In February 2012, Ray Mears joined Lars Falt in Northern Sweden to lead Woodlore’s Arctic Experience expedition. Upon his return to the UK, Ray gave the following interview, discussing his fascination with the Arctic, the wildlife you can find there, and the environmental changes he has seen since first running the course 19 years ago:
Where did you spend much of February this year?
In Northern Sweden, running our Arctic courses; roughly 104 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
How do you feel the courses went?
They went very well; we had two really good groups of people. They were all seriously interested and there for the right reasons. They worked hard; they put a lot in and got a lot out.
What is it that drew you to the Arctic in the first place?
The Arctic forest is an area that I find fascinating. The boreal forest is the largest land biome. It’s a wilderness that stretches around the top of the globe. It’s a fascinating area; a difficult area to travel in. It’s an area that takes a long while to really come to know and understand well. I feel a kinship with it – I like the space, I like the solitude, and I like the fact that you have to work very hard if you’re going to see wildlife there.
Is that something you still feel today?
Well, the more times you go, hopefully the more skilled you become at living in that environment, the more at one you feel with the place. That’s the principle of Bushcraft overall, the difference between Bushcraft and survival. With survival there’s a struggle involved. But Bushcraft is a step beyond, where you start to master skills and really develop true expertise in travelling and living in different environments.
When you’re preparing to fly out to Sweden, what part of the course are you looking forward to the most?
The thing I enjoy the most is late in the course, when the students start to develop real competence. To start with, they’re faltering, with their first steps into the forest. There’s a lot to learn about, a lot of clothing to be managed, and a lot of mistakes that can be made. But by the end of the week you can see people starting to play very naturally in their environment, not having to think so hard about their decision making. They know enough to make those decisions smoothly.
After visiting this area for so many years, is there anything that takes you by surprise when you get there?
What’s surprising is how much it can fluctuate from year to year in the conditions. For example, this year we had quite a warm year, so the average temperature of the two weeks was – 18°C, the lowest point was -36°C. Whereas last year the average was -35°C and the low point was -48°C. We go there at this time of year to be there at the coldest time; we want to be there in some of the most challenging conditions. We believe in the old adage “train hard, fight easy”. If you train in really difficult conditions, hopefully you’ll learn better.
What is the lowest temperature you have experienced in this region? And how did that affect your actions?
It was – 55°C. At that temperature you cannot make a single mistake – if you make a mistake you’re going to end up with frostbite. So you have to be very, very careful. And we keep running our courses at low temperatures – we obviously have to modify slightly what we do, but that’s one of the unique things about the course, the amount of expertise there is in the instructional team. Working with Lars, the two of us can bring our combined knowledge and experience of the north to the course, and we’re able to take people to those extreme temperatures and show them how to cope, how to be comfortable and how not to get injured.
How did you first meet Lars Falt? And how is it working with him?
Lars came to a lecture I gave in the late 1980’s, I believe. It’s very good working with Lars – we’re brothers of the north, we’re blood brothers.
It was Aspirant Instructor Keith Whitehead’s first visit to this environment this year; how do you feel he coped?
Keith, our Quartermaster, attended the first week as a student and was then thrown into the deep end as an assistant on the second course and did extremely well; he took to it like a duck to water.
If someone was apprehensive about attending this expedition, what would your advice be?
This is the right way into the environment. The purpose of the course is to teach people how to live there, how to be comfortable, how to cope. We want to dispel the fear of the environment. There is a lot of fear of cold places, so we want to dispel the fear and replace it with knowledge, understanding and respect. You have to respect cold. When your hands get cold you have to stop and do something about it, and that’s one of the joys of training in the Arctic, it teaches you a discipline, to pay regard to the environment. You can’t take it for granted, not for one second.
You once said “If snow was black, we would fear it”. What do you fear in this environment?
I don’t have a fear in the Arctic. But yes, if snow was black you would fear it. Because snow can be a real help, there are things you can do with snow to really help you, but it can also be a true hindrance. And I think one of the first experiences people have in the Arctic is wanting to build a camp fire, and all of a sudden everything’s difficult because snow gets in the way. You have to learn to accept the presence of snow, and understand that the easiest way is to put your skis on, or to put your snowshoes on, and not to try and wade through deep snow; otherwise you become exhausted, cold, wet and uncomfortable. You have to accept snow. It was a friend of mine who got caught in an avalanche; he said how scary snow actually is.
What are the most vital pieces of equipment in this sort of environment?
Your clothing has got to be right. To be honest with you, the majority of clothing needed for this environment you probably already have, in terms of layers. You could go to an Oxfam shop and buy some big pullovers to put on, and you’d be fine, as long as you’ve got a windproof outer layer. But your footwear is very important, because your feet are in constant contact with extreme cold. So that’s important, as are your gloves. You need a variety of different gloves to enable you to do different jobs. Generally we have a lot of layers of clothing, and it takes a while to learn how to manage those layers, and to learn which layers are appropriate at which time.
Are there any major differences between how male and female clients should approach this sort of expedition?
No, I don’t think so. I think this is an environment that women seem to do very well in; there’s less machismo, they’re calmer. It’s an environment where you’ve really got to do the right thing, and that means listening carefully to what you’ve been taught, and women do pay very good attention to knowledge when it’s imparted, so they do very well.
What sort of wildlife might you expect to see at this time of year, if any?
Well, this year people saw arctic foxes, reindeer; the reindeer this year were late coming out of the mountains due to the weather conditions. Sometimes we’re there when the reindeer are moved by the Sami, back towards Norway – that’s very exciting to see. If you’re very lucky you might come across the tracks of lynx, or even wolverine. I saw some tracks of wolves when I was out there, but the clients weren’t able to see those unfortunately. It’s an area where there are big predators – there’s the wolverine, the lynx, the bear, the wolf, the golden eagle. On the course people learn about the interactions of these apex predators in the eco system.
You mention the Sami people; are there groups who still live this way of life in this area today?
The Sami came into modern houses in the early 1950’s, so they left their tents. But they still use those skills when they travel with their reindeer to Norway. They have exceptional knowledge, and Sami knowledge is a very big part of what we teach on this course. As is knowledge that has been acquired from Siberian natives and the First Nations of Canada. It’s a unique course, because Lars and I have travelled to every corner of the Arctic, and we have cherry-picked what we believe to be the best skills in these areas. We’ve been able to compare and contrast our own experiences of working in those areas, so we end up with a hybrid of techniques and knowledge from all parts of the Arctic. The Bushcraft of the north, as we teach it, is quite unique.
In the 19 years that this course has been running, have you seen any environmental changes in the area since you first visited it?
We have, we’ve seen great fluctuations. The weather is more unpredictable I think now, than it was. In the early years we could guarantee to have -30°C consistently, and very deep snow. And now we see greater fluctuations in the environment, which in one sense is frustrating, but in another sense is very good, because you have a 20°C temperature difference and the snow behaves very differently, you have to make different decisions. So in some ways it’s better for training to have this greater variability. And it’s one of the features of travelling in the boreal forest in winter, in that you can have these massive changes in temperature in very short periods of time – you can have a 20°C change in two hours quite easily. And if the temperature’s dropping and you’re tired, you’ve got to recognise that and deal with it, and make the right decisions.
How far north have you ventured into the Arctic Circle before?
I don’t know, I haven’t looked into it before. But I’ve been to the edge of the frozen sea off of Baffin and Bylot islands, right into the high Arctic working with Inuit peoples. But we’re quite a way north when we’re in Lapland on the course. The way that Arctic conditions fluctuate around the planet, you get these boreal conditions further south in the North American continent and the Asian continent; because of the gulf stream, those conditions are pushed further north in Scandinavia, so the Arctic forest is further north there.
Where does the Arctic feature in your favourite places?
It’s very high on my list, I love it. I love forests, I’m a forest specialist. And the boreal forest, because of its scale, to me it’s not just a forest – it’s one entity. Everything’s so tightly connected to everything else that you feel like you’re walking along the back of a giant.
So how do you feel about running these expeditions?
It’s nice to go out and be in these different environments. It’s a real joy, I love it. We’re going to Namibia later this year to teach tracking and wildlife, which is exciting. And this year was great in the Arctic as we had people who really wanted to learn. I still really enjoy teaching people; I like to teach people who really want to learn how to live and travel in these environments. That’s what I’ve specialised in; we’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years now, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.
If you are interested in attending our next Arctic Experience, please visit the following link:
Alternatively, if you have any questions about this expedition or any of our other courses, please contact us and a member of our team will be happy to help.