As my car crested the hill, taking a sweeping right turn into the valley fog I could just make out the first rolling indicators of Dartmoor. Through the windscreen wipers and spitting rain the unmistakable dark brown silhouettes of ponies and their foals stand, heads proud, grazing on the beautiful fertile hillsides. Sheep sit on grassy verges away from the road. Cattle stand motionless as if undeterred by the localised weather. I can feel the excitement in my veins as I try to recognise features and contours. I notice Rudie, my trusty Cockapoo, equally excited as turns and jumps in the seat beside me. Time spent in these landscapes somehow sooth the soul. Their rolling openness and effortless tranquillity always seem to draw you in for a closer look. When feet touch soil there is a quietness to be found here on the snaking footpaths and in the river strewn valleys. To me, these are components for exploration and mindful journeys.
It’d been 16 years since I last frequented Dartmoor. On these hills I cut my teeth as a young Marine. In some ways I grew up here, transforming from boy to man. This landscape taught me everything I needed to know about the power of nature, my limits and ultimately life. Now I was back, experiencing it in a different way with Rudie, to explore landscape, mindfulness and how the two perfectly intertwine.
As the boot of my car clicked into place, I tilted my head sideways shielding myself against the drizzle. Rudie sat patiently at my feet as I re-packed my kit for the day ahead. His ears perked up as his senses burst into life with new smells, shapes and sounds. These before moments are always exciting. The curiosity and anticipation to experience what lay ahead is what makes time spent in nature so fruitful. Even the simplest of walks, wherever located, will have its rewards both physically and mentally, not just for me but for the dog too. I know our bond will tighten with each stream we jump and stone bridge we cross.
I tighten the hip-buckle to my rucksack as I look up at the windswept summit of Haytor, the region I’ll explore for the duration of my two day stay. The Tor (high point) reaches into the mist up to my left. In front a rising contour covered in granite boulders leads to another high point up to my right. Trees dot the landscape. As an adventure photographer my eyes are drawn to these features and lines, also how people experience and interact with the landscape, whether hiking or with their animals. Today my camera was waterproofed and neatly stowed away, my phone switched to airplane mode. I wanted this journey to be about the senses, slowing down ,and looking more. Also to become more mindful of time, touch and place.
Moving up onto the moor with Rudie by my side and making our way slowly through the landscape there is an immediate sense of wonder. I find this ancient landscape to be inspiring, internally and creatively. The sensory overload of London doesn’t exist here, but a calm still feeling, only felt with time spent in nature. The ball, normally brought to run Rudie through dips and hollows has been left behind in a bid to engage his nose more and let him connect to the landscape in his own special way. Tiptoeing through the fiddletips of bracken and gorse, I reference my OS map of the area. I’m reminded how we are spoilt for choice on which route we can take to explore. Dartmoor has miles of footpaths through ancient woodlands, along river banks and across the openness of the moor. When exploring an area with a dog it’s important to remember that Dartmoor is home to cattle, sheep and ponies which can be found roaming freely over the wild hillsides. There are also footpaths through enclosed fields of livestock, near rare species of nesting birds. Mindfulness is not only allowing yourself to connect but observing and respecting the natural world around us. For this reason Rudie stays on the lead at all times, a kind suggestion made by the Dartmoor National Park Rangers.
The high point of the Tor is a blustery place as the day draws to a close. The mist has cleared, tangerine skies send shards of orange light onto the moor, it feels like mother nature has arranged the show and given us front row seats. Myself and Rudie have quietly manoeuvred across the landscape throughout the day to where we sit now. My phone hasn’t beeped and I haven’t used it to take a single image. Today has been about engaging the senses, surrounding myself in natural detail and not comparing these moments to anything else. I take time to notice the direction of the wind and the movement of clouds. I pause to feel intermittent warmth from the sun on my face. These moments are here and now, and they are ours. Gratitude, is the word that springs to mind.
The following morning as I rub my tired eyes and take a sip from the coffee cup, I look out and up to the moor again, the mist has rolled back in, gently obstructing that magical Dartmoor perspective of ancient time and place. Today my aim is to focus on people, connection and how others experience this wild and rugged place. How do they connect, is it through growing up here, working here or walking the dog here? This morning there is a squelch under dog paw as Rudie explores our public footpath by lead. In the high ground to the left I notice the grey box silhouette of a land Rover, rocking side to side and making its way down a larger path towards me. As it approaches closer I see the wooden board that stretches side to side above the windscreen, it says “Dartmoor Park Ranger”. The vehicle chuggs to a stop beside me and Bill steps out, the first thing I notice is his smile.
Bill Allen has been a Park Ranger here for 30 years, starting the job in his early 20’s. “The beauty of Dartmoor is that is can be all things to all people” Says Bill. “The beauty of the open moorland gives you chance to mindfully explore. It could be spending 30 minutes of time walking and bonding with your dog to spending a few days hiking, watching wildlife and wild camping. When you’re here you’ll have a chance leave the hustle and bustle behind. Dartmoor has meant a lot to me over the years.” Bills love for this wild place is displayed in his eyes as he closes the door to his Land Rover. His enthusiasm resonates with me as we shake hands through the window and say our goodbyes. With Rudie in tow we wander to another high point. As we walk we breathe in the aromas of the moist air and flowering hillside plants. I lean down and touch the earth as Rudie circles around me. Lifting my head up I notice a dog walker approaching me. Two Dalmatians eagerly nudge the fruit bars hidden in my trouser pocket. Extending a hand to Jessi we discuss mindfulness and how it plays a role in her daily life. “I often find quiet spots and listen to birdsong. Sometimes I close my eyes and sit with the dogs around me. The moor is alive with different animals and rare bird species.” Her unique mindfulness approach is to listen to the notes, and how each bird makes her feel. This to me is her own special way of connecting, listening and being more mindful. As we smile and move on, I suddenly hear more birdsong than before. The fact she shared that touching insight, made me more aware to how the birds share the same landscape, how I’m a visitor in their world.
While Rudie sits quietly on his lead by my wet boots I watch sun drift down behind the horizon for another day. I notice the sweeping mist across the moor accelerating the softening colours of the sky. This act of noticing and listening is something I’m beginning to enjoy and something I’ll take forward. As I sit there, I realise that mindfulness, to me, is all about slowing down to a point where I physically take part and sense the intricate details of the world around me, including that of my trusty K9 companion. The direction and strength of the breeze, the feel of wet rock on my hands or the smell of a foxglove in bloom, these moments pull me into the here and now, drawing my senses inwards towards calmness, intuition and the inner self. They also encourage me to look closer at the natural world, towards an ancient story of cycles and seasons. As I focus on the final golden arms of sunlight over the landscape I realise this alone is worth more than a million likes on a social page.
Forthglade is encouraging more dog walkers to pick up the lead, switch off mobile devices and maximise precious dog walking time to become more mindful. So give it a try, you and your dog won’t regret it.
For more information visit www.forthglade.com
Coastlines - For all their dramatic headlands, valleys and intimate coves, they are an ancient testament to the tireless power of the ocean and its ability to shape landscapes and its people. After years serving as a Royal Marine Commando in Devon, I’d never set eyes on the area I was set to walk and photograph. As I ran my fingers over an old dog-eared map on a coffee shop table, this area of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) appeared to be wild, rugged and untamed. The 60-mile section I was set to traverse was pinched between the fishing villages of Beesands, Bantham, Mothecombe and the stunning Salcombe, a town set on the steep banks of an estuary inlet near Kingsbridge.
Since I can remember I’d grown up with dogs. From Golden Retrievers as a boy, to a pair of Black Labs to Spaniels, my home was always filled with their friendly, often cheeky presence. My father Steve was a fisherman, beater and outdoorsman. The dogs were his loyal companions for most of this time, sometimes trained, sometimes untrained. In their home pictures of gun dogs hung on the walls, small brass carvings of Labradors sat on the mantle piece. My parents would walk together with the dogs, an act that brought them close together, and whenever I would be there, I would join them over the hills, in the forests and on the beaches. The family dog was a key aspect, possibly a central pillar, to our family life. I couldn’t imagine a time or a memory without one of them there.
For this journey I partnered with Forthglade, Devons premier natural pet food. Established in 1971 their approach, ethos and product are to deliver the highest quality pet nutrition using 100% natural ingredients. Our aim for this partnership: To walk this wild stretch of coastline over 5 days to document an authentic account of the relationship between people, their dogs and nature. For someone who is used to the high mountain landscapes or the running current of a wild Alaskan river, this project would be one of personal and local connection to huge aspects of not only my upbringing but also my career: People, dogs, landscape, photography and storytelling.
My first steps on this wild journey began in the small fishing community of Beesands. The night before I spent time with the owners and managers of the beautiful restaurant and hotel, The Cricket Inn. Rachel, Nigel, Sally and Stuart had sat and shared funny and moving stories of family Labradors past and those of the newer, younger arrivals. Buddy, their newest addition eagerly greeted me and those that entered the pub. Rachel shared “The interaction with people, the conversations and the connection, when you’re out with your dog, it’s incredibly rewarding”. At the juncture of my first evening full of conversation, I was sad to move on. Sprawling miles of rolling landscape lay waiting.
As the sun rose overhead and began to soften in the southern sky I’d covered nearly 18 thigh crushing miles on the first day. During that time the South West Coast Path had ducked and weaved past lighthouses and coastguard lookout centres aloft weather beaten outcrops. The soundtrack to my day had been the waves shaping the shoreline and the seagulls on their daily aerial assault in squadrons above me. I’d met a couple with 3 spaniels on their yearly jaunt to complete, in sections, the full 630 miles of the SWCP. The two caramel and one black Spaniels ran double what they walked. Their natural inquisitive instincts as dogs taking them up hills, between cracks in rocks, smelling, inquiring and returning to the soaring pitch of the dog whistle. The hour of walking and talking about the bond between humans and dogs that goes back thousands of years gave me a fresh insight into how the relationship is still as strong as it was when we began to domesticate dogs all that time ago. “It seems the bond becomes more and more powerful with every activity you do together” Says Jennifer Gosselin. I can only imagine how this strengthens and solidifies over time.
Leaving the safe and blissful harbour of Salcombe the following morning my route seemed to be bathed in early morning sunshine and cotton wool coastal mist. This section would take me through gentle forested hillsides that overlooked the estuary inlet. After hours of steep inclines, past picture postcard homes and ancient jaw dropping peninsulas I was met by the Forthglade film team alongside Chester, a young excitable Vizlsa. For the next few hours we put together the basis of a short film to support the project which would showcase the vast and rugged Devon terrain alongside the main reasoning of the project; to learn about our connection to dogs & nature. As we said good bye the sun and sky began melting into a pastel orange and grapy purple palette. With 6 miles to go, soon it would be dark. As an adventure photographer this is my time, when the light becomes its softest and most saturated. Today the camera was stowed away, wrapped in a jacket. From here hiking shoes were replaced with running shoes. I ran the remaining distance along the coast to Bantham, arriving into my lodging just after dark. I made my way to the ripped and warn red leather sofa by the wood burning fire, its flicker and crackle putting the day into perspective.
As the morning mist cleared, I stood at Bantham quay, I had no way across the estuary. It was February and the ferry was closed. After a short yet thoughtful conversation with an owner and his Husky, I scouted the village and found local fisherman and legend Pete, who helped row me across the calm waters after his morning caffeine in the local coffee shop. As soon as my feet touched the far shore sand, I was off, lungs heaving, thighs burning into the altitude of the coastal path. One owner, seeing me resting my feet, came to me with a satsuma and a warm embrace from her brown and white Cocker Spaniel. As our chat drifted to the nature of our project she shared stories of her mother and how the act of walking her dogs along the coast had helped her with loneliness, depression and dementia. Maybe I subconsciously knew anyway, it seemed dogs anticipate and understand our moods and how our reaction to them can help us not only mentally but physically improve our state of wellbeing. “By watching them explore the world, you also get another perspective of your surroundings and on life. It’s a good reminder to live in the present moment” – Says Jennifer Gosselin. After arriving into my final location that evening at Mothecombe, I’d battled another smaller estuary and crossed its waters up to my shoulders before arriving at the Coastguard Cottages. These beautiful buildings overlooked the sweeping tidal bay I’d crossed earlier. “Adventure is what you make it” I told myself as I remembered the frigid coastal waters numbing my feet and annoyingly soaking my tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches.
Before my journey back to Beesands early the following morning I met with Maria and her greyhounds on the beach below the cottage. She was the daughter of one of my neighbours. As we walked on the sand, the tidal water spiralled in miniature over the rippled shapes left by last night’s high tide. The mist and rising sun illuminated this idyllic valley playground for the dogs, I was privileged to be up at this exclusive time of day with Maria. As we walked and chatted in the crisp February air, I felt the connection between people that dog owners mention from time to time. It seemed that not only is the relationship between dog and owner symbiotic, walking them is a healing activity that connects people to others on a human level, as well as to the dog themselves and ultimately to the natural landscape around us. Whether the conditions are not so favourable, or locations vastly different, there is still something to be said about the act of walking with your dog in nature. It’s an activity that bonds and helps both owner and animal in ways that go beyond what you can feel or touch.
As I watched the Devon landscape drift quickly from my car window, I realised one thing is for certain, that the impact of dogs on our lives is massive. They encourage us to explore, to get out, to forgive and be resilient. Most of all they own their own unique personalities, teaching us their own lessons, about friendship, perspective and above all, life.
For more information about Forthglade please visit www.forthglade.com
Whilst paddling along the Yukon River I had the honour to sit and speak with people of the Northern Shoshone, Tlingit and the Yupik whom live across this vast wilderness and watershed. The long conversations we had were about traditions, heritage and what it means to be human in one of the remotest locations on earth. This is one of those conversations.
With Yaari Walker, Yupik People, Alaska. Filmed by Caroline Cote, Interview by Ian Finch.
“Once you have respect you care, when you care you share, once you share you teach”
As soon as her words enveloped my thoughts I knew I’d heard something special. Freda was Northern Shoshone and lived in a remote region on the banks of the Yukon River, Canada. As we sat outside a small cabin beyond the abandoned church from the Klondike era, I contemplated the week of paddling in the canoe that it had taken me to arrive here, hundreds of miles from the source of the river. I had at least one thousand four hundred miles left until I reached the river’s mouth in western Alaska.
Along the way, from Freda and other native elders, I’d get a lesson in what landscape and connection truly meant, shared with me from people who rely on it as a way of life and a means of living.
All of my journeys, long or short, involve the intertwining ribbon of culture and landscape, which I see as intrinsically linked. Within this is my ongoing search for simplicity, meaning and a way of life. This simple notion is what drew me to the vastness of the Yukon to meet the first nation groups who have permeated this landscape for 10,000 years. For the people of this region their culture, identity and psyche are firmly rooted in their partnership with the landscape and the wildlife. For centuries and even up until the modern day, their success as a culture is directed by this vital partnership. To lose this connection would be catastrophic for their spiritual health, and ultimately their survival.
The elders explained to me how humans still need a living dynamic relationship with the landscape in order to feel nourished and to feel connected. On returning to the rhythm and rush of urban life, I realised this was as true for the people of Alaska as it is for the people of London. We were one and the same, nourished in life by the land. My outlook towards the greater framework of nature was indelibly shaped by those intimate conversations.
With the recent insights of the Yukon expedition crackling like an ember inside me, I developed the Kodak / 27 Images project in the spring of 2017. At its heart the project was as much about disconnecting as it was reconnecting, experimenting this time in the landscapes I call home. I decided to cross, on foot and alone, two major regions of the Lake District, Coniston to Buttermere. Instead of taking my DSLR I would use a simple Kodak throwaway camera to photograph the entire journey. If I took my DSLR, or even a smartphone, there would be countless opportunities to get the images I wanted. But spending so much time behind the lens meant the camera could become like a middleman, moderating my relationship with the land.
With the Kodak, I wanted its limitations to become its strengths. The limit of 27 exposures meant I would have to slow down so that I could more closely observe my surroundings. I was hoping a calmer and more present mind would bring clarity and a new creative perspective.
Essentially, stripping back technology and choice would give breathing space for things that meant the most to me; nature, creativity and connection with the land. Looking back an elder once said “ When you slow down more, you’ll look more, and when you look more you’ll learn more”. This became not only the ethos for the project but shaped my way of living and a component of my future business.
(You can see a selection of the 27 Images here)
Walking Wild – Helping others connect to the land
I’d always been drawn to ancient forests and dense woodlands: their enchantment and complexity captured my imagination. Within the mosaic of these wonderfully wild places lies a hierarchy of families and cross species generosity.
After my expedition to the Yukon I became even more intrigued by the complex society of life within a forest eco-system. Months after the journey, it was now time to share and teach the knowledge that had inspired me. Focusing on the landscape of forests and woodlands, I said “yes” in the face of fear and failure to starting an immersive outdoor business where walking, slowing down and looking more took precedence over the mileage counter on a watch or smartphone.
I founded ‘Walk Wild’ to offer people carefully crafted day walks in some of the southern UK’s most ancient woodlands. They are designed to give people more time and space in wild locations to support the development of their relationship to nature. During these walks I share nuggets of information about the inner workings of forests, wisdom about individual trees and the how complex society of trees communicate.
For some, connecting with nature is a sense of relationship with something far greater than ourselves. The lessons passed to me from elders on the Yukon River, from generation to generation had changed a humble life on another continent. Their lessons had also spurned an organisation on a mission to spread their wisdom to one million people.
All across the world, first nation and indigenous communities believe that everything around us - the humble butterfly and the bird, the forests and the river, the mountains and the sky, all possess the spirit of life. I am now convinced of this too. Nature is a healer, the great teacher and a universal force of birth and death. Spending time in nature and taking time to listen, observe, and use all of our senses, is how we can start to understand the wonders of nature, and develop a personal relationship to the land.
I also wholeheartedly believe that if we begin to adopt that same awareness to the interconnection between all life, as the native communities do, we’ll naturally develop a deep sense of connection to and respect for the landscapes we all call home.
Adventure Uncovered Live:
A 20 minute piece on Connection to Nature via a journey through native Alaskan wisdom and the Kodak 27 Images project. Institute for Contemporary Arts, Monday 30th October 2017
The Language of the Wild
"The Language of the Wild" - This short film is about my personal connection to wild places. It touches on why I explore and take solace in the places others would feel lost. Proud to be supporting Blacks.co.uk as part of their ambassadorial program.
In my time with the Royal Marines the term “ration pack” conjures memories of pushing and shoving in the stores to get the best menu box from the pallet. If you didn’t, we’d play spoof to swap individual elements, deconstructing our original pack and forging completely different menus. Other than sleep and shelter, solid nutrition was and is an integral part of a life spent outdoors. Just as a power station requires gas or coal to power its turbines and generate energy, so we need fuel – to power our journeys and expeditions, no matter how big or small.
The outdoor/expedition food market falls into 2 categories, wet and dry. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Wet, albeit heavy can be eaten cold reducing the need for stoves and extra water, dry is lightweight but needs warm or cold hydration to be consumed. Since the military I’ve never opted for wet, purely from a weight reduction perspective, which means dry is always the preferred option. Until my recent discovery of Outdoorfood, only a couple of brands had made the podium when taste and nutrition is at stake. In this quest lays the eternal challenge: Making dehydrated meals that are nutritious, ethically sourced with deep authentic flavours.
I’d heard of Outdoorfood from a friend when he’d raved about a new “Firepot” menu. With some interest I checked the website and read the back-story about how the meals were passionately put together. I was also impressed and intrigued to see how these elements would shine though in the final product. At this serendipitous moment I was in the planning stages of an expedition to northern Norway and decided to contact founder John. In the weeks that followed a friendship was formed and we ended up partnering with Outdoorfood, selecting a large number of the 5 different meals to support the journey.
Opening the postal box the first thing I noticed was the quality of the meal packaging. Other than great design and informative instructions on how to rehydrate the meals the actual packaging feels strong and superior. There’s a nice head nod to the “local” element of the brands origins and production in the way of a front of packet map to where Outdoorfoods natural ingredients are locally sourced. What I found special is that the beef comes from a local Dorset butcher and the vegetables come from a greengrocer in Chideock. This ethical and locally supported approach is a beautiful and thoughtful touch.
The sachets come in two sizes, a 135g (500 to 700 Cal) serving and a larger sachet that packs a whopping 200g (800 - 1000 Cal) serving. Flavours include a rich and beautiful Orzo Pasta Bolognese, a zingy Dal and Rice with Spinach, a deep Chilli Con Carne, an earthy Porcini Mushroom Risotto and sweet and plush Posh Pork and Beans. Within each meal is a cacophony of flavours with each real ingredient noticeable and subtle. Most dehydrated meal producers mix their ingredients after they have been separately freeze-dried, not so here. Outdoorfood cooks the complete one-pot meal like you would at home, and then dehydrates the whole meal. This means that Firepot meals have a deeper original and more authentic flavour. This is one element of many as to why they are unique in the marketplace.
With the time involved and the thoughtful process from start to finish their individual meal price start at £6.50, coming in slightly higher than most brands. To counter-act the increase they offer the taster pack for £10 bringing each meal perfectly inline with the market value of £5 per outdoor meal. I however am of the mind that you’re not only paying £6.50 for the food inside the sachet, but the effort, sustainable production and support for local producers as well, also the years of planning and research to get it to this stage. This effort is worth more than the extra £1.50, its piece of mind. This approach of the Firepot meals goes along way in a world where brands are placing more and more focus towards “local and environmental” production methods. Outdoorfoods are already here and setting the industry standard.
In summary, it’s not often you find these handful of positive elements packaged and executed in such a complete fashion. Usually there’s battle between compromising flavor to weight with the consumer losing out somewhere along the line. Not here, not in this barn, not with Firepot. These meals are now my expedition go to.
Find out more at: www.outdoorfood.com
Images 2 and 3 by Jamie Barnes - Instagram @jamiebarnesuk
I’m often asked about my favourite wild corners of the landscape to spend a night under canvas. After a scratch of the two-day stubble and wistful gaze into the distance I usually struggle with a definitive answer. I battle between Snowdonias quieter western border where the mountains meet the sea or the jagged peaks that cradle Loch Lurgainn up in North West Scotland. Each location occupies a truly wild corner of my heart and somehow satisfies a quieter more reflective side of my nature. They also can be brutal and demand that you are prepared for what Mother Nature has in store.
In the past I’ve walked the entire length of the Outer Hebrides Islands, crossed frozen pack ice in Greenland and canoed 2000 miles of the Yukon River. Where mental, physical and logistical preparations are key, kit and clothing choices play a huge role in the success and enjoyment of any adventurous journey. Whether on a narrow mountain ridge or an ancient woodland trail we want to be comfortable and equipped. Wherever you go, some sound clothing prep and foreknowledge of local weather conditions should keep you at the very least adapted and ready for whatever challenge comes along.
With that in mind I recently partnered with Blacks, the UK’s leading outdoor retailer, to road test some of their newest items of clothing. Part of Blacks approach as well as their sound product knowledge is getting live on the ground testing and feedback of their kit. To me, this is what suppliers should be doing and is what sets them apart in the UK marketplace.
On the backseat of my 4 X4 I had an Osprey Talon 44 rucksack, a super lightweight Berghaus waterproof shell, a Mountain Equipment Astron Hoody and a Berghaus Cairngorm 2 tent. I had two days off and I wanted a short sharp hit of wildness. I decided to drop into a deep wooded pocket of the Cotswolds, a valley bowl that overlooked the Severn Estuary and the fringes of Wales.
On the pack front, the Osprey Talon 44 is one of the top technical over night packs out there. It’s light, nimble and super comfortable even when loaded heavy. The Osprey design teams always pay attention to the small details that matter – The toggle whistle on the shoulder straps, the updated airscape back pad to effectively circulate air and the continuous and smooth hip belt. These made a huge overall difference to the comfort of my journey. For me the real key additions are the trekking pole attachments and the floating lid for extra capacity. This will become my go to overnight pack.
Beneath the Talon I wore the Mountain Equipment Astron Hoody in a deep red over a standard t-shirt. My initial thoughts were that this appeared to be a multi-use spacious soft shell with a crossover sporty appeal. The two Polartec fabrics provided sound windproof ability on the high ground and I felt protected by its weatherproof DWR (durable water repellency) when the drizzle threatened. One of my big plus points were the 3 adjustment options for the hood, the smooth inner fleece fabric and its overall light weight. This is a great 3-season jacket, especially for those running the trail.
As the afternoon weather darkened and began to drizzle it was time to turn to the Berghaus Fastpacking Waterproof Shell in vibrant blue. I wasn’t sure what to make of this jacket as I held it and moved it between my fingers. The material is so fine, the product so light. As I slipped this over my lightweight down jacket it felt secure and snug, an impenetrable barrier. I found it amazing how this packed so small and packed such a waterproof punch. If a tough multi day jacket is what you’re after I’d probably go for a hard shell, yet for backpacking and a day in the mountains I wouldn’t look any further than the Berghaus Fast shell, it’s a key component to a short lightweight adventure.
As dusk landed I’d found my hidden hilltop. With 360-degree view of the valley, I pulled out the Berghaus Cairngorm 2 tent. At 3.7kg it could be considered a fraction heavy for the solo light back packer or wild camper. Having said, for an adventurous duo, this is certainly a tent to consider. The four colour coded poles were easy to assemble even in low light. Once in and the cross poles pinned the tent takes shape instantly and effortlessly. Once pegged and clipped down I noticed the feature of glow in the dark guy-lines, a thoughtful and brilliant idea. The tents dual entry at its nose and spacious porch makes kit storage well away from the inner sanctuary. What I found impressive was how rock solid this tent was; I’d certainly feel safe in tough weather. All in all first time pitch was around 10 minutes. A two-person adventure cave for under £150? This is certainly worth a serious look.
For more information and to purchase the above items please visit www.blacks.co.uk
Wild Camping is mini-adventure in its purest form. When you arrive at a location, whether it’s familiar or for the first time, mountain or ancient woodland, that feeling of constructing your home for the night is unforgettable. And when the zip to the door of your sanctuary slides to the top there is an aura of security and refuge until morning comes.
Yet, with this magical experience of risk and reward, wild camping has its “legal” limitations. In England, Wales and Ireland current law states that you’re to not wild camp unless there is express permission from the landowner. Even though this framework exists the UK National Park website freely offers advice and appears wild camping friendly as long you adhere to the ethics and rules of the legal landscape. To support this perspective Dartmoor has maps of where you can camp on common land, in the Brecon Beacons you can find a list of farms that provide camp locations and in certain areas of Scotland The Scottish Outdoor Code provides you with permitted access as long as you adhere, again, to the rules and access laws that come with wild camping in that region. Lets look into that a bit deeper.
The beautiful and un-spoilt Dartmoor frequently allows wild camping on its common land as long as numbers are kept down to small groups. Also on Dartmoor it’s permitted for you to stay for two nights (no more) in the same place without asking for permission. It’s always worth confirming on your Ordnance Survey maps that access to the location is permitted prior to setting off. Understandably, these light restrictions are put in place to safeguard the parks special qualities for present and future generations.
In the rugged wild beauty of Scotland, The Outdoor Code states that access is allowed if group numbers are limited, kit is lightweight and time on location is kept to a minimum of two or three nights on one site. Also, to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers, camping in enclosed fields of crops, near farm animals and/or historic sites should be avoided. Importantly for this region extra care is to be taken to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting seasons and having an awareness of the yearly schedules and locations is advisable. To accompany the Outdoor Code seasonal byelaws have been introduced from March 2017 in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs area that state camping permits must now be obtained.
“Leave No Trace” is the wild camping code:
· Take away ALL your litter, whether created by yourself or others.
· Remove all traces of your tent pitch.
· Do not cause any pollution.
· Be responsible for your actions.
· Noise to be kept to a minimum.
· (Scotland) In permitted areas, when a fire is lit, all traces must be removed.
· Respect and protect the immediate natural environment and wildlife.
In summary, even though the legality of wild camping (on paper) says in certain regions it’s not allowed, there’s a friendly and lenient approach to this statute in most National Parks as long as we follow, with care, the No Trace Code. It’s important to remember that the byelaws and outdoor codes are there to be adhered to with foremost priority and respect being for the landowner, the natural environment and the local wildlife. It’s my firm belief that to get this right means future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy the wild places as freely as we do now.
Written exclusively for British Exploring Society.
“In every one of the paddle strokes played the song of the Alaskan wilderness. In every tribal dialect spoken was a thousand years of history passed and in every unseen turn of the river were fear, uncertainty, discovery and learning. Sitting here, near that inevitable finish line, warn and cracked fingers scribble these words with a blunt yellow pencil. The mile wide Yukon River sweeps slowly past me on its last turning leg before draining and widening at the Bering Sea“
Looking back at these words from my crushed and dog-eared journal, written 67 days into a 90-day canoe expedition, I could never have fathomed the personal impact that such a journey would have. From the very seed and inception of the idea until the day my kit bag crashed back onto the living room floor I’ve been undeniably shaped by the depth and knowledge recieved from such a unique journey. Hard physical experience and remote regions have a habit of teaching you fast but the real lessons came from the intricate conversations with tribal elders and understanding their connection to the world they live in.
Directly from my expedition journal here are four of the valuable lessons taken from Source to Sea.
1. The Power of Generosity
I believe one of the most beautiful facets of the human spirit, in any culture, is generosity. Unbeknown to me traditional customs in the tribal communities along the Yukon dictate that when a visitor is welcomed into a home, regardless of ethnic background or religion, they are treated with a distinct warm friendship and kindness. Also as a mark of respect it is custom to offer the best food available, even when in short supply. What makes this generosity unique is the food and from where it is sourced (nearby forests and rivers) and so precious the message in offering it. To them, this selfless act of giving takes on a spiritual meaning. From community to community, day after day, we experienced this same level of generosity, which only deepened my perception of this special human quality. Ultimately, I found the act of true generosity was in giving time, love and friendship and asking for nothing in return.
2. Wilderness - A Space For Wonder
The Yukon is a powerful place and the river itself is only one part of an immense living ecosystem. The landmass covers over four hundred and eighty two thousand square kilometres with much of the southern region sitting rugged and untamed. Those basic facts alone focus the attention and open the minds door for a wondrous curiosity. The lessons of immersion in such a remote environment ran deeper than the tangible grandeur, vastness and solitude of the wilderness. Such prolonged exposure afforded the time and inspiration to question the inner vastness of our spirit on a human level. Some moments opened my eyes to the immense and cyclical forces around me, yet other occasions showed the delicate intricacies of nature and the passive turning of the seasons. Not only is the wilderness a space for wonder it regularly demonstrates (on a grand and micro scale) the often beautiful and harsh balancing act of the natural world. This alone is magical.
3. Our Connection to Environment and Landscape
All of my expeditions, long or short, involve the story thread of native cultures. Within this there is my search for simplicity, wisdom and a way of life. 1st nation groups have permeated the vast Yukon River region for over ten thousand years and with that their connection to the environment and the wildlife has taken on a spiritual significance. Not only does this sacred relationship govern their way of life, it holds the key to the people and their culture. From conversations with native elders, subsistence fisherman and tribal chiefs I learnt how we as humans still require a living dynamic relationship to the landscape in order to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. And in order to deepen this connection, learning about and living close to the land was the way to achieve it. During one of those conversations I was told, “Once you have respect you care, and when you care you share, once you share you teach” – For me, these are all ways of living.
4. The River Of Life
On those long expedition nights, where darkness never fell, I would sit and be hypnotised by the influence of the river and its inevitable demise. In my journal I would sometimes contemplate how gradually I learnt about the rivers power and complexity. More so I would reflect on how our own human nature and lives subtly mimic the rivers journey. On July 28th 2016 – Day 67 – My journal read:
“Every man and woman has a river running through them. In us all there is a source, where everything begins. As we go through life the knowledge from tributaries, streams and other rivers gently feed into us, increasing confidence and flow. We learn to adjust and navigate as we face life’s rapids and turbulent waters. These obstacles do not cease our river yet they divert its course; the forward movement magnetised by something greater. As the river widens it has the power to give life and death, to move mountains and carve valleys, much as we learn find and follow passions we move the same mountains. At some points on our river the way is unclear and the next turn uncertain. By passing through with instinct and trust we learn to embrace the undefined and irregular. Finally, the once glacial droplet spills into the ocean and two of nature’s greatest forces are combined. Here, the pull of the river and the swell of the sea become a singular force of intricate systems working in tandem, much like us.“
I spent a year planning and dreaming about the Yukon descent. My waking life for that eternity was geared to making the journey happen. Top of the list was making it enjoyable. Problems and suffering was at the bottom. At times, canoes, sponsors and logistics consumed my thoughts. For months I would fall asleep at night visualising the image of myself in a canoe with a paddle gripped in my hands. This would play out like a stuttering old film using the back of my eyelids as a screen. Fast-forward one year and in a whirlwind of kit bags and printed boarding passes I was off, wholeheartedly consumed in completing the journey and coming home alive.
Returning to England was magical. To see the green fields from the plane and to hear the broad London accent of the customs officer welcomed me back like a warm hug. As I waited to be picked up, the feelings of being home anxiously fizzed in my stomach like an alka seltzer.
For the next few weeks I threw myself into a frenzy of blog posts and networking with magazines and podcasts. My mind became a hurricane of new expedition ideas and a deep crevasse of memories. Albeit an exciting period I wasn’t feeling myself. There was something that needed addressing, something far more important: a feeling of loss. I noticed these hollow moments felt as if I’d lost a dear friend. Like leaving them behind alone on another continent, never to speak again. I couldn’t decipher how I felt other than I longed to be back in the unsophisticated and lucid world of my journey. I found the feeling of loss was down to leaving my friend, the expedition, behind.
Life on the Yukon had a simplistic beauty and this is what I missed. We would wake, eat, paddle for four hours, eat, paddle for another four hours, eat and sleep. We had a target mileage each day and a clear objective. I was important, we were important, the journey was important. This way of life made sense to me in a place only my DNA could reach. In the canoe I had everything I needed to succeed; Food, water, tents, spare paddles, my journal and a direction of travel. Everything else I could live without. For three months this river routine stripped away my previous exterior and brought my character and soul back to a meditative and tranquil footing via a wilderness cleansing. In the act of coming home and losing this i’d now discovered how I wanted to live - Outdoors and with simplicity. With fire and with passion.
Today I can feel my daily choices and decisions silently being driven by the positive imprint of the expedition and not the sensation of what I left behind. I’ve found more than ever, that I have a deep desire to live the simple and creative outdoor life. The transparency and effect of living this way now permeates through me like water seeping through rock, positively changing its structure.
I can still feel that my friend the river is out there somewhere, alive and waiting for me to return. Even though the texture of loss still remains it now serves a different purpose as a helpful reminder to what has been and what immense feats can be achieved. It’s with those nostalgic feelings in tow that I re-load my canoe with a ferocious forward thinking positivity while not forgetting to appreciate and remember my river. From here I look to the future, to the next chapter and a bright new horizon.
Every journey we take has the potential to inspire, challenge, shape and teach us. These journeys can be as simple as a walk in your local park to a major expedition across oceans and to the top of mountains. It is important to note that we are talking about outdoor journeys in this article, although there is incredible value in exploring the world and your life from within your own mind and your own home. Today we want to talk about the range of benefits that outdoor exploration and journeys can provide us and what we believe to be the most powerful regions of discovery.
There is no doubt that the magic starts from the spark of an idea and continues through every single stage of the journey - from planning logistics to the physical undertaking of the adventure to sharing your story with the wider world. Both of us have done our fair share of adventuring around the world - we’ve climbed mountains, canoed rivers, sailed oceans - but we’ve also explored and enjoyed our local backyards, parks, beaches in the UK and Canada. We hope this will inspire you to see adventure everywhere you look and will encourage you to undertake journeys of all shapes and sizes as well as reflect on those you’ve taken already. They truly are one of the most rewarding experiences you will have in your life - so let’s get exploring.
As you travel through a new environment filled with unfamiliar smells, sights, sounds and faces - one of the first regions of discovery is cultural. People, whether it’s in your local town, a global city or a mountain village half way across the world, are fascinating. Their lifestyles, behaviours, values and also their connection and relationships to one another and the world around them often appear magical and vastly different. Exposing ourselves to different cultures is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling and adventure. It’s a chance to experience and learn about different ways of living and interacting with the planet.
But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on your own culture. The version of the world you grew up in, that’s shaped you and the culture you choose to, or currently, live in. If you are coming from cultures similar to ours - urban city centres or even small towns and villages in North America or Europe - very often with international and remote expeditions, you will have the chance to experience cultures and communities that have a very different worldview and relationship to one another and the environment around them. We encourage you to be open, curious and respectful to other cultures as you plan, experience and share your journey. This can be one of the richest and most fulfilling aspects of your adventure and if given the chance, it has the potential to shift and shape your thoughts, behaviours and approaches to all or many aspects of your life.
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons we as human beings undertake journeys, is to experience far off places and new environments. Our need, or in most cases, is to discover and explore the world is deeply rooted within us. However, as anyone who is planning an adventure will soon realise - there are fewer and fewer “new” places to discover and so we must be innovative and creative in the ways that we approach journeys.
Instead, we think there is a different form of discovery - not of “new” spaces and places - but instead, the discovery of Environmental awareness and connection. Anywhere you travel will be new to you. Never forget that. But the way that we experience these diverse ecosystems and environments matters - we encourage you to take journeys that will demand a close interaction with the ground, water, flora and fauna of the place you are exploring. This direct and intimate experience allows us to reflect on the interconnectedness of the world and our role within that wider web of relationships.
When you experience different cultures, one of the most fascinating aspects is how people around the world relate and act toward their environment. As mentioned in the cultural piece above, if you are from urban areas, towns or villages in North America or Europe - despite your best efforts and intentions - our societies have become increasingly disconnected from our ancestral environment. When we experience cultures that rely on nature to stay alive, like the Yukon, or we rely on the environment to keep ourselves alive on remote expeditions, we tend to reconnect to the planet and learn or re-learn that it provides everything we need to not only survive but to thrive! In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, it accounts for human need but not for human greed. This return to simplicity and direct reliance on the environment around us often creates and strengthens our connection to the world.
When reflecting on adventures we’ve undertaken, both of us agreed that the region of Personal discovery is undeniably interwoven and creates the foundation for all other regions of discovery. But, there are aspects of it that deserve to be separately explored. We believe there are three distinct parts of the personal experience of journeys that are powerful and enlightening to the adventurer. These are Psychological, Physical & Spiritual aspects, and they can be seen as smaller internal journeys within the trip as a whole.
The psychological journey you experience when on an expedition or adventure will often be characterised by your interaction with other people (or lack thereof) and yourself. If undertaking the journey alone or as part of a team, each will have it’s own sets of strengths, drawbacks and psychological challenges.
When adventuring as part of a team or alone, we have the opportunity to learn in-depth and first-hand about interpersonal relationships with others and our selves. When travelling with others, you tend to learn very quickly about people’s likes and dislikes, annoying habits, skills, characteristics and things you can learn and teach one another. What’s actually most powerful about experiencing journeys with other people - in some cases under pressure and in life-or-death situations - is that it provides us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on all of these different aspects in ourselves and how we show up in the world.
As with mental resilience, physical resilience plays an equally integral and interconnected role in adventure. Just as you train physically for endurance and the challenges you will face - so you train your mind.
It is so important and educational to listen to your body when you are on a journey. Your safety and health must come first, but learning the difference between a life threatening exhaustion and just “feeling the strain” is vital. Obviously, you wouldn’t head out on a 3-month canoeing expedition having never canoed before - that’s a no-brainer. However, it is the training of your mind alongside your body that can make all the difference. It will allow you to understand when you have gone to far (and are putting yourself or your teammates at risk) or knowing when there is more gas in the tank and you can push further. It is amazing that on expeditions, people always surprise themselves with their ability to physically and mentally overcome obstacles when needed. This is a sign of good overall preparation.
This is an aspect of the personal journey that takes different forms for different people, but it is an integral part of any expedition. For some it is feeling a greater connection to a deity or a closer connection to nature and the earth - this is an aspect almost always experienced in one form or another. We encourage you to be open to this - to feel it, explore it, explain it to others if you can and talk about how it affects you. It may be moments shared with your teammates, or on your own. It may be a view that takes your breathe away or a feeling of complete calm as you sit by the fire. It may be the case that your exposure to other cultures will also create or enhance your spiritual experience while on your journey. In cultures that have strong beliefs about deities, spirits and the earth - your likelihood of having a profound spiritual experience are increased. Above all, seek your own version of this and if you choose not to seek it, at least be open to it finding you - we are confident it will.
One of the most incredible parts of being on an any journey is the physical and psychological spatial separation from everyday stresses of money, commuting, work, social media - to name a few. Expeditions and journeys allow us the gift of survival and simplicity. Our main tasks for each day are getting from Point A to Point B and living to tell the tale. It’s a pretty liberating experience - but as with any adventure not without it’s moments of fear and frustration. However, the challenges faced out on adventures have very different manifestations and are often simpler than what we face at home - in the sense that they can and need to be dealt with straight away. There is no ignoring blisters on your feet when you are hiking for 9 hours a day, just as there is only one way to deal with a confrontation between you and your teammate. You don’t ignore things, you don’t procrastinate. you solve things and you solve them as fast as you can. No time for anything but forward movement. It’s a glorious approach to life that we’ve unfortunately become unfamiliar with.
As you undertake a journey, there is guaranteed to be at least one moment where you feel breathless with the vastness of the world, how small we all are and how short our time is here. For some it might be bobbing on a sailboat in the middle of an ocean, for others it might be sat on the edge of a cliff staring over endless swathes of pristine forest, or maybe it’s just lying in your tent listening to the rainfall around you. Regardless, these are magic moments. The piece of space and time when you have a choice to make. You can choose to see yourself as insignificant and powerless or you can choose to try and understand where you fit within this world and explore your sphere of influence. This is the influential region of discovery.
These moments are an opportunity to reflect and understand that your actions inspire others. We believe that ninety-five percent of the people you inspire in your life you will never know about. This is the curse but also the blessing of the modern world - we are increasingly connected yet disconnected. You can reach people with your stories of adventure and meaningful thoughts - yet most will not let you know that your actions shaped their values and behaviours. So just as we shape others through our experiences and stories - we are shaped ourselves. There are many interwoven and empowering experiences that join together to create the larger journey - your journey. We encourage you to be open to the magic that happens when you choose to adventure and please allow yourself to explore all of these regions of discovery.
We promise you won’t regret it.
Pic (1) Credit: Tom Long
After school I didn’t think much about attending a writing course. I also didn’t go to university to study English or journalism. If I became inspired I would write on the nearest notepad, paper or napkins. Early on my writing had a theme but no point; it had feeling but no structure. I would try to describe how a landscape appeared to me, or the intricacies of a bird in flight and sometimes the visceral feelings of being exhausted and cold. I would wake up at 4am, write (sometimes on the toilet) and go back to sleep. I often struggled to write about things where I wasn’t presently or directly involved. Years passed as I followed an almost instinctive urge to write. I had no destination in mind. I did it for the love, the creative rush and the release.
Becoming older the creative growth mirrored the spiritual and physical journey. Travel (and later expeditions) became a lightning rod to the writing process with all its visceral sensations and emotions. Exposure to new and ancient cultures plugged me into an overwhelming landscape of inspiration. Never before did I feel more creative than when I was part of a human story in a remote environment, the two arms of the wishbone were converging. It had taken me 25 years to discover that my writing path was leading me here to discover, create and share a different kind of story. It was here, amongst the tiredness and discovery of expeditions and adventure, that I’d finally found my voice.
Today, travel writing is a widely competitive market. Never before have there been more ways get your stories read and published. From free blogs, competitions and magazines, there’s a myriad of options at your disposal. That of the “niche” expedition writing is somewhat more difficult. Like the expeditions themselves, they are few and far between and success here is momentary. This world relies on a specific circumstance aimed at a narrow and highly specialised marketplace. Yet, launching yourself into either direction is certainly achievable with regular content and being dog-eared persistent. On that note, I’d love to share my four tips that you might find useful:
1. Find Your Niche.
Your niche will be linked directly to your passions. When you write this will be your voice, your standpoint and your view of the world. You will determine your niche by what you write about, directly categorising your content. Start writing now, throw yourself in and enter the market. Identify areas where other travel writers aren’t focusing and bring your voice consistently to the table. See where you’re making progress, acknowledge what doesn’t work and don’t worry if your writing doesn’t fit in with the normal travel framework. Being different means you are unique and people are drawn towards the unique.
2. Listen To Your Passion and Values.
Possibly the most important point of all. Your destinations, what you write about and how you write will be driven by your passions and values. When you begin, if you’re writing from a place of passion, you’ll be carving your niche with every letter. You’ll notice huge differences when you write about something you’re interested in rather than something you’re not. One will flow like a powerful river; and one the water will run dry very quickly. Find a subject matter, destination or way of life that makes you feel most alive and drawn to. Follow that trail of breadcrumbs, it will lead you somewhere special.
3. Know the Point of Your Piece.
This is something that I had to work on a lot. Up until a few years ago I frequently over wrote my work. Before you begin the writing process have a clear vision of what you are trying to say and what you’re trying to get across. Remember, the reader is not standing in your shoes, put them there with words. So be creative, clear and concise as to what point your piece is making. Always start your work from a place of value and finish with a take away lesson.
4. Development, Persistence and Feedback.
There is no failure, only feedback, it’s that simple. Keep writing, keep making mistakes and keep evolving. I look at writing as important as the beating of my own heart, without it i’m a ship left on the dock. With that, feedback and criticism can be hard to swallow, as writing is intensely personal. Let it fly because feedback will consistently make you a more effective and dynamic writer. What I’ve learnt is that with any skill, accepting, learning and applying feedback is key to development. Persistence is the engine driving you to your destination.
Even though the technical aspects of writing are certainly pivotal for success, the true creativity and depth of your writing will come from your unique experience and passionate standpoint.
Images by Jay Kolsch at www.jaykolsch.com
Over the years I’ve found inspiration comes from many sources. Photography, film, people and literature – All have the power to shape lives and light an internal fire. I’ve often found illumination in the adventurous journeys of others; ones that share a chronicle of a life lived fully. Yet, up until recently I’d barely thought to look towards the much younger generation as a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s because I’m not a father yet and my time spent with children as a whole has been limited to the rare experiences I’ve had with my nephew.
The catalyst for this post smoldered inside me as I drove home from a day spent with 4 to 9 year olds at Grow Your Own Nature School in Bath. GYOS is a beautiful and humbling education project. Set amongst the serene hills of the Cotswold’s the focus of the nature school is to develop social and emotional skills, promote child led projects and incorporate social and environmental sustainability into their learning. All this is done within the framework of leadership and inspiring staff that use nature and the outdoor experience as their classroom.
I’d arrived with my pre-planned delivery of the Yukon expedition story. I was primed to spark fire in the hearts of a new band of explorers and illuminate the beacon of adventure and worldly curiosity. As I stood in front of the children and we began to speak I soon became aware of their already passionate and collective interest in the outdoors. Little did I know that this was no ordinary school and that I was about to get a crash course in living and learning from children 28 years my junior, here’s why:
When my talk was finished the children shared one thing they were grateful for whilst holding a wooden stick. The stick represents the child’s chance to speak without group interruption and for the others to respect this moment (A Native American tradition). At lunch we sang songs around the fire giving thanks for the food and nature. Also at the end of the day the kids shared one person they were grateful for and one word that expressed how they felt in that moment. Gratitude became the wonderful thread holding the happiness together.
Throughout the day the children continued to inspire me with their vibrancy and endless curiosity for the world. There was a fearlessness and endeavor to their questions that I adored. In everything I sensed inquisitiveness and a desire for understanding. In an adult world full of responsibility and social pressure sometimes we forget to always remain curious and interested in other people and the world. To do this with a child like sense of wonder can only impact our lives in a beautiful way.
Once the talk had come to a close the children acknowledged, whilst holding the wooden stick, their individual thanks and appreciation for what they enjoyed most about the Yukon story. It was humbling to find that some of the most interesting aspects of the story were those moments of risk and challenge. I sensed growth in not only the children’s awareness but in my appreciation of those virtues of patience, listening and acknowledgement.
4) Nature, The Worlds Best Teacher
Nature is the greatest teacher and the outdoors is the finest classroom. From the short time I spent with these children I was humbled to see how this nature based free play and outdoor learning was positively impacting these children to a degree I’d rarely seen. I witnessed happiness and a free state of spirit in this diverse play experience that I’m sure could only contribute to their healthy development. It appeared that their time spent outdoors and their gratitude for nature was the ultimate framework for their educational and emotional growth.
Anna, one of the founders said it beautifully: “We very much feel that pioneering the Green House Education Project approach to living and learning has and is a wild adventure, driven by an invisible call to finding a better way, to live, to be, to learn and to raise the next generation for a better, more compassionate, connected and peaceful world.”
Amen to that.
I’m a self taught amateur, a buffoon and by no means an expert when it comes to filming my adventures. In fact all I can share is my limited experience, the lessons learnt and things I’ve found that worked for me.
I would like you to know that I haven’t completed an expensive film-making course, had a cozy one to one with expert or spent my hard earned wages on a superior DSLR that can do the hard graft for me. What I have done is use the best camera and lens on my budget (which isn’t much), watched to see how other adventure films are produced and made a lot of good mistakes out on the ground, mistakes I learnt from the hard way.
I’ve always had a deep love for imagery. For the most part it was for still pictures but over the last year and half cinematography and short filmmaking has breathed a new creative life into my adventures and the overall expression of the journey. There are so many benefits to learning the old school way through college courses, online tutorials and alike but that doesn’t mean you can’t start now and create something worthwhile without the tuition, in todays world its never been easier. I won’t bore you with models and makes, as it doesn’t really matter what you to start with. In the early stages concentrate your initial efforts on the content, the “why” of the story and the characters within the story that people will have the emotional connection to – that’s worth more of your valuable time than spending money on an expensive and complicated camera.
What I’d love to share with you today is some of the basic film making principles I used to make my 4-minute film “Upon A Ribbon of Wildness”.
· Let the story move you, before you move the story
All of my journeys involve moving through a region on foot or by canoe, preferably remote, that still has links to an ancient culture that I can learn from, for me that’s really important. On this occasion the isolated Scottish Islands of The Outer Hebrides offered a beautiful backdrop and the Gaelic speaking crofting people provided the rich human history. Where are you going to go in your film and “why” are you going? What’s going to take place and will you be the only person involved? Think about your story before you go, what is the core question?
· Shoot a lot but shoot smart (5 Shot rule)
Use a tripod to steady your camera before every shot. Seat it firm and level recording for 10 seconds or more at a time. Keep something of interest in the fore ground; mid ground and background, this will give the shots balance and depth. When filming a scene take a wide establishing shot first, then close in for a mid (range) shot. Shoot 2 close ups that show an interesting detail and take one creative shot. I followed this rule numerous times a day throughout my time in Hebrides.
Because of the continual strong winds in the Hebrides I had trouble recording good sound, even when sheltered. If you intend on including audio make it the best you possibly can. If you use poor audio it could potentially ruin all your efforts in making a polished film. If you decide to use an external microphone (Rode Videomic Pro or similar) use a deadcat (wind protector) and record the dialogue out of the wind.
· Editing – don’t be precious
Remember this is a short story; keep it concise, varied and interesting – 3 to 4 minute tops. Include those shots where you feel immersed, sideline the ones that feel ordinary. Be tough with scene choices and don’t be precious. We want to entertain and inspire the viewer by keeping their emotions engaged. “Don’t edit from knowledge, edit from feeling” - Michael Kahn
· Have fun, lots of fun
Record the funny times, the bad times and the tired cranky times. When you want to scream those are the moments to film. Be a fool, make mistakes and always remember that every film you make is a huge learning experience. Let trial and error be your best friend, casting away the perfectionism and self-doubt. Aim to entertain, educate and inspire from the heart and not for recognition. Aim to make a film that moves you and is important to you and don’t be discouraged if progress takes time.
The islands of Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Benbencula, South Uist lay behind me reaching north under the constant churn of the gulf stream. From the rugged mountains of Harris to the soft fertile coast of South Uist each island had its own feel, temperament and identity but there was one island left, and one that was to be the most special of all, Barra.
As I stood next to my dew-covered dwelling on the morning of my last day, I could feel the early glow of the sun on the back on my neck. The tent entrance fluttered in the breeze as the hot sugary caffeine of my coffee began to work its magic. In the background I could hear bubbling water boiling for a second time ready to hydrate my porridge oats. After the mother of all sunsets yesterday I was ready for today but desperately tired. My feet screamed for a day off. My right wrist, badly strained after constant work with the trekking pole, had given up to the point where I couldn’t even brush my teeth without severe shooting pains. There was only one day left, two tops, so the pain could be suffered.
From my flat wild camping spot ten metres above the benign sea I had clear line of sight up the valley past the village of Borgh and up to the summits of Hartabhal and Heabhal. The unmarked route would take me east through the village and up to the H shaped saddle between the peaks, then south up onto the highest summit on the island, Heabhal. I’d decided that this was my finishing point of the entire Hebridean journey and a place I was itching to reach. As I rolled away the tent and painfully tightened the laces to my boots I peered over my left shoulder. I savoured the crimson glimmer of the sunrise and the final cry of the seabirds. These are sights and sounds so beautiful, they would cast a spell.
Past the village of Borgh I made my way from the local tarmac road up onto a muddy trail with quad tyre tracks sunken deep into the silky mud. I knew from the map this led to a new wind turbine adjacent to a loch at a height of two hundred and sixteen metres above sea level. The route up was steep, uneven and hard going but, saving my energy, I was very aware the most testing climbing was still to come. As I leaned with my back against the cold grey metal of the turbine I could see down into the village of Borgh. I smiled as an energetic border collie chased the bright red local Post Office van on its early morning mail run.
Setting my sights on the H shaped saddle between the two summits I envisaged my proposed route and followed it with my eyes checking for dangerous drop-offs or vertical gradients. It looked ruthless, lung bursting and emotional – just how I liked it. As I crested the next ridge in front of me the southwesterly wind, to which I’d been shielded, hit me sideways, blowing me off my unstable footing. I estimated the relentless gusts to be at 35-40mph.
As I lay in the saddle I savoured the chewy goodness of my last flapjack, I was now out of food. I tucked in tight behind my rucksack away from the wind in a small indentation in the hill. I could feel the damp of the wet heather on my back intruding on my break time, urging me to get up and keep moving. From my position in the grass I could see my very final destination of Castlebay sitting in a closed valley to the south. It’s iconic castle sitting two hundred metres alone out to sea, hauntingly old and injured by years surrounded by the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Up on my feet again I looked up to the steep face of Heabhal. I caught glimpses of the whale shaped summit through the rolling mist that enveloped the peak. There was no path or standard route up, I would have to zig zag through the deep spongy heather and overhanging cliffs. My steps were labored and painful, my strained wrist tucked uselessly into my trouser pocket. My lungs forcibly thrusting air out as quickly as I could suck it in. I would zig zag every twenty feet picking rocky points to stop and catch my breath. This reduced to fifteen feet, ten feet then five as the climb became steeper and the heather became deeper. The anxieties of modern life were distant memories as I was thrust into the present by having to concentrate on each upward step. I would look up, take fifteen steps and look up again, willing the invisible summit closer and closer with a random sequence of expletives.
Onward and upwards until finally the ground to my west began to level and clear and the ground in front harden and stretch out to a narrow summit ridge. When I caught a glimpse of its apex, I stopped, withholding this inevitable moment. Looking with a lump in my throat – I estimated thirty paces would signify an end to the whole journey. My eyes darted left to the expansive view, which stretched out for thirty miles over the lower Hebrides. The memories of passing through those wild and remote places played out like an old stuttering film. I could see the white tips of the waves buffeting the small fishing boats coming into the harbour below, the sea being their highway. Walking forwards, the cold and ferocious summit wind became irrelevant, the pain in my feet and arm draining away. As I sat on my rucksack, using the ancient rock as a backrest I leaned in pulled up the hood to my jacket and zipped it up to my chin. In a daze, I nestled into this secluded rock face and took stock of everything I’d experienced on this unique and graceful collection of islands.
Walking the old way, using old routes and pathways meant a certain freedom. A freedom to see the islands as the people did for centuries before modern roads brought tourism and the car; ultimately I found a freedom of spirit and a culture proud of their rich and ancient heritage. These are islands of song, fable and legend, Islands of crofters, fishermen and tweed weavers. I found the real value here, even in the modern day, lies in the eternal link between the people and the land, and that is what I dreamed of finding. Through the greater scaffolding of adventure, I managed to weave a path between richness and struggle that ultimately added to the sense of growth and achievement that I felt. As I sat shivering with my back high up against some of the oldest rock in the world I surveyed the scene for the last time, tucked my knees up into my chest and closed my eyes. My thoughts drifted to Yukon.
As I stepped off the small local bus my boot reached the uneven damp tarmac. The straps of my heavy rucksack pinched my skin as I hauled it onto my shoulders. Since leaving London I’d been travelling twenty seven hours until this point and I’d slept all of six. As I watched the red taillights disappear on the road over the Lewis moor I stood still to take stock of my surroundings. It was 11pm and four yellow streetlights illuminated the small crossroad where I was standing. Through the fine drizzle I could make out three houses with small gardens, blue wooden doors, all windows dark. From here I turned north and followed a small tarmac road no wider than six feet. At the end of this road was the furthest north I could physically go on this expedition and in the Outer Hebrides as a whole, marking this point was a stone lighthouse, the Butt of Lewis. From here I would walk one hundred and eighty miles south through the six islands in eleven days.
After twenty minutes I could begin to make out the eerie sweeping rotation of the lamp from the unmanned lighthouse, its strong beam illuminating the rugged coast every few seconds. Silence was everywhere apart from the odd crashing wave or crunch of a stone underfoot. As I approached the lighthouse the scene felt ghostly. Deserted buildings, a deep mist and of course the towering cylindrical building sat black and unassuming. I found a small flattish bed of grass twenty feet from the cliffs which was sheltered from the south westerly wind. I put my rucksack down and pulled out the tent. The gentle dark breeze flapped its fabric as I fed in the pole and pulled it back tight into position.
As the morning light flooded the tent, I popped my head out to get a bearing of my new cliff top home. As my bleary eyes adjusted to the bright green carpet underneath I was startled by a loud barking noise deep below the cliffs. Walking barefoot towards the ocean I noticed four seals bobbing around in the deep blue surf below me, they were my alarm call. I heard the cry of seagulls as they weaved and bobbed through the ancient black rocks. I stood in awe of the mighty power of the ocean here. The Hebrides lies as the final frontier to the restless Atlantic and is prone to violent weather but today she offered me a swirling breeze and blue skies. Day one, I’ll take that.
The breakfast of porridge and raw nuts went down with ease. As I packed up and said farewell to the start point my first step was southeast. I hand railed the coastline for two miles until I could see the village in the distance that I stood at the night before. My route led me through the Port of Ness, a small modern fishing community, and up a small road past a tiny disused post office. Under my feet I noticed the tarmac road leaving the town merged into an uneven cobbled track, from here it would lead me onto the infamous Lewis Moor. From my research I’d learned about this notorious location which spans one hundred and twenty squares miles on the Isle of Lewis. Mainly consisting of peat, water and bog it’s famous for being hard to negotiate at any point of the year.
My direct route of twelve miles would take me straight through the middle following an ancient trade path. I had previously decided to keep this whole journey as authentic as possible by using old pathways that linked the crofting communities from one to another. I knew that if I could bridge these old pathways together, through each island, I would walk in the footsteps of people that had thrived in this harsh yet beautiful landscape. More Importantly I would see the islands as they saw it, from their perspective.
Passing an old sign that lead onto the moor it warned of the dangers of crossing terrain such as this alone. I took on the advice, ate a flapjack and continued anyway. I knew from my map that at some stage the cobbled track would become a footpath and at some stage this footpath would die out. After this I deduced that I would have to follow a compass bearing and the two feet high green poles that were scattered over the moor directing safe passage. This would lead me to the sands of Toldsta, my wild camping destination for the day. I stood still looking down to where the cobbles ran no more, the pack now beginning to strain my shoulders painfully. Looking out across the moor all I could do was follow my bearing and use the contours of the ground as efficiently as I could. The terrain resembled Iceland’s interior; Barron, undulating, wet and unforgiving. As I moved onto the moor the ground felt as if it was in continual movement. It was impossible to walk in a straight line. The vibrant browns and greens of the heather sat on top of deep black water and peat and every step felt like it was my turn to sink through to my knees. After counting every fifty paces I’d check the bearing, pick a point on the horizon and keep an eye on my foot placement.
With the heavy weight of my pack pushing down each step, progress was painfully slow. I came across a beautiful old ruin amongst an abandoned settlement, which gave me some respite from the slow advancement on the moor. After exploring its roofless walls my bearing cut back onto the moor where I negotiated valleys and streams and a wavering compass needle. Hour after hour I battled the endless unforgiving terrain, my trekking pole disappearing up to the handle moments before I had decided to step on its very spot. Backtracking became second nature. Stepping and leaping onto the thicker lighter clumps gained me progress. The sounds of rare birds and silence offering me dreamlike distraction. My watch told me I had been on here six hours, that’s slow progress by anyone’s standards. I was worn, wet and tired but I had made it to the resemblance of an old footpath that ran south from an abandoned cottage. Following it down through the ankle deep purples of the heather I crossed the “Bridge to Nowhere” with a sign that pointed back across the moor from which I’d come. How apt that name was. The moor was testing, even in summer; In winter it would be a deathtrap.
Every inch of the moor was beautiful and naturally diverse. Such a unique habitat breeds astonishing wildlife, harbouring buzzards and eagles overhead and monster trout in its remotely situated Lochs. As I crested the final hill I looked down excitedly to the small town of Toldsta only a few miles away, it’s houses perched neatly on the grassy hillside overlooking the Atlantic sea. The unmistakable Hebridean sheep sat still in their cobbled enclosures and white smoke puffed from the chimneys all across the valley. I had visions of the warm fire burners crackling away, the smell of stews in the ovens and families around old varnished oak tables. I smiled and hoped they would invite me in as I passed by. Yet I continued south, forever heading south.