By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
(Originally published December, 2010)
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure.
Jack London, To Build A Fire
In Jack London’s 1908 story, an unnamed man is hiking through the Yukon bush alone when he falls through the ice and soaks his feet. It’s 75 degrees below zero, and he knows he has to build a fire or die.
Chances are you’re not going to face anything that dire this winter – for starters the coldest temperature ever recorded in Muskoka is around minus 40 – but even if you’re not hiking across the Yukon, if you spend any time outdoors you’ll want to build a fire. Whether you’re warming up while ice fishing, making a pot of hot chocolate on the lake, or holding a full-fledged winter cookout, everything in winter goes better with fire.
Building a fire in summer is easy: use dry fuel, start with small twigs, and build to bigger ones. In winter, though, you’ve got another challenge: physics. Snow plus heat equals water; water plus fire equals no fire.
As teenagers, my friends and I overcame this problem with the subtlety of teenage boys everywhere. We built a big pile of wood on the snow, soaked it all in lighter fluid, and tossed lit matches at it. The conflagration melted all the snow for a metre in any direction, as well as bootlaces, jackets and eyebrows. But once it settled down the fire would burn quite merrily.
Fortunately there’s a more elegant way to keep your fire alight, and it’s a method that hasn’t changed much since Jack London’s day.
He threw down several large pieces on top of the snow. This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small shred of birch bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
If the snow is shallow, you can push it to one side and build your fire on the bare ground. This being Muskoka, though, you’ll probably be building your fire in deep snow. In that case, start by stamping out your fire pit, packing the snow as hard as you can in a circle at least a metre across. If it’s at all windy, a bit of snow can be an asset – by banking it up, you can create a windbreak.
Gather your fuel before you light anything. It’s a good idea to make piles of different sized pieces – small twigs here, larger pieces there – so you can add what you need as the fire takes hold.
In the summer you start with the smallest pieces of wood, and add larger. Not in winter. Whether you’re building a fire in the snow or on a frozen lake, you need to make a fire platform before you can build your fire. Take a few large pieces of wood and lay them side-by-side on the packed snow or ice. A few gaps between the logs are ok – that will allow the fire to draw air up from below – but you’ll need to be sure the small fire you start with won’t drop between the logs just as it’s getting started.
Once you’ve got a decent platform, you can build the rest of your fire. Birch bark is a terrific fire starter – white birch is good, yellow birch is better. Take bark from a dead tree, since it doesn’t grow back if you strip it from a live tree. Of course, fire starter cubes work very well. Commercial ones are widely available, but if you don’t want to ruin the Jack London moment you can make your own ahead of time from wax and sawdust.
Finding small, dry twigs can be a challenge in winter, since they tend to be buried in snow. Dead standing trees are a good source – spruce is terrific, since it has a high pitch content. Another option is to make a “feather stick” with a piece of dry wood. Using a sharp knife, make a series of shallow cuts, as though you were whittling without cutting all the way through the wood. You’ll end up with a series of curls and a stick that will ignite and burn easily.
Build the rest of your fire just as you would in summer, starting small and going big. Whether you choose a teepee or a log cabin arrangement for your larger pieces is up to you. Then it’s just a matter of keeping it fed and enjoying the warmth.
He was feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist… The fire was a success. He was safe.