The Advanced Crafts week ran a few weeks back. This is definitely a highlight of the year for me and the 2013 course was the best attended we've had so far in the five years it's been running. For the students, it's an experience to work up to for sure, as it both confirms and develops previously gained survival skills and moves further towards long term survival and self reliance in the wilds. The course is hard work, it takes no prisoners so a basic standard of survival and bushcraft experience must be acquired before signing up. The Advanced Crafts student must already have built and lived in a natural shelter, know how to light fire in all weathers, make and use a bow drill fire lighting set, handle sharp cutting tools efficiently and safely, prepare and cook wild game and fish, have a working knowledge of wild foods, making cordage from natural materials and carving green wooden items such as spoons and spatulas. Our annual course program is arranged in such a way that the necessary experience can be gained in the early part of the year through the Wilderness Awakening five day course or even a combination of a Bushcraft Weekend and several day courses to get up to speed in more specific areas not covered during the weekend. Students may already have the skills required, gained through other schools or their own learning. Many students sign up for both the Wilderness Awakening and the Advanced Crafts week together and use the time between courses to practice skills and build on knowledge.
So, what can they expect from the week? Arrival (as with most of our courses) is around 7pm the evening before to allow time for late arrivals and give the students a chance to settle in. A detailed briefing plus a few words of advice are given around the campfire with a chance to iron out any creases and ask questions. The following morning all excess kit must be left back at camp and armed only with a handful of key items, the students head off to build a home for the coming week. Shelter design is important and students have several considerations which contribute towards this. Firstly, they only have one wool blanket each as bedding. They also have limited tools (small knife and folding saw), must build something that they can sleep, live, cook and work in for the whole week. They have a heavy daily workload but must cook all their own meals too. It's no surprise that everyone decides on a group shelter of some sort to spread the load!
Food is supplied for the first day but it must be cooked before being eaten. The only available method of lighting fire is the bow and drill and with all the materials needing to gathered from the woods on the day, this becomes a high priority group effort. Many students, already proficient in this area are surprised at how increased pressure and fewer calories (resulting in less energy) affect their bow drilling efforts. However, there is no other choice so one way or another, the fire always gets lit...and once it does it's never allowed to go out!
Fire means warmth and light at night, a means to preserve food, hot drinks, dry clothing and of course FOOD!
The general theme of the week is going beyond the basics for survival outdoors and looking at crafts and advanced skills which improve the quality of the outdoors man or woman. Shelter building, bed making, fire building and maintenance, cooking wild foods...all these subjects are most definitely crafts and should be developed to a higher level. This is why the challenge of day one is included....and it gives the instructors the chance to put their feet up and have a brew.
Day one is a wake up call for sure but the feeling of satisfaction at having achieved such a huge amount in such a relatively short time is immense. Relaxation time is short lived however as the following morning begins with a large game butchery session, followed by the first stages of hide preparation in order to make buckskin, rawhide or hair on hides/furs. The whole week is a whirlwind of advanced bush crafts and traditional skills instruction, all of it practical and hands on, everyone getting involved with their own projects. In addition to this, the students have to cook for themselves (all ingredients are provided, any wild game still needs preparing, some meals require foraged ingredients to be included). They also have to consider their basic needs such as improving their shelter's weatherproofing, plumping up their natural mattresses and keeping their central heating chugging away through the night. All of this requires some good old fashioned hard graft - nobody else is going to come along and do it for them.
The various crafts included are based on a logical progression of the students existing skill set. Making use of wild game by-products (sinews, skins, furs, bones and antlers) to make clothing, equipment, cordage and tools makes perfect sense so traditional hide working features heavily. By the end of the week, each student will have made their own brain tan, smoked buckskin from start to finish.
Weaving natural materials into baskets, containers and fish traps is a natural progression of learning how to manipulate and shape plant fibres into string, rope, bender shelters. Students had a choice this year of learning how to weave a basket or a fish trap. The skills needed to do both are very similar so although the end result is different, the valuable skills developed in achieving it are the same. Our goal is to send everyone away with a grasp of each skill shown during the week - anything they've made is really considered a bonus.
The axe is a hugely important tool of the backwoodsman or woman. The safe felling, limbing, splitting and sectioning of small trees is included in the schedule as well as finer carving techniques. In addition to this, more advanced carving techniques are shown such as the use of curved gouges, hollowing hand tools and holding devices made on site...the end result being that every student takes home a wooden cup or bowl too!
Lastly, with sharp edged tools featuring so heavily during all of our courses along with the need to feel capable and self sufficient, maximising the use of natural resources, we couldn't run a week like this without including a day of working flint to make sharp tools. Flint knapping is extremely technical so students shouldn't expect to be able to craft a Danish crested dagger by the end of the week but they can get a good grasp of the theories behind breaking rocks and obtaining useable, incredibly sharp flakes. Refining techniques are also covered for those who get the bug and wish to take it further.
The last day is set aside for consolidation of the craft projects started during the week. It's usually a blur of whittling, weaving, carving and hafting flint arrow heads into shafts. All too quickly the week is over but the evidence of everyone's hard work is easy to see! I like to think of this course doing a damn good job of turning out students who have a much better understanding of bush craft, a more complete picture and a greater personal experience of exactly what is required to live comfortably out doors with very little. It helps complete the jigsaw and gives all those attending a real appreciation of how every tree, plant and creature can, and has helped us through the ages and how important they should be in everyones lives.
For more images taken during the Advanced Crafts week, check out the facebook gallery for that course here.
Next stop...the Hunter Gatherer week!