KNIVES

Growing up on a farm, the only reason I’d not carry a knife was if I mislaid it. One morning, finding my pockets bare, and with the twine on two dozen hay bales to cut, I fell back on an older technology, a lot older, stopping the Land Rover mid field to bash a flint nodule with a hammer. The resultant flake was far sharper than the blade on my missing brass and rosewood handled lock knife.

Even as a small boy at school I carried a knife. Far from an infringement of the innumerable rules, this was a requirement. I believe there was an expectation that all pupils would be ready and able at any moment to sharpen a blunt pencil. Then again, with a headmaster who might start a summer morning by stating that the lower sixth were scheduled to build a zip wire tower in the afternoon, from scratch, using poles and hemp rope stashed near the mower sheds, a knife was really an essential tool in our day-to-day learning kit.

And an essential tool it has remained.  When it comes to kit, a knife is still probably the most important possession for anyone working or travelling outdoors.

An essential outdoor tool, used here to trim some birch bark.
An essential outdoor tool, used here to trim some birch bark.

So here is my blog about knives – part reminiscence, part informative (I hope)… and part rant.

Heading back one year from a canoe camping trip in Scotland, it was only after I’d walked up to a fuel station counter alongside the M5 that I realised my knife still hung from a cord around my neck. Returning to our red van, shoulders hunched in expectation of a yell of alarm, I struggled with whether to leave the Finnish puuko dangling and very visible, or to risk trying to remove it. Might some holidaymaker interpret this horrifying move as a sign that I was about to go berserk?

I usually have a knife hanging from a cord around my neck.
When out and about, I usually have a knife hanging from a cord around my neck.

Working around a campsite, the uses for a knife are near endless. When afloat, where a potential mishap and tangled foot or arm might be very nasty indeed, an easy to reach blade is a vital piece of safety kit. To any outdoorsman (or woman) this is all pretty obvious, and perhaps I’m only mentioning this to cover the next time I forget to remove my knife in public, perhaps bumping into some nervous or officious individual. It might be useful to be able to refer any enquiry to this post.

We live in strange times. Yes, a knife can be a weapon. Yet so can a chair… in the hands of an idiot. We don’t ban these handy items in public though. If an idiot uses a knife, or a gun… or even a chair to hurt someone, then they should be punished… severely. Penalising anyone who might find a knife handy is beyond me. Yes I know that small pen-knives are fine, and I’m aware that even a fixed blade is ok, should you be able to provide a convincing reason for carrying it – it’s just that I don’t see the need (and the fact that it might come in handy, may well not be seen as convincing enough). So, if any politician should read this – please feel free to come down on the idiot like a ton of legislative bricks, just leave the other 99.8% of the adult population to behave like the grown-ups they are.

Rant over.

My Finnish knife in action... in Finland.
My Finnish knife at work… in Finland.

Not only do I still carry a knife at all times, I often carry at least two or three. Like all tools, subtle differences can make all the difference, depending on the task.

To try to keep within the law (I really don’t want to be labelled a criminal) my standard knife accompaniment is a small Swiss-Army knife. Without a locking mechanism, the short blade ensures that this handy tool can be carried legally in public (I think – please check the detail of any of these constraints yourself, just to be sure). This is the only knife I have with a stainless steel blade. Although, as the name suggests, these are resistant to rust and staining (due to the addition of chromium), and hold an edge well, they’re not as easy to sharpen as a carbon steel blade. Stainless is all a little cold and clinical, and just too shiny for my liking too.

Swiss Army Knife in action (as an awl), with my puuko awaiting its turn.
Swiss Army Knife in action (as an awl), with my puuko awaiting its turn.

A blade that can move isn’t always a good idea either, and for any task where I suspect a degree of risk, I also carry an Opinel (in my personal kit bag though – not on me). First made in 1897 by Joseph Opinel, these wonderful French knives are still produced by a company owned by the original founding family. Opinel knives are simple, cheap and extremely effective. With their beach handles and well-crafted carbon-steel blades (0.9% carbon), they are also very beautiful. I consider them a design classic. The locking mechanism ensures that the blade cannot close on your fingers under the strain of a tough or tricky job (yes it can happen, easily at times).

Opinels make fine general camping knives, with the thin blade perfect for cooking.  Available in a range of numbered sizes from the minuscule no. 2 (the no. 1 is no longer made) to the crazily huge no. 13, I like the 8. I bought my first in a French market, aged about the same.

My Opinel
My Opinel

In the old days, all Opinels came with a carbon steel blade. Nowadays, these seem to be seen as something of a speciality, named the ‘Carbone’ range. If you don’t want stainless, avoid the Inox blades, inoxydable being the French word for stuff.

The only problem with an Opinel in the camp kitchen is the difficulty in cleaning food residues from the blade slot in the handle. Not much of an issue with spinach or seaweed. Something to have concerns about when cooking fish or chicken.

This is where a good plain fixed blade knife is preferable, the simple shape easy to clean. A fine flexible blade is also a good idea when preparing food, and for camp cooking I have an old K-series Sabatier paring knife, made in the 1950s. Well, cooking is what these iconic knives were designed for after all. This knife usually hangs around my neck in a birch-bark sheath.

My old Sabatier paring knife.
My old Sabatier paring knife.

All these knives are pretty lightweight though, with obvious restrictions in use. For more demanding work, such as carving, wood-splitting or removing scales from a perch, something more robust is required. For years I employed a cheap (but very well made) Finnish sheath knife, a puuko.

This curly-birch and reindeer antler handled tool was great… it still us, but I’d made the slight mistake of picking a very short blade. I had my reasoning – “If I had intended to hurt anyone, would I really have choosen the shortest blade on offer m’lud?” Paranoia perhaps. The trouble is, a two and a half inch blade really is pretty short.

My Finnish puuko (complete with fish scales I see).
My Finnish puuko (complete with fish scales I see).

So, to my latest purchase.

I wanted something simple, but good-looking, with a longer (and less crude) blade than my trusty puuko.   As I’ve mentioned, carbon steel is my preference, and the right material would provide the perfect balance of durability – soft enough for easy sharpening, but sufficiently strong and flexible for or all (sensible) tasks.   If I could afford it, I also wanted something made by hand, preferably by someone I knew. The result is a 4-inch Woodlander – the knife made by Ben Orford, the leather sheath by the talented Lois. For those in the know, the blade is forged from of 01 tool steel, hardened to 58 Rockwell.

My Orford Woodlander.
My Orford Woodlander.

I still use the puuko, especially on or around the sea. Despite the frequent addition of a smear of protective oil, I still worry about spoiling that stunning Orford blade. Not that I’ve marked the puuko blade like this, but better safe than sorry.

And on that theme, a final comment on knives.  Try to keep them sharp.  Working with a keen blade requires much less force, and should something slip (and it will one day), the painful repercussions are much reduced as a result.

TWO RIVERS

Given just a 600m stretch of river to play with, and you might think the fun would be short-lived, but then there was quite a lot going for this particular canoe outing.   The fact that I’d even reached the bank was pretty impressive.

Just look at that Mrežnica water.
Just look at that Mrežnica water.

Not long after being invited to join Eva, Becky, Aljoša and Reid on their Mrežnica trip, tendon damage in my foot resulted in surgery – twice.   Finding myself unable to walk without crutches was going to be inconvenient. Being told I couldn’t drive was pretty devastating.

Miranda's Mrežnica selfie.
Miranda’s Mrežnica selfie.

As I tried in vain to find anyone willing to hire me a van with an automatic gearbox (you’d think British rental companies thought Slovenia and Croatia were on a different continent), and had even given serious consideration to buying something cheap just for the trip, daughter Miranda stepped up to the mark.

European pond terrapins enjoying the sun by the Mrežnica.
European pond terrapins enjoying the sun by the Mrežnica.

In the end, with no previous driving experience abroad, Miranda completed three labour ward night shifts in a row (swapped with fellow midwives to allow her the time off), then, after only a day of sleep, drove all the way to northern Croatia over the next three. That’s my girl.

Becky Mason, Reid McLachlan and Aljoša Rovan, negotiating a tufa-enhanced weir on the Mrežnica in Croatia.
Becky Mason, Reid McLachlan and Aljoša Rovan, negotiating a tufa-enhanced weir on the Mrežnica in Croatia.

So despite not being able to complete the whole river run (casts and crutches don’t go too well with the need to wade across the numerous tufa waterfalls that divide the impressive Mrežnica), I was very happy. A new country and a new river, the sun up and the air warm – and I hadn’t been in a canoe for over six weeks. 600m was plenty.

Miranda, Eva, Becky and Aljoša on the Krka.
Miranda, Eva, Becky and Aljoša on the Krka.

And then there was the Krka. Close to Aljoša and Eva’s home in Breźice, this was the rather splendid river on which Becky and Reid gave their recent canoeing lessons, the whole event organised by the ever cheerful Aljoša (I’m now pretty sure he knows everyone in southern Slovenia). With no obstacles over the few miles of this trip (other than a few islands to miss) I could join in! I even had my canoe carried to and from the river for me (thanks Reid, the Stilton’s in the post).

Miranda, Becky, Eva and Aljoša on the Krka.
Miranda, Becky, Eva and Aljoša on the Krka.

In the end, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend foot surgery as an aid to continental travel, it did result in Miranda joining us on a European trip for the first time in nearly ten years. The whole visit was a joy from start to finish.

Eva, Aljoša Miranda and Becky head for a gap between some Krka islands.
Eva, Aljoša, Miranda and Becky head for a gap between some Krka islands.

So thank you Eva and Aljoša for your limitless consideration and generosity. Thank you Becky and Reid for putting up with my standing around helpless state. Thank you Lia for looking after our cat. And of course thank you Miranda for allowing it all to happen.

Reid carrying my canoe for me - again.
Reid carrying my canoe for me – again.

Brežice

As we arrived at the riverbank all eyes were on the topmost branches. They hardly moved.  And if that wasn’t good enough, the sun was just beginning to break out, warming the back and intensifying the colours of an already stunning Slovenian riverside. Everything looked perfect for another session of solo canoe paddling lessons.

accs - Tim Gent

Becky Mason and Reid McLachlan were on the second leg of their grand European tour when we met. What had evidently been a very enjoyable (and food filled) visit to Italy already lay behind them, with trips to Austria, Scotland, Sweden, Ireland and England yet to come.

basms - Tim Gent

Organised by the immensely generous Aljoša Rovan, the Slovenian stop included solo lessons on one day, a talk in the evening, and tandem training, with some whitewater skills development, the next.  I just sat in our Pal with a camera… and watched.

And what a fascinating experience it was.

a - Tim Gent

To remind canoeists that Becky and Reid are experienced paddlers is to state the obvious. It will also come as a no surprise that they know how to teach. Becky alone has been providing canoeing tuition for well over a quarter of a century, and her first DVD, ‘Classic Solo Canoeing’, came out nearly 16 years ago.

bda - Tim Gent

Drifting about in my Pal at the fringes, Nikon or Canon poised, I knew this would be fascinating. What was particularly special was the chance to see just how good they are. In essence, Becky and Reid are teaching a wide-ranging set of fairly tricky skills. Slowly, calmly and efficiently, often laced with humour, working individually or as a remarkably well-balanced team, they just teach, extremely well.

as - Tim Gent

One aspect of this training I particularly appreciated was the ease with which Becky and Reid will assess the experience and skills of each participant, slipping seamlessly between group tuition and one-to-one guidance, pitched to best develop the existing abilities of the individual. I wasn’t part of these day-long sessions, in effect I was merely eavesdropping, but I certainly picked up quite a bit.

acs - Tim Gent

This will be just a short post – Miranda (daughter and van super-driver), Susannah and I arrived back from the continent at four this morning – and can’t begin to do justice to the full range of instruction on offer, but I wanted to put at least something online. The Austrian sessions are already in the past (thank you Daniella and Wolfgang for a wonderful welcome), and Reid and Becky must now be on their way to Scotland. The tour is already shooting by.

da - Tim Gent

So, if you are still trying to decide whether to sign up for a session, I can only suggest you give it a go. Whether you’ve been paddling only a few hours (as had one trainee) or a few decades (as had another), I’m confident you could only leave one of Becky and Reid’s sessions a more confident and rounded canoeist. You’ll have a really fun day out too.

http://www.redcanoes.ca/becky/canoe/locate16.html

mbsms - Tim Gent