The cold front was over, leaving wood wet with rain and lowering temperatures. And I was worried. Could I make a fire and warm my chilled bum and a chilled woman with the only match between your index finger and thumb? Thinking back to the classic Jack London story “To Build a Fire,” I wondered if I had what it takes to weather the damp chill of an Arkansas winter with minimal gear and my wits, let alone the negative, frozen 75 -Grad-Hell der Welt In the far north, where (spoiler alert) London’s character met his icy death.
The hiss of the match on stone, bubbles and sparks finally flared on the wooden stick as the sulfur odor dissipated in a northwest breeze. I touched a nest of cedar bark with the tiny flame, and the tongue of light licked the juicy fibers and then flickered, barely alive. A bright orange and then charred black spread through the tinder as white smoke rose from the still cold kindling. The fire gasped and it took my help to catch my breath.
I knelt at eye level with the Schwel and blew gently at first and then with more force. The embers reacted by brightening as smoke rose into the night air. One last hearty drag brought full ignition as the fire flared through stacked hickory and oak branches.
I leaned back in the camp chair, a smug grin on my face. Five minutes later, when I put a larger log in the fire, I was still smiling and the pride soon led to my wife’s silent boast about her husband’s incredible skills as a lumberjack … until she told me to shut up or she would watch another episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Yeah, that one match fire happened in my back yard. However, the skill has been used in various fire pits in the Ozark National Forest. Flammable tinder, open airways and a good bed of embers are the keys to a one-match fire.
How it goes
The best, absolutely best fire tinder around my area is cedar bark (hint: what we call cedar is really juniper, but that’s another article). Cedar bark is cloth-like and peels off the tree in ribbons. The fibers are already loose, frayed, and often contain dried remains of the juice that help it catch fire. Since cedar bark grows evergreen with its protective foliage, it also tends not to get soaked in rain.
The first step in building a one-match fire is to find a cedar tree, strip off the bark, and shape it into two palm-sized balls. If you can’t find cedar trees, dry grass is the next best option, or you can use a penknife to remove shavings from a seasoned (meaning it’s dead long enough that most of the liquid juice is gone) stick for tinder to cut. I also went to the caveman and knocked spiced twigs between two rocks until the fibers of the wood separated. Frayed, filamentary fibers are important because they stick together loosely and are malleable as a mass. Individual fibers also dry and ignite much more easily, even with small flames or embers. Don’t wrap your handful of tinder too tightly. You want the air to circulate freely between the fibers.
Next, set your tinder aside and look for pencil-sized and smaller twigs. This is your kindling. The drier the better in all respects, but I’m mostly talking about juice content. Thin twigs soaked in water dry quickly in a small flame, but wood filled with sap starves to death. The best test for the seasoned branch is flexibility. Green twigs are more pliable, and you want twigs that snap into place easily. When you collect two handfuls, set them aside and find two handfuls of larger twigs that are the size of your wrist. Here, too, drier is always better. The best way to tell if larger pieces of wood are seasoned is by their relative weight, appearance, and sound as you bump them together. These are learned skills that require practice. If it has rained, look for lighters under evergreen trees or a semi-protected area.
Fire-making ingredients (Photo: Johnny Carrol Sain).
When you’ve gathered your fire fighting ingredients, in the fire pit, make a hand-sized triangle on the floor with three sticks across the thickness of your thumb and place several dry leaves in the center as a barrier between the cold, damp floor and your fire. Place a ball of tinder on the leaves. The leaves and soil tinder make up what I call the bed of embers, and it’s crucial. If that other handful of tinder you put on top of these doesn’t flare up, you need a fuel-rich place to let the embers fall so you can breathe life into them. Press the lower scale into a disc shape so it doesn’t stick out over your foundation. Place three or four pencil-sized twigs over the tinder supported by the lower thumb-sized sticks. Now place two more thumb-sized chopsticks on top, then place your other handful of tinder – shaped in an upside-down cup – in the square space between the thumb-sized chopsticks.
Build a “log cabin” by alternately laying your smallest child on the three-tiered foundation and tinder and each other in ascending order. After a few layers (probably eight to twelve inches tall), you can, and I often do, turn the log cabin into a hybrid teepee with my largest sticks leaning against the walls. Make sure there is space between the sticks to allow air to get into the center of your tipi … or log cabin … or whatever you want to call it.
Now take a match out of the box and look at it. Look at your human weakness and the very narrow temperature band in which you can survive. Note that this one game can, under certain circumstances, mean the difference between life and death.
After a moment or two of deep existential thought, strike the match and wrap your hand around the precious little flame so a rogue breeze doesn’t put it out, and gently touch the tinder in the walls of your tee-pee / log cabin with the lit match . Try to light the center of your top tinder right in the hollow recess
There should be a bit of fire and smoke, but the fire may go out. That’s fine as long as you have embers. In this case, you need to be very close with a few gentle draws and increase the intensity when the embers react. There should be vivid, hot clouds of smoke as you blow on the embers. All that smoke is a good sign. It means that the wood and the tinder dry out and become more flammable by the second. Be patient and thoughtful with your new creation as you bring it to maturity.
As the fire grows, gently feed it until a solid bed of coal glows like lava. Then throw up some large logs, sit back in your camping chair, and smile smugly. But don’t be too fussy about your abilities – or you’ll be all alone by the fire.