26 January 2017

Journalist Lenny Antonelli Spends Two Days Learning Bushcraft

Journalist Lenny Antonelli spends two days learning bushcraft in the mountains of Kerry with Outdoors Ireland

Ever wonder how comfortably you could survive in the wilds of Ireland if you were dropped deep in some remote mountain glen?

That’s what I went to Kerry to find out on a cold and windy autumn weekend. I had come down for a two-day bushcraft skills course with Outdoors Ireland, and must admit, I was skeptical. It’s one thing to watch Ray Mears live comfortably in the boreal forests of Canada — or see reality survival shows set in tropical jungles — but the Irish mountains are barren, rugged, and wet. What on earth is there to eat or build a shelter from?

Our small group — myself, a Dutch woman and two Polish ladies — met on Saturday morning in the Muckross Park Hotel for our briefing. Our instructor Nathan handed us each one tin of spaghetti hoops and one tin of baked beans. “Now, over the next 36 hours I want you to try to get by on eating just these, and whatever wild food we can find,” he said.

He later added: “After extreme cold, cold and wet climates like Ireland are the next hardest to survive in, if you’re lost in the wild.”

We drove out of Killarney, down ever rougher boreens, deeper and deeper into the mountains. Finally we parked on sheep-grazed pasture by a remote mountain lake. By the water’s edge we rubbed charcoal on our faces (it’s a natural sunblock), and Nathan showed us how to correctly eat rosehips (it’s all about cutting the hairy seeds out). Then we followed a track through old farmsteads, along the course of a rushing river.

Along the river, Nathan showed us how to collect nettles (for soup) without getting stung, and we also gathered thistle-roots, and gorged on the delicious nuts inside the heads of the thistle flower. Then we collected rowan berries and crab apples, and followed the river through pastures full with flowering gorse, deep into a craggy mountain glen. We crossed another stream in a small birch wood, and gathered birch bark to use as tinder for our campfire later.

Not long later, we left the river behind and headed for a small oakwood sheltered by a steep crag, deep in this wild valley. This is where we would make fire and build our shelters for the night. “You can sometimes hear the red deer bellowing here at night, and see their eyes glowing up on the hillside,” Nathan said.

Soon he was showing us how to make our simple debris shelters, using an A-frame made of deadfall sticks propped up against a tree, with a thick layer of bracken on top, to keep the wind and rain out. “And if it was raining, you’d need about twice as much bracken,” he said.

In the mean time Nathan had built the campfire (we’d be working on our fire-making skills the next morning), by digging a pit and carefully removing the mat of soil (which he’d put back the next day, to hide any trace of the fire). We gathered twigs for kindling and bigger deadfall too, while Nathan built a tripod to hang pots over the fire.

Then we sat around the campfire as night fell and the valley darkened, taking turns to hike down to the river to gather water every so often (we kept a pot boiling at all times, to make sure there was always plenty of clean drinking water). We had our warming nettle and thistle root soup, then spaghetti, then a crab apple and rowan berry stew. But apart from Nathan, we’d all been scoffing sandwiches and chocolate on the sly, too. (When I came back to this valley with Nathan again the following spring, we cooked a big wild feast in this same wood from ingredients we’d gathered or caught  — nettle soup, spruce needle tea, wild river trout fresh from the river and stuffed with sorrel, with dandelion root coffee to finish).

Then we sipped some hot whiskey by the campfire before returning to our cosy shelters, as the wind whipped down through the valley, shaking the trees. I slept deeply, and woke the next morning for a breakfast of baked beans and coffee (Nathan says it’s one of the few luxuries he brings with him when practicing bushcraft).

Then we got down to practicing our fire-making skills, using our flint strikers to light the birch bark we’d collected the day before. I struck furiously onto the birch bark for about twenty minutes, generating plenty of sparks, but no fire, and eventually gave up. The cotton wool, by contrast, lit instantly. “You can see how hard it is to light a fire with just flint and birch bark,” Nathan said.

We dissembled our shelters, covered up our fire, packed up, and left as little trace of our camp behind as possible.  Hiking out of the valley, Nathan showed us some basic animal tracking skills, examining different footprints and scat, and pointed out a spot by the river where two stags had recently done battle, leaving a wide muddy slick behind them.

As we arrived back to our start point, I was feeling tired but satisfied. I had spent two days in the wilds of Kerry and had slept well, ate well (with a little cheating) and survived comfortably with just a few basic tools. I’d been wrong about how comfortably you can survive in the Irish wild — and I was only just starting to scratch the surface of bushcraft in Ireland.

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