Into the Wild – 24 hours of mud, rain and skills for life
Two boats appear from the mist on Lake Windermere, the 11 mile expanse of water that runs through the heart of the Lake District. In one boat, the double Olympic Rowing Gold Medallist Helen Glover is motivating her team of Scouts and Explorers who are paddling in impress unison.
In the second boat, wildlife legend, TV presenter and Helen’s husband, Steve Backshall is using more unorthodox, but equally effective techniques. One of the Scouts has been assigned a drum and is stomping out a rhythm for them to follow. They suddenly all raise their paddles in the air and on Steve’s command, let out an ear splitting wolf howl. Then they’re back ferociously paddling towards the opposite shore. ‘We’re great paddlers,’ says Steve, ‘We just have limited sense of rhythm!’
We’re in the middle of Into the Wild, the 24 hour adventure taking place at Scout Adventures Great Tower. The calendar says it’s August, but it may as well be the depths of winters. A little later and the rain is coming down in sheets, a reminder of what keeps the lakes brim-full in this beautiful part of the world.
The germ of an idea…
But let’s rewind. The Into the Wild competition was the brainchild of Steve, who first floated the idea after he gave the key note address at Summit17, the national Scout conference in April 2017. Along with fellow Scout Ambassador, Helen Glover, he wanted to give some of our best Scouts an experience that would test their limits and skills and give them something they would truly remember for the rest of their lives. It would be open to Scouts and Explorers across the UK who could prove they had what it takes to survive 24 hours of non-stop adventure, and most importantly, who could demonstrate they had also contributed to their own communities.
Supported by Deputy UK Chief Commissioner Mark Tarry, we launched the competition at the start of the summer and scores of films and letters came pouring in.
The winners selected and safely delivered to Cumbria, they are now sitting nervously in a briefing room at Great Tower, the Scouts’ 250 acre adventure playground. The Scouts are sorted into two teams – Team Steve and Team Helen.
Steve has just given a rousing welcome. ‘All of the skills you are going to be learning over the next 24 hours,’ he explains, ‘are the things that I use every single day in my job. Really what I want you to get out of the next 24 hours is about working together as a team, about learning to rely on the people who are alongside you, and if anyone is finding something difficult, about helping them through it, making sure the whole unit functions as well as possible.’
Abi, 13, has her walking boots, sleeping bag and other kit spread out in front of her. She’s dividing her kit into what’s needed now and what’s needed later. Most importantly, there needs to be a change of clothes, because things may get wet. Very wet.
‘I’m looking forward to the stuff on the lake,’ she says. ‘Canoeing, kayaking anything like that will be brilliant. I’ve learnt a huge amount about teamwork from Scouting and hope to use that today.’
Once the kit is organised, the teams are led out to a wide field for some getting to know you activities. Ice duly broken, then it’s out for some skills bases. Team Steve is making its way across a hillside when they hear a shout of pain. It’s a first aid scenario. ‘Okay, someone needs to take charge,’ say Steve. ‘What do we need to do first?’ The team successfully diagnoses the problem and take action. The casualty then comes back to life and lets them know how they’ve done (quite well!)
Learning new skills
Meanwhile Helen is brushing up on her fire lighting skills with her team. Once the fire is lit, a little bit of Scouting magic occurs and the team members begin to share what Scouting has given them.
‘I was trying to think back what I learnt in Scouts,’ says Helen. ‘I don’t think I appreciated how much I’d learnt until later in life. Especially in this day and age, and even for someone like me who loves the outdoors, there’s a massive temptation to go on social media or stay indoors and watch TV. So Scouting is a great reminder that getting outdoors and learning new skills is so, so important.’
Other Scouts talk about how it has helped them overcome shyness and really develop as a person. ‘For me, it’s like a second family,’ says Ross.
Next they’re in the safe hands of Great Tower Centre Manager, and mountaineer, Paul Etheridge who gives a master class in knife and axe work. He assures them that this will come in handy later on – when their warmth (and night’s sleep) will depend on their ability to collect, chop and burn the right kind of wood.
The other side of the hill, Andreas, one of the expert international volunteers takes the teams through the principles of shelter building. ‘Okay,’ he asks, ‘so what makes a good shelter?’
‘It needs to keep you dry?’ one Scout replies.
‘Right.’ These words will come back to haunt them just a few hours later. Soon they’re testing out a beautiful grand design built earlier by Andreas – a leafy shelter with a central wooden spar that looks snug enough to spend the whole summer in.
‘What could we do to improve it?’ Andreas asks.
‘Add a front door?’ suggests one wag.
A long dark night
Then it’s off to the shores of Lake Windermere and into life jackets and into the boats. Once safely across the teams take a moment to survey the vast wooded hillsides and the epic journey they’ve just taken. A sandwich and an apple later, then it’s a hike up to some remote woodland for their night of wild camping.
Then the rain comes. ‘This isn’t just rain,’ says Steve, ‘this is brutal!’
The two teams are tasked with building a fire, preparing a stew and then constructing their shelters for the night, all of this easier than it sounds in the encroaching dark and relentless rain.
This is where the resilience is truly tested. Steve and Helen show off their massive reserves of determination and positivity. ‘Okay team,’ says Steve. ‘Let’s find dry wood and grade it into piles so it’s ready to use when we need it.’
It’s an epic struggle between the two elements. Soon Steve is lying down in the mud, his face smeared in mud and soot, ferociously breathing life into the embers. ‘We’re not going to give up,’ he says as the rain snuffs out the first attempt. ‘Let’s clear away this wet stuff and just start again.’ His perseverance pays off and soon the team have their fire. Other team members are off collecting branches and ferns for their shelters, while others peel carrots and dice spuds. It’s going to be a cold wet night and not everyone gets a full night’s sleep (perhaps not even a full hour’s sleep). But miraculously, come morning, a long line of bleary eyed, but smiling young people come stumbling out of the trees. They’re ready for their final challenge.
Heading for the summit
The Old Man of Coniston rises up into the mists above us. At 2,600 feet high, it’s a sizeable fell and just tall enough to give certain sleep deprived Scouts and Explorers cause for concern. However there are pockets of sunshine, the first we’ve seen on the 24 hour adventure gleaming on the dry stone walls and flint cottages in the distance. Just as we are about to set off there’s another auspicious sign – a perfect rainbow appears right in front of us, perfectly framing the fell. ‘If anyone wants to know what’s at the end of a rainbow,’ says Steve, ‘it’s just over there.’
Soon we’re heading up the rough path, past the piles of discarded stones and rusting cables from the old flint mines. It’s a spectacular vista, somewhat reminiscent of Middle Earth. ‘Stay on the path!’ reminds Paul.
As passers-by do double takes when they see Steve and Helen, the two Ambassadors remain completely engaged in the young people, encouraging them and answering questions. ‘What’s your favourite animal? Asks one Scout. ‘The grey wolf,’ replies Steve without a moment’s hesitation. He also explains how he once came face to face with a hippo. ‘It was a worrying moment,’ he admits.
Supporting each other
But it’s on the fell where the team really bonds. The young people who a day earlier were total strangers are now chatting like old friends; they’re also supporting each other up the increasingly steep path. ‘What’s so inspiring is the way they’re supporting each other,’ says Steve. ‘It’s the kindness they show to each other that really knocks me out.’
The skies clear and below us we can suddenly see two, then three lakes peering up like blue eyes into the heavens. It’s a mesmerising sight. Soon the whole team are at standing at the summit. One more wolf howl later and Steve and Helen are congratulating the team. They’ve more than survived the wild. They’ve made themselves proud.
‘What’s been the best bit?’ Steve asks Josh as they stand at the shores of a lake on their descent.
‘All of it really,’ says Josh. ‘Being part of a team. Going out on the water. But most of all meeting you!’
Into the Wild badge designed by Troy, who attended the event.