sights were seeing… “Woooooowwwww” and “quick look” comes frequently from the back seat. They recognise deer, elk, turkey vultures, American robins and dozens of other species of mammals, reptiles and birds. They even spot tracks and signs along the way. Although I must admit the “home schooling” has rather gone out the window and there’s a fair amount of bickering in the back too (they are kids after all). But they’ve met people from all sorts of cultures and religions, they’ve learned about race issues and seen the place Martin Luther King died. They’ve learned about history and conflicts and witnessed the differences in nations.

Yet as we cross the continent for the second time we remain excited about what is yet to come. Tracking skills in Yellowstone, ranching in Montana, taking part in a charity run in Washington DC, eventually seeing a bear and crossing back across the length of Canada, and so much more!

Brilliant Bushcraft at Earth Knack!

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We arrived in the afternoon on the Tuesday with plenty of time to set up our tent, arrange some dinner and settle in. But the place was deserted! Certain we were in the right place on the outskirts of hippy-ville, (otherwise known as Crestone, which makes our home town of Lostwithiel look positively un-hippyish!), we waited a while to see if our host, Robin would appear. We made a fire and as all Brits do in such circumstances… we had a cup of tea. Eventually my phone graced me with the ability to make a phone call (a rare luxury with an iPhone!) and we got through to Robin’s voicemail which confirmed she had been delayed in her journey from California which should have seen her return the night before. So we pitched our tent, found the compost toilet, made dinner and when to bed, optimistic that our new warm sleeping bags would keep us toasty warm.

campfire at Earth Knack

A fire is an important moral booster for outdoor living!

After a long night freezing our butts off we rose to find Robin had arrived home in the night and after introductions and explanations we settled in. Later that day some other people arrived for their “internships” learning primitive skills. We spent the day getting to know each others stories and learning the ways of the Earth Knack camp… how to empty the buckets of “communal compost”, how to avoid a bear trying to share your tent and other such delights.

Earth Knack, Crestone

The communal camp area with the outdoor kitchen in the background

Earth Knack

Bridge over carefree waters

As family wwoofing goes, this is spot on. Robin is like a child whisperer and instils calm and respect from all three of our increasingly feral children. She believes strongly in including the children in the adult work and they are encouraged to stoke the fire, partake in the primitive skills and ask questions. As such the work is arranged so that the while family can join in. We are mainly digging over and weeding a set of flower beds to be planted next week and there is a communal garden in the town where we are all pulling, digging, chopping, rotorvating and generally getting filthy. Other tasks include collecting wood and preparing the communal evening meal.

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Collecting firewood as a family affair – Orla is in her element!

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Family wwoofing at it’s best when we can all join in

After a couple more freezing nights we obtained a couple more blankets, found our warmer winter clothes from the roof box and have learned how to wrap ourselves in such a way that the last couple of nights have seen us warm and cosy and sleeping just lovely.

After watching the interns, Grey and Susanna, learning to use a bow drill, Alfie has been utterly determined to have a go. So last night Rob and he worked hard preparing their bow drill set and set to practising the technique – with huge success! Fire from friction surely has to be one of the most satisfying skills one can learn.

Bow drilling

Alfie learning to make fire by friction with a bow drill – aged 6

As the weeks go on we’ll be learning more about the edible plants in the area, Alfie will have a chance to make a bow and arrow and I’m hoping to have a chance to learn some basic flint knapping techniques to take home. Talking of home…. You’ll have to wait a little longer to hear….

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Personal Goals

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Setting personal goals is a good way of getting the most out of our experience. Although they are obviously flexible and overlap massively with each others we hope by focusing on specific areas individually we will all get a chance to really experience the things we want to.

It’s also a good way for focusing the children to key areas of learning and will ensure that we don’t just drift aimlessly around. We don’t intend to be “slaves to our goals” but these are all achievable and fun areas of focus.

My goals

Tracking animals and people in the wild and gain practical experience in the art of tracking. Tracking is a skill which has long interested me yet I rarely have time to pursue. I spot animal tracks and signs regularly, probably daily, which living in the countryside is relatively straight forward. But spotting them is a lot easier than reading them and knowing who made the track, when, why and where they went next. When you have the ability to know those “W’s”, who, when, why and where, suddenly the natural world is a constantly changing newspaper.

Photography – I’ve bought a decent lens for wildlife photography and I obviously want to gain experience with landscapes. But I hope to focus on portraits too of the people we will meet on our journey.

Geology and ancient history really captures me and I want to learn to “read the landscape” so I can look and understand how it was formed and altered both naturally by the earth’s processes and by man’s intervention.

Rob’s goals

Bird watching and identification – Before we had children Rob and I were keen bird watchers. Not the sort that would drop everything because some rare migrant had been spotted at Lands End. But the sort who, as a birthday treat, would get up at 5am and travel 3 hours to a particular reserve to see waders and terns. Since having children our ability to go bird watching is significantly limited and our skills in identification are dwindling. On this trip Rob wants to reignite his passion for his feathered friends and increase his identification skills, particularly bird songs, for which he has a natural flare.

Minimalist living is an area Rob struggles with! The whole “2 bag” thing is a lot easier for me than Rob. He just really likes having stuff that does stuff. He likes tools that make jobs quicker and easier. I expect there’ll be a bit of huffing and puffing along the way when we have to fix something or do something and he knows that in the shed at home he has a specific tool that would make it such an easy task but that right now we have to compromise with what we have and it will take longer as a result. But in the long run, being able to live more independent of “stuff” will be a great skill and unbelievably liberating!

Alfie’s goals

Fire lighting – he’s been practising a lot already and is skilled with a fire flash and a flint and steel. He’s really rubbish at the preparation stage though. He knows a lot about the theory and can identify and find a number of natural tinders but he wants to get straight on with the spark. Without a carefully built fire to light the spark is pointless. So building a proper fire is Alfie’s main goal. Once he has mastered the preparation and actual fire lighting we will move onto other techniques like the bow drill for creating embers and sparks.

Carving and knife skills – again he is already getting going on this with the little pen knife he got for Christmas and occasionally using our bushcraft knives. By the end of the America leg he wants to have carved a spoon.

Patrick’s goals

Using binoculars is a skill that we think Patrick is ready for. He’s mad for the bird and animal watching and is already a good spotter. He got some good binoculars for Christmas but mastering them takes patience and perseverance which for a 3 year old is quite something.

Bird identification is something he already has a bit of a flare for. He can identify quite a few birds already from robins and woodpeckers to barn owls and buzzards. This is obviously something he and Rob can really work together on which will be nice for them both.

Orla’s goals

Walking – Although she is already a competent little trekker and can walk about a mile without complaint, we are not going to have a pushchair (I think, it’s still a little in debate!) so she’s really going to need to strengthen those pins. We’ll have an ergo carrier though so please don’t worry that we are literally making her trek North America!

Keeping quite for wildlife watching! Keeping quite is definitely not something Orla is much good at yet. But learning to be calm and quiet in hides and along paths is key to spotting birds and wildlife… leading by example will be the way forward on this one. She’s soon get the hang of it, I’m sure.