Today, it's still a quick and easy way to warm up on a winter deer hunt or steelhead fishing trip, or just to toast marshmallows in a campground. Fires are always comfort bringers, and in rare circumstances can even save your life. Every outdoorsman should know how to build one. Some don't, though.
If you're planning to build a fire along some remote shoreline for a skillet full of fried walleye fillets, or a winter warmup, the first step is to make sure fires are permitted in that area. The second is to clear a large space of everything flammable, so your small fire won't turn into a big one.
Make a little circle of rocks if they're available, and place a ball or two of crumpled paper, dry grass, dry leaves or some shavings from a dry stick in the center. A home-made fire starter works even better. Some veteran outdoorsmen carry these on any outdoor adventure, and a typical one is cotton balls or cloth soaked in charcoal lighter or kerosene, carried in a plastic film canister.
Gather up tiny twigs and cover the tinder. Next, place slightly larger sticks over these, making sure all of them are dry, and have larger ones handy once the flames are steady. You can light that fire with a cigarette lighter, or with broken-off kitchen matches carried in another film canister. Some people carry a commercial lighter on their key chain too, such as a small rod that can be scraped with a knife to produce sparks. Several types should be available in any sporting goods store, and they have the advantage of working fine even after a soaking. Whatever your choice, a fire-starter should be a permanent part of your hunting or fishing gear.
There are lots of variations on the above "stack" fire. Some build a teepee of larger wood chunks over a small stack fire, so as they burn, the pieces will gradually fall and continue to feed the fire. This method saves constantly replenishing your wood.
Campers planning on staying in the same place for several days might consider a star fire, something much favored by the pioneers. This fire uses up to 5 small logs, set in a star pattern with flames in the center. As the fire burns down, anyone passing close can kick the logs outside ends, forcing new wood into the coals. A fire like this will last for a long time.
If you're going to cook over a fire, it's wise to build a circle of rocks around an unlit stack fire, with each layer slightly more toward the center. It'll end up as a foot high cone small enough at the top to hold a skillet or pan. Then start your fire. Doing this concentrates the heat up toward your cooking utensil. Skip the cone and any vagrant breeze will blow the heat away, making for a long cooking time.
Amateurs have a natural tendency to build a high, hot fire and set their skillet immediately over it. This will burn your food quickly. Instead, wait until the flames die down to bright red coals, then start your cooking. What wood makes the best fire? Old, dry branches from evergreens are tops for starting a fire, followed by dry aspen, birch bark and even pine cones. Small bits of driftwood left to dry for months on the shore are fast burners, too.
Once your fire is burning well, dried maple, oak, hickory, and ash will burn longer than tinder woods. What about during wet conditions when limbs and brush are soggy? Gather several wet, but long dead branches, and scrapie the dead branches with a pocket knife. Once down to dry wood, peel off long slivers and pile them over a few business cards from your wallet, a note or even in final desperation a dollar bill, then place more scraped wood alongside those. Light as above, and warm those frozen fingers and toes.
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HOOKS & BULLETS
• A reader e-mailed recently saying he tried my perch chowder recipe last year and loved it, but lost the recipe. Could I write it again? Sure. Chunk up some potatoes, carrots and celery, simmer them until almost tender and while cooking, fry your perch fillets and a few bacon strips. Crumble these into the vegetables, add a can of cream of mushroom soup and a bit of milk, simmer a little again and dig in. It's tasty.
• If your boating you you through crowded harbors, across shipping lanes, or on foggy lakes, it can be difficult to avoid collisions. So Boat Owners of the United States (BoatUS) is offering a course on Automatic Identification Systems or AIS with help from the United States Power Squadron. Cost is $15 using coupon code AIS15 at BoatUS.org/AIS. Upon completion, boaters will be able to build a sample AIS system for use on their own vessel.
• The news has been bad over the past several years for trappers and fur hunters, and it will improve little this year. Early predictions are that fur buyers will be paying $6-12 for red and grey fox on the carcass, $2 to $6 or even less for mink. $1 to $3 for muskrats, and little or nothing for raccoons unless they're large and prime. One bright spot is eastern coyotes which might bring up to $15 on the carcass. Hunters and trappers should know that prices will vary tremendously depending on the size of the animal, whether it's prime or not, and the shape and lack of damage to the pelt.
Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his blog at outdoorswithmartin.com.