I have just returned from three weeks in eastern Ukraine, where I was writing for my newsletter Back to the Front (and The Spectator) and doing research for the Wild Bear Lodge Wounded Veterans Programme which this year aims to help wounded Ukrainian veterans.
It was a trip that was long overdue. I hadn’t been to Ukraine since just before the war began last Feb 24th, and it was a decade years since I was last on an active frontline – back then I spent nine months in southern Afghanistan with the US marines.
The last time I visited the Ukrainian east, in 2017, there had been a tense stand-off, and a little shelling, but it was very sporadic. This time as I neared the frontline the sound of artillery fire was almost continuous, though thankfully nothing landed too close.
I travelled to a village just outside Bakhmut, the much-fought-over citadel of Ukrainian resistance in the northern Donbas, which the Ukrainians are now struggling to hold against a determined Russian onslaught.
A few days later I was a passenger in an old British ambulance going to another frontline town – Orikhiv. There I talked to several locals including 59-year-old Lyuba – a community organiser who has been living underground and in the dark for six months and told me proudly how she still manages to keep her nail polish immaculate.
But the memory that will really stay with me was of a day I spent with a small team of volunteers who collect the bodies of fallen soldiers from the battlefield. (A few days later tragedy struck them.)
My story from that day is published this week in the Spectator magazine in the UK. You can also read it online on my journalism newsletter, Back to the Front. Please sign up if you are interested in my ongoing offerings. Most of the content is free.
Meanwhile, with just a hint of spring around the corner, already my thoughts are returning to British Columbia, the lodge and the valley. The land is still covered in snow, but come early April it will start to melt and the bears will begin to emerge.
Foe the next two months I will be in Budapest teaching university students about Ukraine, Russia and journalism, something I have done for the last three years.
But by May I will be back in my hiking boots, donning a pack, picking up my trusty hound Katya, and scouring the valleys and avalanche chutes for bears. Even after more than 15 years in the Canadian wilderness I still like nothing better.
This year we will be offering bear-viewing holidays in late May-mid June and late September-end October. If you think you might be interested we would love to have you come and stay. You can see more at spring bear-viewing or autumn grizzly-viewing on the Wild Bear Lodge website.
We will also be running our charity that helps wounded soldiers. Our last project was for British and Canadian veterans. (To read about it in the Guardian click here.) This year we are going to concentrate on helping wounded Ukrainians.
In the meantime if you would like to listen to my latest interview with Battleground Ukraine, a weekly podcast co-hosted by an old friend Patrick Bishop, it is here. In it I describe what I think will happen next in Ukraine – though who really knows? – and talk a little about 2023 soldiers project.
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Autumn Grizzly Viewing at Wild Bear Lodge
Spring Bear Viewing at Wild Bear Lodge
Back to the Front – my journalism newsletter (appears approximately weekly and is mostly free)
Interview with Patrick Bishop of Battleground Ukraine about this week’s developments and our new Wounded Veterans project.
Your students are pretty lucky to benefit from your experience and you must get something from them too! Enjoy the next few months and then come on back to Canada!