Thursday, August 2, 2012

Northwoods Follies -- Playing With Fire


When younger, we camped in the Northwoods as a matter of course. Over the years, in jerks & starts we segued from young & stupid to being fairly adept in the woods and only occasionally stupid. That we favored late season when bugs & tourists are mostly laid down but wilderness is wide awake meant each trip came with some measure of misery. It was simply part of the deal, so we evolved to embrace the challenge.

Until this year, I'd not camped for quite the while. Staying outdoors isn’t friendly to large format gear and the issues are many. I dearly missed the dark of the night in the forest and am quickly making up for lost time as we travel the Superior Basin together. The gig demanded it, so I've evolved yet again.

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Along with camping comes the opportunity to play with fire, both literally and metaphorically. On the 2nd night of my Honeymoon I put a dull ax into the back of my hand when chopping wood for a fire to keep my bride comfy, which makes the point in one fell swoop. And when still a Boy Scout I was honored as a hero for helping extinguish a fire that consumed a canvas cabin tent then jumped from there to lick hungrily up a nearby tree. That we’d inadvertently started that fire proved no matter after the fact.

Fire is essential to the health of wilderness. It beats back the encroaching shadow of age, throwing windows open to the sun while clearing the way for fresh life to supplant old. In the woods, fire is both destructive and rejuvenating. Where once our management effort was focused strictly on prevention/containment of all fire in the forest, our knowledge of the ebb and flow of natural processes has deepened sufficiently so that now fire is now recognised as a critical partner in forest management, whether through controlled burns or in not expending herculean effort and expense to extinguish a blaze when folk and their stuff aren’t in danger of burning.

All the same, Smokey the Bear became an American cultural icon for good reason and if some of my stories about fire seem like nothing more than good clean fun it’s only because things didn’t get so out of hand as to cause conflagration and that’s never a sure bet with open flame. These days, careless use of fire in the woods often leads to criminal/financial penalties of the first order and rightly so.

In other words: best do as I say not as I’ve done. And kids, don’t try any of this stupid stuff at home…

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My favorite fire story involves my friend Johnny, as it must. We spent the better part of a decade camping hard together in the Northwoods -- beset by cold & wet, often mired in mud. Without fire and the means to readily make it, we’d maybe have taken vacations on a beach somewheres in south Florida and lucky for us our fire skills, eh?

From the beginning, our ambition was to start a campfire using only a single “Strike Anywhere” kitchen match, itself now mostly a remnant of an earlier, less safety conscious time. I suppose if we were really intent on being Masters of Woodcraft we’d have managed flint & steel and lit our fires using no matches, but our ambition fell short of that.

Late autumn brings with it short days and typically we’d return from bustering around the woods near or after dark, having wasted not a bit of daylight on camp chores and the like. We feared no darkness, as we came armed with our “portable sun”, a Coleman double mantle lantern fueled by white gas, which is a ready incendiary of truly awesome proportion.

It’d been wet that day and we returned in full dark to a muddy mess of a camp. The first order of business was eating so while Heather and I engaged in meal prep, Johnny handled the cooking fire. We went about our business at the picnic table, backs turned to the fire pit and Johnny.

There’re few things more frustrating than building a fire with wet wood and though we always covered the woodpile with a tarp, days on end of rain left the air sodden and our cut timber was damp inside & out. We kept an ancient tin cup on hand for just such an occasion -- a well stacked pile of wood with a dash of white gas met by a flung lighted match and… viola, instant fire.

Johnny tried a couple of times to light the thing, to no avail.

Then all at once there came a great whoosh and in a flash the entire forest was bathed with brilliant light that eclipsed even our portable sun. I whirled and Johnny was in midair, arms and legs flailing wildly, leaping backwards while yelling “Shit!” The can of white gas lay on its side next to the fire pit. From the tiny, uncapped opening raged a fifteen foot high column of swooshing white flame.

At that moment we needed a direct line to Red Adair.

In his frustration, or perhaps unable to locate the tin cup in the dark, Johnny’d poured a drop or two of white gas directly from the can over a seemingly inert woodpile. Somewhere deep in the muck there waited a barely smoldering ember. White gas kissed ember, flame shot instantly to can, Johnny flew through air, fun with fire ensued.

It took some effort to secure the flaming can. But in all the light the old tin cup was easily found and once the can was set upright with the help of a long, sturdy stick, it proved an excellent cap. Even today that cup remains in my camping box, though I no longer carry white gas.

Our fire was well and truly lit and without us burning down the forest too, which that night was something of a bonus. Dinner was served hot, as I recall.



Should you care to see what no white gas left in a can is capable of, take a look at this. Start at around the 1:10 mark and just imagine what a can half filled would accomplish:



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