Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Art of Campfire

I have camped out hundreds of nights over my lifetime. Most of these experiences have involved a campfire. One personal observation that seems undeniable is that boys like fire. I'm not just talking about youth. Boys of all ages like fire. Males seem to naturally have some kind of bonding relationship with fire that differs from the way most females relate with this same force. For example, roughly 90% of arsonists are male.

Crafting a campfire is an art form. Sure, you can chuck down a few logs, douse them with some kind of liquid accelerant, throw down a match and have a fire. But I'm more of a traditionalist. It comes from my days of working on a Boy Scout camp staff as a youth. I don't like to use liquid accelerants or even paper when building a campfire. I prefer to employ natural materials.

Why would anyone forego man made materials when building a fire? For one thing, such materials may not always be available, such as in a survival situation. If you've never learned to build a fire from scratch, it is unlikely that you will magically figure it out when you find yourself in a distressing situation.

You can successfully build a fire under most conditions in which you might find yourself—even if every last scrap of wood you can find is soaking wet. But you have to know how to do it. And you have to take the time required to carefully craft your fire.

Building a fire from scratch requires proper preparation. And that takes patience. We live in a world that teaches impatience. Whether it comes to food, entertainment, technology, services, or any other facet of life, we have been taught that we should be able to have what we want RIGHT NOW! How do you think personal and governmental debt got so out of control?

Learning to craft a proper campfire from scratch teaches the law of the harvest—that you can achieve worthwhile things through necessary persistent effort.

If you have access to dry natural material, you start by gathering tinder—stuff that will easily burn if touched by a flame from a match, such as dried grasses or small twigs. Dead evergreen branches with dried red needles contain resins that burn quite easily. If your tinder is still green or is damp, you will create smoke rather than fire. Gather more tinder than you imagine you will need.

If you don't have access to natural tinder, you may have to create your own. My favorite method is to create a 'fur stick' by carving into a piece of wood as if to create hundreds of shavings while leaving each shaving intact. This creates a number of fine edges for the fire to catch on. If you are in a downpour, you can often find 'squaw wood'—dry and dead wood suspended in trees. It is kept dry by the trees' canopies. If all else fails, you may need to split wet wood to get to the dry center to create your fur stick.

Next you will need wood of various thicknesses. You separate this into groupings based on thickness. You need a group of stuff that will easily catch the flame from your tinder, a grouping of wood that will easily catch the flame from that, and so on until you get up to logs.

When I teach boys this method, they usually assume that they can build their fire with three groupings: tinder, one-inch-thick sticks, and 6-inch-thick logs. Wrong. You need a minimum of five groupings. You can assure success with seven or more, as long as you have enough of each. Split wood burns better than whole wood. You gather all of this stuff next to your fire pit before even thinking about striking a match.

I have two favored methods for actually building the fire structure. Each has its purpose. Either you start with something tiny and build up to a healthy campfire, or you start with a graduated log cabin structure that will give you an immediate campfire and won't require more work for a while.

When going with the log cabin structure, I like to build a 'council fire.' I start with two large logs at the base. Atop these I place a layer of slightly smaller logs going the opposite direction. Then two slightly smaller logs with a layer of yet smaller wood atop. I keep alternating in this manner until I reach the top layer.

On this top layer I place my tinder, usually woven into an airy nest. (Fire needs oxygen, so don't weave the nest tightly.) I then build a tipi-like structure around the tinder nest out of materials slightly larger than tinder. If I'm building a tiny starter fire, I simply start with the tinder and tipi in the bottom of the fire pit.

Now you are finally ready to strike a match. You should have extra tinder nearby in case your tinder threatens to burn out before the next larger material catches fire. If you have prepared well, you should be able to stick a single match into your tinder pile, stand back, and watch you fire burn. Of course, if you started with a tiny fire, you need to tend it, constantly feeding it fuel until it is burning logs well.

Watching the fire catch and actually work its way through each level of the fuel you have gathered is a creative experience. Yes, it is also destructive in that it consumes the fuel. But it is creative in that this force is your creation—the fruits of your own labors. A properly managed fire creates useful warmth. It is also a work of art. The force of fire creates its own beauty—something you have worked hand-in-hand with nature to bring forth.

If you've never crafted a natural campfire before, you will undoubtedly run into problems and frustrations the first few times you try. These should be considered welcome learning experiences that help you understand what works and what doesn't.

The next time you build a campfire, consider using all natural materials. I promise that it will take time, effort, and patience. You could certainly just douse your logs in some kind of "fire juice." But I promise that you won't gain the rewards from this that you would otherwise garner from crafting a natural campfire.

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