STOVES, OPEN FIRES AND CAMP FOOD

Written in chalk on a slab of Cornish slate, one of our signs at the recent Bushcraft Show invited questions, any questions, on the subject of canoes or canoe camping.

Our Bushcraft Show signs.
Our Bushcraft Show signs.

As hoped, this resulted in some fascinating discussions. Show visitors arrived at our lakeside camp from far and wide, not just homes in the UK, but also from a surprising number of overseas locations, including Ireland, France, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Brazil and South Africa. And these are just the countries I can remember.

Queries ranged from subjects I’d expected, such as canoe or paddle choice, loading patterns and favourite Scottish lochs, to include tent peg and dry bag preferences, insect repellent effectiveness, suitable footwear, camera protection, Scandinavian access legislation (it’s all good news) and impromptu sails and rigging. Even the merits of different steering strokes were considered.

Food choice and food preparation also featured high on the topic list (which was great, as Susannah and I like talking about camp food), and one of the questions we were asked more than once was whether we cooked on our Eldfell stove.

June on Loch Etive, Scotland - with our stove in action.
Late May on Loch Etive, Scotland – with our stove in action.

As the show is held each year at the end of May (and it’s never cold in England in May of course), we’d only chosen to take this impressive piece of kit along with us as a demonstration piece. We thought it might be useful for anyone with a stove related question if they could actually see it. A few days later, with fresh snow on the mountaintops around our Scottish loch shore camp, and heavy squalls of rain beating down on the tent every hour or so, we were very pleased with this decision. The year may have now progressed almost to June, but the stove was soon lit, and we could answer that showground question with a string of hot, tasty meals.

Stove cooking.
Stove cooking.

Within reason, neither of us like to view camp meals as second rate to anything we might produce at home. There are limitations of course, and some ingredients (only a few mind) really can’t be taken. But just because we’re travelling by canoe doesn’t mean that we need to leave the essentials behind (or what we see as essentials at least), and our wannigan will still carry, olive oil, garlic, risotto rice, eggs, hard cheese, fresh veg and fruit and a fairly wide range of herbs and spices. Besides, we can always add to our on-board stock with a little foraging and fishing.

Wet wether camp kitchen.
Wet wether camp kitchen.

Wild fennel can often be found on the cliffs that overlook a good bass-filled bay for example, while samphire might well clothe a nearby salt flat in bright green. Dulce grows happily at many coastal locations, and tastes excellent fried with onions and potatoes, served with a very fresh mackerel or two. Lingonberries are there in profusion in any August Swedish wood, ready to join vinegar and more onions to produce a good tart relish. Blueberries fall in amongst our breakfast oats on most Scandinavian summer mornings, and chantarelle mushrooms or ceps (in France; penny-buns in England or Karl Johan in Sweden) can often be found to enrich a savoury dish after only a little woodland scrutiny. The appetising list could go on…

Lingonberry sauce beginnings.
Lingonberry relish beginnings.

Then it’s back to our campsite to cook up the mixed carried/collected goodies.

Reindeer burgers and chips, with lingonberry relish, all cooked on an open fire.
Home(camp)made reindeer burgers and chips, with lingonberry relish, all cooked on an open fire.

Occasionally, where local legislation or drought precludes the use of a wood fire, we’ll employ our gas stove – a two-burner, car-camping model, with a large orange gas canister at the end of a long length of reinforced rubber hose. This is fine, but we both much prefer using wood.

Filleting Norwegian coalfish.
Filleting Norwegian coalfish.

In almost all cases the cooking tool of choice will be an open fire, usually lit at the top of a beach or on the shingle alongside our chosen lake or river. With strong feelings about keeping any impact as small as possible, we use only dead wood, usually driftwood, building a fire that is rarely much larger than the pans held on two lengths of angle-iron overhead. It’s often surprising how little fuel is needed. And the end result, once the meal is prepared? Perhaps a small handful of ash.

Scottish main course.
Scottish main course.

Of course when the heavens decide to open, we usually move indoors (or inflap), when our Eldfell comes into play. Once a little birch bark has sparked the fire into life, food and dry clothes are ours. At cold times of year, the stove will heat us as well as our meals.

Swedish pudding.
Swedish blueberry pudding.

BBC COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE

BBC Countryfile Magazine is 100 issues old.

100cover

To celebrate, they’ve produced a summer special with over 50 adventure ideas, including my guide to canoe camping.

For those who don’t find a chance to see the magazine (which includes, amongst others, John Craven, George Monbiot, Helen Skelton, Chris Packham and Matt Baker), here is a link to a slightly slimmed down version of my article.

CAMERAS, TRIPODS, LENSES (AND WATER)

Releasing the Nikon from its triple dry bag protection.
Releasing the Nikon from its triple dry bag protection.

One of the first comments to ping onto my laptop screen when I launched this website suggested I write something about the photographic kit I use. Happy to oblige, here it is.

While trying to ensure quality, it’s a pretty simple collection (and by that I probably mean portable). Before including weather protection, it really only comprises three items.

Bought in Cardiff in 1989, my tripod certainly represents the oldest piece in the collection. At the time this Benbo Trekker seemed frighteningly expensive, particularly with the addition of the ball-and-socket head, but must represent one of my best value for money outdoor kit purchases. Despite a demanding life, the Benbo has never let me down. Considering the treatment it’s received over the decades, this lanky collection of sliding black tubes even manages to look remarkably new. Most importantly it bends and turns in almost every direction, before locking tight with just one twist of the hand. As a result it’s almost unbelievably versatile, and can be set up anywhere, no matter how uneven the ground (or van roof, or tree). No other tripod I’ve used comes anywhere close to coping with the reality of rough terrain.

The Nikon/Benbo combination in action, taken by Susannah with a Canon S95.
The Nikon/Benbo combination in action, taken by Susannah with a Canon S95.

As for the cameras, I’ve stuck with the same basic combination for some years now, slowly improving each component.

Aware that many photographers tend to fall (sometimes quite passionately) into either the Nikon or Canon camp, this pairing is perhaps a little odd, comprising a DSLR form the former and a compact from the other. Following a ‘robust’ Moscow Olympics edition Zenith (bought in 1982) my first Nikon SLR, or I should say Nikkormat, was very second-hand, and built, I think, in the 1960s. This was followed by a Nikon FE2, then an FM, before a leap into the digital age with a D100. My current Nikon is a D7000. I can’t fault it.

For almost all my outdoor work, this camera is teamed with a Nikkor ED 18-35m lens, which seems to cover most requirements pretty well. As a permanent fixture, the lens carries a circular aluminium mount for my sole graduated Lee filter.

Compact cameras do pose a bit of a problem, but not in finding a good one. That’s pretty easy these days, especially if you buy a pricier Canon. The difficulty lies in deciding where to put them.

As a canoeing photographer the problem is that I either stash the camera away safely in something waterproof, and then don’t take any pictures, or have it available for action, and, every now and again, pay the price. Having recently lost my second compact to the water’s very effective electronic altering clutches (this time during a swim in the Welsh Dee) I’m now the very happy owner of a G7X. Like my last Canon (only even more so) it packs a lot of photographic oomph into something small and light enough to be carried around my neck (when conditions allow that is).

Inevitably, with my ability to prove that digital cameras really don’t take well to bathing, everything needs to be stored somewhere safe during our frequent canoe trips (and I’ve noticed a tendency for rain in north-west Europe too).

This photo seems to include everything - blue barrel and Nikon, Benbo leaning against the Prospector, Curtec pot, with the Canon compact in action taking the shot.
This photo seems to include everything – blue barrel and Nikon, Benbo leaning against the Prospector and Curtec pot, with the Canon compact in action (thanks to Susannah again) taking the shot.

All manner of waterproof systems have therefore been tried over the years. The compact, along with my van keys and mobile phone, goes (or evidently should go) into a wonderful little plastic pot with a cheery red lid, made by the Dutch company Curtec (thank you the Hampshire Gents). Double, or even triple dry-bagging is a cheap, and probably pretty effective way to keep the SLR dry, but does tend to get in the way of actually taking photographs.

For quite a while now I’ve used a small blue plastic barrel for the Nikon, but even this takes some time to get into, particularly as I never could quite bring myself to trust the seal and tended to dry-bagged each item anyway.

Recently, a very generous resident of north Wales gave me an ex-military Explorer case. This now holds the Nikon safe, sound and dry, while allowing almost immediate access. Problem sorted (I hope).

Benbo and Curtec pot, loaded for the off.
Benbo and Curtec pot, loaded for the off.

SONG OF THE BRITISH PADDLE

Anyone lucky enough to visit Scotland will soon discover just how beautiful a country it is, and the uplifting experience isn’t just restricted to viewing the glory of its hills, lochs and glens from afar. A decade ago, at the stroke of a legislative pen, a rather wonderful change took place north of the border.

With some perhaps unexpected revelations The Song of the British Paddle, written for the US magazine Canoe and Kayak, takes a brief look at the access situation experienced by British kayakers and canoeists. It should soon be obvious why Scotland is now so important to UK hill walkers, climbers, mountaineers, skiers, backpackers, kayakers… and canoe campers.

At the heart of the account lies the the reason I was able to write a Canoe Camping book at all, and why Susannah and I have just returned from another stunning Caledonian visit.