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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Iron rations for the Arctic Circle

It’s only a week or so till we head north to the Arctic Circle, somewhere above Tromso, so today we shouldered our packs and had a practice hike, carrying precisely what we will set off with: a bare minimum of spare clothing, a set of waterproofs, and mounds of grub.


Yesterday we laid out all our supplies on the kitchen table. It does rather look as though we’ll be living off trail bars, but since we took the picture we have performed miracles with the bags of flour and other dry ingredients (see below).

The hike takes eight days and takes us close to the point where the borders of Finland, Sweden and Norway meet. The trail, we understand, is well marked, and our overnight accommodation will be in very basic wooden huts, situated at 15-25 kilometre intervals. Each hut has a stove for cooking, mattresses for sleeping on… and that’s your lot. Water along the route has to be taken from lakes and rivers; there are no refreshment stops at all. If we miscalculate, our last couple of days are going to be very hungry indeed. But, looking on the bright side, our packs will be feather-light.

We have spent a long time thinking about what to eat. Weight is the big issue, along with calories. Breakfast each day will be a measured portion of our trusty, bog-standard home-made muesli: oats, nuts, coconut, sunflower seeds, raisins – and the magic ingredient, dried milk. Add water and it’ll be a little like being at home. We have plenty of coffee, of course, and a bag of Earl Grey tea-leaves.

Main meals have caused us the most concern. We have a selection of packet soups, some herbs and spices, and three staples:

(1)   3 packs of mixed lentils, rice, spices and dried onion – plus seasoning. That should cook in 20-30 minutes and make a hearty soup to a recipe we have tested and found excellent.

(2)   A mix of plain flour, baking powder and salt. 3 packs, each big enough to make 8-10 tortillas; that’s been tried and tested over many years.

(3)   A mix of self-raising flour, dried egg and milk powder, which will make a substantial pancake. Again, 3 packs. We tried these last week, and they certainly stick to a guy’s ribs.

We also have a few sachets of dried egg and milk powder. We tested that too, the other day, and the scrambled egg it made was… well, we agreed that after we’ve walked 20 km we’ll probably tolerate it.

Along with the staples, plus a few odds and ends like oatcakes, some canned sardines and dried banana, we have a number of treats:

(1)   dozens – and dozens - of trail bars, or flapjacks
(2)   a dry-mix that promises to convert into vegetarian sausage
(3)   some Oxo cubes – which make a very tasty drink
(4)   some freeze-dried ice-cream I was given for Christmas
(5)   lots of dates, nuts and dried apricots
(6)   a couple of tubes of vegetarian pâté
(7)   …and, if we get lucky in Oslo, where we have half a day on the way up, some smoked mackerel. The Norwegians are very good indeed with fish. 

With eight days of austerity looming, we thoroughly enjoyed today’s pickings from the vegetable garden:


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Out in Paperback: The Red House on the Niobrara.

Last week I finally completed the process of formatting The Red House on the Niobrara and jumping through all the other hoops required for publication. Just go to the (or websites and there it is. £13.95 in the U.S., £8.99 U.K. Please note that this edition does not have the photographic matter incorporated – the price would have been prohibitive – but all the photos are available through my blog postings over the period I was in the red house.

I'm now ready to mail out copies to UK customers - £8.99 (p&p FREE). Please email me at

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Passage of Time


Today I reached a milestone. 65 years of age. It has traditionally been the retirement age here in the UK, and for my own generation that means that we can draw the state pension. I started to contribute to mine in April 1964 when, as a 14-year-old, I got a holiday job in a steam laundry, and I’ve carried on contributing for most of the past fifty years. Now it’s pay-back time.

The pension has a greater significance for me because of a decision I made back in the mid-1980s – namely, that I would stop working for other people and pursue my own passions. That essentially meant ten years as a student and academic, and, since 1994, twenty years as a writer, sometimes earning very good money, often earning next to nothing – and, after I’d failed to get that first novel published, producing mostly what other people would pay for. (It’s all on my website.)

That will change. From this day forward I will have a small, guaranteed monthly income and considerably more freedom to write what is in my heart. It’s probably been no bad thing, this being forced to dance to others’ tunes. Yes, at times I have felt constrained, repressed, even put upon; but my goodness I have learned. Mostly I have learned technique and discipline. As for all the things about which I feel  so strongly, and about which I want to write, well, I think I will have benefited from all this waiting. I think I’ve gained a more balanced perspective, and I am sure I will approach my cherished projects as a better writer.

I entitled this entry ‘The Passage of Time’, and here’s where I bring in that rather badly focussed snapshot. I have had a few gifts this morning, but none more delightful than this. Three years ago when I came home from my stint in the Red House, I brought with me two Native American spear-heads. One I found, quite by chance, while walking around the ranch. It just appeared at my feet. I reckoned I was most likely the first person to pick it up in 10-12,000 years – and that was quite thought-provoking. It was in fact rather moving. The other was a gift from a guy I met with in Crawford, Nebraska. I bought some moccasins from him. The two have sat on my desk ever since. I could not figure out what to do with them. But this morning I had a delightful birthday surprise. My partner, A., had furtively constructed a Perspex box, fashioned some wire into a couple of loops and there you are: a museum-style exhibit to grace my window-sill.

So here I am, musing on this milestone: sixty-five years. And there in front of me are a pair of artefacts, chipped from stone by a stoic, diligent, skilled artisan who lived by hunting on the Great Plains some 10 to 12,000 years ago and died with his (or her) life unrecorded.

Tempus fugit – and this writer needs to get dressed and start work.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Print On Demand: it ain't easy.

Not the red house - but this old homestead does feature in the book

I don’t suppose most people take as long as I have over preparing a manuscript for publication, but I have had a lot of balls in the air, if I may use that rather indelicate metaphor. Some weeks ago, having received a proof copy of The Red House on the Niobrara from amazon/Create Space, I decided to employ a highly professional copy editor, Joan Deitch. She discovered a number of horrors and had good advice about the general look of the thing. I made all the recommended amendments.

It was only when I tried to submit the new pfd (Adobe file) to Create Space that I realised my biggest mistake – namely, not going through this before submitting. (One lives and learns….) Every time I pressed SUBMIT my new manuscript was rejected, and in the end I had to put it aside, stay focussed on the (other) jobs in hand and wait for a calm moment.

This weekend I tried going back to the very first pfd file, only making such amendments as did not affect the actual lay-out. I corrected typos, substituted single inverted commas for double, etc etc, and left everything else alone. When it came to submitting, trust me, I was a quivering wreck. But lo, upon initial inspection it was seen to be good, and next morning there was the email confirming that I hadn’t screwed up. I have now ordered a new proof copy, which should be with me on Wednesday.

Once that arrives, and always assuming it is in good shape, I can actually put the hard copy up for sale. I have to think about this, because when you sell direct from amazon the net income is really not much to shout about. I can retain a far greater share of the  cove price if I buy a bunch and mail them out from here.

When I’ve okayed the latest proof I shall set out the prices and put up a mail order address.
I still miss those Panhandle skies

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Bivouacking – or Wild Camping Without a Tent - on the River Greta.


A week after returning from St George’s Island ( see my posting of 26 June) we treated ourselves to another, rather briefer, backwoods experience. I’ve been interested in wild camping for some years. Perhaps I should say bivouacking. While I love hiking, I hate carrying a pile of equipment on my back. I also dislike having to make a certain distance, no matter what the conditions, in order to spend the night at a pre-arranged bed-and-breakfast place or a campsite.  Some years ago I started to think about actually tramping, the way some of those old travel writers did, or said they did. Hilaire Belloc, G K Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Laurie Lee: they all referred casually in their writings to lying down under a tree and going to sleep, just when it suited them. Could I do it?

I soon realised that it would help if I could rid myself of a profound fear of the dark. That I managed by the simple expedient of moving into an isolated and ancient cottage in the middle of a deep, dark wood some way from town. Walking to the pub and back across two or three miles of woods and fields persuaded me that there was no reason why a stretch of country that raised my spirits by day should pose any kind of threat just because night had fallen. My dread of the dark melted away like a September mist.

I also figured that it would make sense to experiment - if I were to experiment - in June or July, when the northern night lasts no more than three or four hours, less if the sky is clear. If you’re horribly uncomfortable on the ground, you can get up, brew a cup of coffee and move on at four or five in the morning, then maybe take a nap when the sun is high in the sky. It’s what tramps have done for centuries.

After further experiments I dispensed with the small tarp I was carrying (in case of rain) and invested in a (supposedly) waterproof bivvy-bag. With that, plus my sleeping-bag and a thin, lightweight mat, I can generally get comfortable enough to guarantee a few hours’ sleep in most sorts of environment.

So, thus equipped, we set off on Saturday evening along the delightful river Greta, a few miles south-east of Barnard Castle. A light shower was falling, so we didn’t walk very far. (The fact is, we’d stopped in the pub, had a delicious pint of Timothy Taylors’ Landlord bitter and decided that we really ought to try another.) We found a sandy spot under the trees, set up the stove and cooked two very tasty sirloin steaks, then turned in. All night long, every time the breeze got up, the leaves shook a few refreshing drops on our faces, but apart from that we slept pretty well undisturbed. Next morning, after coffee, we packed up and joined our walking group at the Morritt Arms for a triangular hike of ten miles or so that took us first upstream, then north towards Barnard Castle, finally back along the river Tees via the ruined Egglestone Abbey and Rokeby Park, for almost a century home to Velazquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’. (The painting hung there from 1813 to 1906 when it was sold to London's National Gallery.)

This was our first bivvying night of the year. We’re planning another in a couple of weeks’ time to celebrate my birthday – and, I guess, the arrival of my state pension. We’ll be spending the night on the cliff-tops at Flamborough Head (East Yorkshire). The turf up there is as soft and springy as any mattress I’ve ever slept on – and there’s a decent little café not far away.