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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Portable Pantry

Fire in the Hole!

By Tamia Nelson

April 15, 2003

You could say that building fires is one of the things that makes us human. For hundreds of thousands of years, fires have warmed us, cheered us, and cooked our food. Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, cooking over coals or flames still has a special appeal, luring hungry people to Hawaiian luaus, Maine clam bakes, and chicken barbecues, not to mention millions of backyard grills.

But in today's increasingly crowded backcountry, it's a different story. When it's too dry or too windy, fires are unacceptably dangerous. And even when campfires are both safe and legal, they're sometimes just too much trouble. In most places and at most times, portable stoves are simply more efficient.

What's wrong with fires, you ask? A lot of things. Along heavily-traveled waterways, finding enough wood to burn can be difficult. In the high Arctic or above tree line, it's nearly impossible. Even in forested valleys, firewood doesn't often come stacked in tidy bundles at each campsite. Mother Nature's not so accommodating. Wood has to be gathered. And that's only the beginning: it also has to be cut to length. Larger pieces may have to be split, too, and this operation can be hazardous to your health, particularly if you're only a part-time woodsman. Teva sandals and wellies won't do much to turn the edge of an axe.

But what if wood is both plentiful and easy to collect? You're still not home free. Fires also need careful nursing. Keeping one going without flare-ups, juggling pots between cool and hot spots, making sure the grill doesn't collapse and the kettles don't overturn.… It's a big job and — until long practice makes you an expert — a hard one, into the bargain.

Cooking over an open flame also coats your pots with a sticky black goo. The compulsively tidy will find the resulting end-of-meal cleanup a chore. (If, like me, you'd rather do other things than scrub pots, you'd better not forget to bag your cookware. Sticky black pots are one thing. A sticky black sleeping bag is something else.) And then there's rain. A heavy downpour can drown even a roaring blaze, and a week of steady drizzle will turn your dream of cooking meals over an open fire into a never-ending nightmare.

So, what's a paddler to do? Hard-chargers and efficiency buffs will probably opt for a stove. Period. For the rest of us, however, an occasional campfire is a pleasant interlude. Without it, we feel cheated. And there's nothing wrong with this, is there? Paddlers are romantics at heart. Why else would we endure cold rain, blistered hands, baking sun, bloodthirsty bugs, and lumpy beds? Ah, wilderness! Only a romantic is tough enough to stay the course.

The lure of creative anachronism aside, cooking over a fire can also make sense on a Big Trip. There's more than one way to measure efficiency, after all. Stoves are easy to light and operate, but stove fuel is costly. And on long trips, the weight and bulk add up. Ask anyone who's ever had to carry a couple of gallon cans of Coleman fuel over one portage after another. It's no fun, and if all your portages lead through forested country, it's hard not to draw the obvious inference. Cooking over a fire can save you both money and haulage. Solo long-distance paddlers and folks whose boats have limited space below-decks — that's most kayakers — will find this conclusion particularly compelling.

Happily, the choice needn't be either-or. It's easy to keep a foot in both camps. Carry a stove and as much fuel as you can manage, and use it at the end of long days, or whenever conditions demand. But plan to cook over an open fire when possible. To my mind, that's having the best of both worlds. Don't fool yourself, though. The back of beyond is no place to learn how to build fires and cook on them. You'll want to practice the art of fire-making and open-fire cookery on short trips first. And don't restrict your trial runs to rainless summer days, either. When you can light a fire with one match (and no lighter fluid!) in a steady rain, you're ready. Don't give up. Whether you're mastering the eddy turn or just learning to "bile the kettle," practice makes perfect.

Of course safety's important, and an open fire is always dangerous. So let's look at ways to minimize the risks:

Location! Location!  If there's no established fireplace where you'll be building your fire, pick your site with care. Mossy ground and forest duff are NOT good places. Bare rock and beaches are.

Major engineering projects are never a good idea, but sometimes rearranging the scenery can be justified in less-traveled areas. A small stone circle, or two low, parallel rock walls will help keep things contained. (Don't use rocks quarried from stream beds or the foreshore. They'll often contain pockets of moisture, and the resulting steam explosions can send rock fragments flying around your head like shrapnel.) Parallel logs make good sidewalls, too, though they obviously won't last long. Don't disturb some woodland creature's home to build your fireplace, however.

Once you've sited your fire, you'll want to set up your kitchen range. This is often a matter of…

Ironmongery.  A grill is a godsend to any cook. It makes his job easier and lessens the danger of spills and scalds. Fire-irons — the long lengths of steel or aluminum with a V-shaped cross-section that horse-packers often use — also work well. Use two of them to span your fire, resting the ends on the rocks of your fire-ring, with the mouths of the Vs facing down. Then place your pots on the irons, adjusting the angle made by the two supports to accommodate varying diameters.

I guess you can call me new-fashioned. Fire-irons are traditional, but I prefer a grill with folding legs. Most of the catalogs have several on offer. Don't be tempted to recycle an old refrigerator rack, however. These are often plated with cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, and that's something you can do without. The purpose-built grills are reasonably cheap, and even the go-light brotherhood will find that some are small and light enough to meet their needs. Large parties can buy larger grills. (Grills work well with stoves, too.)

Now you're ready to build your fire. But first, give some thought as to how you'll keep it under control. What about a…

Fire Pan?  Fire pans may be awkward things to store and carry, but they're a Very Good Idea nonetheless. They're also mandatory in many areas. Some are simple, nothing more than a shallow steel dish. Others look like pieces of modern sculpture, and are priced accordingly. All of them work the same way. You build your fire IN the pan, rather than ON the ground. Simple and elegant, fire-pans are good examples of low-impact engineering. But you can do even better:

The Environmental Fireplace.  The next best thing to a kitchen range, this handy gadget combines fire-pan, windbreak, and grill in one not-too-heavy, not-too-bulky package. The design is simplicity itself: a knock-down, rectangular sheet-steel firebox, open at one end and topped off with a wire grill. The late Bill Mason coined the name. He also sang the environmental stove's praises, and he was right. It's not for everyone, obviously. Kayakers will find it awkward to stow, and the go-light brigade will wish it weren't so heavy. Still, nothing's perfect.

But how do you get one? That's the hard part. You won't find them in many catalogs, though at least one Canadian outfitter — Horizons Unlimited — offers ready-made models for sale. And if you're the do-it-yourself type, they're not hard to make. You'll find a rough but serviceable plan in Mason's Song of the Paddle. Either way, if you're heading out of the mainstream in forested country, you'll find that an environmental fireplace earns its keep.

Of course not even a magic box can keep it from raining now and again. And when the clouds open up, that's when you'll be glad you have a…

Kitchen Tarp.  OK. Strictly speaking, it's got nothing to do with safety, but safety and efficiency are connected, and nothing contributes more to the efficiency of an outdoor kitchen than a well-placed tarp. Fire-retardant-treated cotton canvas is best: sparks melt holes in nylon. String your tarp above a small fire and then settle back. Before you know it, you'll be watching bannock bake or soup simmer while the rain cascades off your roof. And you? You'll stay dry as a bean. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Now some pointers on the care and feeding of cooking fires:

  • Gather only dead and down wood. Leave the logging to the pros. Except in the most remote and least traveled areas, don't bother with any branches that are too big to break over your knee. Dead wood is an important part of the forest ecosystem.

  • Unless you're an expert with bow-drill or flint and steel, you can't light a fire without matches or a lighter. Don't leave home without one or the other. Remember, too, that "strike-anywhere" matches sometimes don't, and that they're not legal everywhere. Try them before buying them in bulk. Keep all your matches in waterproof containers, and always have a matchsafe in your pocket.

  • Unhappy with the way you look? Then use gasoline or alcohol to start a fire in wet weather. Do you think the cure's worse than the complaint? Me, too! Leave your hydrocarbon helpers in the fuel bottles where they belong. The key to lighting a fire is preparation, not chemistry. Start small and build up, being sure to place the fuel so as to allow free movement of air. The classic tepee is as good an architectural plan as any. Add building materials one at a time. First, tinder. Shredded birch bark is good, and paper birches can be found throughout canoe country. Don't strip the bark from standing trees, though! (I collect pieces on portages and lunch stops, and I always have some in my pack.) Next, plenty of kindling. A double handful isn't too much. Shavings from larger wood work well, as do dry twigs broken short. Lastly, "small stuff" no bigger than your forefinger. Have plenty of matches handy, as well as a candle-stub for a wet-weather boost. (You don't want to suffer the fate of the man in Jack London's "To Build a Fire," do you?)

  • Small is beautiful. A cooking fire needn't be a bonfire. You can boil a kettle on a fire no bigger than a can of beans.

  • Always keep a big pot of water next to the fire, in case you need to dowse a spark. A folding bucket works well, too.

  • Never leave a fire — any fire — unattended, even for a minute.

  • Your hands aren't fireproof, and burns are a pain. Always use pot-grips or pliers.

  • Don't try to incinerate plastics, aluminum foil, or food waste in your campfire. Carry all trash out with you.

  • Drown your fire before turning in or breaking camp. If you aren't willing to put your hand on the ashes, the fire isn't out.

A lot to remember? Yes. The knack of fire-making isn't something you can learn overnight, and campfire cookery is an art in its own right. Still, most paddlers will find that it's worth the time that it takes to master the craft. We've come a long way in the 300,000 years since our ancestors gathered around the hearths of Terra Amata, but fire can still fascinate us, and it's still a welcome companion whenever we're cold and hungry. Let's hope that campfires are still burning along the world's waterways 300,000 years from now.

Hungry? Then whether you live to eat or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our "Alimentary, My Dear" archive.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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