When I read
Jack London’s To Build
a Fire the first time, a few years before
reading it again in high school, I had
already made many mistakes in
For me in those
days the wilderness was what
we called “the hill”, which began behind
the chicken house and went up and over a high
ridge before the first dirt road. The hill was not just
a hill, but a complex topography and an ecosystem
that offered complex choices for a growing body
and mind. It was hardly real wilderness
but more than enough for a little
boy growing up in it.
Think of the variety.
There were steep, slippery
slopes, nearly impenetrable brushfields,
three wetlands in very different circumstances,
an abandoned orchard, and a variety of forest
species including Douglas fir, red fir, ponderosa
pine, black oak, live oak, yew, and incense
cedar, not to mention shrubs, herbs,
grasses, ferns, mosses, lichens
or any kind of wildlife.
Until I was
7 or 8 I could go anywhere
on the hill I wanted, but only where I could
hear my Mother if she happened to call, which she
rarely did. but when she called Leeeeee-eeeee! she
wanted me to come home right away. She didn’t
want me to to rush it, but I couldn’t
dawdle either. Nor could I
That part was
easy. The hard part was to
be sure I was somewhere I could hear
her. My Mom’s voice carried far, far farther
than any other parents’ voices, women or men. She
was their foghorn for calling their own kids if they
knew we were together. Some moms would not have
been caught dead making sounds like that and some dads
were pathetic yellers but Morgie Jones’ Dad Morgan
wasn’t at all pathetic, when he bellered Morrrrr–
gan! basso profundo, it was like thunder
rolling through the hills. But even Mr.
Jones asked Mom to call
I was proud
of Mom’s yelling and became
quite a yeller myself. They called
me ‘mega’ in high school because
I could yell so loud.
To go anywhere
outside Mom’s yelling range
I had to tell her accurately where I
was going including topography, distance,
forest cover, expected routes and timing. Those
long excursions were special. I had to take a
lunch and return exactly when I said I would,
every time. I also had to be prepared
to discuss contingency plans in case
of broken bones, lacerations,
I could go anywhere
I wanted on the hill any time I
wanted and do anything I could
imagine doing with no grilling when
I returned though I always had
to say I was going up
on the hill.
Recently I thought
about the hill at my 50th
high school reunion in Dunsmuir
California this past August, 2010. I saw,
and smelled it, looked at it whenever I could,
and valued it immensely, but didn’t set foot
on it. Back home on Quadra Island, splitting
kindling for the stove, which is our only
heat for the house, I thought
about it again.
comes from our property
and felling, limbing, bucking, hauling,
splitting, and stacking firewood and chipping
the rest are among the rituals of living here.
Making cedar kindling is a part of it. I love
making kindling but it does take time and
I must make a bucket of it whenever
the stock in the house is low,
many times a winter.
easily-split western red
cedar is a rare, precious commodity
in this neck of the woods and we like to
conserve it. We also want our fires to light,
which leads to the question of how to get
the most fire-starting good out of
the cedar for the least effort
on my part.
Before I tell
you about that you need
to know about a mistake I made
on the hill one time, long before I
first read Jack London’s book,
not about bulding fires but
staying warm and dry.
Unsucking my Boot
I was seven
or eight years old, there
was snow on the ground and it
was snowing. and me and Morgie and
Francie were down in what we called The
Swamp. Not far behind Morgie’s house but
down the creek from ours, and like always,
the swamp was a muddy, mucky mess
and it was fun to tramp through it
in our galoshes in the snow.
We had a blast.
The problem with
galoshes, and it must also be so
for gumboots today, is that they are
loose fitting. Inevitably, sooner or later,
I sank deep enough in the muck that it
sucked my galosh off and sucked my
shoe off with it. I tramped home
in the snowy, slushy muck
in my stocking foot.
Imagine the first
contact of warm dry young
foot with ice water. Imagine it each
step of the way home, 5 or 10 minutes at most
and all of it in snow. It wasn’t too bad, actually,
especially when I thought about hot chocolate and
a cookie. But when I walked in the back door,
clomping like Diddle Diddle Dumpling
and cold as all get out, Mom said
Where’s your boot?
As quick as I
could get dry socks, dry shoes,
and old boots on, we were out the
door and off to the swamp again. Before
I knew it I was practicing getting my boots
sucked and unsucked. There’s quite an art
to it. I must have unsucked boots a
hundred times before we got
back to the house.
Then we drank hot
chocolate and ate cookies and had
a good laugh about the whole thing.
Mom didn’t say a word when we went
back to the swamp the next day, but
her look reminded me of how
to unsuck my boot.
about lighting fires
is that it’s a matter of bootstrapping
small fires into big ones, like computers boot
bigger and bigger ways to control the hardware
until the operating system is ready to go. News
papers are easy to light and burn hot, but only
momentarily, and the purpose of that first fire
is to light the second one.
The second fire,
of split cedar kindling, is hot
enough for long enough to light the
main fire of alder, maple, hemlock, or fir.
Because of the wonders of technology, we do
this daily, inside our home, with no smoke and
little risk of burning the house. As the fire gets
going it sucks in draft, which routes oxygen
under the firewood and when the paper
flares out, the faint breeze that fire
created fans the cedar fire that
lights the firewood and sucks
more and more air in
the hotter it gets.
get away with a few thin
splinters of cedar, a bit of paper,
and that’s all. Seldom do we have to
start again. When I lost my boot in the
swamp when I was little I could start over
because home was near. I had an extra pair
of boots and my Mom was a good detective
and a trainer who didn’t freak out about
things. Even now, most of the time
when I make mistakes I
can start over.
In To Build a Fire,
Jack London’s character
couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
If he didn’t get his fire started with his
last match in a wilderness snowstorm,
he was toast. It is an excellent story
and I highly recommend it.
Grizzly Lake Story
is about keeping warm in the
outdoors; both people and
First published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited January 2019