How I finally learned to unleash my inner Bear Grylls ... and find confidence to take my young son camping
Determined to prove he could cut it in the great outdoors, Declan Lawn took the plunge into a survival course
It all started with my six-year-old son. Patrick and I share a passion for watching survival programmes on TV. Our addiction started with Bear Grylls, but it turns out he was just a gateway drug to the grittier pleasures of Ray Mears. Pretty soon we were mainlining "the survivorman" Les Stroud, a crazy Canadian who gets dropped into the wilderness for a week with only a knife, a single match, and a camera to record himself on. We've been hooked on this kind of stuff for a year or more, and we can't get enough of it.
Then, last summer, the inevitable happened - my son asked if we could go camping. I responded by going out and buying lots of equipment, which made him happy for a week or so.
However, the equipment languished on a shelf in the garage, partly because of the awful weather, and partly because I felt that going camping with my son would be the ultimate eye-opener for him, and not in a good way. He would realise, quickly and with crushing disappointment, that I was not Bear, or Ray, and I certainly wasn't Les. I was, in fact, a guy who didn't know to work a camping stove and who at some point while camping would probably do something either embarrassing or dangerous, and probably both.
So I managed to hold off on the camping all summer long. Then, one day, after the autumn had rolled in and it became clear that our expedition wouldn't happen any time soon, we were relaxing one evening by watching Ray Mears make fire from a bow drill.
My son turned to me and said - for the first time with a glint of suspicion in his eye, "Daddy, you CAN do that, can't you?"
I nodded, told him of course I could, and then quietly opened the laptop and went searching for outdoor skills courses.
Andy Boe and Paul Moore started the NI Survival school in 2011. They have decades of outdoor knowledge and experience, having been involved in the Scouts, and then spending time as instructors on other survival courses in the UK, before starting their own school back home in Northern Ireland.
Business is booming - courses are booked up almost as soon as they are advertised.
Andy and Paul teach bushcraft; the skills necessary to keep yourself fed, hydrated, warm and dry in a wilderness environment, using the minimum of equipment.
They run different levels of courses. I did the Seedling course, which is for absolute beginners. It runs from a Saturday morning until a Sunday afternoon. If you get to grips with that, you can move on to the more advanced 'Pioneer' course. The most advanced course is called 'Survivor' - three days in the wilderness with just the clothes on your back, a knife and a couple of fish hooks, during which you can only eat what you can forage or catch.
Two graduates of that course, Ken and Robert, were on hand alongside Andy and Paul during our own course to help instruct us.
The first thing that strikes you when you turn up to the seedling course is just how close to civilisation you are. It takes place in a forested area in the grounds of Galgorm castle just outside Ballymena. At any given time, you're no more than a few hundred yards from the edge of a golf course.
And yet, once you walk into the woods, as the traffic noise fades and you realise that you won't be coming out until the next day, you feel oddly cut off from everything.
The set-up at the school is very professional. Using a parachute as a canopy cover, the instructors have rigged a large covered central camp with a big fire and log benches. It's essentially an open-air classroom, although we're told that if the worst comes to the worst and it rains heavily, we can drag our sleeping bags into this circle and make it through the night beside the fire.
Our first task, though, is to set up our own camps. Some people have brought proper tents, which are allowed on this beginners' course. Others have brought tarpaulins to attach to the trees; I'm somewhere in between, with my canvas sheets, a few metal pegs, and no ground sheet.
As soon as we're set up, the course begins with a challenge; take 30 minutes to gather the materials for a fire that will light and then crucially, sustain for enough time to allow you to go off and gather more wood. You get one match to light it - if it breaks or the wind blows it out, hard luck, you've failed.
This might sound relatively easy, particularly if you are used to an open fire at home, but lighting a fire using natural materials is very different from having rolled up newspaper and firelighters. Only one out of our group of 12 passed; we realised immediately that we had a lot to learn.
Then, we all retreated to the central camp for a tutorial about fire lighting - we were told which kind of wood works best, and in what quantities, to ensure that your fire will burn for that crucial few minutes to allow you to attend to other things.
The teaching is quick, direct, and it sinks in because you immediately put it into practice. The next time we tried to light fires with one match that could burn for 10 minutes, only one person failed. I suppose I should admit here that one person was me, but I have to insist that I was just unlucky and I'll definitely get it right next time.
In terms of learning, that first lesson set the tone for the rest of the weekend - a quick tutorial, backed up by immediate practical experience. For instance, when it came to foraging wild plants and roots, we were all absolute novices. The idea of picking a plant off the forest floor and eating it was utterly alien to me. Yet, by the end of the weekend, I was walking through the forest cheerfully picking and munching on a range of plants I could recognise instantly by sight, and I was able to easily distinguish them from plants that shouldn't be eaten.
Then it was on to shelter building - how to build a simple structure in an hour that would keep you warm and dry enough to survive a cold night in a forest environment. Again, you're given a tutorial in the central camp, and then you get to work.
After we had finished, the shelters looked pretty good. Our instructors recommended that we sleep in them, and told us they would be easily as warm as our tents and tarpaulins; only one of us actually did that, but he announced the next day that it was indeed warm, dry, and comfortable.
It seems to me that we were always learning, even when sitting around the fire chatting. Paul explained to us how ancient Mongolian herdsmen would make bows and arrows from bone, animal sinew and resin - and that the arrows would pass straight through a large animal at a range of hundreds of yards.
"And we call them primitive," said Paul. "Imagine what those people would have to say about our society, sitting in front of the TV and eating pizza all our lives?"
He has a point; there's undoubtedly something about living this way that makes you feel far more resourceful; your day is a series of problems that need to be solved. Some of them are life and death problems like food and water, some are little ones like cold fingers, but just in solving them you reach a level of satisfaction you don't normally get in everyday life.
It's small wonder that there's such a growing interest in bushcraft and wilderness living in the UK and across the world; it's not so much an escape from reality, as a far more acute way to experience it. It's hard to be anxious about yourself and the modern world when you have a shelter to build or a fish to gut.
One of the last things we did, on Sunday morning, was learn how to make fire using the "bow drill" system, in which you use a bow to rub two pieces of wood together to crate an ember.
This was it; the method my son had seen on TV, and wanted to know if I could do. First, we carved our own wooden drills and bows, then slotted them together. Next, we were taught how to crouch and lean on the equipment to apply maximum pressure. The results were pretty incredible - about half the team was able to create fire within a couple of minutes.
It's difficult to describe the glow of satisfaction you see lighting up someone's face when they realise they've just created fire from friction alone, having constructed the tools to do it from a branch they found on the ground 90 minutes before.
I didn't quite get a fire going this way. I did manage to create a lot of smoke and black dust, but unfortunately I can now attest to the fact that there is indeed such a thing as smoke without fire.
Nevertheless, I've brought the whole apparatus home with me, and I'm going to keep trying until I can do it. I'm definitely going back for the autumn course, and I want to have my fire lighting skills sorted out by then.
After that, it was time to go home. I walked out of the woods and immediately saw the golf course and car park. I was back to civilisation in a few steps.
Within another hour I was at home, covered in mud and smelling of wood smoke, but more satisfied than I'd felt in years.
Patrick was fascinated by it all - and, of course, he asked if we could finally go camping now. I said that we could - any time he likes. And I finally feel like I could teach him a thing or two.
- The Seedling course which Declan embarked on lasts for two days, with an overnight stay and costs £155. The next one takes place on June25 and 26. For further information, go to www.nisurvival.co.uk