We spent last week learning traditional wilderness skills with Turkka. Who I am told, is the older, Finnish equivalent of Ray Mears. He’s like a walking, talking Encyclopedia of all things outdoors. Everyone was awaiting the week eagerly, as the last time we spent with him – Week 4 – Food Preparation and Cooking – was so enjoyable.
We started the week by celebrating his 70th birthday. Several people asked him why he hadn’t retired. Rather than saying it was because he loved his job, he said it was because his pension was too low, and he needed the money. Smiles all round. He’s an eccentric and loveable character who, in between teaching us, would have the group sniggering with laughter, as he told tales of times gone by.
After some chuckles about his pension, he introduced the week. We would spend our time outside, crafting traditional items from materials collected in the surrounding woods. This included: making a decoy bird, an Atatl (spear thrower) and throwing spear, two types of rope, a tin fishing spinner, a fishing wobbler, a backpack, some snowshoes, a sleeping matt, tinder preparation and iron age fire making methods.
Winter had definitely started to tighten her grip, with daytime temperatures towards the end of the week hovering around a crisp -2°C to -5°C. You start to realise the importance of a fire when it’s this temperature, especially when you’re outside and sat around for most of the day, whittling and carving. We had 2 fires running constantly, one outdoors, and one in the smoke hut. And in between fiddly tasks where we couldn’t wear gloves, we would make regular trips to the fire to encourage the bloodflow back into our extremities!
Towards the end of the week Turkka gave us a crash course on Iron Age fire making techniques. I fulfilled a life long dream, managing to light a fire without the use of matches, lighter or modern fire strikers. Making a fire using this method involves hitting a steel striker onto a sharp edge of flint, which creates sparks, causing the tinder, which is positioned on the flint (and fittingly called tinder fungus) to smoulder. You then put this tinder into a small ball of dried juniper bark which is inside a small roll of silver birch bark. You then blow for what seems like eternity to light the juniper, which smoulders hotter than the tinder (but still doesn’t flame) and then blow more till the silver birch bark flames. Next I need to learn the hand drill method and my life is basically complete.
In books and on tv, it always looks so easy. This was far from it, Turkka, didn’t even manage to get a flame as the conditions were damp and the birch bark we collected wasn’t completely dry. It was also bitterly cold, and without gloves on our hands were numb. Towards the end we were struggling to hold the flint, finding it even harder to maneuver the glowing tinder fungus into the juniper and silver birch bark. It was an absolute mission to get a flame, taking around 4 attempts and around 30 mins of hard blowing. It was demoralising each time we failed. But, ultimately, it didn’t matter if we didn’t get the birch bark to light, we could just go home and warm up. However, if we were actually in a survival situation, it would have been soul-destroying to get so close to making fire and not quite making it. The moral of the story is this: if you’re ever going to be in the outdoors for an extended period of time, and even if there’s a tiny risk of getting lost or injuring yourself, always be prepared. Keep the below items on you, as it’s likely you won’t be able to make fire from scratch. And it could make the difference between life and death.
- A knife.
- Two lighters and waterproof matches if on longer expeditions. Make sure they work and keep them dry.
Below I have included pictures and a short description of each of the items we made during the week.
Lure – Dummy Bird
Dummy birds would have been used as lures to tempt birds to your location, allowing you to hunt them. They’re also good as target practice. We had a go ourselves, but are in need of some serious practice as none of us hit the bird!
- Firstly collect lengths of silver birch.
- Snap off all the smaller branches and put them to one side.
- Using some of these smaller branches create a ball. Do this by making a small circle, and adding more circles at different angles to slowly create a sphere of wood.
- Now tie a large handful of birch at one end with wire.
- Put the sphere of wood inside the bunch you just tied.
- Slowly wrap the wire around the shoots, creating the body of the bird.
- Once the body is complete, bend the shoots at 90 degrees to create the neck, and continue to wrap wire around.
- Continue till you’re happy with the neck length, then split the remaining birch and bend at 90 degrees the other way to make the lower part of the head and beak, and wrap in wire.
- Bend the remaining wood up and down onto the beak to create an eye.
- Trim the beak and the tail.
Atlatl and Throwing Spear
An atlatl is a device for throwing spears, traditionally used for hunting. It allows the user to throw the spear with much more velocity. The earliest known example is a 17,500 year-old atlatl made of reindeer antler found in France.
We made it from planks of aspen from the workshop, as it’s easy carved, but still fairly strong.
- Firstly draw around the template with a pencil.
- Then roughly chop the shape using an axe.
- Improve the shape with your knife, rounding the edges to make the atlatl more ergonomic and nicer to hold.
- Then drill a hole for where you finger goes and round the edges with your knife.
- Drill a 35 degree hole in the top of the atlatl and glue a sharpened bit of dowel into it. This is the part that connects to the rear of the spear.
- For the spear find a 5 foot length of silver birch or aspen. Strip the bark and add 3 feathers to the end with thin string and glue. Make sure the heavier end is at the front. Drill a small hole in the rear so it fits well to the atlatl.
To use the atlatl, put your finger in the hole, place the rear of the spear on the spike. You then throw almost as you would throw normally.
Rope Spinner and Platting Technique
Using the same technique as below, string and rope would have been made from the stems of dried nettles and various tree barks.
- Use a template as a guide and draw a bell shape onto some aspen.
- Roughly carve with an axe and finish with your knife.
- From a branch of aspen carve the handle.
- Tie 6 lengths of fabric to a post.
- Take 2 of the lengths, tie to the top of the rope maker, and spin in a clockwise direction till tight.
- Tie a knot in the end and place this tightened piece under a rock to stop it unraveling and repeat with the other lengths of fabric.
- You should now have 3 lengths of rope. Tie them all to the end of the rope maker and now spin in an anti clockwise direction till tight.
- Tie at each end, and there you have it, rope!
Using twine, we made a strap for the backpack using a platting technique. Firstly I made 5 platts made up of 3 lengths of twine. I then platted these 5 together, creating a strong and durable rope. Shown in the pictures below.
Fishing Spinner and Weights – Tin Casting
We created some rudimentary fishing spinners and weights using tin. It has a low melting point at 231.9°C allowing you to melt it on a small basic fire.
- Using bark from a pine tree carve the desired shape into the wood.
- Then melt tin on the fire, and pour into your bark cast.
- Leave for several minutes and remove from the cast.
Backpacks like these are fairly quick to make and surprisingly practical and comfortable. Kimmo’s backpack in the above picture was by far the biggest and most functional. As you can see from the amount of wood he managed to fit in it. Mine ended up being much smaller than expected, and I could only get a pair of shoes in it at a push!
- Bend a length of willow into a u shape, and secure with twine.
- Add additional horizontal willow supports to get the general shape. Cut notches into the wood where the junctions are to make it stronger.
- Add platted rope to the top and the spun rope to the bottom to form straps.
- Then add some netting made from twine to the back to finish off.
This would be used in the same way you would use modern day spinners. Cast the wobbler out, and then real back in at varying speeds to mimic a fish swimming in the water. You can also paint the wood to make it appear more fish like.
- Carve a cigar shape from wood to desired size.
- Cut a slit down the body and also at one end.
- Cut a square spade-like end to form the scoop at the front of the wobbler, making it dive when you are pulling it through the water.
- Bend wire with loops at the front, middle and back for the hooks and glue in place.
Quick and easy to make, these would be useful if caught in a snow storm when out hiking.
- Collect 10 head height lengths of aspen.
- For the first shoe, lay 5 branches out, spread your hand as a guide, lining each one with your thumb and fingers.
- Then weave twine around the end and fasten in place. See pic below.
- Add two cross sections to add strength and act as a foot rest.
- Tie some twine from the end to one of the cross sections to create the curve on the end of the shoe.
- Attach to your foot using twine.
- The poles are also made from lengths of aspen, with smaller branches tied around the bottom to create the base.
Traditional Weaving Technique
This was used for making carpets and rugs from rope, twine and natural materials. We used a simplified version to create a sleeping matt from dried mugwort. Careful lying on mugwort though as some people are allergic to it.