His site is a fantastic source of all things outdoors with a mixture of adventures, kit lists, recipes and crafts. As well as providing us with his recipe for Campfire Fish and Chips, Gavin has also been generous enough to share with us his first attempt at carving a kuksa and the end results look brilliant! So how did he do it?
Let me first of all start by offering a disclaimer; I am by no means an expert in this field, indeed it is the first time that I’ve carved a kuksa! I’m writing this post very much from the layman’s perspective with the hope that you might learn from my mistakes!
What is a kuksa?
Popular among bushcraft and outdoor enthusiasts, the kuksa is a traditional style of drinking cup originating from the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. Usually carved from wood, but modern variants have been produced from plastic or wood/plastic composites.
Sourcing the wood:
The process of creating my kuksa started several months ago in the summer of 2018. My wife and I were out walking the dog when we discovered that a Sycamore tree beside a public footpath had been felled and the remnants were bucked up into small sections. I immediately noticed a piece that I could make use of which seemed to be big enough to make a decent kuksa. The wood pile had been sat there for a few weeks before I plucked up the courage to take the bit that I’d spotted! I considered that, as it was on public land, it was probably fair game!
I carried the wood home (it wasn’t far!) and left it in my garden to ‘season’. Rightly or wrongly, I had reservations about using green wood to carve a kuksa. Even though the wood is easier to carve when it’s green, I’ve heard there’s a risk that it will crack up during the drying process, rendering the cup useless!
And here I am, several months later in March 2019 and I thought the time was right to start work on my very own kuksa. I recall having conversations with my wife about Kuksa’s, she rightly pointed out the lovely examples that I could purchase from a variety of shops and crafts people. I agreed that they were indeed lovely, but were crucially missing one key element – I hadn’t made them! What a thrill it is to be able to put something that you’ve made into regular use.
Before we get into it, I thought it would be good to run through the tools that I used on this project. I was very keen to keep things simple by using basic hand tools, here’s what I ended up using
Axe – I actually used two; my Wetterlings Outdoor Axe to do the splitting and bulk waste removal. I then switched to my Gransfors Bruks Small Hatchet because it offered me more control as I got nearer to my markings. To be fair, I was a bit indulgent here as the Wetterlings was more than capable.
Bahco Laplander Saw – For stop-cuts and bulk waste removal
Mora Companion Knife – For shaping the outside of the cup
Mora 120 Carving Knife – For the more detailed shaping of the cup
Casstrom Crook Knife – To carve out the bowl of the cup
Pencil – To mark out the shape of the kuksa
Whetstone and Leather Strop – this was used a lot to keep the blades in good order!
Sandpaper – starting with a course 60 grit and moving up to a fine 240 grit
I also kept a first aid kit close by – just in case, indeed there were one or two incidents which required a plaster!
Stage One: Splitting the Wood
The first stage of the project is to split down the log. I carefully selected a piece of Sycamore which was relatively straight grained and not compromised with any nasty knots or twists. I split it down the middle and selected the section which offered me the greatest depth for the kuksa. I felt it was important to have a Kuksa which was deep enough to hold a decent cup of tea!
Using my axe, I then removed the pith and flattened off the split section so that I had a surface on which to mark out my kuksa shape. I sought inspiration from my plastic Kasa Kuksa (made by Wildo) for the design that I was working towards.
Stage Two: Roughing out
With the design marked out, I started to axe out the rough shape of the kuksa. In some sections, I created some stop cuts with the saw so that I could split away some of waste material. In this sense, I was following a similar process to what I would usually do when carving a spoon.
I did however choose to leave an extended section of the wood on the handle end of the Kuksa. This was for safety reasons so that I could keep my hand out the way while using the axe.
Stage Three: Scoopy scoopy time!
Time to get the crook knife out and carve out the bowl. In all honesty this is the hardest bit and will take a bit of time. My hand took a bit of a beating from the crook knife. I picked up blisters and scrapes and took regular breaks to rest the muscles in my hand and wrist. At times, I forced myself to stop as I was fearful of losing control of the blade and causing myself an injury.
The crucial lesson that I learnt in this stage was to just take my time. I’d often take the opportunity to stop when I noticed the blade was starting to dull and I’d touch it up with the strop or whetstone.
While carving the bowl, I took care to ensure that I wasn’t removing too much material. I was conscious that I still had to refine the outside of the cup and was also concerned that some cracks may appear as the wood continued to dry out.
This process could be simplified by using power tools. For instance you could drill a series of holes into the bowl at set depths to remove the bulk of the waste material and then refine the bowl with a crook knife. It’s also plausible that a curved gouge might have been easier. Alas, I was keen to use the tools that are available to most whittlers and spoon carvers.
Stage Four: Time to refine
Nearly there now! The final job is to refine the outside of the cup and the handle. At this point I used my two Mora knives. My main objective here was to remove any rough axe marks, keep a fairly flat base to the kuksa and shape the sides so that they curve nicely up to the lip of the cup.
Thereafter, I turnt my attention to the handle. As mentioned earlier, I sought inspiration from my plastic Kasa Kuksa. I like the ergonomics of that design and did my best to replicate it.
I tried to produce a kuksa which was aesthetically pleasing, but inevitably found that I’d left a few uneven areas where I’d removed too much waste! But with that said, I reached a point where I was pretty happy with the overall shape and feel of the kuksa.
Stage Five: Finish
The final job was to sand and oil the kuksa. I started with a course grit of sandpaper and moved my way through a series of papers until I got to a 240 grit which left a nice smooth finish. I then poured some water over the cup. I don’t fully understand the science behind this but, in my experience, this process opens up the grain and exposes any rough spots. When it’s dried I gave it another go with the 240 grit sandpaper and then it was ready for oil.
Confession: I did cheat ever so slightly by using my drill to make a hole in the handle for a lanyard loop. This could be done with an auger, but I don’t have one!
Finally, I liberally applied a couple of coats of Walnut oil and left it in my shed to dry.
Stage Six: The Christening!
This is the best bit! Now is the time to take the cup to back to nature and enjoy a nice cup of tea!
Barney’s final thoughts…
I’m very proud of this little cup. It was a lovely project to undertake and put a lot of my wood crafting skills to the test. In all honesty, it didn’t quite turn out as well as I’d hoped. I’d really liked to have created a cup with a slightly larger capacity. It currently holds around 180ml when I was aiming for something closer to 250ml. I was also hoping to create a better finish on the outside of the cup, unfortunately I think I just ran out of talent!
With that said, I’ve intentionally left the side walls and base of the kuksa a bit thicker than I’d like as I still have concerns that it might develop some cracks while the wood seasons. If this doesn’t happen then I shall definitely return to it with my crook knife and increase the overall volume. I guess that’s the beauty of a wooden kuksa, there’s always scope for refinement!
I thoroughly recommend you give this a go. I wouldn’t say it’s the best thing to try if you’re new to wood carving. But if you’ve dabbled in a bit of spoon carving and feel confident with your tools then this project will make for an interesting challenge.
Thanks as always for taking the time to read this blog, hopefully it’s helped shed light on the process of creating a Kuksa, at least from a beginners perspective
You can keep up to date with Gavin/Barney on Instagram: @Gavin_Riggall
Let us know what you think of Gavin’s first attempt at carving a kuksa!
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His site is a fantastic source of all things outdoors with a mixture of adventures, kit lists, crafts and recipes. One of his recipes in particular is the amazing Campfire Fish and Chips which I will definitely be trying at some point very soon!
Hand’s up… who likes fish and chips? Yep me too!
Recently I wondered if I could take one of the nation’s favourite takeaways and cook it over a campfire. I also wondered if I could make it a little healthier but without losing that great taste. So here’s what I did:
Ingredients: 1 x Potato 1 x fillet of fish (I used smoked haddock) A spoonful of butter or cooking oil A pinch of salt and pepper for seasoning
Optional extras: A tin of mushy peas A dollop of tartare sauce
Before cooking get your fire established and leave it to burn down to a reasonable bed of coals. Sometimes I like to keep the fire going and then drag some of the coals out to one side for cooking so that I can replenish the coals when the heat dies down.
Alternatively you can just as easily cook this meal on a camping stove, I imagine it will work really well on a trangia as the heat is not quite as focussed or intense as a gas stove and can also be dampened down.
While waiting for the fire you can prep the potato by chopping it into cubes or chips. I chopped mine into cubes as I felt it would cook a bit more efficiently. I then placed the grill/trivet over the coals and put my pan on the grill with the butter (but don’t add all of the butter – save some for the fish).
When the pan was nice and hot and the butter melted I put the potatoes on to cook. These will take about 20-30mins depending on how big you chopped them up. I ensured that they had a nice covering of butter so that they would go crispy and golden.
Add a pinch of salt and pepper seasoning, it’s not necessary but I think it helps to enhance the flavour of the potato.
When you think the potatoes are nearly done, think about putting the mushy peas on to cook. You can do this by pouring them into a pan/canteen cup or just leave them in the tin can, remove the paper label and place on the grill or in the coals. Be sure to stir the peas regularly so that they don’t burn on the bottom, they only need to be warmed through so take it off the heat as soon as it starts bubbling up.
Make some space on the pan for your fish, add your remaining butter and then the fish (skin side down if possible). Depending on the heat of your fire, the fish won’t take very long to cook, flip it over after about 3 minutes. You’ll know it’s cooked when you can start to flake the fish apart.
And that’s it, I made space on the pan for my peas and then added a smattering of tartare sauce (aren’t I posh!!). Alternatively a dollop of tomato sauce would be just as nice!
It looked and tasted lovely and best of all, it smelt just like fish and chips!!
Give it a go and let us know how you get on!
To join the ‘intothesticks Community’ and submit your own recipes, adventures, crafts, experiences or anything else with the world, just get in touch and we’ll get started!
Female mountain bikers are a small population but definitely on the rise, and my inspiration and desire to be able to get out and shred on a bike came from Rachel Atherton and Tahnee Seagrave almost 3 years ago when I met my other half, Lewis, and he introduced me to his passion for mountain biking. I would sit and watch Red Bull videos of different mountain bikers and suddenly I was hooked.
I do have some background in extreme sports after trying my hand at trials biking when I was younger. My idol was Dougie Lampkin, but after hitting my teenage years and going to college then onto University, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in ten years and actually wondered whether this was something I could still do.
At first, I had a few rides on Lewis’ old 2006 Kona Scab hard tail which was gathering dust in the shed, and kept to local trails through Ashridge Forest and Wendover woods. But soon, I found myself wanting a lighter and better bike, and all the gear that goes with it. I didn’t want to spend a fortune at first after worrying that, after my inevitable first crash, I may throw a hissy fit and never want to ride a bike again. So to my surprise Lewis found a fantastic deal through a Facebook group to swap the Kona for a 2009 Specialized Safire which was full suspension and perfect for me to learn and progress on.
The first few rides were wobbly and not without tears and tantrums (which do still happen occasionally) when I didn’t feel fit enough for the climbs and technical sections on the trails. But the feeling of freedom coming down the other side and spending time outside in the woods more than makes up for any challenges thrown at me. To me, riding provides a sense of freedom and escape from the stresses that everyday life brings to us all. There’s nothing better than being able to ride with my best friend who inspires me every time we take the bikes out; he pushes me to ride bigger and better things all the time, plus he picks me up off the floor and sees to my cuts and bruises a fair amount as well.
Some of my favourite trails to ride are at Swinley Forest, Bracknell. Always great fun no matter what the weather (although I’m not usually one for going out in the rain – I’d rather be sat in the coffee shop with a giant slab of cake!) But anyone based in the South East who would like to try their hand at mountain biking should definitely check Swinley out, they have trails for all abilities or you can always stick to the fire roads at first and enjoy the scenery. I’ve also been to the last two UCI Mountain Bike world cup rounds at Fort William, Scotland which always has the best atmosphere and draws a great crowd of people who are all there for the same reason: to watch some awesome professional riders from around the world ride hard and fast down the side of a mountain.
Riding is a way to connect with nature, escape a desk job, breathe fresh air, go on an adventure, explore a new place, get your heart rate up, strengthen yourself mentally and physically, be challenged, get rad, have fun, express individualism, feel a sense of freedom and hang out with friends or enjoy a peaceful moment alone.
At a time when cycling amongst children seems to have dropped at an alarming rate, especially amongst young girls who might not even consider mountain biking as an option, it’s important to remind young people that there is a world of opportunity outside of social media and that being adventurous and getting muddy in the woods is a hundred times more fun than getting likes on a Facebook photo. As a female mountain biker, I can confirm that there’s nothing wrong with being seen as ‘one of the boys’ and the one piece of advice that I could give to anyone is if you just get on your bike and take a ride in the woods you never know where it may take you.
This year, the avid explorers that are Dan, Olie, Jack and I, decided to invade the beautiful wilderness of Sweden once more. After the success of last year’s trip, we decided to make a few changes. Not to make it any less successful, but to actually achieve the goal that we set for ourselves last year but did not accomplish. We wanted to live in the bush properly – no address, no WiFi, no electricity. A real escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and the secure bubble of society. The only thing we would have is a hire car to get to our starting destination and the rucksacks on our back.
We only had three nights and four days, so decided that a hiking trail would be the best way to access the areas we wanted to get to and see what we wanted to see. After what seemed to be a lifetime of planning, we – or rather, Olie – finally discovered The Bergslagsleden. A 280KM (174 miles) trail, set almost perfectly in the centre of Sweden, running south to north. After reading into it and doing a bit of homework, it sounded perfect. The southern end runs through Tiveden National Park, the area we were in last year, and the northern end is known as ‘the most wild wilderness of Sweden’. It also happened to start just up the road from the town of Kopparberg. – the birth place of, well, Kopparberg cider. I was immediately sold by that alone.
Last year I wrote a journal and published it as the full article. This year, however, due to being in the wild every night, I didn’t want to risk my journal getting ruined, so I kept it very brief. So this time, I’ll write what I had in there but also add a few bits to it as we go along. The journal extracts will be italic and my comments are seperated. You’ll understand once we get going.
So we’ve decided to return to Sweden, but this time we’ll do it properly. No cabin, no home, no address. Just our hammocks, boots and rucksacks. This time we go into the wild.
As now usual practice for our ventures, something has gone wrong already, and we haven’t even left England yet. It was all going to plan, we agreed that Sarah would be the airport taxi, drop us off, pick us up, simples. However, when packing the car it suddenly hit me. There are not enough seats. There was to be 1 driver and 4 passengers….in a 4 seater car. After numerous illegal suggestions were made –
I’ll point out here that Olie suggested we all cram inside and ‘F**k the seatbelts!’ Plus due to us leaving from one airport and coming home at another one, it wasn’t going to be as simple as just leaving the car there for the duration.
-the only logical solution that came to mind was that I would drop Jack and Olie at Stansted last night, go home, and Sarah would take me and Dan to meet them in the morning. It should be mentioned that the plan was made at 21:00 last night. I wasn’t at home until near 01:00am. I would have to be back at the airport just 4 hours later. So that happened and when I woke up from my 1 hour sleep last night and checked how Jack and Olie were getting on at the airport all I got from them was ‘We didn’t sleep, but we
did get drunk.’
So this bodes well.
The flight started off perfectly fine, but the lady who sat next to me insisted on using me as a pillow. I’m sadly far too nice to push a sleeping lady off my shoulder, so I just let her stay there. That was until I fell asleep and had one of those ‘holy crap I’m falling’ moments, suddenly jolted awake and scared the crap out of her.
I forgot how much I liked Skavska Airport, really does just feel like you’re landing in somebody’s field, sent into a shed and pushed out the other side. Far from the glamour and grandeur of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, it even makes Stansted look good. Anyway, the car hire man trusted the life of a very nice, shiny, new Skoda Fabia in my seemingly capable hands and we were off.
Everybody knows that a hire car is the best car you’ll find.
We knew exactly where we wanted to go, but had no road map. Preparation is everything! We drove to the local town, following an ‘information’ sign and Dan and Olie got out to find a map. Within 2 minutes of them closing the doors, I found a road map in Olie’s door. Just as well, because Dan and Olie soon arrived empty handed anyway.
So we set off for Tivedstorp, the same kind of area that we were in last year. After a couple of hours’ driving we needed to stop and take stock of exactly where we were and how far we had to go. Whilst this was still in discussion, I pulled the car into a small side road, flew into a car park and screamed to a halt right underneath a sign which read ‘Welcome to The Bergslagsleden’. One day my luck will run out. We weren’t where we wanted to be exactly, but only a couple of stages north. We were in Ramundeboda apparently. We were greeted by the first of many huge, beautiful lakes and just across the motorway we came off appeared to be an endless stretch of forest. Perfect.
The Bergslagsleden trail is one continuous route, but split into various stages. A to B, B to C, C to D. The start of each section has some sort of camp, or fresh water source, just something to keep you going. There are some circular routes mixed up amongst it and there’s nothing stopping you coming back on yourself anyway. So we decided that we would do one section in the southern end, where we were fairly familiar with and then spend the rest of the trip in the north sections.
We would do the stage that took us from Ramundeboda to Svarta Herrgard. A fairly straight forward, but nonetheless picturesque, 19km route. So we had a super quick change in the car park into our walking kit, donned our rucksacks, and were away, following the orange markers that keep you on the trail from beginning to end. Kind of like I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz with my three companions on our adventure down the yellow brick road.
In no time at all we were in the forest. It was fantastic to be back in the awesome silence and beauty of the Swedish wilderness. Not a person in sight. Not a sound to be heard. We reached a small hilltop that looked out upon miles and miles of pine forest, stretching into the horizon. All that was running through my head was the possibility of what might have been hiding in there, the animals, the rivers, and almost 100% of my dreams.
Parts of the forest had been maintained but the majority had been left to grow totally wild, huge boulders, ancient trees. Some of this area hasn’t been officially lived in by humans for thousands of years. With every step we were almost stepping back in time.
As the distance stretched on and energy began to fall, the group had begun to split slightly. Dan offered to walk with Jack if Olie and myself wanted to troop on ahead and find a camp at the end of the section. Of course, doing the honourable thing, and leading by the Musketeers fine example, we said ‘No! All for one and one for all!’ Actually…that didn’t happen. It was more like, ‘Sure, see you later!’ and off we went, skipping down our yellow brick road. Because splitting up in the Swedish wilderness is always a fantastic idea..
The idea was,of course, that as long as we stayed on the trail, followed the markers and just kept going, there was no doubt we would make it to camp and Dan and Jack would undoubtedly catch us up in no time. They’d arrive just as we had a fire going and a camp made before darkness fell. It just seemed to make sense.
No more than perhaps 2km along the trail we stumbled across a fairly fast flowing stream. Our final destination would almost be on the side of a lake, so we took this as a fairly good sign, whether or not it meant anything, we didn’t really know. We continued to climb a little hill and found a sign post informing us about a fresh spring that would provide clean drinking water. Suddenly ‘oh there it is!’ came from Olie. I looked around and couldn’t really see anything ‘the spring?’ I asked. I walked up a little further and saw it. Camp!
There it was. A shelter like the one we found last year, only timber framed. Three walls and a roof, but it was awesome. Alongside it was a huge log store, stacked with almost full length pine and birch trees. Just in front of the shelter was a huge stone fire pit and to top it off we had the natural spring to provide us with all the water we needed. Much sooner than we expected, Dan and Jack turned up and with a ‘this is brilliant,’ and threw their rucksacks to the ground. This was better than anything we were imagining, and a very welcome sight after an hours’ sleep and an almost 20km hike. We got the fire going and must have gotten through at least 3 trees worth of wood. We had dinner, sat around the fire and eventually fell asleep to the 2 most relaxing sounds in the world in my mind, the sound of the crackling fire and the flowing river beside us.
Day 2: ‘When in Rome’
07 Apr 2017
We woke up at about 10:00am. 12 hours of cold, broken, uncomfortable sleep was actually amazing! We made breakfast and packed fairly quickly as we still had to trek all the way back to the car then make the journey to Kloten, the northern end of the trail. Our plan had to be stuck to. We followed the route we took yesterday –
We – well, Jack – took a slightly different route. There were roads that weaved around the trail, cutting off a large section of it, so he followed that. We assumed it wouldn’t make any difference really and that we would quickly catch up. However we soon found him some way along the trail and he had actually been waiting for us for about 20 minutes. More fool us.
We made it back in good time. We only then decided to work out how far we walked. Something we probably should have figured out before we actually left yesterday. Anyway, we had walked about 25 km, a fair introduction to our Swedish adventure on The Bergslagsleden trail.
So we jumped in the car and headed for Kloten.. with an essential detour to Kopparberg on route.
Naturally, we needed to stop for supplies on the way, and Kopparberg was obviously the best place to that. It was just the most logical decision, after all, it was only about 20 minutes up the road from Kloten. Almost resembling the 1990’s TV show, Supermarket Sweep, we ran into the supermarket and basically grabbed anything that came into reaching distance. I went for a slightly more authentic taste; 1.5 litres of Kopparberg, a handful of weird sausage things, some reindeer jerky and a tonne of chocolate. Not quite camping food, but it seemed like a good decision. I then met Dan at the tills, who was holding some slightly more healthy and appropriate food. He looked at me with a ‘what the f**k?’ kind of glare, to which I just couldn’t help but think, ‘well…when in Rome, right?’
Back in the car and on the way to Kloten, we parked up next to a lake with a detailed map on a sign marking out some good shelters and camping spots. The hike from Kloten to Gillersklack was going to be a long stretch, so with the little time we had, we thought it was best to just find a nice spot to make camp not too far from the trail and return to it in the morning. We found a great spot on the map, with a shelter on a huge lake, tucked out of the way of anything else in the area, and headed straight for it.
It very quickly became obvious that we were in for a cold night as the lakes in the area were still partially frozen and there was snow on the ground. All part of the fun!
To get to our spot for the night we had to drive down a very small, dodgy track, completely grassed over with a few pointy rocks sticking out for good measure. Midway down this ‘road’ we had to send Olie out to shift a small tree that was blocking the way. With a few minor body work scratches and the undercarriage of the car probably completely ruined, we made it to the end of the road – a complete dead end with absolutely nothing in sight. Brilliant… I spotted something that could have resembled a structure of some sort and thought I’d have a quick look. As I approached it, it turned out to be not just one shelter but two. Sat right on the edge of a huge lake. The only sound that could be heard was the geese crash landing onto the water in the distance with the volume of a Boeing 747.
We quickly unloaded our kit and picked our sleeping spots. Dan and Olie threw their hammocks up, Olie’s almost hanging right over the water, Dan’s not so far away from camp and Jack and I took the shelters. More like Jack was banished to his own one for the sake of the group’s sanity. Dinner was made and during this process I decided it was time to pull out my sausage-
Behave. It was one sausages I bought in Kopparberg.
It was hard to tell if it was actually already cooked.. So I gave some to Olie to try. He thought it was fine, but after some examination, Dan, Jack and I thought it was definitely raw. There was something about the fresh butchers’ shop smell that really didn’t fill me with confidence. I cooked it just be sure, and now I’m waiting for Olie to be horrendously sick just to assure myself that it was a good idea to cook it. Then it was Dan’s turn. Dan’s turn to whip out his goodness –
Dan’s Flapjackmade it all the way to Sweden! If there is anything to fill the heart and stomach of a person with joy, it’s Dan’s Flapjack.
So we all settled around the fire, with our Wayfayrer meals, weird sausage and Dan’s Flapjack in perfect time to watch the sunset behind the forest on the opposite side of the lake.
It’s now 23:15pm and I’m in bed. Listening to the humbling sounds of the geese on the lake, calling their families in for bed, and Jack, snoring away in his shelter. In fact, it sounds like Dan has just started to try and compete with him. Olie turned his light out a little while ago and all I can see in his general direction is complete darkness in the trees.
Tomorrow we head back to the top of the trail in Kloten. I think we’ll spend the next couple of days on the track, it’s going to be a long hike. Possibly another 30km and, according to my map, it’s mostly uphill.
It’s cold now. The fire is out and my hand is turning a funky shade of blue. Definitely time for sleep.
That night, I made the foolish mistake of thinking that if I put my sleeping mat, sleeping bag and wool blanket inside my emergency bivvy bag, I would be toasty warm. Wrong. The top tip that I totally ignored was actually, if you plan on sleeping in it, you should cut one of the sealed corners off at the end, to allow some ventilation. Without the ventilation there was nowhere for the heat to go, so it condensed on the inside of the bag and I woke up very damp indeed.
Day 3: To The North End
08 April 2017
This morning started pretty badly, to say the least. However the result at the end of the day totally made up for it.
I slept great, although it was pretty damn cold. I was woken by the sound of the geese on the water and a woodpecker somewhere in the distance, but I stayed in my little bubble of bedding for a little while longer. I must have fallen asleep again because before I knew it, Dan woke me by stepping into my shelter. I immediately sat bolt upright and slammed my head into the sloping roof, nearly knocking myself unconscious. Dan told me that he had been watching a red squirrel playing in the tree above him, so he was going off to ‘find some more nature’. I was the only other one in the camp who was awake, so I set about making a fire to get some breakfast and brews on. No matter how hard I tried however, I just couldn’t get the fire going.
Something that’s usually very rare for me. If there is something I’m good at, it’s building a campfire.
My patience thinned and after a few careful attempts I decided to take the ‘f**k it’ approach. I found the biggest piece of birch bark I could get my hands on, stacked on some thin twigs and buried the whole lot in a couple of huge pine branches. Notoriously great for burning. I lit the birch bark at the bottom and watched as it caught the pine branches, causing a huge spiraling tower of smoke and fire. I stacked on some larger sticks, and away I had it. I grabbed the pot that we used to boil water and took to the lake to fill it up. On my return I built what I thought was a great structure over the fire with two long logs, laying across it with a small gap between them for the flames to come through. I placed the pot over the gap and it worked perfectly… for 5 minutes.
Looking at this structure now, I can see that it really isn’t stable at all!
Then something shifted, causing the logs to spread apart, subsequently tipping the pot all over the fire and extinguishing it. I probably woke Jack up with my screaming of all the profanities I could think of. So I started the whole process again. Fire made. Pot filled. Pot on top. Brilliant. Whilst the pot was doing it’s thing on the fire, I decided to chop some more wood. At which point I discovered how sharp Olie’s axe was-
Actually it was at the point when I slipped whilst splitting a bit of wood and the axe went into my thumb that I discovered how sharp it was.
Just as the water was boiling, the logs shifted again. The water came out. The fire went out. Fire built. Pot filled. Thumb bandaged. Water boiled. Dan walked back into camp and I think I said something like ‘Good morning Dan, I do hope you had a wonderful walk!’.. actually no…I’m actually certain it was more like ‘This better be the best f*****g coffee you’ve ever had.’
On a good note though, my sausage didn’t make Olie horribly sick at all. I still cooked another one for breakfast though. I just wasn’t willing to take that risk.
We got breakfast over and done with and left the camp with enough time to make it to Kloten and get on with the rest of our hike. Dan walked ahead of us as we drove down the track, moving more trees out of the way and about 20 minutes later we were in Kloten. The official start of The Bergslagsleden Trail. We pulled into a car parking area and began to unload our kit and pack up what we needed for our last night in the wilderness.
It was actually at this point that we discovered that you could drive a car with the keyless ignition start button without having the key anywhere near the car. Olie drove it down the road and I was stood, key in hand, in the car park. Really safe! Well done Skoda. Anyway-
As we started the trail we were greeted with the spectacular view of a beautiful frozen lake. We went down to the water’s edge to check it out, and it just felt strange looking at it whilst standing in the gorgeous blaring sun. Spring/Summer was definitely on it’s way here, but winter was still in for a fight. We immediately began the climb up the first of many, many hills. Straight into the heart of the wild pine forests of the Swedish Wilderness. The sudden feeling of being at home in this place was sensational. This is exactly where I wanted to be.
The map certainly didn’t lie when it showed that this section was uphill. It seemed to be continuously uphill for about 4 hours.
As we got even deeper into the wilderness and further away from civilisation, we stumbled across paths still covered with snow and even more beautiful frozen lakes. Picturesque just isn’t the word for these places.
Then, as we got even deeper into the woods, it was clear that we were in bear country too. Scattered along the trail was a fair amount of bear poo. What was unclear though was how fresh it was, it looked pretty fresh, but it was early morning and a bit boggy, so it might have been just wet anyway.
Kind of similar to a large cat poo, but you could see the berries etc that had been passed through. Interesting. A bit gross, but interesting.
Our final destination was to be one of two places. We saw on the map that there was a cabin, much like the one in Scotland which we stayed in a couple of years ago. It was apparently an old farm house, built into the side of the bottom of a hill. It had been refurbished and was open for use by anybody. It was next to a river and we thought this would be a pretty cool place to have our last night. If that didn’t work out though, we would trek just about 6km to another camping spot next to a lake.
Breath going, legs burning, feet about to explode, we reached the old farm house. Annoyingly however, it had been claimed by a family before we got there. So staying there was out of the question, but the short 6km trek no longer felt like just a short 6km trek.
We were actually so annoyed by this, we didn’t stop to take a picture of the house, but believe me, it was actually pretty cool. Here’s a picture of the river that ran down beside it though:
So with no choice, we continued our walk. In all fairness though, we couldn’t have been in a more beautiful place. Rolling hills, perfect silence, huge forests and lakes and the potential of being eaten by bears. To me, that’s perfect. To top it all off, I had heard that on this section you can often hear wolves howling in the distance too.
We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but we knew that if we just pressed on, we would find our next camping spot. It was apparently on a lake, just off the trail, so that was fine. Although, every time we climbed a huge mountainous hill, we would see a lake, have that ‘finally!’ feeling, then the trail would take us in the opposite direction up another gargantuan hill. Until finally, after the third time of saying ‘it’s just around this hill guys, don’t worry,’ it was there. We were about 100m away from it, but it was already so much better than that damn farm house.
Right on the water, so much so that if it was any closer, it would be in the water. Another one of these shelters. Looking right out over the frozen lake and with a large fire pit right in front of it. This was amazing. Totally silent. We whistled and the echoes coming back to us were just as loud and crystal clear. The sound of the small rocks that we tossed onto the ice even came back to us. This was easily the best place we had stayed over the last few nights. We arrived with a good few hours of daylight left. Enough time to get a fire going, make some dinner and just sit around camp and relax in the serenity of the most wild wilderness of Sweden. We built the fire up enough to heat the inside of the shelter, climbed inside our sleeping bags and just laid there, listening to the crackling fire and fell asleep as the sun was still setting.
I was next to Jack which meant that I didn’t sleep much at all that night. Leading to a lot of rolling around trying to get comfortable and trying to sleep, which then woke up Dan, who then woke up Olie with his complaining about me trying to get comfortable.
I have now completely given up trying to get to sleep, thanks to Jack, so just sat here looking out over the lake. It must be about 03:00am It’s really chilly again but totally amazing. It’s pitch black out there in the forest but the moonlight is shining down and reflecting off the ice in front of me. It’s just incredible.
Sometimes I think I should thank Jack for his outrageous snoring…but not just yet.
Day 4: Let’s Go Home
09 Apr 2017
I finally got back to sleep and woke up at about 06:00am. I was straight up and dressed and set about getting a fire lit. This morning we had to leave much earlier than we had done over the last couple of days as we needed to get back to Kloten in time to make the near 3 hour journey to Arlanda airport for 17:00 to return the car. It was going to be a hell of a walk back too.
I must have been the first creature to stir in the whole forest, because it was totally silent as I was collecting wood. But as I returned to the shelter, a fish jumped out of the bit of water that hadn’t frozen, the birds started singing and a woodpecker was trying to get the sound of Jack’s snoring out of his head in the forest somewhere.
We made breakfast, I cooked my last sausage and had a vegetable curry Wayfayrer meal. If you ask me, I think that was a fine breakfast. Soon we were on our way again. To try and cut some time off, we agreed that we would follow the trail until it hit the road, then follow that road all the way back. Cutting out a few of those hills, and guaranteeing a timely arrival at the car. So we did. We came off the trail and had about 6 miles left to walk, which isn’t too far at all. Unless you have a heavy rucksack on, dead feet and long straight road to follow. It was fun. To keep myself occupied I counted the little lines that marked the edge of the road. 2523 lines later, we came off the road and back on to the track along side the first frozen lake we came across coming out of Kloten. Not 10 minutes later were back in the car. That was it. Done. Feeling like we were going to die, every part of us aching, hips rubbed raw from our rucksacks and feet blistering, we felt amazing. This was the feeling we set out to find. We wanted to feel like we had done something, and we did.
And so our 50km walk in the woods was complete. The relief was incredible, but a great sadness fell upon us all as well. With the lust for being back in our shelter on the lake still strong, we were headed back to civilisation and the everyday monotony of society.
Our adventure was done.
It wasn’t until we got to the airport and got back on the WiFi (the latest addition to humanity’s hierarchy of needs), that the messages from friends and family started pouring in, enquiring as to whether we were safe. We couldn’t understand why until we had a look at the BBC News page and found out that there had been a devastating terror attack in Stockholm just a day after we had landed. It was this that reinforced the reason that we had set out to do what we wanted to do – while Stockholm and the rest of the world were experiencing yet another tragic disaster, we were blissfully ignorant and comfortably numb in the natural surroundings of such a beautiful country, able to enjoy everything it had to offer while its own citizens were forced to mourn and become fearful. It’s a sad fact that, in today’s world, we can’t escape such atrocities for too long, but if we choose to, we can take a step back, walk into the wild and be reminded of the awesome force of nature and all that came before us and what will eventually be left behind.
Until next time Sweden, stay wild, stay beautiful and see you later
How much is your life worth? How much money would you spend to preserve your life?
On 2nd January 2017, a couple from Leicestershire and their dog were rescued by Cairngorm Mountain Rescue after being caught in arctic-like conditions over night, simply because they miscalculated how long their chosen route would be. After leaving their house for a New Years Day walk, like most of us would have done, they soon got caught by terrible weather conditions that closed in on them rapidly. With knee high snow, visibility worsening and a dead head torch, they were forced to take cover using their Bivouac Sack (known to some as a bivvy bag). They weren’t discovered until midday the following afternoon, but they survived.
The Cairngorms (www.cairngorms.co.uk)
There are countless stories like this that have ended so much worse. Just last year The Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association reported just short of 20 deaths in their area alone. I would say that a large percentage of these deaths could have been avoidable. With the right experience and knowledge of what you’re doing, where you’re going and your own capabilities, you can feel secure that you are going to be fine. ‘I know my limits, I know what I can manage and I know what I’m doing,’ we’ve all said it. But what if something so unpredictable, such as the weather, just creeps in on you and leaves you with very limited options? If you’ve read my article on a trip to Snowdon I took in February 2015, you know what I’m talking about and you know that you can have as much experience and knowledge as possible, but what really counts in these situations, what really can save your life is what you put in your rucksack before you even walk out of the front door.
If you’ve suddenly just had an ‘oh crap, what do I need?’ moment, then don’t panic. Allow me to cover 10 essentials that you should really consider taking on your hike.
Water – the source of life
Waterproofs – even Michael Fish couldn’t predict the weather (BBC weatherman)
Navigation: compass and map, and the knowledge to use them! – Do any of us really know where we’re going?
Dry/warm clothes – when you get cold and wet
First aid kit – a fool can suffer
Food = energy = warmth
Shelter – The trust bivvy bag
Torch – ‘happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light’
Knife – the possibilities are endless
Fire lighting kit – fire = warm = happy (fire = warm = food = happy)
I live in Buckinghamshire, England. Home of the beautiful rolling Chiltern hills (and fabulous ales)- considerably different to the grandeur of the Peak District and not much like the Cairngorms either. However, if you were to find me in the woodlands when I am out and about with my dog and say ‘show me what’s in your sack,’ initially I’d think you’re a bit strange, but eventually you’d be enlightened to the wonders of all 10 of those items and more impressively how they all manage to fit inside my 20 litre rucksack, because everywhere I go, I take these essentials.
The Chilterns (www.visitchilterns.co.uk)
No matter what the weather or where I’m going, I will carry at least these 10 items, plus a few bits more. You can mix and match the rest of the kit to your own personal needs and desires, I know that at least one of my friends will have some Scotch in his rucksack for example. Not a great example, granted, but it shows that there is still room in your sack for those extra bits.
So far I have had very, very few occasions where I’d end up using every piece of kit, but there will be those occasions and when they arise, I’d be considerably more prepared than those who didn’t consider the possibilities.
Hypothetically, let’s just cover a quick scenario, a little role play perhaps. Perhaps not, but stay with me, you’re doing well.
Dave and Julio are out for a walk around the mountains, the nearest pub with a beautiful crackling log fire is 20 miles away and the last person they saw was the postman doing his morning rounds. It’s just gone midday and they have just finished their sandwiches sat on a dry stone wall looking over a stunning green valley with a sparkly lake in the middle, in the distance the sky appeared to be getting a bit grey and horrible, but they crack on. Dave suggests perhaps heading down the valley, cutting their ramble a little shorter because he has noticed the weather coming in, but Julio, being the renegade that he is, immediately disregards Dave’s suggestion and continues along the ridge. Dave joins in. Suddenly Julio slips, falls to the ground and bashes his head on a big rock. Dave laughs. Then Dave notices that Julio hasn’t laughed and appears to be in a spot of bother. Then it starts to rain. Dave explains to Julio that this is why he suggested leaving the mountain early, points at the sky and the rain and gets cross. Julio doesn’t care. He’s more concerned about the fact that his foot is pointing backwards and is really quite painful. Because Dave is sensible and prepared, he immediately is able to help to the best of his abilities. He calls for help, because there is phone signal, but they are only reachable by the friendly neighbourhood Mountain Rescue team, a few hours away. He proceeds to help Julio put his waterproof jacket on but because his foot hurts, getting the trousers on isn’t worth the moaning. What he does have is a bivvy bag though. A super fashionable bright orange weatherproof plastic sack (essentially). Dave isn’t a doctor, but he tries his best at securing Julio’s foot, with what is in his first aid kit, so it doesn’t wobble about, then helps Julio get into his bivvy bag. Hours of moaning from Julio go by and it gets dark. Thankfully, Dave brought his torch and a spare one just in case. By the time Mountain Rescue arrive, Dave has prepared a lovely cup of tea for the team on his gas stove and they all laugh about how ridiculous the whole situation is, and how lucky they are that Dave was sensible. Julio missed this part as he was being winched into a helicopter. Dave and Julio fell out and now do not talk, but they are both alive. Hypothetically.
Are you Dave or are you Julio?
I have obviously painted this in a fairly jovial way, however it’s a serious consideration we should all make when we get out on our trips. Are you prepared? Do you have the right kit to cover worst case scenario? You may never use it, but when you do, you’ll be glad you had it.
So how much is your life worth? How much would you spend to preserve your life?
Remember that couple with their dog on the Cairngorms? They spent £5 on a bivvy bag, and it saved their life.
In the 1970s Jackson Browne wrote a fairly beautiful song called ‘The Load Out’. Totally unrelated to the weather, outdoors and any of the seasons, but stay with me and I’ll come back to that. Maybe give it a listen while you read this though.
Autumn and Winter. The time of year that everybody turns the central heating on, stocks up logs for the fire and makes a ludicrous amount of soup. We all do it. So it’s time when people go into hibernation and spends less time out in the wild, but why? It’s cold, wet and muddy. So what?
I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing and preparation. Without boring you too much about a layering system, with a simple adjustment to your clothes, base layers to outer layers, you can enjoy the weather all year round. So what are you missing when you only go outside for those couple of weeks of sun in the great British summer? So much. Allow me to tell you why, personally, I think that this time of year from Autumn through Winter to Spring is the most beautiful, exciting and intriguing.
When you think of Autumn, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a natural carpet of orange, red and brown leaves, conkers dropping from the Chestnut Trees, pumpkins and maybe pies. I think of pies most of the year, but I feel like you can’t beat a really good pie when the cold weather comes in.
So Summer is over, the leaves are turning a spectacular array of colours like natures very own fireworks and the cold, dark and misty mornings have begun. I consider myself lucky with the drive I have to work every morning, other than the awful traffic. The road I take is almost entirely lined on both sides with trees. Oaks, Chestnuts, Birch and Elms, all exploding with colour and dropping their leaves, allowing the sun to burst through, casting it’s rays through the mist. Actually makes the traffic worth getting caught in.
If you’re anything like me, then you’ll know what I mean when I say I’m one of those people who really prefers the cold weather. There is nothing better than putting your boots on, a nice warm coat, scarf, hat and gloves and walking out into the forests when that year’s leaves are piled around your feet. The incredible silence being broken by the crunching of frosted foliage and the scurrying of squirrels making their last minute harvest for the Winter. All over the country animals are making their own preparations for the coming season, and being able to witness this is something very special. Whether it is that squirrel getting ready to spend his winter season in his den, or that year’s fox cubs leaving their family, preparing for adult life and searching for their mates to start a family of their own. However, everything is over shadowed by the majesty that is the Red Deer stag. A real stand out icon of the great British Autumn, their rutting season. All over the country these creatures great and small can be found if you take the time to sit quietly, still and observe.
As I have mentioned in some of my previous articles, to me the forest is a hive of life, activity and emotions. All over the internet there are videos of time-lapses in the forest covering the whole year. What you’ll see if you watch it, and even witness it by getting out there in every moment you have through the year, is one of the most spectacular stories. And it’s all for free. Spring is the magical introduction to the year, the buds begin to burst through on the trees, the green of the forest floor begins peeking out of the foliage from the previous year and those fox cubs take their first steps out of their den, preparing you for what to expect in the next chapter – Summer. The main event, life is at it’s fullest, the leaves spread out into an enormous canopy, the days are bright and warm. Barbeques, warm evenings and long walks for days that feel like months, only to slow and dim when the story comes to an end. Autumn. The leaves begin to change, life comes to an end, the animals return to their hides and homes and the days get shorter. Winter. The last leaves fall to the ground to be covered with frost and snow. The busy, loud bustling of Summer has suddenly fallen to a deathly silence as life appears to be at a stand still until the sun comes back and warms the ground, nurturing the forest back to life for Spring. Infancy, adolescence, adulthood, followed by the inevitable. Only to start again.
To be part of this story is a wonder in itself, to witness it every single year is something that should be cherished. Why would anybody want to miss that? Why would anybody consider hiding indoors at the most beautiful time of this life cycle? Put some extra layers and wellies on and get outside.
Everything has a beginning, middle and end. It varies in length, but everything does. A book, a movie, a three course dinner and a song. It builds from scratch, almost nothing, just an idea. This very article that you are reading started from just that, an idea, and don’t worry this article does have an ending too. Life is a wonderful thing to behold, and without getting too ‘preachy’ I believe that if you have that chance to watch something from the beginning of it’s life to the end, over and over, why wouldn’t you? Why would you only cherish those moments that feel nice and warm and decide to ignore the rest? The most beautiful things are just on the other side of your doors, windows and walls. Go and see it, study and love it.
Jackson Browne’s ‘The Load Out’ is dedicated to the road crew that follow the band around on tour, building the stage at the beginning of every show and always being the last to leave the theatre at the end, carrying out their jobs almost in auto pilot. Jackson mentions the noises he hears as the crew dismantle the stage and slams doors, but they are noises that only on lookers would notice. To the crew it’s just everyday labour and something they will never be disconnected from. In the show of forest that you can see every year, the leaves are the road crew, the first to arrive and bring life to the show and always the last to leave once the deafening crowd has vanished, the band, the main part of the show, have gone and the theatre is filled with an eerie silence, until that last leaf falls and the house lights go out, until the next show.
“The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life.”
Recently I discovered that one of my favourite books was available as an audio-book on Spotify. So when I’m plugged in to my music at my desk at work and bopping away to the wonderful sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Jackson Browne, I may occasionally put an audio-book on and get lost in the world of words. I recently finished Jules Verne’s ‘Around The World In 80 Days‘ and whilst flicking through the small library of audio-books on Spotify, up popped the wonderful ‘The Call of the Wild‘ by Jack London, written in 1903 but just as powerful now as it was then. A book that also inspired Christopher McCandless to travel and live self sufficiently in Alaska at the age of 20 which is documented in the book ‘Into The Wild’. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it or watched the film, but it didn’t end well.
At this point I’ll mention that this isn’t just going to be a book review. Stick with me here, and you’ll see how the themes in ‘The Call of the Wild’ are certainly relatable and can also be very inspirational.
‘The Call of the Wild’ is about a dog. It’s not a story told by the dog and the dog doesn’t talk. It’s about the dog, and the dog is called Buck. I won’t be rewriting Jack London’s work here, just giving a slight synopsis and discussing where we all fit in. So for the moment, pretend you’re a dog. Or actually, pretend the dog is a human. Either way, it’s about a dog.
For the first four years of his life, Buck lived on a ranch in America, lazing out in the sun, and doing very little else. A nice lazy life. No experience of the bigger world and no knowledge of anything beyond the ranch. One day he’s sold to a man who, in an apparent attempt to train him, begins beating him, puts him in a cage and throws him on a long haul train to Canada where he is handed over to two couriers who run a dog sled team.
As with any newcomer to a wolf pack, or sled dog pack, Buck isn’t welcomed with open arms; he is immediately challenged and put in his place – right at the bottom of the pack. Buck had no experience of the wild so learnt his lesson the hard way by fighting back and finally, with a few injuries to foot, fell into his spot. The lesson was soon hammered home when he witnessed another new dog join the team only to be killed immediately and torn to shreds by the pack.
Sled dogs are not pets and, no matter the circumstance, are never treated as such. They sleep outside the tents in the blizzards, the rain and the snow, all year round. In the wild, wolves, as well as digging small dens, make nests (this can be seen in your domestic dog when they walk around and around in a circle trying to get comfy). The sled dogs dig a nest in the deep snow low enough that the wind blows over the top of them and that their body heat is maintained, much like an igloo but without a roof. The snow then eventually fills in on top and they become buried, which is actually very warm. Feeding time is also a very risky occasion in a pack of wolves for all involved, unless you’re the top dog of course. The lower your rank the less food the others will leave, until the very bottom where you have to learn to eat very fast before another one eats your ration. For Buck, gaining this knowledge and experience meant losing any domestication he once had.
The couriers who were now in control of Buck reached their destination and left the pack to be taken up by another sled runner. The next team of humans were complete amateurs who could barely organise and run their own lives let alone a pack of sled dogs. Long story short, these new humans had totally forgotten that they had to feed and water the pack but still ran them thousands of miles. They became weak and skeletal, on the very brink of death, before reaching the next town.
Here, the alpha male of the pack became aggressive towards Buck and tried to kill him, however Buck managed to defend himself and kill the alpha when it got to the stage of kill or be killed. This earned him respect amongst the other dogs who began to fall in line behind him instead – this would be Bucks first kill of many.
When it was time to leave this new town the dogs were all laying motionless on the snow, nothing but bags of bones with an ever decreasing heartbeat. Assuming them to simply be lazy, the team began to whip them, paying particular attention to Buck, to the point where he was aware he was being whipped but the pain ceased and he felt nothing. A local man named John, who was watching in disbelief immediately got to his feet, cut Buck from the reins and knocked the man off his feet. Picking himself up, he forced the rest of the pack to move on, however a few hundred yards down the track, they fell through the ice and never returned.
Much like the relationship between myself and my own dog, Buck never left John’s side once he had recovered. However, he eventually felt his natural wolf like instincts return and would wander into the forest for days, only returning to John for a small time before vanishing once again. One evening, when out in the forest, he encountered a wolf who tried to get Buck to follow him back to his own pack. However, something stopped Buck and he returned to try and find John but found the camp in complete ruin, attacked by native Indians and John’s lifeless body amongst the rest.
All ties that Buck once had with society and his domestication had all but diminished over the period from leaving the ranch up to the very last tie that was John. He had learnt to hunt, track and stalk like a wolf and now everything in his nature was wild. He found the pack of wild wolves, made jolly good friends and lived happily ever after as the alpha male of this wild wolf pack.
So, if you’re still reading this and haven’t gotten bored and closed the page down, you may wonder why I’ve put you through the torment of my failing to explain a rather simple book to you. Well allow me to tell you why.
I asked earlier that you try to pretend you’re a dog, Buck in fact. Especially if you’re one of these people who doesn’t know the outside world and the wonders of the wilderness. Very much like Buck. He was thrown into the wild against his will and, through various extreme and harsh lessons and experiences, his connection to society and his domestic instincts whittled away completely, moulding him to become one with the wilderness.
Like the wolf pack, with their ranks, the human species is similar in some aspects. I mentioned earlier that, when it comes to food for the wolf, the higher the rank, the more food. For us, it seems that maybe economically, the wealthier, higher class you are, the easier life may come for you. The lower you are, the more challenges you face, the more the elite almost step on the lower to maintain their position. Similar to something I know as quite simply, ‘the shit tree’.
The more I think about this, the more I understand why some people would be more than happy to give up on society and get back to our instinctive, natural lives. Myself included. There’s a lot going around, and has been going around for a while, about the wealthy becoming wealthier and the poorer becoming poorer, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, money has ruined everything that life actually has given us. But that’s a totally different topic and debate.
It’s not just a case of, ‘sod it, I’ll live in the woods’, it’s more a case of taking that step back, looking at what the human race has become and wondering, ‘what the hell has happened?’
In the same way that Buck learnt all his lessons, nest building and hunting for example, everything that is actually instinctive to a dog is also innate in humans. Our own natural instincts keep us alive and come into play without us even realising it. ‘Fight or flight’, fears, desires, emotional contagion (if you’re sad, I’m sad) and so much more. Even reactions such as blushing and yawning all span from that caveman who is still sat inside all of our brains. All you need to do is light a fire and watch as everyone around it becomes hypnotised, demonstrating our intrinsic, prehistoric tendencies.
Sadly this caveman is becoming blinded by smartphone screens and bored of sitting in front of the TV all day, and may one day just decide to get up and leave you to it. How would we survive without those reactions though? Seriously interesting stuff to read into if you want to. If we tuned ourselves back into these instincts, like Buck did, we would find it easier to live and thrive in the wild in the way that our ancestors did many years ago.
McCandless was, as we all have been, born into the domesticated, modern world. Grew up with the comforts, went to school, graduated from University and lived the same lives as we all do. As some of us do, he still just had that deep, natural burning fire to get back to the wild and reconnect. This is where the story of Buck inspired the young Chris to leave society behind. He burnt his money, abandoned his car and made his way into the wilderness of Alaska to also become one with nature, live off the earth and be totally self sufficient. His diary, which makes up the book ‘Into the Wild‘ isn’t just inspiring but also fascinating, reading his own words about not just the great sense of freedom he had, but towards the end, his very true fears and emotions when he realised that his days were numbered and he knew he would die. His last words in his diary were ‘beautiful berries’ after a long period of starvation. This was written on day 107, the following 7 days were made up of illiterate scrawlings. Reading through the book numerous times, there are definitely points where he could have avoided this frightful end and made mistakes that were preventable. However, to somebody like me, even though Chris’ life came to an untimely devastating end, his story is an inspiration. He had the will and the passion to leave everything behind; his family, friends, comfort and the everyday routines of life, to return to the wild, live by his natural instincts and resort to the life that he felt he needed and part of me thinks that, even though he died, he would have been content knowing that he did so in that environment, doing what he set out to do.
This isn’t the typical type of article I set out to write on my site, but something that may just make you stop and think. Something that might make you realise that as a species, humans did not evolve to just laze in the comforts of technology, preprepared food and designer clothes. Everything that we originally evolved to do and live by is actually still out there, and with the right will and passion, it’s still doable. Sadly however, the people who want to, or actually do it successfully are seen to be peculiar and most definitely in the minority.
So that was clearly a productive afternoon in the office..
“Don´t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.”- Christopher McCandless
Our trip to Sweden started in the small country village of Granborough in Buckinghamshire, England. We had planned where we would be going, what we’d be doing and when whilst in Sweden, but had forgotten until the last minute to plan on how we were actually going to be getting to Stansted Airport to actually get to Sweden. Thankfully, Dan’s mother had, perhaps rather reluctantly, agreed to get up at 04:00 to drive us there, so we all took our kit to Dan’s farm the previous night for a final kit check and prep. Olie, Jack and I bunkered down on the living room floor for our last sleep in England and Dan obviously opted for his own, comfy double bed. Which was a very good idea we realised as soon as Jack fell asleep. Jack is skilled in the art of being able to just completely switch off and fall asleep instantly, he also has a skill of being able to keep everybody else awake whilst he is asleep. The noises he makes in his sleep are unlike anything I have heard a human make, and that’s all in between his snoring too. So Olie and I must have had about 3 hours sleep between us by the time our alarms sounded and it was time to get up. I’ll admit at this stage I was not in the best of moods, and pre-warned Jack that he’d be sleeping about a mile away from camp if he continued to make his noises.
Anyway, breakfast was had, the journey was made and we boarded the plane.
This article will be written differently, as it will be taken almost directly from a journal I wrote during the whole trip. Written mostly at the end of each of the four days.
‘On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it’
26th April 2016
Day 1: ‘Definitely a Moose’
We made it. I was sat by myself on plane, next to a couple who were basically making love. Headphones in. Bruce Springsteen on. Eyes shut. Sweden! We realised just yesterday that we weren’t actually flying into Stockholm itself and that was made perfectly clear when we did actually touch down. It was more or less a field surrounded by forest with a runway on it. The ATC tower was more like a shed with a radio. A wonderful welcome to Sweden and that theme continued. We hired a car for the week which the website had claimed was a ‘VW Polo or Similar’. Olie sorted all the documents and collected the key to a Skoda Octavia. Fair enough. I had previously owned a Skoda Fabia and was fairly sure that they were basically the same car to an extent. However, what we found in the car park was a brand new, massive estate model. Suddenly our worries of fitting a total of 8 large bags into a small car were totally forgotten.
From left to right: Jack, Dan, Olie, Me (www.dankemp.co.uk)
We made the 2 and a half hour drive to where our cabin was located, picking up some essentials on the way (chocolate, beer and, of course, steak). Driving through the spectacular scenery, resembling the forests and prairies you’d find in Canada and the US, we eventually hit the last road to our destination, which was more like a rally WRC track through the pine forest that was framing a huge, beautiful lake. We had found a cabin on Airbnb which seemed ideal for what we had planned. We would use it as a base, prep our camping kit and then head into the forest for a couple of nights. We pulled down a dusty side track into a ranch where the cabin was located, with horses galloping along the edge of the woods on a hill above us – I knew this was already going to be awesome. We were greeted by an absolutely gorgeous Swedish female called Marley – a huge St Bernard who was incredibly soppy.
Annemiek (our host) came out of her red wooden house to properly greet us and show us to our cabin. Actually, the first thing she showed us was the toilet, a bucket in a small outhouse, then the cabin. It was fantastic, everything that I could want in a cabin in the woods. A simple structure, log burning stove, a double bed in one room and a small kitchen in the other with a fridge for the beer and steak. Up a small wooden ladder were two single mattresses in a small loft area. When Annemiek asked if we would like her to bring down another fold up bed from the main house, we refused and said that we would be happy to share the double bed. God knows what she thought of us.
After putting the compost bucket toilet to the test, we decided to have a recce of the area we’d be calling home for the week – the huge forest on the lake we had just driven by. We followed a track that took us along side the lake (featured image). The forest was enormous, almost never-ending and completely untouched. It had mostly been left to run itself naturally with very little help from man or machine, so parts really looked prehistoric with huge ferns and gigantic pines reaching into the sky. The ground was littered with boulders and rocks throughout and the small trail was only just recognisable winding around into the distance. Beautiful. Olie and I decided to test the temperature of the water by having a small paddle. Cold. Not unbearable. But cold. We were putting our boots back on when we realised just how silent the whole area was. Tranquillity just isn’t the word. No traffic noise, no aircraft noises, no people. Just the sound of the wind through the trees and the birds calling to one another. That’s when we heard it. Something broke the silence. The sound of an animal drinking from the lake, hidden by two islands in front of us, but it was loud and must have been a big animal. Definitely a moose. Nothing else. Definitely a moose. We never got a glimpse though.
We took a stroll back to the cabin and I started to make a beef stew with nothing but beer and a bit of pepper for a sauce. As I was at the cooker, Annemiek’s husband arrived at the front door, but instead of being a huge Viking of a man that we were expecting, it was Mr Miyagi! An incredibly friendly, super smiley Japanese man. He’d come to fix the water pump or something. I can’t remember his name, so he’ll be called Mr Miyagi for the rest of the week.
It’s now 21:30. Stew eaten. Coffee made. Fire stoked. Feet up. Chill. Plan day 2. Can’t wait.
27th April 2016
Day 2: ‘The Big Swim’
Up at 07:30. Frost on the ground. Clear blue sky. One coffee down and another on the go.
Today is camp day. We had made a plan last night to possibly find some canoes from somewhere around here and follow a canoe route marked on the map. There are a few portages on the route which would be cool, but I have a feeling that plan sadly wont materialise. Anyway, up and at them!
Rucksacks packed and donned, we followed the same route as yesterday but continued around the lake even further to the other side which we discovered was actually just a peninsular, opening up the rest of the lake which was far bigger than we had even imagined. During this process though, we lost Dan. I had dropped behind to take advantage of a huge boulder that was just sticking up from the water. I jumped across from the mainland and with more luck than judgement, landed safe and dry. I sat down, took in the view and caught some time to appreciate the silence and serenity of the whole area. I was falling in love with it. The water was almost perfectly still and reflected the scenery like a mirror. I picked up a small rock and tossed it into the water and just watched as the ripples grew larger and larger from the splash. A small while later I put my pack back on and caught up with Olie and Jack who informed me that Dan had walked off to find a way around a swampy area to reach the other side. Assuming he wouldn’t be too far away, we went in the same rough direction that he apparently took. We reached the other side of the bog and up into the pines once again. No sign of Dan whatsoever. The silence was no longer as welcome as it was before because we couldn’t even hear him. A small track that must have been created by a vehicle once upon a time cut through the middle of forest. Jack decided to walk along it and Olie and I headed for the water’s edge on the opposite side to see if we could get a view of Dan along the edge of the trees. Nothing. What we did find, however, was an old rotting row-boat that was crumbling apart and had plant life growing from the inside. We dug it out a little bit and decided to see if it still worked as a boat. As soon as we started to move it, it broke in half. Needless to say, once it was on the water it didn’t even work as a surf board. A good 45 minutes and few yells of his name had passed and we still had no sign of Dan. We worked our way back onto the track and eventually caught up with Jack who had found Dan walking around the edge of the water on the bog side of the lake, looking for a suitable camp spot. He hadn’t been eaten by a bear. We continued our search for our perfect camping spot as a group but what we had in our mind, just couldn’t be found. We camp with hammocks, so we wanted a nice, fairly open area ideally with a great view over the lake and a spot to make a fire. The problem with such a huge, natural, untouched, forest is that the trees and the rest of the plant life grow either incredibly close to each other or fairly spread out, depending on the size of the trees and how much light gets through. We opted to return to where Olie and I had paddled yesterday. That spot had everything we needed and worked perfectly. We took the hour’s walk back to the spot and set up camp. I immediately stole a spot that was right on the water’s edge, so much so that if I was to get out of the wrong side of my hammock, I’d get pretty wet, but I had a stunning view across the water and down the middle of the two islands. Further down the edge of the water was a huge flat boulder that we climbed onto and made a fire over looking the lake and settled in for the duration of the day. I carry a fire making kit in my pack but didn’t need it at all. The bark from the birch tree is so paper-thin and due to the oils inside it will burn even when damp, so all we needed was a spark and we had a fire. The weather was also on our side as we hadn’t had any rain and the ground was crisp and dry. We had a fire going in under a minute.
Then the decision was made. ‘I’m going in,’I said as I was looking over the lake. After testing it yesterday I knew that it was bearable and a little swim wouldn’t be too much of a stupid idea. In fact, to me, it was a wonderful idea. I have a problem which means that, when I see water, I need to jump in it and sometimes, like today, I just can’t stop myself. So I stripped off and traded my hiking gear for some shorts, put the boots back on and, cameras ready, strolled straight in. It was actually very pleasant; pretty cold, absolutely stank but was very pleasant.
The Big Swim (www.dankemp.co.uk)
My aim was to reach the opposite island, behind which lived The Moose. The beautiful silence was soon completely shattered when the water line reached a ‘testicular altitude’ and I let out an echoing scream. Not to be put off though, I soldiered on and braced myself for a proper swim. However, no matter how far I went in, it was only waist height. So as graceful as a chimp you see on one of Attenborough’s shows wading through water, I reached the edge of the island and hauled myself out with a triumphant roar from both myself and the rest of the group on the other side. I explored the tiny island for a little while before jumping back into the water. After a little more splashing around I made my way back across to the others and stripped off next to the fire with about the same grace as a chimp once again. I think Jack is mentally scarred for life. I dried myself off and put my warm, dry clothes on. After laying all of my clothes out in front of the fire to dry off, we made some dinner and watched the sun set into the forest across the water. The wind died, the birds slept and we were in a world of total silence with the crackling fire for company. My clothes dried off fairly quickly, I have strung a washing line beneath my canopy to finish them off, all but my underwear which accidentally caught fire, so they’ve gone now. We let the fire die down and eventually made our way back to the hammocks. I’m incredibly proud of my set up right now, except for the fact that I have hitched it far too high and I actually needed a boost up to get inside, but it’s totally worth it.
28th April 2016
Day 3: ‘The Great Moose Hunt’
I fell asleep as soon as I was settled into my sleeping bag and before the others even got into their hammocks I think. I did wake up not too long after though when the cold eventually got to me, but I hunkered down into the bottom of my sleeping bag and warmed up, however I stayed awake for most of the night and finally got a little bit of sleep when the sun started to rise. Right now everybody is still asleep and I’m laying here looking over the water, listening to the birds waking up. What I’m also listening to however, is that damned elusive moose drinking from the lake again. Almost teasing me as the sound of the lapping echoes around the lake, totally out of sight.
So day 3 begins.. I don’t know what we have planned for today.
Back in the cabin. Coffee drank. Maps read and plans made. It’s raining. Today we are on a moose hunt. We’re headed for Tiveden National Park where there WILL be moose. I’ll catch you up later.
Ok, long story short.. there were no moose out there.
So our day trip started with a stop off at a Netto shop, a bit like Lidl, in the town of Askersund to get what will possibly be our last dinner together as tomorrow night I’ll be at the airport. Tonight we’re making meatballs. When in Sweden…. On a very basic map of the region we’re in, which resembles a map from Disneyland, there are images of moose all over the place, so we picked one and headed for it, somewhere called Röfors. It was an absolutely stunning area, filled with pine forests, small lakes spread all over the place, enormous rocks and boulders and absolutely no moose. We were enjoying the scenery so much through the windows of the car as we were cruising around that we totally forgot to park up and get out and ended up miles down the road at our original planned destination of Tiveden National Park. I thought the area around the cabin was prehistoric looking, but Tiveden National Park was something else. The road we drove down was cut straight through the middle of the rocks and on each side was an enormous expanse of totally untouched, natural woodland. No footpaths, no tracks, just pure green nature and it was beautiful. We turned down a very small dust track which took us winding down to a perfectly secluded lake with a small bothie sat just above it in the trees. We parked up and headed into the woods on the opposite side of the track to the lake and decided to have a little climb up some of the enormous boulders and rocky platforms in the woods. We found a huge, old pine tree that had fallen and, as we reached the root end of it, we found that it had originally started growing in the moss on one of these enormous rocks, it must have just gotten too heavy for the moss to hold onto it and had come away.
Nice to see some of nature’s mistakes (www.dankemp.co.uk)
We walked in a large circle and wound up near the small lake again and, seeing the bothie next to it, the temptation was too great for me and I split from the group, ran down the hill, across the track and up to it. It wasn’t a bothie like the one we had stayed in during our trip to Scotland, but rather an open faced, lean-to timber structure with a concrete fire pit in front. Completely forgetting the rest of the group, (I was in my dream location after all) I gathered some dry logs that somebody had left nearby and, demonstrating how well birch bark burns in the wet perfectly, got a fire going in the fire pit. Attached to the wall of the bothie was a small wooden box, so being nosey, I opened it and found a hardback notebook and a pen. I sat down on the edge of the shelter, under cover from the rain and had a read. Very few entries were written in English, unsurprising really, but those that were shared the same emotions as I did for the area. The place was heaven for somebody like me. Suddenly, the concept of time had struck me and I realised that I had been apart from the other three for a while now and they didn’t know where I had gone. I heard my name being called and I called back but they mustn’t have heard as I got no response. Olie and I had agreed that if we were split from the group we could make an owl noise by blowing through our hands. The noise travels a great distance and it was just a bit fun anyway. I called out with that noise, and we finally got back into contact. I thought it best to stay where I was and have them hone in on me to save us missing each other or walking in different directions. I collected a few wet pieces of pine branch with the needles still on and stuck them on the fire to make a huge plume of smoke that would have been easily visible if they were nearby. The plume of smoke rose into the air perfectly as planned but, as I far as I could tell, went unnoticed. A small time later though, I heard Dan call my name from the edge of the woods on the other side of the track. I called back and he came and joined me at the bothie. Olie came soon after. We collected a bit more wood and got the fire nice and big. At this point they both decided to inform me that they had actually left Jack in the car, a little further down the track, thinking that I may eventually return there when I split off. We sent Olie off to bring the car a bit further up and when he and Jack returned we took the opportunity to get a group picture together.
Clockwise: Dan, Olie, Me, Jack (www.dankemp.co.uk)
Before everybody joined me, when I was sat in the shelter next to the lake with a fire burning, totally secluded and silent, there was a wonderful moment where it struck me that this is exactly what I want to do and where I want to be in life. Something had suddenly clicked and the realisation was incredible.
I left a note in the book and we let the fire burn out and headed for the cabin for our last night there.
So our moose hunt didn’t result in any moose, mooses or meece. I’m happy though and a good day was had by all. I have just eaten the meatball dinner which was delicious, Dan made them from scratch and they were fantastic.
Dinner eaten. Fire burning. Whisky and Beer flowing and James Taylor playing ‘Fire and Rain’. Fitting for the end of a rather wet but superbly relaxing day 3. Goodnight.
29th-30th April 2016
Day 4 and 5: ‘The Last Leg’
Eggs boiling. Coffee made. Fire lit. Packing started. Today we are going to wing it. Our last full day in Sweden and last hour or so of having our cabin. The plan so far is to get an extension on the car rental for an extra day, giving us time to either go into central Stockholm or another nearby town. If they don’t let us rent it for another day, I think we’re a bit stuffed. I’m off to do some packing and get some breakfast in me. Let’s see what happens..
Well.. it’s about 00:45am, so actually it’s the 30th April 2016 right now. I packed my book away and only just retrieved it from my bag as I’m sat at a table in a deserted cafe in the airport. It’s all merged into one day tody really. So what happened?
My breakfast of boiled eggs was good. They were supposed to be soft and runny but turned out completely hard boiled because I got a bit distracted, but they were edible. We packed our bags and said goodbye to Mr Miyagi, who said we should come back in the summer to pick some mushrooms. Without hesitation he ensured us that they won’t be for smoking, but we know what he was really thinking. Annemiek came out to say goodbye and wish us well. Both very honest and kind people who I thank, along with the others, for their hospitality and for not worrying too much when we disappeared into the woods not to return for two days. We packed the car up and Dan had beaten me to shotgun, so I settled for the back seat. Just as we were about to pull away I made Olie stop the car. I climbed out, ran across the yard and said my final goodbyes to Marley. Tears shed and numbers swapped, I parted ways with the beautiful Swedish female.
Our first port of call was the airport to try our luck at extending the rent. I couldn’t be bothered to go with Olie, so waited for the verdict in the car. Whatever he said to the man, it worked and we were allowed the car for another day and a half. Plenty of time. So we hit the road, still with the hope of getting a glimpse of a moose, hoping that the fact we were leaving the country soon might just increase our luck a little bit. We cruised around and explored some more forest roads and suddenly spotted the sea in the distance, not too far away from us at all. So we decided to try and find some forest next to the sea and have a final fire with a sea view. We eventually found a small empty car park with what seemed to be a nice little walk down to some trees on the water’s edge. I was dressed for the airport at this time, so instead of getting on the plane stinking of camp fire smoke, I stripped off once again and put my hiking gear back on. The others were still not getting used to me stripping off. We started to walk down the path and, instead of finding a nice spot in the forest, we found a deserted sandy beach in what appeared to be a large cove, framed with cliffs and forest. We knew immediately that we would now spend the afternoon there. We picked up some drift wood and broke up a huge fallen tree and built a nice big fire right there on the sand. The rain of yesterday had totally moved away and the sky was clear and the sun was hot. If it was England, that beach would have been packed, but it was deserted for the whole afternoon we were there. We had the place to ourselves to chill out and relax, laying in the sun. Of course I couldn’t help myself but get into the water again. I rolled up my trouser legs and went for a paddle. What struck me was how crystal clear the water was and how, even though it was the Baltic sea, it wasn’t particularly ‘baltic’.
The other three wandered off to explore the woods at the end of the beach and I was more than happy to stay laying in the sun next to the fire on the beach. It was heaven. They eventually returned and we got our last group picture.
Before we knew it, it was already 20:00 and we had to make a move. I am due to fly home almost a day before the other three because I am going to see Bryan Adams and I stupidly double booked, so had to buy another plane ticket to get home. So I fly out at 06:30am (30/04/16) and they depart tonight at about 22:15. I thought it would be easier to try and get my head down for the night in the airport instead of getting a hotel or sleeping in the car like the other three have opted for. Anyway, we left the beach and drove into Nyköping, a town just a 10 minute drive from the airport. We tried to find somewhere to get a meal altogether before I left them, but everywhere was shut and the town was completely empty. For a Friday night, the night life was non-existent. We had very little choice but to go to a Burger King we had passed on the way into town. Somewhere I try to avoid, but it was all we had. After some food we got back into the car and tried a very final dusk search for moose. If we were to find any, dusk would be the optimum time as they are most active during dusk and dawn when it’s quietest. We drove for a couple of hours, down some seriously dodgy ‘tracks’ that a rental car probably shouldn’t be driven down, but found nothing at all. So they dropped me here at the airport. I think they’re on the way to central Stockholm right now, but planning to sleep in the car in a lay by or somewhere.
So here I am now at 01:00 in a deserted coffee shop in Skavsta Airport. For some reason I can’t sleep in public places so I’m just sitting here staring at the ceiling waiting to make my final trip in a few hours, through security and onto the plane for home where I’m hoping my lovely girlfriend Sarah will be waiting for me at arrivals with a seriously strong coffee.
Sweden:The final thoughts section
Whether we’d all admit it or not, it seemed to me that the four of us were each looking to gain something different from this trip. Whether it be the wilderness and serenity, some peace, self reliance, independence or just those bloody moose. But I know that I have certainly come back with something personal within me and I’m hopeful that the others did too. I think this was the first time the four of us have spent this much time with each other since our friendships began about 20 years ago and personally I enjoyed every moment of it and I put that down to our shared love for what we were there for to start with. Adventure.
Sweden is a stunning country and one I will return to in the not too distant future. With enormous forests and beautiful lakes merging into one, it is everything I love about this world. Mix that with the freedom to roam laws and you have yourself a very happy camper.
One word of wisdom though; I have been told many times by many different people that Sweden and Norway have a moose problem, so much so that they have to be controlled due to overwhelming population. However, the only problem that we found with the moose is that there weren’t any.
You’re about to read an article written about a dog. It may seem a little silly and a bit odd to write about my dog, but keep reading and hopefully by the end of it you may understand why I’ve done it. If not, I’m sure there will be some nice pictures of him to look at.
Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, Tintin and Snowy, Turner and Hooch.. Need I say more? Paul O’Grady and Buster maybe?
I have lived with dogs since birth and I couldn’t imagine my life without one. My earliest memories are of the two dogs my family had when I was little and those dogs helped me in discovering my adventurous side. From the first small adventures I took myself on when I was just a young boy, all the way up to my present day trips, I have always had a trusty companion with me, and the most recent bugger I have to call a companion is Pep (Pepper).
Many years we lost the last of the two dogs I had grown up with, a wonderful little Jack Russell named Fly. This was the first time in my life that I had been without a dog and it was a terrible, empty feeling. Something was missing.
After roughly six months we decided to look for another dog; the silence and the loneliness of the house had grown too much and we needed to fill that void. We did the usual of looking around the RSPCA centres but we couldn’t quite find what we were after until we contacted a rescue shelter not so far away in the country town of Tring in Hertfordshire. What we liked about this rescue centre was the way you were introduced to the dogs. Unlike the RSPCA, you don’t just walk around the kennels until you see a pretty dog that you may or may not like to take home. This shelter required reams of paperwork to be completed before you got anywhere near meeting a dog; What do you do for a living? Where do you live? What breed are you after? Why do you want the dog? What will you be using the dog for? – among other questions were asked and once we had filled out the paperwork, we sat outside in a courtyard and the staff began to bring out the dogs that matched the profile on the paperwork.
The gateway opened and out came an enormous beautiful male German Shepherd named Simba. We allowed him to approach us, as you would any dog you meet for the first time, then we took him for a short walk up the road and back to get acquainted. He was then taken back to the kennels and for a reason I can’t remember we didn’t decide to take him home. A few more came and went through the gate, until a gorgeous black Belgian Shepherd called Jersey came through. Initially very sheepish, she soon opened up and became very confident with us. We clicked, and the decision was made to put her on the yes list. Jersey came home with us the following week. We went to the shelter with the intention of only getting one dog, but we proceeded to see the last couple of dogs they had on their list…
The next dog that we met was a funny looking Collie named Pepper.
He came through the gate and I muttered something about how it was a shame he was a bit ugly because he seemed very sweet. All the previous dogs we had seen had approached us fairly nonchalantly and calmly, however as soon as Pepper set his eyes on me he went absolutely mental. He pulled the handler all the way across the courtyard and, as if we had been reunited after a long time apart (you know how dogs are), he leapt up and into my arms and it was love at first sight – for him anyway.
So after only looking for one dog, we ended up taking two home, one that my mum picked and one that picked me. From that moment Pepper never left my side and went anywhere I did, whether I liked it or not.
The truth is though I could’t have had a better companion.
I can’t think of a single person who, when first introducing them to him, I haven’t said ‘I apologise in advance – he’s a bit ugly but you’ll love him when you get to know him.’ It was true through, he wasn’t the best looking creature in the world, but I absolutely loved him dearly. It still remains a mystery as to what breed exactly he was. His paperwork says he was a collie-cross, but crossed with what I don’t know. I always assumed that he is crossed with a Whippet due to his stance and body shape. He was roughly the same shape as a Whippet but with a collie head. It was a bizarre mix but he had certainly got the best of both, he had the intelligence and stamina of a Collie with the speed of a Whippet. On top of that he had the most incredible blue eyes.
However I still think he looked like a fox mixed with a cat.
So our journey began..
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be having adventures with just the company of a dog, apart for the time I wanted to be an astronaut, but we all know about Laika the Soviet space dog, so I suppose even that was possible.
Our very first outing was more of a bonding session (not that it needed to be after our first encounter). As soon as I walked in from school I couldn’t wait to get changed into my ‘muddy clothes’ and get outside. I took him around the enormous Rothschild estate where Waddesdon Manor sits, as it was more or less outside my front door at the time. I wasn’t sure how he would act initially once being taken off the lead, but with a ball in hand I decided to risk it. It quickly transpired that there was no need for a lead at all as he stuck to my heel perfectly without one. So we continued our bonding session over a few more hours of walking through the woodlands and fields playing with the ball and trying to tire him out, which was something that only recently due to his age, I had only started to get a hold of. I knew from this very first time out together, that he would indeed be the perfect partner for years of explorations to come. In fact, knowing this, he was encouraging me to get out and about even more than I had done previously.
I made sure that, for as long as I was with him, he would remain fit and would become very well trained. So day after day I would be out in the fields and eventually got to the point where he would follow commands using nothing but hand signals and a whistle, something that stayed well tuned for years. I unfortunately misplaced my whistle but the signals still worked a charm when he wanted them to.
Not too long after I had Pepper something happened that terrified me but later made me laugh. I was out walking with mum on the Waddesdon Estate when Pepper had crossed what is usually a very quiet road. I had taught him to lay down at the side of the road until I gave him a command to cross when it was clear, he would do this when he was both at my side and at a distance. This time however he had crossed to the other side, which was OK because as usual, the road was empty. Suddenly a car began approaching and I gave Pepper the command to lay down and stay where he was on the other side of the road, however this time he decided to ignore me and try to join me. As he was half way across the road the car slammed its brakes on but a little too late. It collided with Pepper, causing him to roll a few feet up the road. What makes me laugh though was his reaction. As if completely unaware, he just got back up and continued to run over to me, with little to no realisation whatsoever. My heart was racing as I quickly grabbed hold of him and started to check him over and to my relief he showed absolutely no sign of injury or distress and he just trotted off to start playing again.
That really summed this dog up perfectly, almost completely blasé to most things and more than happy to just carry on regardless. Much like myself actually.
Another thing to mention about my dog’s strange behaviour is how he greets people. Most dogs just get excited to meet new people and some aren’t bothered either way. Pepper however appears to be excited at first, but often winds up hurting them, my male friends in particular. During the last few of years of school, my friends and I would spend almost most lunch breaks at my house drinking tea and, more than often, making pancakes. Upon entering I would release both dogs from the kitchen to meet everybody before they were then summoned to the garden for half an hour or so. Jersey (renamed Jess), would usually just wander in and back out again. Pepper, however, would usually go completely mental and for one friend especially, he would cause harm. He didn’t usually have a habit of jumping up at people but when he saw Dan (Flapjack making, photograph taking Dan who appears in many of my articles) he would jump up and seemingly on purpose land a fairly hard ‘punch’ to his walnuts. As soon as Dan was almost reeling on the floor in pain, Pepper would then saunter off back into the kitchen and out to the garden. Job done.
By now we have all seen the videos of the ‘guilty dogs,’ the ones that have trashed houses or eaten food they shouldn’t have whilst the owners are away. To many, facial expressions showing emotion and moods are still something quite human but seen in other animals such as apes for example. Of course there are the usual snarls and teeth baring you get with almost ever animal, but that’s more of a defence/offence instead of emotion. It’s amusing to see these facial expressions in these guilty dogs and one of the most expressive dogs I have ever seen is my own. I remember getting home from work one day to discover the kitchen rubbish bin had been torn apart and spread across the floor, and sat in the middle of it all was Pepper with the guiltiest face I have ever seen.
You haven’t just come here to hear random things about my dog, especially on a page that is supposed to be about exploring the wilderness. Over the past 10 years we have been on many adventures. The Wye Valley and Mount Snowdon especially.
You may have read my piece on our Mount Snowdon trip already, so I won’t go into the details as such, but one thing worth noting is how well Pepper really did. At the time of climbing he was about 7 years old, I’d owned him since he was 18 months, so he wasn’t exactly unfit, but his performance made me seriously proud. From the word go he didn’t stop or slow down until we reached the summit and set up camp. I read in an article just this year in the telegraph (article linked below) about a man who had used GPS to measure how far his dog walked in comparison to himself. The end results showed that his dog walked twice as far as he did, on the same journey, which was roughly a circular route. In the case of Mount Snowdon, being a completely different terrain would of course alter the results if we were to do the same experiment, however I would bet money that it wouldn’t be much lower than twice the distance. For a 3500ft mountain, that to me is impressive. Combine the distance with the weather conditions; fierce winds, deep snow and freezing temperatures. That’s one tough cookie. The most worrying moment occurred when we had finally set the tent up and notice that Pepper was curled up on the snow falling asleep. I dumped all of my warm, dry clothes from my rucksack into the middle of the tent, wrapped him up in them and spent the whole night with him curled into me asleep. I’ll add here that he had actually warmed up in about 10 minutes but does also seem to have a need to be in contact with somebody when he sleeps. This may link to a fear of the dark I suspect he has, but that’s an entirely different story.
I haven’t had a proper trek through the Wye Valley as such just yet, just a couple of day trips in the area walking down the river and around the Forest of Dean. I would recommend visiting the area if you haven’t done so already as the scenery is stunning. It had always been somewhere on my places to visit, so one Tuesday morning when I had the day off work I decided to pack a bag for the day and take the dog for a little spot of exploration. I found a lovely quiet place to leave the car and took off down towards the river. There were a couple tour boats cruising up and down occasionally, flanked by canoes and kayaks, but it was otherwise relatively quiet. I sat on the bank for a while in the sun throwing sticks further and further across the river for Pep to fetch. He’s a mean swimmer when he’s in the mood for it and was almost making the whole width of the river until it got to the point where the tour boats were appearing to be waiting for him to move out the way and the canoeists were paddling around him watching in awe as this Otter looking, fox-cat-dog swam between them. We then took a stroll up the valley into the woods, exploring off the track as much as we could until I found a spectacular viewpoint.
The viewpoint is a cliff edge that protrudes from the valley towards the river with a sheer drop all around. I thought it was best to secure Pep to a tree further back for safety. As soon as I got out onto the ledge however he started whining and barking at me so I only managed to get a couple of pictures before having to return back. As soon as I reached him he started jumping up and acting as if I’d left him for hours. Sometimes needy just isn’t the word. Being the type of person I am, I made the executive decision that the only way for the both of us to get to the bottom of the valley and back to the river would be to climb down the very steep slope instead of using a footpath. It was a case of having to slide from one tree to another to another, something that Pep grew quite fond of fairly quickly. He would wait at one tree for me to reach the next, then slide down to me and so on. We both dropped down into the middle of a footpath at the bottom right in front of a family who were out for a quiet stroll only to be disturbed by a man and his dog falling from the trees, caked in mud and landing at their feet. I dusted us both off and we crossed in front of the family and continued off the edge from the other side of the path and down to the river with no more than just a nod and a ‘good morning’.
So at this stage, I’m not too sure if you would have found the reason why I’ve written about my dog, but this is just an introduction if anything. He’ll pop up throughout my trips around I’m sure and there will be some more stories to tell. I may come across a bit horrible about him at times, but all I can say is that this dog is my little hairy buddy, who may be charmingly ugly and rather peculiar but they do say dogs are like their owners. Look at this face, how can you not love it? Am I glad that he picked me? More than ever.
(update from 02/05/2019)
Since writing this article sadly my beautiful dog is only with us in spirit and memories. I had to say a very tearful goodbye to him in November 2018.
Editing my articles is usually fine by me, but reading through the above piece about Pep and having to change some of it from present to past tense was very difficult. This article just seems like a load rambling on about stuff and doesn’t really touch on how much I loved this little guy and how much he touched and mended my soul an uncountable amount of times. He changed my life for better and will always hold an incredibly large place in my heart and memories.
I feel I must say that he really wasn’t as ugly as I kept saying. He was a beautiful dog with a beautiful, gentle and faithful soul and I really did love him.
The ecology of the majority of the northern hemisphere has a lot to thank this little tree for, and so do we. The uses that these species possess are almost unbelievable, from furniture making to medicine, and everything in between. Throughout its entire life-cycle it is helping the survival of the environment and doesn’t stop even when it’s rotting into the ground…
Find out more and how these uses have been used for thousands of years in my article published in Bushcraft Magazine.
Bushcraft Magazine is a fantastic place to discover everything about hunting or foraging in the woods and what you can do with the environment around you. It’s all about trying to encourage people to start “reconnecting to the landscape”.
You’ll also find some great courses, events and blogs there too. So take a look at the website and subscribe to the magazine for all your bushcraft needs.
A wise man once said: ‘There are two seasons in Scotland.. June and Winter.’
I spent Christmas 2015 with my girlfriend in the stunning country of Norway. We weren’t there to explore but we rented a beautiful little cabin for the week on the southern coast in the small region of Askoy, about an hour from Bergen. We fancied at least one day of checking out the fjords and mountains so took a small road trip to Voss. We soon realised that wherever you are in Norway, you are going to be surrounded by one source of natural beauty or another. The scale of the mountains we drove through (quite literally most of the time) was phenomenal. It’s not hard to understand why the myths and legends of trolls, giants and gnomes came about in this country. It’s hard to describe the sheer size, bulk and beauty of the scenery, but I have seen a few mountain ranges over the years and Norway out did them all by a very long shot to say the least. I immediately fell in love with the country and I knew that my friends and I would love the opportunity to have a proper trip to explore and take advantage of the ‘right to roam’ laws that the country has to offer. So upon my return home to England I spread the news and sold it to them immediately. We opted to take a trip to neighboring Sweden, which also holds the same roaming laws and matches Norway in scenic beauty.
After our trip to Snowdon, we knew that we would have to get a few practice runs in before we depart for Sweden. We had to ensure we had all the kit we would need and that our skills were tuned perfectly for our trip. We would roughly be on the same latitude as Scotland which seemed to be an ideal place to go for a practice run as it’s a perfect distance to be away from the familiarity of home and would require us to take all the kit we would need. That way we would know what we can carry and what we might not actually need to take with us at the time.
I had researched the area of Galloway Forest Park and discovered at the same time The Mountain Bothies Association. The MBA is a volunteer run charity who, through subscriptions, maintain bothies in remote areas to essentially be used by walkers as shelter. No bookings required, no payments necessary, just turn up, treat it like your own home and leave it how you find it. I found this a little more exciting than I should have done, it fulfilled my dream of the remote cabin in the middle of the woods. No electricity, none of the home comforts, just a wood burning stove. Again I sold this idea to my friends without any persuasion. The plan would be to use a bothy in Galloway Forest Park almost as a final resort as we were aware that finding something like this in Sweden may be rather difficult. Our trip would be over three nights and we would spend the entire time travelling from forest to forest, building camp and sleeping in our hammocks. That was the plan anyway.
During the week before we left for Scotland, within an hours drive of where we were going to be in Galloway Forest Park, there were reports of a couple being caught in an avalanche and, due to the terrible weather conditions, an immediate rescue operation was looking unlikely. Then a couple of days later three men were taken to hospital after a day walk had taken a dramatic turn, leading to one of the group losing his life and the other two having to be treated in hospital. Needless to say, this didn’t fill us with the highest amounts of confidence and worried our loved ones alike. After a quick discussion and gentle persuasion to our families and friends, we agreed that the trip would go ahead. The weather reports for where we would be basing ourselves were improving steadily and we were kitted for the wilderness of Sweden, where snow and cold temperatures were more than likely. We also knew the location of the nearby bothy and would always have the car to fall back to if we absolutely needed to.
06:00am February 19th 2016 (almost a year to the day of our Snowdon trip) Dan rolled up to my house, as the designated driver, and I piled my rucksack into the boot of his car and off we went to collect Jack and Olie.
‘We’ll be at your house at 06:30am. Make sure you’re ready so we can hit the road before rush hour.’ Clear enough instructions we thought. 06:20 Jack and all of his kit in the car, ready to go. Perfect.
‘I haven’t got all my kit packed yet’ read a text received from Olie at 06:25. Wonderful..
07:10am, we finally hit the road.
A few albums later (Labbe Siffre, The Who and The Black Keys), we pass the border and immediately start putting on our perfect Scottish accents to read the road signs, and just generally insult each other. We had managed to avoid the rain for almost the entire journey, however, from the time that we approached the border and into the beyond, I don’t think it ever stopped raining. Eventually we reached Loch Trool, a beautiful, remote location in Galloway Forest Park. Home to Bruce’s Stone which was placed in commemoration to Robert the Bruce’s victory in the Battle of Glen Trool fought in the wars of Scottish independence in 1307. We jumped out of the car to have a quick look at the beautiful scenery before returning to the car, already soaked, to go over the route one more time before setting off. Our final destination would be a piece of woodland surrounding Loch Dee, just short of five miles to our west. We donned our rucksacks and hit the footpath in the hammering rain. We discovered a large waterfall coming off the hills which then ran underneath a bridge on the footpath with immense power and an incredible noise. It was very apparent that the harsh weather had been present for quite some time prior to our arrival.
The first problem we encountered was that the area had recently been cultivated. The map clearly displayed that the area we would be walking through to get to Loch Dee was mostly pine forest, however, due to the recent activities and thanks to Christmas and most probably Ikea, half of the area was barren. Luckily the path was still clear which made following the map easy enough, however when I suggested taking one of my short cuts through the wood, which I was certain would take us to the right place, I was soon corrected and informed we were still about three miles away. Who needs maps anyway?
As we climbed out of the valley (in which Loch Trool was located) into the open hills, the wind and rain picked up and seemed to be trying its best to be blowing us off our feet. We passed beneath two neighbouring waterfalls, aptly located on the map as ‘waterfalls’ which thundered down beside us and cut their paths through a small pine forest to our left and just beyond them we got our first glimpse of Loch Dee. We decided that we should spend the first night in the bothie, out of the weather, which would allow us all of the following day to explore the local forests and find a perfect camping spot. Even though the weather was horrendous and the mist and fog descending on the lowlands around Loch Dee was thickening, this was truly an area of outstanding natural beauty. The rolling hills collapsing into the pine forests which subsequently melted into the loch was definitely postcard worthy. Sadly I couldn’t get any pictures around that area due to the rain being so bad, but I will be going back as soon as I can, and pictures will be taken.
We finally descended into the valley towards Loch Dee and soon, surrounded by pine forest, came across the White Laggan bothie. A sight that was greeted gladly with joyful hollering because it was the exact image we had had of our dream remote cabin. Placed far back off the path, framed by trees and with a small fresh water stream that ran off the hills and right beside the entrance. We would be very happy and comfortable here. Our only concerns were that it may have already been claimed by other walkers seeking shelter, or perhaps a dead body even. I approached the front door quietly and opened it, calling inside for any response. Silence. Well that ruled out walkers seeking shelter at least and soon enough we managed to rule out the ridiculous idea of a body as well.
What you should understand is that these bothies are more or less completely empty, stone buildings. We were fortunate enough that this one had a wood burning stove, and even more fortunate that the previous occupants had left some fire wood in a log shelter outside. The interior was split into three separate rooms; one large one by the front door, which would be used to hang wet clothes to dry, then through a door from that room was the main ‘living room’ with a stove and a table. Adjoining this was a small kitchen type room with nothing but a table in it. In the picture above, that would be the room with the white window frames at the front. We were extremely greatful for the shelter from the wind and rain, but the bothie was still very very cold inside, so we got straight to trying to cut the fire wood.
Ray Mears once said that wood warms you three times, ‘the cutting and collecting, the transporting back to camp and finally the burning.’ We certainly proved this to be true. Well the first two anyway. Some tools were also left in the log shelter to help cut the wood, just a couple of old saws but they did the job for the most part. We used our own tools for the remaining work. We certainly warmed up by cutting the wood and taking it to the stove, however when it came to actually burning it, that’s where we hit a hurdle. Between the four of us we have made countless campfires but no matter how we tried, how we split the wood, what tools we used, it just wouldn’t catch.
But then it got even more interesting, and the beginning of the most surreal camping experience of our lives. And no it didn’t involve nudity.
Whilst both Olie and I were crouched over a small, damp log stove, swearing and shouting all sorts of profanities at the even damper fire wood, we heard somebody walk into the room. Assuming it was Dan or Jack I just continued my efforts and verbal persuasion towards the fire, which was now starting to catch and produce a moderate amount of heat but also a ridiculous amount of smoke.
‘Oh hi guys,’
Well unless Dan or Jack had become incredibly feminine, we had company. My initial assumptions were that we would be joined by another group of walkers and we might all be sat around the fire chatting and drinking tea. Little were we aware that this wouldn’t quite be so..
I turned and saw through the haze of smoke a figure of a woman and some more figures in the background shaking off their wet coats. Well this still matched my assumptions and we all said hello and began our introductions. I didn’t realise until the third handshake that my hands were actually completely black from the fire and now, I could only guess, were two of the other strangers’. We welcomed them even more when they said they’d brought a couple of bags of fire wood. I felt that dear old Ray Mears would be ashamed of us and disappointed that we wound up using a ready to go plastic sack of wood when we had the makings of a fire brewing already.
We very quickly realised that these were not your everyday ramblers seeking shelter when the room filled with a blaring bright light coming from a spotlight placed in the big room at the entrance. After a sneaky peek to investigate, I then discovered that the room was also filled with about eight university students with their blankets wearing slippers and their pyjamas, drinking beer and smoking. Whilst we, on the other hand, sat in our wet hiking gear, in a dark room with a small log stove providing very little light or warmth. The four of us all looked at each other and couldn’t help but laugh as we dug into our boil in the bag meals.
‘Do you mind if we put some music on?’ one of them asked..
I have an enormous love for music, and it’s had a huge impact on my life in many ways, like it has most people. However I was concerned about what kind of music are they going to play. My ignorant self obviously associated these people with whatever computer produced digital noises people call music these days, but what we heard was something amazing. I grew up listening to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cream, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and, as it happened, it appeared that they did too.
The last thing any of us expected from this camping trip was being sat in front of a log burning stove with the soundtrack supplied by the wonderful sounds of Pink Floyd. It just added to how surreal the experience was. The next thing we knew were were sharing our food (Dan’s flapjacks again), singing along to The Weight by The Band, which by the way is a fantastic tune. I am fairly certain we wound up on some type of film that evening as we soon discovered that the group were actually ‘Adventure & Wildlife Film-makers’ and they were using equipment which cost more than anything I have ever owned. We were even allowed to take over the music for a moment, which ended up with almost the whole of Pink Floyd’s catalogue being played throughout this small bothy in the Scottish lowlands. All the while the rain hammered down, the wind blew and night fell. We were soon left to our own devices, which we appreciated, and the door separating our room and theirs was closed. We put the last of the wood on the fire, finished our food and settled down for some sleep. Falling asleep to ‘Any Colour You Like‘ from Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ (one of the greatest pieces of music on the greatest album of all time) just finished our night off perfectly and I have never slept better on a camping trip in my life. We could have been transported to the 70’s for all we knew.
We woke up at about 08:00am which, for a camping trip, seemed quite late and one hell of a result. The bothy was silent and we could only assume that our guests were still sleeping. We made some coffee on our stove and went about packing away our kit as quietly as we could. Eventually came the time when we had to collect some drinking water from the stream outside, which meant walking through the mini hippy commune that had been erected next door and getting a few moans and groans from them as we opened the front door, allowing the cold and rain to be blown in and straight onto them.
The water from the stream was perfectly clear and fresh off the hills which made for delicious drinking. However it isn’t recommended that you drink it straight from the source all the time as, especially from the hills where sheep are roaming, the bacteria levels could make you rather unwell. We had brought with us some, supposedly tasteless, purifying tablets which we placed into our containers to do their job. Half an hour later, these tasteless tablets made our water taste like something from a swimming pool. It was unpleasant and really not very appetising. In future I would recommend taking the extra time to boil the water to kill off the bacteria and just allowing it to cool.
So it was time for our departure and, as we said our farewells to the commune, we stepped back out into the driving rain. We decided that we’d take the five mile walk back to the car and find another area with a bothy nearby to continue our venture. The walk back to the car was wet and cold but took half as long as luckily it was mostly down hill once we got out of the Loch Dee valley. In the morning light, which actually looked like the rest of the day due to the weather, the hills looked incredible with waterfalls cascading into the river below and the mist being blown just across the top of them. The car was soon a sight for sore eyes and, as we removed our wet clothes and rucksacks, we made a wonderful decision. Like most wonderful decisions, it started with one very simple question.
It was still early, about 10:00am, but we thought we could at least get a good breakfast or something nice to eat and set us up for the day ahead either way. We had spotted a pub on the way into Loch Trool the day before and drove there to see what they could offer. As we pulled up outside it had the air of one of those pubs where outsiders weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms – especially damp, muddy outsiders. So we decided to head into the town not too far down the road and eventually found The Black Horse. On the walk from the car to the pub myself and Olie popped into a petrol station to pick up some quick supplies. After speaking with the cashier, who was far from Scottish, we realised that we hadn’t actually heard anybody with a Scottish accent since our arrival; the group of students at the bothie was English, and one was even Swedish. We walked out, crossed the road and into the pub. If it wasn’t for the TV playing in the background, I am fairly certain the place would have been totally silent as we were greeted by everybody turning and watching us approach the bar. We ordered our drinks, from a Scottish barman to our surprise, and took a table that had become empty soon after our arrival.
I can’t exactly remember what the reason was, or why we even considered it, but we had decided that we would in fact end our trip there. We finished our drinks, fairly quickly, and left for Sainsbury’s to pick up some breakfast. By the time we had reached the car we knew we’d be lucky to get home at a reasonable time without getting stuck in the rush hour traffic, but we decided to give it a go, put home into the sat nav, and left rainy Scotland behind and soon reached rainy home instead. After letting my girlfriend know that I would be returning home earlier than expected, she drunkenly informed me that she was having cocktails in London – an evening which couldn’t have been further on the other end of the spectrum to my chosen weekend activities. This is a pretty good representation of our relationship and the topic of a blog to come.
After a few more cocktails she then decided to inform me that she had taken my keys with her. So on top of being cold, wet and muddy, I was also locked out of my house. So on the way home the decision was made that Dan and I would stay at Jacks (Dan did actually have his keys but the prospect of sharing a bed with me was obviously just too strong.) To anybody else the idea of getting into a warm bed, with or without Dan, would be perfect after a night in a cold damp bothie in Scotland, but I wouldn’t trade my hammock for anything in the world (no offence Dan).
We are due to make another trial run before we leave for Sweden, as I can’t imagine sat by a log fire listening to Pink Floyd has really set us up efficiently, but we had a great time nonetheless.
We swore to never tell this story because, as you can see, it wasn’t exactly the greatest camping trip we could have had. We were after a slightly challenging forest camp in our hammocks with a crackling campfire between us, however what we actually had seemed more like a small holiday in comparison. I just figured it was too good a story not to tell and thinking back to laying in my sleeping bag with Any Colour You Like lulling me to sleep still makes me laugh.
So basically the only message I can pass on as a bit of an education, is that the quote ‘There are only two seasons in Scotland, June and Winter’ actually does seem fairly suitable, and the wise man was Billy Connolly.
So until next time.. I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.
I once read an article from Wales Online which, on a side note, claims to have won ‘website of the year’.. Seriously? Anyway, this article was written by an expert climber who stated that ‘Climbing Snowdon can be more dangerous than Everest‘. Now, we’ve all seen films and heard what can only be described as heroic stories of those who climbed Everest and not always returned. I still find it hard to believe Mr McNeish, who made the above statement, but if I had read the article before climbing Snowdon, I may have at least considered packing some gloves.
My friends and I had always fancied the idea of climbing a mountain – a real challenge and the sense of achievement that came with it. We’d start small and eventually work up to some of the big ones, Kilimanjaro has always been a personal aim of my own, but obviously gaining the experience and skills needed would be essential. So we set our minds on Snowdon, the second highest of the UK’s three peaks.
This is a lesson on how being under prepared can seriously jeopardise your safety
07:15am February 17th 2015. I seem to remember it being a fairly pleasant morning as I was packing the remaining pieces of my kit into my car with my dog, Pepper. Not half an hour later my friends, Dan and Olie, arrived at my house so we could make our way in convoy to Snowdonia National Park, North West Wales.
‘We should arrive in good time to get to the top and maybe find a spot to camp on the way back down.’
When we were coming to the end of our three and a half hour drive I spotted the mountains in the distance and, for some reason, was surprised to see they had snowy peaks. In February. I was so shocked that I called Dan (on my hands free set of course) to pass on my sightings, to which I received, to the best of my memory, nothing but abuse. We soon arrived at the small town of Llanberis, at approximately midday. We had prior knowledge that a train went directly to the summit of Snowdon. I’ll come back to that later.
We donned our rucksacks and hit the footpath in the general direction of the mountain. I can’t recall how many times the line ‘You didn’t tell me it would all be uphill’ was used, but it was one of those ones that, after probably the fourth or fifth time, would become irritating rather than funny. The closer we got to Snowdon itself, the more we realised exactly what we were taking on. The picture (at the top) doesn’t quite do it justice, but it loomed over us, partly hidden beneath the grey clouds, totally belittling the already towering hills below. We stopped for a moment to rest, somewhere we thought must have been about half way, and we noticed that we were actually the only people walking up the mountain. We saw numerous groups of hikers, but what should have started alarm bells but didn’t until it was too late, was that everybody was heading down the mountain instead of up. I clearly recall, as we started the steep ascend up the north face, a man walking down and, after explaining that we were going to the summit, all he had to say was, ‘Good luck.’ It must have been very clear that we were not experienced climbers.
From the time we hit the edge of the snow, we were alone, nothing but the building wind for company. I had done research into the weather around Snowdon almost constantly for two days prior, up until the moment we left home, and it had stayed moderately steady and fine. However, we all knew that the weather could change quicker than our minds up there and we would never know for certain what we would be in for until the last moment. We soon realised that the remaining ascend to the summit would be much harder than we expected when the stony pathway that we were walking on eventually turned into nothing but snow.
I love snow. For me personally, there is no better weather. It looks beautiful, rekindles childhood memories and in general, is just a bit of fun.
However, fun this was not. Because of the constant wind and chill, this snow was more like ice. Completely compact and, depending on how you’d place your feet, you’d be sliding off and hitting the ground fairly hard. As I have mentioned previously, I have never climbed Snowdon before, however, from what I could tell, the pathway runs fairly close to the edge of a very, very steep drop. Or it certainly did that day. For most of the time we were almost walking at a perfect 45 degree angle, if not considerably more, on nothing but ice. To the right of us was a sheer drop into the abyss that was just cloud, and within no time at all, our vision was cut to almost nothing. It must have been about 16:00pm but it was getting dark – very dark. The clouds thickened around us and visibility was minimal to say the least. Our experience had gone from a bit of fun, to being totally serious within a matter of minutes, maybe seconds. This should have been the time to turn around.
We were fairly sure we must have been getting close to the top, we had a tent and kit that could hopefully withstand a bit of wind and we had warm clothes. For now.
This picture was taken before we lost visibility, however the incline and path are both getting pretty bad. We also spotted one single man further up the path who was initially coming towards us but then turned and walked back up towards the summit. Eventually all those stones and rocks would soon vanish and we would be walking on only the compact ice and snow. As the path veered to the right, that was where the drop to our right was at it worst and that is where we lost visibility. We never saw that man again.
What annoyed me most of all about this trip, is how bloody well my dog was doing. It may seem cruel of me to have brought him along, however he is very fit and loved every minute of it. What annoyed me though was that I began to struggle keeping up with Dan and Olie and gradually fell further and further behind them, all the while my dog (Pepper) would be running up the steep path to walk with them, then run all the way back to me, and then back again. He must have climbed the mountain twice by the time we got to the top!
We eventually reached level ground, somewhere near the top, and at this time the only light was an eerie blue hue that glowed around us. We were well and truly in the cloud and it was all we could do to see each other when we were merely feet away. We were happy that the ground had levelled slightly, however the path was about ten feet wide with a sheer drop to the left and what I could only assume to be nothingness to our right. I quickly put the dog on the lead and held him close for the remainder of the ascend along the ridge. A few natural steps had been made that presumably were there to make the final few hundred meters easier, however these were iced over and were accompanied by two enormous drops on either side. I wasn’t having much fun anymore. At the top of the steps we were met by the railway lines protruding through the snow, and at the end of them a large building. Our pace picked up as we imagined what could only be the warmth and shelter of whatever this building was, however soon enough realised that it was locked down tight with multiple padlocks and shutters. The snow was deeper and went up to just below our knees in some places, which was a relief from the thought of sliding straight off the mountain, but still an annoyance when you get your leg stuck mid-stride, lose balance and either end up on your back or with a very cold, red face. To the rear of the building was the actual summit, a small pillar with steps spiralling around it and a directional plaque at the top. We made a point of still climbing it to complete our journey.
The weather on the summit was going from bad to horrendous as we dug away at the snow in a corner sheltered by the building and a brick wall that came off at 90 degrees. The only tool we had was a small saw, which made cutting blocks of snow away much easier than digging with our hands. We eventually got somewhere near the rocky ground and used the snow to build another slight wall to the side of us for more shelter, then it was a case of setting the tent up in the crater and bunkering down for the evening.
‘Why the hell didn’t you bring gloves?’ I remember Dan asking me as I had to borrow his to try and bring my hands back from a worrying shade of blue.
‘I wasn’t expecting snow,’ was the best answer I could give. At least I was honest. For some reason a part of me really just wasn’t expecting there to be snow at the top of a 3500ft mountain, in February. Idiotic. I did bring a hat though.
We finally got the tent up when we all noticed that Pep was curled up, amongst our rucksacks against the wall, almost asleep. After everything we had witnessed on our ascend, this was what worried me most. I quickly got him up and bundled him into the tent and threw my warm clothes on top of him then got him inside my sleeping bag. He warmed up and joined us eating flapjack and general rubbish to try and keep ourselves warm. For those who are interested, Dan makes a fantastic flapjack; I make a good one, but Dan’s is just magical. We positioned ourselves laying in a triangle with Pep in the middle, the warmest and almost certainly the comfiest of the lot of us. From inside the tent it was clear just how bad the weather was outside, the volume alone was astounding. The tent was being blown around so much we were all worried, although didn’t share this until we got off the mountain, that it would be destroyed and we would be out in the elements, and at this time, there would be no getting off the mountain safely. There was completely zero visibility past twenty feet, the risk of sliding down was even greater on the descent and we were concerned that we wouldn’t make it down if we had to try.
Luckily the tent held up for what felt like the longest night of my life, none of us got any sleep, there was a constant drip from the roof of the tent (I had forgotten to put the rain cover over the top and found it in my pocket the next afternoon) and the wind never died down at all. The prospect of just waiting for the train to arrive at the top to get us off the mountain in the morning kept us going, ‘only a couple of hours now, surely.’ One thing that surprised me at the top of Snowdon is that I found phone signal. I called my girlfriend to update her of our situation,
‘Oh everything is fine, we’re just camping at the top, we’re all good. Yes the dog is fine. Yes we’re alive. Yes Dan’s flapjack is amazing.’
So I thought I would check the timetable for the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Which was an awful idea because we discovered it wouldn’t be running until May. I also checked the weather forecast, as if our situation would be made better by doing so. It was -10°C with over 40mph winds. Fantastic.
So we had no choice but to walk. When the time came, we packed our kit, collapsed the tent and went on our way. We decided to follow the train line all the way off the summit into the clear because it was much wider than the footpath and offered the lines and sleepers as a bit of guidance, or it would have done if they weren’t covered in a couple of feet of snow and ice. The wind was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other trying to talk, so to have a conversation or discussion we would have to shout to one another at what would be a normal talking distance. Suddenly the wind stopped, visibility came back and an eerie silence returned to the surroundings. We had gotten out of the clouds and off the snow, back to the grass and rocks. I don’t recall looking back behind us, we were just focussed on getting to the bottom. Meanwhile, Pep was now back off the lead, running around, completely full of energy and looking like he could do it all over again.
Our journey to Snowdon was certainly an adventure. A story to tell but above all, a lesson to learn and to pass on. We found out that somebody had died, not too long before we climbed Snowdon, at the ridge near the top. They had, much like we had too, lost visibility and walked off of the edge into the darkness.
We tell our story with jest but we all know just how lucky we were and more than that, how stupid we were to even think it would be OK. We at least had some experience with hiking, making shelters and camping, which came in useful and may well have saved our lives when we got to the top. However anybody who attempts to climb it as just a casual jaunt, completely unprepared, could wind up in a lot of danger. Which links me back to Mr McNeish’s statement: ‘Climbing Snowdon can be more dangerous than Everest.’
I have been judged numerous times for saying that the forests are magical, but if you stand silent, in the middle of a dense ancient woodland, you may witness some magic yourself.
Now, we all know that trees and plants have been around for millions of years, but of course those ones are basically now oils and coals under the ground. However, imagine yourself stood in the same spot for a thousand years or more. How much history would you see? What would you have seen? How would you advise others? A small history lesson this way comes..
In a field on the edge of the small town of Bourne in Lincolnshire, there sits an Oak tree (pictured above). Just over 1000 years ago the Bowthorpe Oak was a small acorn that began to sprout. To put this in perspective, England was now in the Middle Ages, America wouldn’t be discovered for another 400 years, and it would be 926 years until the current Queen of England was born. Little did that small acorn realise that it would live through every day between then and now, narrowly being missed by a German bomber crash landing after being shot down in World War 2, having its hollow 12 metre trunk being turned into a small coffee meeting area for locals and also winning a Guinness World Record. It was also rumoured that at one point 39 people managed to stand within it. The idea that a grand old oak in your local woodland is likely to have been living longer than you will ever live, before you were even born, is stunning. If you were to plant an acorn, the chances are, it could well outlive you and me one hundred times or more.
Over those thousand plus years, just imagine what the Bowthorpe Oak would have seen, imagine the stories it could tell, imagine the lessons it could teach. Not surprising that they are known as ‘the kings of the forest’ or simply ‘the great oak’. To me, simply the age adds a real personality.
So when I’m walking through thousands and thousands of acres of real ancient woodlands, it’s nice to imagine being looked upon by the elders of the world, holding thousands of years of knowledge and stories between them all. This is why I find it impossible to find myself feeling lonely in the forest.
At the time of writing, we are currently moving from Winter to early Spring. I find myself walking in the forests all year round, and sadly, but not surprisingly, the past couple of months have been quiet as far as visitors go. I can walk for hours and not see or hear a single person in the Winter or even as far back as late Autumn. Ray Mears once said ‘if we only go out in Summer, we miss out on three quarters of a lifetime’, and this couldn’t be more true.
At a quick glance you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that in early March the woods are
cold, wet and, in general, rather uninviting. However, look closer and you see that, almost like a dress rehearsal, you can see that something enormous and beautiful is about to take place. On the ground hidden beneath the fallen leaves are the early shoots of the Bluebells steadily pushing through. Buds on trees are swelling, waiting for the next boost of sunlight to encourage them to bloom. Within a month, maybe less, the trees will be blossoming, the bluebells will be blowing in the wind and then soon enough young animals will take their first steps out of their dens and hides to discover a beautiful new world. The trees almost huddle together, like cupping a match in your hand, to protect this new growth and their young and old furry companions.
‘So why do you want to spend time in the countryside? There’s nothing there.’ Shocks me every single time I hear it. Throughout my blogs of just small thoughts like this one, or informative ones (hopefully), like those to come, I will be gradually answering that question with my own personal insights, and hopefully, if this takes off, you fellow readers can take your own stance on the question and share your ideas. I’ll also be letting you all into the secrets that every season of the year holds, everything they share with us, and everything they set the rest of the year up for, hopefully encouraging more and more people to get out and about all year round.