Sunday, 5 January 2014

A Week in the Wilds part 3: Bush Crafts

A Week in the Wilds part 3...the story continues...

With the Hunter Gatherer challenge week already taking bookings for October 2014 I thought I should get back on here and conclude the story of my own experiences whilst taking part in the course during the autumn of 2012. Part one gave an outline of the challenge, what would be required, the tools and equipment we took and explained my own strategy in achieving the basic essentials for survival outdoors, most of which needed to be completed on the first day! Part two took a detailed look at my strategy for gathering, processing, cooking and storing enough wild food to keep me topped up on energy for the week.

During this third instalment I’ll explain the true purpose behind the challenge. Although we were using our bushcraft training to help us locate, gather, process and construct almost everything we needed to help us survive for a week in a wood, the aim of the game was to go beyond just scratching together an existence and delve deeper into improving our situation. Looking to the long term rather than just waiting to be rescued from our self-imposed imaginary survival situation. Once the basics for life had been achieved and food had been gathered we would be looking for ways to become more effective hunters and gatherers, ways of making our homes more comfortable, ways of making our lives more energy efficient. For someone with a lifelong interest in the subject and an ever expanding interest in traditional crafts and ancient life skills this was an exciting prospect…however, you can only hope to achieve so much in a week (my ‘to do’ list had me down as inventing the internet by the Friday and getting everyone else to do my hunting and gathering). This was going to be an exercise in testing bush crafts skill rather than survival.
By entering into the challenge, fully appreciating the true aim I was able to be constantly mindful of the need for certain resources in the very near future, even though other needs ranked higher at that particular moment. In previous posts I have explained that whilst a metal cooking pot turned out to be one of the most essential items of equipment you can have in a situation such as ours was, having only one pot in the kitchen proved to be fairly limiting. Every drop of water gathered needed to be boiled before drinking and survival stew was pretty much the only meal on the menu most days. So, while gathering my first billy of water from the stream, future resource number one was noted…clay. Our wild meat ration came in it’s natural packaging so again, future resources such as hide, sinews and bones were removed and squirreled away. Certain trees were added to the mental resources map if they looked useful for resin, carving wood or cordage. My foraged plants often had non edible parts that could be put to good use such as the easily weaved cattail leaves or the huge leaves of the burdock. If a resource was small enough to be gathered and bought home whilst looking for firewood and food, then it was. Soon my camp began to look like a hoarders paradise, an Aladdin’s cave of crap fit for the compost.

A cattail leaf food preparation mat made by Guy

My first priority, however, was to repay the wild meat loan. The deal here was that all participants started the challenge with a certain amount of wild meat (their only food for the week). The reasons for this marry up nicely with the aforementioned long term survival theme of the challenge and are explained in part 1. To retrospectively ‘earn’ the wild meat we had agreed to meet up on day three with a primitive projectile hunting weapon made by our own fair hands and using only the limited tools and equipment we carried along with any natural resources we could gather. Not only that, but it had to be capable of hitting a target from a suitably realistic hunting distance. We were fully aware that many other factors would come into play if we really did have to hunt wild game with our home made efforts (including a hefty fine or prison sentence in the UK) but given the nature of the challenge, we felt that making an effective weapon and successfully hitting the target would be a perfectly acceptable compromise.
So, I needed a projectile weapon capable of taking down a small deer. Not only that but I had nothing but a small knife and folding saw to make it with, limited time, lower energy levels and limited skill in successfully hitting targets with some of the more basic primitive weapon options. I’ve taken many a rabbit, squirrel or wild fowl with nothing more than a well thrown stick and a hasty follow up in the past but knew that to justify my fortuitous protein head start I’d need something with greater accuracy and packing more of a punch than just wellying a log through the woods. Knowing that a spear would require a lucky encounter or a long ambush and my atlatl throwing skills were about as predictable as the British weather I decided that the only realistic option for reliability and accuracy would be a bow and arrow.

Hazel rods stripped of their bark

I’ve made bows before but here, faced a few potential hurdles. Firstly, to make something with a fair bit of power, that could be used over and over in practice would require a seasoned stave of a suitable and readily available wood such as ash. To split out a stave and then remove enough wood to tiller the bow with only a small knife would not be impossible, but would take more time and energy than I was prepared to spare. I had made various ‘survival bows’ in the past too including a bamboo cane ‘bundle bow’ (bound bundle of canes, various lengths with all the bulk in the centre, tapering off towards the end of each limb). These proved to be extremely effective and quick to make…but I didn’t have any bamboo. By way of experimentation and the potential to look a real smart arse if it worked, I decided to use the bundle bow principle with a material I was familiar with, hazel rods. Hazel rods could be easily harvested with knife or saw and very quickly bound in the same fashion as a bamboo bundle bow.
Hazel rods bound with rawhide

The binding material needed to have good tensile strength to hold everything tightly in place while being stretched back and forth. Gaffa tape provides the perfect solution if you have your survival kit but the best option available to me was rawhide strips taken from my RPG blasted muntjac deer. As the hide was not in the best condition and I was keen to use parts of it for other projects later in the week, I took just enough for my needs, cut it into strips and left it soaking in a muddy puddle along with some hard wood ash from the fire to help loosen the hair. To be honest, the hair was already coming out by the time I began making my bow and if push came to shove, leaving the hair on wouldn’t have really made a lot of difference to the materials for this task.
The finished bundle bow with paracord bow string

As the bow was to be used in quite close cover, I decided on a short but hopefully powerful model. This was to be mistake number one (but I didn’t realise yet). A shorter bow would be less cumbersome to sneak around with in the woods and easier to use from dense cover. The theory was that I should be able to stalk closer to the deer in woodlands too meaning that the range of a longer bow wouldn’t be so important. A shorter bow also meant less lashings leaving more hide for other tasks. I cut several likely looking hazel rods, stripped the bark with the back of my knife and arranged them in size order. Bundling them together and lashing them tightly with the stretched and slightly damp rawhide, I gave the clumsy looking bow a tentative floor tiller. It creaked and complained a bit but felt extremely robust and springy! I re-positioned and straightened the rods, re-tightened the rawhide as best as I could and hoisted the bow up in the smoke and ambient heat from my campfire to dry out overnight. Now redundant, the paracord from my bow drill set looked like the best choice for a bow string so I tied a loop in one end and fixed it to one limb of the bundle bow ready for action.
Next, the arrow...
For the arrow, I used another thinner hazel rod cleaned of it’s bark and scraped to a more even diameter along it’s length. Any bends and crooked sections were heated over the fire, then held just beyond the straight until the wood cooled. Finally, I scraped the wooden shaft with a sharp flint edge and using my folding saw, carefully cut opposing notches at either end for the arrow head and string nock. The fletchings came from one wing of an unfortunate wood pigeon who had become lunch for a fox by the looks of things. I carefully trimmed these to sit tightly against the arrow shaft and bound them in place with sinew. I used back strap sinew taken from the muntjac deer as it needed very little preparation and was pretty much good to go after being dried, smoked and re-dampened.

Close up of pigeon wing fletchings tied with sinew

The scraped and dried muntjac back strap sinew
For the head I made a very simple flint point by basically smashing the hell out of a small nodule and sorting through the shards until I found something roughly around the right size and shape. This was coaxed into a slightly more recognisable arrow head with a few carefully placed taps from a pebble sized, slim hammer stone. Earlier in the day I had gathered some pine resin leaking from a bark scar and this was softened by the fire on a hot rock then mixed with finely powdered charcoal to add strength. Using this make shift hot melt glue I fixed the arrow head to the shaft, additionally binding the fixing with sinew then covering the whole caboodle with more resin. It must be said that after the frantic first couple of days building my temporary home in the woods and laying on all the services, the whole bow and arrow making episode felt like a huge and obvious transition from one stage to the next. In fact, lying on my home made mattress, surrounded by darkness and hooting owls, survival stew bubbling away, working next to the light of the fire I couldn’t remember a time when I felt more contented out in the woods.

The day of reckoning arrived! I’d put together a ‘range’ where we would all meet and now here we were brandishing several dangerous looking weapons including spears, dutch arrows, darts, throwing sticks and a couple of bows. After several days living wild in the woods we all looked (and smelt) like the theoretical animals we would be hunting. Having previously discounted spears and throwing sticks, in the right hands they were looking decidedly lethal and making a mess of my target board!

"Get to the chopperrrrr..."

My hazel bundle bow worked ok, hitting the target where it needed to but would’ve benefitted from a few evolutionary tweaks. I used green rods which meant that the bow wasn’t as ‘snappy’ as it could’ve been (but there’s a very fine line between gathering seasoned hazel rods and gathering kindling). Also, for next time I would increase the length of the bow for more draw weight and power as well as making the lightest arrow I could get away with. I know this because Dave (the android) had managed to rustle up an ash self-bow with some very thin hazel arrows and a thinner bow string made from inner paracord fibres. His super light arrows and springier bow combo was the Usain Bolt to my Bella Emberg. I mumbled some stuff about my heavier arrow causing more haemorrhaging but we all knew whose bow had bought home the bacon. A lesson learnt…don’t try to be a smart arse!


Lessons learnt, I sloped back off to my den in the woods to try my hand at a bit of wild pottery. The water level down at the stream was much lower than usual and as a result, a good amount of clean and useable clay was clearly visible and easily gathered. I hauled back as much as I could, also hunting down an old house brick from a foresters bonfire to use as a temper and a hefty hammer stone to crush it up with. I hadn’t had a great deal of success with previous pottery experiments but knew this was mostly to do with the fact that I often tried to squeeze these experiments into a ridiculously tight time schedule. You can’t rush something like primitive pottery, but here I had time to do a better job. So I worked the clay in my hands as much as possible, clearing out any obvious, potentially problematic pieces of debris as I went. With my clay cleaned as well as it could be in the circumstances I wrapped the burnt house brick up in a t shirt and bashed it to smithereens with the hammer stone until it was reduced to a fine red powder. Thinking of Dave and his stupid bow really helped here (only joking Dave).

Stream bank clay with burnt, crushed house brick temper


This was worked into the damp clay at a ratio that seemed about right. I pushed, pulled, prodded and pinched the ball into a sort of shallow bowl, dish kind of thing trying to get it as smooth and as even as possible even at this early stage. It was then hidden away to begin drying out in the driest part of my shelter, not too near the heat from the fire. As soon as the clay felt like it was firming up I took a sharp slither of stone and began scraping and smoothing the inside and out to an even thickness, filling any tiny cracks that appeared with the slurry I had created by scraping. The happier I became with the bowls progress, the more trepidation I felt about firing it. Previous firings had resulted in some disappointing but dramatic mini explosions.

I let the bowl dry some more then carefully etched a pattern around the rim as decoration (trying to be a smart arse again..). Now, feeling dry to the touch the bowl found a new, warmer home just inside the stacked log wall surrounding my fire place. I knew that despite feeling dry, it would only take a few drops of water to revert this bowl, dish thing into wet clay once more so firing was the only answer…but not too soon. My plan was to gradually move the bowl closer to the fire over a period of days, finally allowing the fire to claim it for a proper, fierce firing right in the heart of the coals and flames on the final day. In fact, I went home with the bowl dry but not yet fired. The firing happened whilst running a course a short while later (I think we were heating up rocks for an underground hangi oven or something). As you can see, despite a few authentic looking cracks, none of them life threatening, it survived the process! There’s certainly room for improvement but it’s a good step forward.

As the days ticked on we all found time to work on different crafts in addition to feeding ourselves, staying warm and sheltered. We whittled pot hangers, spoons and other treen, wove brambles into baskets and leaves into food preparation mats. Myself and Guy had some buckskin pouches to put together  (admittedly these were made using our own previously prepared buckskin we’d bought along but at least we had the spare time).

Various crafted items: bramble stem foraging basket, clay bowls, carved spoons, venison jerky, a roughed out kuksa cup and buckskin pouch
Guys buckskin pouch with bone toggles

Once we’d fought through the first couple of days and established a routine we seemed to have quite a bit of spare time, however I’m under no illusion that, for the purposes of this exercise I had chosen a location with plenty of accessible wild foods growing nearby. Also, we were just entering a time of year when, not only was it still pretty warm but in wild food terms it was certainly a time of plenty. Additionally, we were all in good health and only there for a week so this personal experiment cannot be considered a realistic example of how bushcraft training can help a modern human successfully revert back to hunter gatherer status. Everything is relative though and I still maintain that without the skills we had spent years honing, our week living wild would’ve been over in the first 24 hours …. and even if we had managed to stay alive, we certainly wouldn’t have been as comfortable!

If you fancy trying your hand at the Hunter Gatherer Challenge in October 2014, get in touch to discuss pre-course preparation or visit the website page here
We're also running a Winter Bushcraft Challenge in February which is designed as a perfect warm up (probably not the best choice of phrase) for those who have the intention of attending the Hunter Gatherer later in the year.
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it!



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