Rob's Blog Archive

February 26, 2012

Building a Fire










Starting a fire with no more than two matches and no “accelerant” was the first camping skill all Boy Scouts had to master.  Even before I joined the scouts, I practiced building fires.  The fact that two of the ten essentials, firestarter and matches, are devoted to this act shows just how important the ability to build a fire remains.  It is the quintessential outdoor skill. 

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on light camps and bivouacs (hopefully, to be published).  In it I claimed that I could start a fire using only my knife and a set of weatherproof matches.  Some months later I found I could, but it was very difficult.  I practiced some, got better at it, but still not perfect.  Then I changed things around.  I added a small disposable lighter to my list.  With these three, I can get a fire going under almost all circumstances and without too much problem. 

The big error I made was I assumed that a stack of weatherproof matches could substitute for firestarter.  I think half a box would do the trick, but three or for certainly didn’t.  What does work is using the lighter as the firestarter.  If that gets wet, I can use the weatherproof matches to light it.  Still, going from a small butane flame to a roaring blaze takes skill.  It is a skill that I’d think most distance mushers would have.

So I was surprised when an audience appeared as I played Boy Scout and went from wood shavings to the fire that kept us warm at the Seeley Lake Checkpoint for Race to the Sky.  Yes, there were plenty of bottles of methanol, a.k.a. Heet, available, but I had declined these.  I had recited from memory the twelve points of the scout law and figured I had to live up to that. 

Mostly, though, I wanted to practice starting the fire on snow with minimal gear.  The reason the knife, matches, and small disposable lighter were mentioned in the article is, along with a small headlamp, these are the items I carry in my pockets in case I get separated from my team and sled.   I don’t carry a bottle of Heet with me.  I don’t expect most other mushers do either. 

What seemed to impress my audience the most was all of the details that go into getting a fire going.  The first is making a surface on which the fire is built.  While snow falling off of a tree puts out the fire in the Jack London story, “To Build a Fire,” and that’s the part most folks remember, the snow on the ground is almost always the real problem.  In all fairness to London, he does say that “the man” lays down a bed of branches and builds the fire on these. 

I used a few pieces of split wood with their flat surfaces up.  I chose three that all had the same height.  And on this, I laid a two inch high foot and a third long piece of wood and stacked my wood shavings next to it.  I did use my axe rather than a knife for the shavings.  It’s faster and a lot easier, but I could have used the knife.  I also used normal firewood, but there were no shortage of dry dead branches I could have found.  I then leaned a couple of 6” long quarter inch diameter pieces of wood on the two inch high piece and over the shavings.  Along with the 6” by ¼” inch pieces I laid out, I had half a dozen more that I could add to the fire as it grew.  Along with these, I had a few bigger pieces, more like 12” long by 1” across, ready to go. 

Happily, even though it had been a bit since I practiced fire building in anything other than my wood stove, I was able to get it all going with one reasonably efficient effort.  My fire didn’t get any applause, but it did get noticed.  Within half an hour, even the base on which I built it had started burning.  A fire that big can be managed so that the snow on which it sits doesn’t extinguish it, but it has to get there first.

At the Iditarod checkpoint at Ophir, there was a musher who was lecturing me about the perils of the winter wilderness in Alaska.  He asked about what I’d do if I got caught out in a storm and I said I’d build a fire.  He then asked if I had ever read the poem by Robert Service, “To Build a Fire.”  I responded that it’s a short story by Jack London, that I had, and that I knew not to build a fire under a branch laden with snow.  This seemed to satisfy him even though the big problem, snow on the ground, was never mentioned.  The fact that he had neglected the snow on the ground as well as his citing fiction rather than instructional material like the old Boy Scout Fieldbook told me what I needed to know.  Sadly, his story is not unique among Iditarod mushers.

Prior to mushing, I had climbed up and skied across mountains.  Starting with my first days learning about dealing with the wilderness, basic survival skills were on the agenda.  These basic skills aren’t even mentioned as being important for racers and racing.  It is clear to me that everybody is relying on strong fast dogs to get mushers to the next checkpoint safely.  Maybe that works, but it’s not how I was brought up. 

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