By Jerry Dennis
A CAMPFIRE IS ONLY AS GOOD AS THE WOOD IT IS BUILT with, an easy truth learned the hard way by many a camper hunched hungry and cold over a smoking pile of basswood. If you appreciate a good campfire—better yet, if you appreciate the difference between a good campfire and a great campfire—you’re probably a connoisseur of wood and a fastidious builder of woodpiles. Our breed could live by the credo “Not Just Any Stick Will Do.”
Camping manuals often recommend packing those dinky folding camp saws, some of which have nothing more than a length of serrated wire for a blade. The implication is that cutting wood on a camping trip is no big deal and you might not want to bother bringing a saw at all. Sure, you can break enough wood over your knee to get by, if all you want from a fire is enough heat to warm your Spam and maybe smoke-dry a pair of socks. But if you’re after more than mere utility you flat-out need a decent saw and an ax.
Substandard woodcutting implements are not only frustrating, they’re dangerous. One of the first things you learn in Boy Scouts is that if you must use a hatchet, never swing it freely to chop wood. Instead, cut a mallet—a two-foot length of branch the diameter of a rolling pin or baseball bat—and use the mallet to drive the head of the hatchet like a splitting wedge. Better yet, use an ax. An ax can have a shortened handle for convenient transport, but it should be hefty enough to prevent it from glancing off a chunk of firewood—the most common cause of ax and hatchet accidents. Likewise, don’t waste your money on a flimsy camp saw. Spend the extra ten or twenty bucks for a good one like the Schmidt Packsaw, which is made in Maine of red oak, folds into a compact, safe package, and can cut logs up to a foot in diameter. Thus armed, you can get on with the important business of cutting and stacking wood.
I like building woodpiles, enjoy their suggestion of industry and readiness and the aura of permanence they lend to a campsite. When I make camp, even a quick camp I know will last only until the next morning, the first thing I do after putting up the tent is get to work on the woodpile. Thoreau’s famous dictum that his fire warmed him twice suggests the great holistic truth of open fires.
The pleasure is much greater than the flame itself. It starts with the cutting, carrying, splitting, and stacking of the wood, and it continues through every stage of building, lighting, and feeding the fire. It doesn’t end until the last orange coal winks out in its bed of ashes.
The reason thousands of homeowners prefer real fire-places to gas imitations should be obvious. An open fire appeals to all the senses. The crack of exploding resin, the enthusiastic whoop of flame sucking oxygen, the thump of a log settling into coals are sounds we learn to associate with contentment and well-being. A fire sounds good and looks good. It also smells good. If I didn’t come home surrounded by a nimbus of campfire scent, I’d think the weekend had been wasted. Woodsmoke flushes tear ducts and perfumes a body with the aroma of the woods. Anyone with a fairly good nose learns the differences among those aromas. You can recognize the bright fragrance of mesquite, the subtle sweetness of cherry, the cloying thickness of balsam and spruce and red cedar. Everyone seems to have their favorite firewood. Thoreau liked “hard green wood just cut” because it burned long enough to be waiting in his cabin when he came home after walking for hours. Sigurd Olson gathered old pine knots that had lain for years under pine needles, preserved by the heavy resin impregnated in their grains, and considered burning them a spiritual event. Edward Abbey gathered desert juniper for his “squaw” fire and declared it “the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth. . . . I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it.”
Aldo Leopold insisted that mesquite, that ubiquitous shrub of the Southwest, was the best of fragrant fuels. “Brittle with a hundred frosts and floods,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “baked by a thousand suns, the gnarled imperishable bones of these ancient trees He ready-to-hand at every camp, ready to slant blue smoke across the twilight, sing a song of teapots, bake a loaf, brown a kettle of quail, and warm the shins of man and beast.”
In the upland forests of the Great Lakes region, our campfire wood of choice is dead maple, air-dried on the stump. We look for saplings a few inches in diameter that died young in the battle for sunlight and space, crowded out by bigger, more robust trees. They’re found in every stand of hardwoods, in the shade of every grandfather maple, sometimes dying in thickets dense as cane brakes. Long after they lose their leaves, branches, and bark, the dead saplings remain upright, bone dry, brittle, and clean, like ancient lances. They can be brought down with a push, dragged to camp, and sawed into lengths. They split easily into kindling, or, burned in the round, roar with flame and heat, creating a fire that bums for hours, sends a trail of fragrant smoke wisping through the woods, and builds a bed of coals that lasts the night. Those small logs of maple can be stacked so neatly that there’s a tendency to construct woodpiles that will live on long after you’ve left a camp.
THERE’S AN ART to building a fire, and those who get good at it tend to become intolerant of techniques other than their own. The first time Kelly Galloup and I camped together, on a stretch of trout river in Michigan, we circled each other warily, each certain the other would put together a less-than-perfect fire. It was raining—had been all day—and the fire demanded special attention. We went in opposite directions looking for wood. Both of us sought old pine, the remnant stumps of white and red pines cleared in the turn-of-the-century logging frenzy that decimated the old forests of Michigan. Kelly got back to camp before me and whittled the wet wood away from the dry, resin-soaked heart of the pine and placed it at the center of a teepee of maple and cedar. I was relieved to see that he knew what he was doing.
The secret is patience and oxygen. The more adverse the conditions—the wetter the woods and the scarcer the fuel—the more important it is to take your time. Kindling must be dry and abundant, larger wood stacked at hand and ready to apply one stick at a time. The foundation of a fire is built on a carefully assembled structure of dry tinder. It must be solid enough to resist falling apart but spacious enough to allow air to circulate to the flames. A hundred camp manuals suggest a hundred techniques, but nothing teaches better than trial and error.
Where there’s fire, of course, there’s smoke. When we were children my friends and I were convinced that saying the phrase “I hate rabbits” would cause pesky smoke to shift away from us. The habit stuck. We’re adults now, too often distracted by adult problems, but when we sit around a campfire together, sipping drinks, eating, talking, we still squint
and lean back as the smoke turns in our direction, and, without thinking, say, “Rabbits.” The fire is the heart of a camp. It connects us with a hundred generations of fire watchers, making us part of a tradition so ancient and elemental it has no name. A fire initiates conversation, breaks social ice, gives comfort and satisfaction. It’s especially satisfying when you can watch it change your old friends into kids again.
(From the book, From a Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping, and Classic Equipment, by Jerry Dennis. Used by permission of the author.)
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