Around the Campfire

Do not be surprised that the return of the light lifts your spirits. Do not be surprised that warmth on your back calms you and makes you glad. Feel your spirits lift as the sun rises higher in the sky: this is part of you, this snaky gladness, part of who you have been for a million years. Find the warm places; do not expect them to come to you. When you find them, stay there and be still. Be still and watchful.

Kathleen Dean Moore in Wild Comforts

Younger hikers will find it hard to believe that in my early years on the trail I did not carry a stove with me, despite the fact that I had a hot meal every night in camp and boiled water for tea and oatmeal every morning for breakfast. Back country stoves were heavy and not very dependable in those days, usually burning white gas, which had to be carried in a metal canister, adding to the weight.

Most everyone I met on the trail did the same. We cooked over a campfire. In rainy western Washington, building a fire can be a formidable task, but fortunately I had my father as a teacher, and I almost always succeeded in getting the flames to rise high, and the warmth and comforting presence of a fire burning in camp always made the effort worthwhile. Even after I acquired a stove, I continued to rely primarily on a campfire for cooking. It enabled me to carry less fuel for the stove, and after the meal had been prepared and consumed, I enjoyed sitting by the fire with a good book in my hands until I retired to my tent.

In later years, as more and more hikers made their way into the wilderness and scoured the forest for firewood, the Park Service began restricting campfires to lower elevations, where trees and therefore firewood were more abundant. Nevertheless, at some popular campsites, the ground looked as if it had been swept clean of fuel. I did not know it then, but it was a harbinger of things to come, the way that crowds of hikers would alter the landscape and change the backcountry camping experience.

My first stove was a little Coleman which burned white gas. Propane stoves were becoming available in those days, but they were notorious for not starting in cold weather. The Coleman was not particularly reliable either. It required pumping before lighting the flame, exactly thirty strokes: too little and the stove would not light, too much, and it would flood. Then there was nothing to do but let it cool down, wait, and start over again.

As the years went on, fire restrictions expanded, though varied from one jurisdiction to another. Enforcing these restrictions was a challenging task for backcountry rangers. New fire circles would appear every summer in restricted areas.

For many, including myself, not having a campfire burning brightly in the evening detracted greatly from the camping experience. I even came to love the smell of smoke, particularly when combined with my own sweat. When I would return home from a trip and get into the shower, that smell seemed to emanate from every pore in my body, and I felt some regret about scrubbing it away. Campsites were where I felt most at peace. When I scoured the smell away I was preparing to re-enter that world of work and single-parenting. It was always a difficult transition for me.

By the mid-nineties campfire restrictions were occurring for another reason, the prevalence of drought bringing about an increased risk of forest fires. I well remember my first backpacking trip when campfires were not allowed. I had planned a ten day trek in the Pasayten Wilderness, which meant bringing along enough fuel to last for the duration of the trip. Since I had always relied on campfires to extend my fuel supply, it was impossible to know how much fuel to carry. As always, I erred on the side of caution, carrying with me two full canisters of white gas, as well as a full stove. On the trip I was careful not to use any more fuel than necessary, so I used the stove as little as possible, even limiting my daily tea consumption. When I completed the trip at the end of ten days, I had a full canister in my pack still remaining.

Draught and its accompanying wildfire risk has been a problem in the backcountry now for several years, and it has been a long time since I built a fire at my campsite. After heating up water on my stove for dinner I often sit on the log next to the old campfire circle, one that typically has not been used for a long while. I read my book, and I remember.

As I have written before, it is an old woman’s prerogative to reminisce about the things that once were, that are no more. Here at my home in the Okanogan Highlands we are not allowed to do any outdoor burning during the summer months, and even outdoor barbecuing is forbidden.

Happily fire is not missing from my life. Well over a foot of snow rests on the forest floor outside my home, and today is the first day in a couple of weeks that the temperature has risen above freezing. My house stays toasty warm with a wood stove, which I load first thing in the morning and continue to feed throughout the day, thus rarely requiring the furnace to come on. I am happy not only that I save money on my monthly heating bill but that my house is filled with a different kind of warmth than a furnace can provide. The warmth from a furnace warms the body. The warmth from a fire warms the body and soul. I am not sure how to describe this difference, but I know I am not alone in this perception.

Perhaps it is something primal that tugs at our hearts when we feel the warmth from a fire or wood stove. Recently I learned of an archaeological site in Israel which found teeth from an ancient species of carp that had been heated to a high temperature, a sign that the fish had been placed in the fire for cooking. This means that our species has been cooking over flames for 780,000 years, much earlier than previously thought.

I imagined those cave dwellers wrapping the fish in damp leaves and placing it in the coals until the tender flesh could be pulled from the bones with ease. I remembered my mother flipping the trout in the skillet as it sat on a grill above the flame, the tasty meal that would follow, the smell of campfire smoke.

We are, it seems, re-enacting a ritual that has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Gather the firewood, prepare the tender and the kindling, light the flame, perhaps blow on it until the flame rises high. This is part of you. You have been lighting the flame for a very very long time.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

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