Thursday, November 7, 2013

Vigu Survival Course

It was time for the most interesting course during the fall, the survival course. The first survival course is mandatory in the Axxell Wilderness Guide studies, but there are several other more advanced courses to choose from later on. The instructors had done their best to "scare" us during the fall, so we all looked forward to see how difficult it actually would be.

We started with some theory indoors in the Novia school facilities in Ekenäs/Tammisaari, where I arrived a little late due to VR (the railway company) canceling a train. Our instructor for the course was Ingvar Krancher, perhaps the foremost survival instructor in Scandinavia. After having spent 38 years in the Swedish army, he continues to teach the subject through his own company, even though he is well into his seventies. That shows real passion for the subject.

The course literature is the Swedish Army Survival Handbook from 1988. It is available online as a PDF in Swedish, but I preferred to get a hardcopy of it. The civilian version "Överleva på naturens villkor" has also been translated to Finnish under the name "Selviydy luonnon ehdoilla". This is the reference book to use in Finland and Scandinavia. The John Wiseman book, of which I have the first edition, lacks a lot of relevant information and even contains some errors, and cannot be recommended for Scandinavia.

After eating lunch at the school we went to the forest by car. We had to give away most of our equipment, inluding sleeping bags and backpacks, and were left with only knives, the clothes we wore as well as some selected spare clothes (socks and underwear). Instead of the sleeping bags we were assigned blankets and simple foam sleeping pads. My blanket wasn't more than 30 cm too short. In addition, we got some buckets and tarps for cooking and shelter.

Our merry gang. Photo by Henrik Jern.

We started walking, but soon stopped to find a few suitable sticks for making a simple backpack.

The next stop was to make a simple water filter from an empty beer can, Sphagnum-moss, peat and charcoal. Correctly made it removes around 80 percent of the pollutants in the water. The water does get a distinct taste of moss, though.




Hencka seems happy with his water filter.

The correct technique to remove birch bark...

... and start a fire. Matches are of course a no-go, it's a firesteel from now on.

Now that it started to become dark, our task was to build a shelter for the night and prepare firewood. We had a number of tarps, with which we were to build a shelter for 18 persons with two fire places. (You might think that using tarps are cheating, but it is simply not sustainable to use spruce branches for this, since about 25-40 middle sized spruces would be needed.)


Toni tends to the fire.

Chilling around the fire.

One of the girls fell down a cliff when fetching water in the darkness (no extra lights were allowed). This could have ended in a really bad way, but fortunately she only hurt her knee, and could continue the course, despite it being quite painful.

We got the shelter up when it started to rain and had a fire in the two fire places. Due to the darkness we couldn't find good firewood and hence had problems with smoke during the evening and night.

Yours truly.

Most of us went to sleep quite early. I had my fire watch between two and three in the night along with Christa. One hour went rapidly, watching the fire and drinking a few cups of pine needle tea. After that it was back into the bed, taking a stone from the fire to gain some warmth.

The morning came and the breakfast consisted of more pine needle tea. The pine needle tea is quite rich in vitamin C and even contains a small amount of energy.

The first task of the day was to make a simple backpack.



Going on a little walk.

Checking out an edible lichen.

We were away for maybe two hours and Ingvar showed us a number of edible plants and we collected some mushrooms as well as Iceland moss to eat. I could clearly notice the lack of food at this point. The hunger didn't bother me much, but the body was clearly a lot weaker by now.

Afterwards we were to prepare our food in our three person patrols. Due to the rain it was hard to find good dry firewood, but after some time we had a fire going...



Iceland moss (which is actually a lichen) is one of the most important survival food sources outside the summer season in Scandinavia. It contains a good amount of a carbohydrate that humans can use (after some training), but it does have a big disadvantage: It contains an acid that makes it very hard to eat due to the taste and that also could cause stomach problems. This acid can be neutralized by soda and older survival books, including the ones mentioned above, have recommended including soda into you survival package or making a simple soda from the ashes of leaf trees for leaching the Iceland moss. A more recent technique, invented in Finland, is to just boil the cleansed Iceland moss and remove it from the fire when it actually starts to boil...

... and then put it into a stream to be rinsed/leached for an hour or more.


Meanwhile, we made a simple mushroom soup to get at least something to eat. Mushrooms contain only a little energy, but the stomach at least gets something to work with,

While waiting for the Iceland moss, there were other chores to do around the camp. A few guys had found a standing dry and big spruce for firewood. Sawing the log into smaller pieces and chopping it further was rather heavy at this point for everyone, including me. Only Eddie still worked like a machine.

It started to get dark.The rain was intermittent, as it had been the entire day.

Dinner. I ate maybe 2 dl of it. The taste was still quite bitter, but it was perfectly edible.

This time we had plenty of good firewood and no smoke problems.


I had my watch from ten to eleven in the evening and woke up Eddie after that.

It had rained quite a bit during the night, but the morning was nice and there was even hope to see the sun. At this point a had a short moment of nausea, but it soon passed and I ate some more Iceland moss. Several others had had greater problems involving a few vomiting sessions.

How to do tooth hygien in the woods.

Our following task was to make our fishing gear.


The primitive throwing system worked quite well and I had some fish contact, but didn't still catch any.



Wilderness first aid.


We now got an energy bar. I chose to just taste a small bit and save the rest for my coming three hour night watch.

We looked at a few shelter models...

... before each patrol of three members was assigned its own area to spend the night. With less than two hours to darkness we were left to build a shelter and gather firewood. Firewood was the real problem. Due to courses having been held in the area before, all the easy firewood was long gone. On the positive side, I now had lots of energy and most of my strength back and Johan in the same patrol experienced the same. This actually corresponds to my earlier experiences during demanding bikepacking trips, where you use up some 4000 kcal more than you can eat per day. During the third day it really feels like the body cranks up the fatburning mechanism and you get the energy back and the sugar craving disappears. We worked hard for close to two hours, becoming drenched in sweat, to get some firewood from the wet forest. It isn't easy to prepare the firewood with only a knife to use. Even the saw from a Swiss army knife would have been better. At this point Johan's Finnish Sissipuukko worked better than my smaller Mora Bushcraft Survival knife. My knife was simply too short to efficiently handle the thick pieces of wood.

Having gathered enough firewood for the night, we got the fire started before it became completely dark and could make our shelter using a tarp. It now was very clear how difficult everything is when it is pitch black outside and you have no other light than that of the fire. We had forgotten to collect pine needles for the tea in advance, and I then had to stumble like a blind man to find some.


The third member of our patrol had been on a special mission and returned with three small perches. We cooked them and tried the fish stock, which didn't taste too good. Maybe a branch of juniper could have given it some taste, but as it was I wasn't hungry enough to get much down. In a survival situation it would be very useful, though. The fish itself wasn't that great either, and I only ate a symbolic amount.

I went to sleep quite early and slept fairly well, though a little cold, until the start of my three hour watch one hour after midnight. The time passed surprisingly quickly and I enjoyed sitting by the fire under the clear sky. It was now a little chillier, probably just a little above freezing.


The night ended.




The morning was chilly and misty.


The next task was to start from a given point and walk a given distance in a given direction, using a long rod to keep help the direction (no map or compass was allowed). I paired up with Eddie and we switched duties every hundred meters.

We managed surprisingly well and came out less than 10 meters from the target. I measured our distance (I take 71 step pairs per 100 m in varied terrain) to be 780 m, when it should have been 760 m. PB met us and sent us to to the next station, where we food was awaiting us. We started a fire, fetched water and peeled the vegetables for a soup, before making ourselves sandwhiches. The food tasted quite great at this point.



Mmm. Soup.


Our final exercise was to make signals. How could we otherwise be fetched from there?



Our even merrier gang. Photo by Ingvar Krancher.

Fooling around in the smoke.



The course was finished with sauna and a hot bath.

That's it. I want to thank the participant and instructors. It was fun most of the time and also very interesting on several levels.

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