Secretly, we had been wanting it for a long time. Sleeping in the woods seemed an exciting phantasy – although a tiny bit scary. Armed with three strong men, a warm sweater and a pocket knife, we finally did it. A dark green pineforest near Manhay in the southern province of Luxemburg became our home for the weekend.
Wildcraft is an organisation of men and women who choose to live their love for nature in a deliciously authentic way. And so they ‘d rather wander through the woods during the weekend than sit around staring at their smartphone (although they do have one). They know so much about nature and survival, that you never want to take a plane without one of them around.
‘So, imagine,’ says Jurgen, ‘you ‘re stuck somewhere in nature without luggage, money or shelter. What do you do first?’ ‘Check if there’s something to eat?’ suggests Lucy (9), always in the mood for a snack. ‘Or look for water, and then build a shelter right next to it?’ says Felix (11), the practical one. Jurgen knods in agreement. ‘What is most important? Water and shelter’, he summarizes. Lucy and Mirtha (9) are not convinced, but once they discover that ‘shelter’ means ‘building a place to sleep’ , they are completely focussed.
To protect us from the elements, we have to build a basecamp, using whatever nature provides us with. ‘Watch closely what is already in front of you, because big construction works deplete your energy very quickly. And in a situation where you have to survive, you don’t know wether or when you will find something to eat’, Jurgen warns us. The kids check the woods for dead trees, interesting branches and extra soft moss. ‘Can the nest of a rabbit also be used?’ asks Felix. But no, that’s only for Alice in Wonderland.
Moss and twigs
‘Look, this is a hut’, Jurgen points out. Oh really? We see a fallen tree. He sees a hut. Imagination seems to be needed in the woods. ‘We can use sand and leaves’, suggests Felix. ‘Or build a beaverlodge’, Lucy and Mirtha say enthousiasticly. Nice idea, but we’re going for the hut. So we look for two well positioned trees and a trunk that can serve as connection between the two.
Next step is the search for long, sturdy branches and sticks that can serve as walls on both sides. All of us concentrate on finding the ones with the exact right length, which is fairly important if you don’t want your shelter to collapse in the middle of the night. It takes us hours, but nobody complains. The excitement of ‘tonight we’re sleeping in this’ helps a great deal, as does the crisp autumn air and the mindful task of collecting the branches. How refreshing it is, to do only that.
As soon as the skeleton of our shelter is more or less reliable, it’s time for decoration. Because branches alone will not shield us from the wind: we need soil, moss and twigs for that. All of us throw handsful of soft, dark humus against the walls, and each time a little bit more sticks to it.
In the meantime Peter – a construction worker during the day and a wildcrafter after hours – is busy making fire. No need for matches. He simply shows us how mankind has been doing this kind of thing for thousands of years, long before lighters existed. The firebow looks pretty impressive, as does the magnesium stick commonly used in the army. Peter explains we need tinder for a beautiful fire: dry material like reedmace, hay, and bark.
While Peter pokes up the fire to serious levels of cosiness, Jurgen takes us to a wild path – ‘look at the fresh footprints ’ – leading to a small river running through the woods. How can you know for sure if water is suited for consumption? By taking Jurgen with you at all times. In case he doesn’t fit in your suitcase, there ’s another way. Top quality water is water where you can find the larva of the stonefly. Just turn around some stones and check if this insect with two tails is there. It is? Well there you go, you have excellent water, ‘better than tap water’, according to Jurgen. If you can’t find the stonefly, you have to look for other insects to determine if the water is drinkable, only drinkable after boiling it, or polluted and thus not drinkable at all. The kids turn all the stones they can find, but the water turns out to be ‘not drinkable’. Luckily our wildcrafters went to the supermarket.
That night we sleep like roses (the children) and with one eye open (us). The mice dance on our sleepingbags and once in a while a little spider comes down from the roof of our selfmade hut. You never sleep alone in the woods. But what a gorgeous feeling!
In the morning we eat bread with eggs and bacon around the fire. After breakfast Floris takes us deeper into the woods, to harvest edible plants. We look in awe at so many culinary wonders and have bites here and there. ‘This is yarrow’, says Floris, ‘it’s delicious in pancakes’. Apparently it is also an antiseptic and very efficient against mosquitos. Floris tells us all about mugwort or Artemisia vulgaris, and how the soldiers of Ancient Rome put it in their sandals to protect their feet. It’s edible, although probably not so much after it was in the sandal of a Roman. At the end of the weekend, Jurgen comes up with a little quiz for the kids. He shows them a picture of a plant and asks: edible or not? The thing that sticks most with Lucy, is that you make chips from nettle. Just by roasting the plant in the fire for a few seconds. That’s how delicious the forest is.
Wildcraft Gidsen, www.wildcraftgidsen.be. They do a few familyweekends every year and you can also do a custom made weekend with a group of your own choice. Reservation is necessary.
Want more tips for Wallonia with kids? Head over to our hotspots for hiking, tree climbing and animal spotting!