On a recent camping trip with friends I took up the challenge of starting a campfire without the aid of a fire starting log or other such fuels. It was back to basics: tinder, kindling, natural fuels. My friends and I have been summer camping every year for more than a decade now – and what might have begun with earnest attempts to start campfires the good ol’ fashioned way (though I can scarcely remember) has given way to using convenient and foolproof fire starter logs. We’ve made certain to purchase and pack at least a few of them before each camping adventure. This year was different though.
Last month I attended a camp with the grade 5 students at my school. Among other activities, we led them through canoeing, a high ropes course, orienteering, and fire building. To my delight, fire building was one of their favourites! I was surprised, recalling fire building in my own youth to be tedious and usually unsuccessful. Building fires is a tricky thing – much more difficult than one might suspect (considering the caution and fear that we have of starting fires everywhere else in our lives). More often than not we’re left with a smoking pile of sticks, after using a boxful of matches. It’s little wonder that most modern-day campers resign themselves to starter logs and other liquid fuels. So, what was different? What changed?
I can identify a few factors that motivated the grade 5 kids to stick with it. First, their excitement was not quashed. Our group was scheduled for fire building on the second day; but already on the first day they were excitedly talking about fire building. Despite my own disappointing memories, I was careful not to trounce on their eagerness. Secondly, the tools were authentic. With care, they were permitted to use carving knives, matches, wood from the wilderness around us, and I chopped larger pieces as needed.
Finally, and very importantly, we were careful not to dole out the matches too early. Thinking carefully about the fire building process, I emphasized the patience and preparation that goes into successfully starting a campfire. We talked carefully about the kinds of designs (tipi, criss-cross) and the necessary elements (heat, fuel, oxygen). These discussions cannot be overvalued: Understanding that a fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen allows us to troubleshoot the challenges that we encounter. If our fire is smouldering rather than growing, it’s because one of the three elements is lacking. And, of course, we talked at length about readiness – about preparing our tinder, kindling and fuel.
The kids feverishly worked in pairs to ready their fires. They widdled tinder, collected kindling, and constructed their beginning frames – carefully considering airflow and where addition fuel would be kept close by. I taught them how to make fuzz sticks, and they had immense fun carving large piles of wood shavings. We had an hour to work at this activity, but it was well past the 30 minute mark when we began testing our fires with matches. I believe that this investment in energy and time enabled students to persevere and troubleshoot when they encountered problems with fires starting. Many tried to build their fires too quickly, snuffing out oxygen; but knowing about the need for oxygen, they were able to adjust their strategies. Although most needed more than one match, there was one pair of students who successfully built a fire with a single match. Even when it was reduced to a smoking pile of tinder, they coaxed their fire back to life with more oxygen and the right kinds of tinder.
As a teacher – and a learner – I was awestruck by their energy and engagement. Impressively, even though there were many who did not create a crackling fire, they all loved the experience. They met adversity and challenge, and instead of throwing up their hands and looking to me for immediate answers, they persevered. They loved the journey – not just the destination! And all I could think was, “Why was I using starter logs??”
Success! With the first night’s challenge met, I upped the ante for the second day. I challenged myself to light the fire with a single match again, but this time without paper towel bits. Instead, I used wood shavings and fuzz collected from the forest ground. My second day’s fire required a fair bit more coaxing, smouldering into smoking shavings at least a couple of times; but I persevered, rather than resigning to more matches. After all, where there’s smoke there’s heat!
Looking back, I’m so thankful to my grade 5 students. Not just for reigniting my campfire skills, but more importantly for reminding me that it’s the investment … the challenge … the journey.
What old skills will you dust off and take off the shelf this summer?