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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Three Characteristics of Adventure

An 'adventurers' shadow at Crag Lough, Hadrians Wall
Mortlocks comments in the introduction of Adventure Ways (1984 pg 11) resonate strongly with me, the 'adventure' and enjoyment of outdoor activities used to be enough for me and I was happy to climb, hike and camp purely for my own enjoyment and the challenge of going further or somewhere different or using only foraged food or primitive equipment. When I was given an opportunity to work with young people I realised that the adventure I facilitated provided more than enjoyment and that when their experience was over they had learned something. In 2006 I was employed to run a 'youth activity centre' in Norfolk which catered mainly for visiting church youth groups. The young people visiting this centre were only there for brief periods normally for a maximum of four or five days on a one off residential trip and I didn't always see the long term benefits of their experiences. There were a couple of groups which invited me to a 'camp reunion' a few months after they had visited the centre and it was clear that what they took from their experiences more than anything were strengthened friendships but what about their experiences had been 'adventurous'?
I'm inclined to agree with the examples Mortlock (1984 pg 20-21) gives and Mitchells comments (1983) regarding the subjectivity of adventure and the effect an individual's perception can have on whether an experience is an adventure or not. In the case of the groups I worked with in 2006 there were certainly some who felt that the zip wire which went over the lake, the raft building and water runway were too much of a challenge perhaps because they wouldn't be able to hold on all the way to the other side of the lake, perhaps they wouldn't keep their balance on the water runway or maybe they were afraid to be in open water. But with the encouragement of their friends most people were able to complete the activities and feel a sense of achievement. In my opinion this sense of achievement is key to a feeling of adventure but it doesn't necessarily come with the meeting of a stated goal. Someone who experiences an adventure may feel a sense of achievement even if they did not meet their original stated aim, but someone who did not take part and who might read about the experience afterwards may not feel that it was an adventure and maybe even someone in the same team did not feel it was an adventure. Without a sense of achievement the experience might be seen as a failed attempt or just an unpleasant, difficult or traumatic experience.   
I think there is an important distinction to make here though; whether an experience is an adventure can only be determined by someone who experienced it; and for it to be an adventure the person having the experience must feel an element of challenge, and this challenge will be different depending on your level of experience. Challenge does not necessarily mean that there needs to be a risk or hazard associated with the activity or that a participant's safety is uncertain but there may be uncertainty about whether the task is within the grasp of the participant. For example a very experienced bushcrafter may attempt to master an unfamiliar method of friction firelighting, as they are already experienced there is no concern over safety or worry about using sharp tools or being in the woods but there will be uncertainty over whether they will be able to complete the task, as they practice they will discover the most effective way to proceed with that skill and that discovery will become part of the adventure.
Discovery has often been the motivation for many of the great contemporary ‘adventures’ or explorations. And the challenge of wanting to be the first to do something; whether it be to conquer an unclimbed peak or the highest peak or an unexplored area has motivated, and still motivates people to undertake adventures today. There are scientific expeditions which may not require lots of technical expertise in terms of outdoor skills (although many do, for example the expedition Steve Backshall recounts in his autobiography Looking for Adventure (2011) to the Mageni cave system), these expeditions are adventures because of the discoveries made rather than the technicality of the skills required. The idea that discovery in and of itself can be an adventure is particularly valuable and is a useful way of facilitating adventures for younger children; there will always be things to discover in a garden, or the local woods or country park. For children ‘playing’ in the woods, but not ‘play’ in the sense that Mortlock means in his model of adventure, can lead to the discovery of colourful insects, interesting leaves, trees to climb, birds nests, fairies houses, troll dens, dragons and even edible plants. This discovery is adventurous and children love it, my four year old and two year old will actively look for white dead nettle flowers when we are out and will pick and eat them, but this is no longer an adventure for them, now they are used to it now we have to find more adventurous things like fungi or pig nuts or sweet chestnuts.
To add one more optional criteria for adventure I would have to include nature, although I think it is possible to have an adventurous experience without the prime focus being nature, or even inside, perhaps at a climbing wall. For me though, on a personal level, an adventure must involve nature and the natural environment, when I climb indoors it just doesn't feel like an adventure however hard it is.

Backshall, S (2011) Looking for Adventure
Mitchell, R, G (1983) Mountain experience: The psychology and sociology of adventure. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Mortlock C (1984) Adventure Ways

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Potato Peelers or Knives for Forest Schools?


I’m not convinced of the usefulness of the potato peeler in introducing children to carving or knife use, the only thing you can realistically do with a potato peeler is to peel bark from sticks and even then only if it soft. Simple tasks like the preparation of a stick for marshmallow toasting lend themselves excellently to being a child’s first experience with knife use and if suitable supervision and assistance is provided there will be no safety issues. If the course is long enough even young children can become confident in the use of edged tools.

A child would certainly struggle to do this with a potato peeler. I think the reason for potato peelers being suggested as an alternative to knives in the first place lies with the health and safety mad culture that has become evident in recent years, But if properly supervised and instructed and provided with knives appropriate to their age; ie small short bladed whittling knives, or paring knives for food preparation children can be allowed to use knives safely and you would be surprised just how able and confident they become with them in short order and also how much they respect knives and tools. 

This picture shows my son and daughter helping each other cut shaggy parasol fungi we had foraged earlier that day.



Monday, 20 January 2014

Adapt and Overcome; 58 Pattern shower curtain and other improvisations

It is my opinion that to successfully practice bushcraft you must have a great imagination and be able to press into use all manner of 'junk' to perform a task which you may not have a tool for. Like this 58 pattern British army poncho being pressed into use as a shower curtain when mine broke the other day. There's plenty of improvisations in bushcraft, water filters made out of cans, wire wool for fire lighting, knives made out of old files and saw blades to name a few. Some might say that using these things is not 'traditional' or 'pure' but I would argue that bushcraft is neither traditional nor pure, although it has the potential to be a vehicle for teaching about traditional and/or primitive skills it is a relatively new discipline. Bushcraft is an amalgamation of military survival skills, traditional skills from all around the globe and modern expertise and tools; take the bow drill as an example, there are no examples of the bow drill being used traditionally anywhere, the addition of a bow and string to rotate a drill is a modern invention. When ever I deliver an extended bushcraft course the first session always includes a lesson on improvisation and adaptation. Some of the improvisations projects that they can undertake include;

Survival Tasks
Improvised Equipment
Collect and boil Water
·         plastic bag
·         hat (using hot stones)
·         empty cans
Light Fire
·         battery
·         Magnetised needle
Carry you gear
·         blanket used as a Hudson bay pack
  •  empty cans
  • coke can/hobo stove
 catch food
  •  wire for snares
  • string f or raisin line
  • safety pins for fish hooks

these activities are also an excellent opportunity to teach the principle of 'reuse, recycle, repurpose' popular in environmental education. check out my post from a few months ago on making knives and tools from broken saw blades.

What follows is an example of a lesson plan for one of those 'improvisation' sessions, this particular session is the first or second weekly, hour long session of a 6 month bushcraft course delivered to silver Duke of Edinburghs Award Participants as the 'skill' section of their award;

·         Students will learn to improvise various useful implements from simple everyday items with minimal or no tools.
·         Students will learn by taking part in a number of projects to improvise useful items to look for anything that may be useful in their surroundings and how to think positively in an emergency/survival situation.
5 mins
Intro and setup
Sets the scene, with no equipment how will you survive?
Will role play as 'survivors'
See resource list above
Students will  
5 mins
Creative thinking
Take learners suggestions as to what the items they have at their disposal can be used for
Suggest uses for the items they have
See resource list above
Students must come up with at least one use for each item.
30-40 mins
Improvisation project
Picks one or two projects dependant on time and instructs learners in the improvisation of for example a coke can stove
create a useable item from the available 'junk'
See resource list above
Creation of useful implement from everyday items
10-15 mins

Use the newly created implement to fulfil a survival need
Basic tasks that can be performed are listed below.
Carry out basic survival tasks.
See resource list above
Students will use the items they have created to fulfil a need. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

"Too many men work at parts of things, doing a job to completion satisfies me"

Richard (Dick) Proenneke had worked as a naval carpenter, a diesel mechanic, heavy equipment operator, fisherman and sheep rancher before retiring, not to comfort but to one of the harshest wildernesses on the planet. And he didn't even have a house to live in, he built a beautiful cabin from the resources available to him, the trees, rocks, sand and moss which could be found along the banks of the lake he had made his home. The place was Twin Lakes in Alaska, a remote but beautiful part of the state. Not only a skilled carpenter Dick was a keen naturalist and took many hours of footage using a cine camera of the Alaskan wildlife and also documented his cabin building project in film and extensive journals. 

Of all the heroic figures that feature on the history of outdoor pursuits Dick Proenneke stands out for me as someone who lived the dream, short sharp experiences of being in the wilderness were not enough for him, the fleeting visit to the summit of a mountain before descending or even the most prolonged camping trip were not enough. He lived in the wilderness and made himself comfortable in it, a goal I would love to achieve myself.  

What an example to modern students of bushcraft and the environment, this man packed basic gear with him into the wilderness and literally plucked his life from the wilderness. He survived from the fish and meat he harvested from his surroundings, vegetables from his small garden and the occasional resupply by float plane. Even the basic skills of being able to make and/or repair the handles of tools and make containers from waste cans that he demonstrated are often overlooked by modern practitioners of bushcraft who want the shiny kit that the latest TV survival expert is using.    

His saying; "Too many men work at parts of things, doing a job to completion satisfies me" is a continuing inspiration for me in everything I do, In my eyes Dick Proenneke is truly a hero of outdoor adventure, perhaps especially because he never intended to be. 


One Mans Wilderness; An Alaskan Odyssey (2006) By Richard Proenneke and Sam Keith; Alaska Northwest Books,U.S.; 26 Anv edition 

Alone in the Wilderness (2003) Bob Swerer Productions 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Shelter Building

Shelter building is a great activity for groups learning outdoors, whether as part of a forest schools activity or a bushcraft course shelter building allows great opportunities to help students develop their group working skills, build teams, teach about the properties of natural and man made materials, teach the concept of risk assessment, conduction of heat through different mediums to name a few.  

A few things to consider when shelter building;
       Overhanging branches and dead tree tops are often known as 'widowmakers' as even with no                      encouragement from high wind they can often crash down without warning.  proper survey of a                      shelter building site should be made before shelters are constructed to ensure there are none of these              overhanging hazards.
       Guy lines;
      This picture clearly illustrates the need for care when pitching shelters which require guy lines, young children are particularly likely to forget about guy lines so brightly coloured lines possibly with coloured tassels attached. Glow in the dark lines are also available.

·         Hazards on the ground:
      One site I use is a well-established farm shelter belt planted with a mixture of broad-leafed tree species but part of this belt covers what was an old dairy and  a lot of the concrete foundations and ironmongery from the old building, although now mostly covered and almost invisible under vegetation, still present a trip hazard and could inflict very severe injuries if someone was to fall on something like this. Area like this should be avoided for shelter building. 

              Structural integrity of the shelter:
      Especially with regard to natural shelters which may have heavy poles or a considerable weight of material above the occupants, the shelter itself must be very secure and strong with the frame ideally being made of green wood for strength and any necessary lashings being made very securely. Shelters such as this thermal A frame should be constructed with a strong green wood frame allowing a considerable weight of dead wood from the forest floor to be used to build up the walls of the shelter before leaf litter can be stacked on top to a depth of 1-2 feet. This kind of shelter will keep you warm even without a sleeping bag if you fill the inside with dry leaves or grass. 

Fire and shelter generally don't mix but sometimes you may need to use the fire to heat the shelter such as a lean to style shelter and a long log fire designed to keep you warm without a sleeping bag in winter conditions, or more likely in a Forest School setting as a focal point of an outdoor classroom such as this;

this particular shelter was used as an outdoor classroom, incorporates a fireplace and is made entirely from natural material in small broad-leafed copse surrounded by an area of coniferous plantation. The roof and walls of the shelter are made from strips of cedar bark left over after where a harvester had cut a block of cedar.

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