Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I Make Fire


If you were dropped in the middle of the White Mountains of NH, deep in the wilderness, with nothing but the clothes you had on, and whatever was in your pockets, which of those four items would be your top priority?

This is the question that we began with last Friday night. Along with my friend Frank, I was taking part in a class on Primitive Firemaking at the Amoskeag Fishway in Manchester NH. We were to learn the rudiments of making fire with materials that we could scavenge in the wilderness. Our instructor’s name was Chick Wetherbee, and for the first hour we discussed basic philosophy and techniques of wilderness survival. After that, Chick showed us how to construct a basic bow drill, he demonstrated the technique, then lets us at it. What a terrific experience!

Chick is apparently a PhD (field unkown), owner of Earthward Natural Foods in Amherst NH, a Naturopathic healer, and student of Tom Brown, the world renowned tracker and author of many highly regarded texts on wilderness survival and tracking. He is a compact, sturdy looking man, with a good natured face, a slightly coarse voice, and the manner of one who knows what he is talking about. In the course of the evening, he showed himself also to be a skilled teacher. Although not every student was able to coax fire out of the wood before the evening was over, a significant cross section did so and that had much to do with Chick’s constant oversight, coaching, direction and assistance.

A bow drill is an ancient tool for making fire. The drill itself consists of 4 basic parts; the baseplate, the hand plate, the spindle and the bow. The two plates have indentations into which the ends of the spindle fit. The spindle has wrapped around it the string of the bow. The spindle is then placed so that the ends of the spindle fit into the sockets made in the plates. As the bow is moved back and forth, it causes the spindle to spin in the sockets. By pressing down lightly on the handplate, you can create just the right level of friction so that the wood becomes quite hot. It also generates a fair amount of smoke and dark brown dust as the spindle is literally drilling down into the base plate. When done with proper skill, the wood becomes hot enough that the little pile of dust actually ignites and forms a small glowing coal in the notch cut into the wood on the base plate. This small coal is then carefully transferred into a bed of tinder, where it is nurtured and coaxed, until the everything is ready. Then just a small puff of air will cause the tinder to burst into flame. You can see detailed demonstrations with pictures here.

The best wood seems to be softwood other than pine. Pine has too much sap that tends to seal up the pores in the wood and reduce the friction. Cedar, hemlock, spruce are good. Many hardwoods are also good as long as they are dry. For tinder we use jute twine that we picked apart to form a fuzzy bundle. Other recommended tinders would include milkweed down, crumbled dry leaves, cattail down, anything that can be broken down to a fuzzy mass with lots of surface area to burn.

Chick also showed us how to make cord from the stems of milkweed or day lily leaves. I’m sure there are other plants that would do as well. You just need to find a plant stem of leaf with long fibres that can be twisted and wrapped into a cord. According to Chick, a cord like this would probably serve to make one or two fires, and then have to be replaced. I tried twisting a little bit of the cord as he recommended and was surprised at the strength of it. Even so, our drills used parachute cord, just to make the learning process simpler.

Knowing the mechanics is one thing. Feeling the technique is another thing altogether. In native peoples, the making of fire was a sacred task. It is no wonder, as the ability to make fire was necessary to survival. And yet the making of fire requires a fairly light touch. Chick explained the most common mistake for men is to bear down too hard. A heavy hand is not desirable, for the making for fire does not depend so much on strength as on sheer technique. One must learn how to feel the right pressure and the right speed. For these reasons, it seems that some tribes allocated the duty of firemaking to 10 year old girls. They were seen to be strong enough, but were patient and able to sustain the lighter touch that the young boys did not seem to master as easily.

Chick provided the pieces, and we set to with a will. I drilled completely through my board once, producing prodigious amounts of smoke and dust (and a tremendously loud and constant squeaking noise that would certainly scare away any animals I may have been hoping to snack on later, had I actually been in the wilderness), but no coal. I drilled a second hole and got to work on it. About this time, my friend Frank managed to get his fire going. I fumbled with my camera, but was too late to catch the spark. 10 minutes later, as I was gamely churning away, Chick came over, put his hands on mine and started coaching me through it. “More pressure,” he would say. “Lighten up…ok now go a little faster. Faster. Good. Keep going. Lighten up a little…” After a few minutes of this he said, “Ok, stop.” I sat back and saw that the smoke this time was not coming from the hole, but from the little pile of dust. I gave slightest puff (one must treat a new coal very gently or it is likely to go out) and it glowed red in response. It was a most gratifying moment. I had set my rig up so that the coal would easily fall onto a small piece of tinder. I gently prized the dusty ember onto the tinder, picked it up and placed it on the tinder bundle. Chick showed me how to cradle it as we walked outside, not wanting to things to burst into full flame inside the building. When everything was ready, Chick told me to give one good puff. I did, and the whole bundle burst into flame in my hands. I held it for a second or two, until it was about to scorch me, and then dropped it on the sidewalk. I had given my camera to Frank, and he fumbled too, so I have no picture of the actual flame. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

It will take some practice to master this craft, for sure. I managed to do with some very direct assistance from Chick, which was good, but I found it hard to see for myself what I was doing, as his hands were in the way. I need to manage it myself at least a few more times before I’ll be comfortable with the technique.

I asked Chick how long it took him to make his first fire with a bow drill. He said it took six months. That was 17 years ago. He seems to have got it figured out now, as in his initial demonstration to us, he got a coal in less than 30 seconds, and full flame in about a minute.

After both Frank and I had gotten our fire made, we looked at each other and decided it was time to eat. We cleaned up, said goodbye and made our way to Shaheen’s Irish Pub downtown, where good fresh beer, delicious fish and chips, and good conversation rounded out the evening nicely. I think I might make fire-making a Friday night ritual.

In case you were wondering, fire is not first on your survival priority list. The first item should be shelter, followed by water, then fire and food. Hypothermia is the greatest and most immediate danger to the unprepared, therefore one has to construct a warm dry shelter as soon as possible. Thirst will get you, but you have a couple of days before it becomes dangerous. You can manage reasonable well without food for about two weeks before it becomes a real problem. One could argue that food would come before fire, since it is important to cook any food you can catch to avoid the possibility of sickness from parasites or bacteria.

So what did I do last Friday? I pulled a bit of the power of the sun out from a tree with my hands. What did you do?


Anonymous said...

In Boy Scouts I had to make fire from flint and steel, a magnifying glass, steel wool and a flashlight(batteries), and the bow method. The bow method was the most difficult, but I did it.

BTW, dryer lint is the best tider, and in a pinch dry belly button lint works too.


David said...

If I were dropped in the middle of the NH woods with only the clothes on my back... I'd hope in one pocket was my cell phone... or that i landed there with Neco Draconis as a companion, or... I'd enjoy my last hours on this beautiful, painful earth, meditating upon the goodness of God and the gloriouos entrance into paradise I was soon to enjoy...

Dubbahdee said...

Of course, I might just pick up a rock (being fully versed in the best kind of rock to pick up) so as to hit you over the head with. That would take care of the food part, at last for a few days.
I would then take your cell phone, and use the capacitors to start a fire to cook you with. Then I would take your clothes and put them on.
I can only imagine that you would be delicious. And useful. Thanks for sharing of yourself. ;-)