In the heart of winter, it can seem that the long, dark nights are closing in around us. But the forest, seemingly asleep, is already making preparations for the most spectacular of its annual displays. The days are already starting to draw out again as we are blessed with crisp mornings, and soon we will feel the excitement of change in the air. Look closely and you will see that buds of many trees are already formed, holding close their furled treasure; spring is waiting.
The magic of the British woodlands in spring is the wonder of transformation and new life. The leaner times of winter are washed away in a flood of colour, scent and sound. Once again we can rest in coppices bathed in the deep perfume of ramsons; walk beneath the cathedral bowers of the beech, fresh in the succulence of their new leaves; drift slowly to sleep, lulled by the heady perfume of bluebells, and wake to the serenade of birdsong. These are the experiences that form our year and bring renewed vigour to our love of the forest. There is an irrepressible thrill, a deep connection with the life of these very special places, which wakes the soul and sets our pace into the coming year.
As the sun’s weak rays start to muster their strength and bring warmth to our forest home, the plants that surround us respond with generosity. The sap will rise in the birch, giving us a short-lived opportunity to enjoy this invigorating draft. The willow will loosen its bark, allowing us to harvest the fibres needed for cordage at this time of year, and many other plants will provide their fresh, young leaves, ready for salads: a welcome repast which speaks of the freshness of the season.
This week marks the end of the UK course season at Woodlore.
Our first course this year, the Advanced Tracking that took place in April seems so long ago and so much has happened since then. We have run a wide variety of exciting Bushcraft courses throughout East Sussex and further afield, meeting and enjoying spending time with clients from all walks of life.
Woodloreans taking notes during the salmon lecture on the Woodlore Fundamental Bushcraft course
During the UK course season, our team of instructors often find themselves gaining a unique level of intimacy with their surroundings at our various course sites. A number of our team are also keen photographers, and occasionally this blend of interests pays off in spectacular ways:
The following post was written by Senior Assistant Mark Booton:
I am, if I’m being entirely honest, not a natural when it comes to carving. It is one of those Bushcraft skills which I need to work on. The fact that I find it challenging strengthens rather than diminishes my will to improve, and also heightens the enjoyment and satisfaction I feel when I carve something that I can be proud of.
I put down my knife and finish sanding my second Kuksa, a traditional wooden cup crafted by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia (my first attempt didn’t quite turn out as planned – my wife now very kindly refers to it as the ‘olive dish’!). I can remember the pride with which I took home my first carved spoon after attending the Fundamental Bushcraft course back in 2010. The fact that the spoon was not very good (misshapen and not symmetrical!) didn’t matter. I had toiled over it, sweated and bled (a little!), and eventually after several hours of sawing, carving and last-minute sanding produced something that, for all intents and purposes, resembled an eating implement… okay then, a spoon!
A Kuksa cup carved by Woodlore Senior Assistant Mark Booton
Last week saw the first Woodlore U.K. course of 2014 take place. This year we kicked things off with our Advanced Tracking course, held in the beautiful countryside of East Sussex.
A visit from Ray during the Woodlore Advanced Tracking course
Guided by the staff, the clients roamed amongst ancient woodland of oak, beech and yew as they followed the trails left by man and beast. Having completed previous tracking courses with us, this was an opportunity to delve much deeper into the art of tracking, build on their current knowledge and put new skills and techniques to the test in challenging, exciting and realistic scenarios.
Water is essential to life, beautiful and extremely hazardous; crossing water is one of the most dangerous undertakings in the outdoor world and the decision to do so must never be taken lightly. Inevitably though, there will come a time when the traveller is left with no choice and it is at these moments that prior experience and training become invaluable.
Safe crossing depends on the affective assessment of the hazard.
When training our students to make water crossings, we encourage them to use the acronym: WASPTAR – What type of water is it? Will it be cold? Are there other hazards? Is it feasible to attempt?
The following post was written by Woodlore’s Quartermaster and Aspirant Instructor Keith Whitehead:
I’m sometimes asked during the winter months if things at Woodlore are quiet. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that our UK season has wound down following the end of the Journeyman Course, but there is still work to do and adventure to plan.
Keith Whitehead, working a deer hide during the Journeyman course
One of my first tasks as Quartermaster is to organise the course equipment so that it is ready for the next season. This, as you might imagine, takes some time and, sometimes, during the process of organising and sorting through the stores, I come across a lost gem that sparks the imagination. One such gem is an old catapult. When I first set eyes on it, there was a glimmer of a memory from years ago and I recognised it as being the same item pictured in The Survival Handbook, written by Raymond Mears in 1990. I received the book as a present soon after its publication and was immediately enthralled by it. This was to be one of the stepping-stones that led me to Woodlore and started my journey with the company. Continue reading →
The following post was written by Woodlore Aspirant Instructor Rob Bashford:
The Art of Navigation
I have often heard Ray refer to the compass as the ‘key to the wilderness’. By this I believe he means it unlocks the full potential of the outdoors, enabling you to travel confidently in wild places. Navigation is undoubtedly one of those foundation skills, along with the likes of first aid, around which all other bushcraft skills should be built. The ability to navigate proficiently is an absolutely key skill if you plan to venture into the outdoors and its importance rises in direct proportion to the remoteness of the environment. It is very often the case that emergencies in the outdoors are the end result of an earlier navigational error.
The problem is that in today’s world of GPS and mapping software, now conveniently incorporated into smart phones, it is all too easy to think that the map and compass have become outdated. Nothing could be further from the truth. As in other areas of bushcraft, the best tools are those that are simple and robust, meaning they can be relied upon in tough environments. Those that utilise electronics and batteries do not generally fall into this category. That is not to say there is no place for this technology but it should never be the sole means of navigation. There is no substitute for the humble map and compass.
The ability to navigate with confidence is a wonderfully liberating skill, enabling you to venture further off the beaten track and really immerse yourself in wild places. The real beauty of this skill is that it is entirely transferrable to different environments. Yes, the maps may look a little different in foreign countries and there are some important variables to be aware of, but ultimately the skill of using a map and compass remains the same wherever you are in the world.
Rob Bashford navigating in the hills of Scotland
In its simplest form, navigation means knowing how far you have travelled from a known point and in what direction, a process known officially as ‘dead reckoning’. In reality there is a bit more to it than this and like many of the skills in bushcraft, observation is paramount. Learning to read the subtleties of the terrain allows you to venture into seemingly featureless landscapes, where there are no signs or paths to guide you. It also builds an inner confidence and that frees you to visit those less frequented places.
Although there is certainly scope for teaching yourself the basics of navigation, as when learning most new skills, a little instruction goes a long way. Woodlore has been running wilderness navigation courses for some years now and we have distilled Ray’s many years of wilderness navigation experience into a readily digestible format. These courses are unique, in that we teach you techniques you can use anywhere in the world, with a strong emphasis on woodland navigation. This environment mirrors the rigours of navigating in reduced visibility and is perfect preparation for the night navigation elements of the course. It is safe to say that when you can find your way confidently through dense forest at night, with only a map and compass to guide you, you can navigate just about anywhere.
We will base ourselves in the Erindi Private Game Reserve; a beautiful and unique area ten times the size of Manhattan, located in central Namibia. The reserve boasts a staggering and truly exceptional variety of African species. As just one example to give you some idea, we frequently saw black and white rhino in the same morning which, as you will probably know, is almost unheard of throughout the rest of Africa.
Please have a look at the photographs below, taken during our last trip:
The early morning and late evenings are the best time for tracking
This is the focus of our time spent in Africa; out on the ground, tracking in the bush. The students in the picture above have just picked up the trail of an Aardwolf that passed by the night before.