Yes! I did it!
I can now make a fire without the use of matches, as good, if not better than my Homo Erectus ancestors. It’s just that in my case I need a piece of steel wool and a battery.
Friday night I met up with my friend Laura, and after a pitcher of Sangria and some Portuguese roast chicken, we enthusiastically embarked on our first fire making trials in Laura’s backyard. Our first method of choice was fire by friction. Far from the only way, this is the oldest and most basic method for starting a fire, and if you were stranded on an island or lost in the woods, it would also likely be your only option. As such, it seemed like the right method to perfect.
Fire by Friction is in fact the only method discussed in the first edition of The Boy Scouts Handbook of 1911 (which I now own!) and in the 1953 Canadian manual Tenderfoot to Queen’s Scout. It went even further saying that though difficult, “…when you can get your fire, you can call yourself a real Canadian Woodcraft Scout”.
I want to be “a real Canadian Woodcraft Scout”. Very surprisingly, Laura, eschewing her former punk rock ways, also seemed to want that Boy Scout badge of honour, perhaps even more enthusiastically than me. Though in her case, it might have been fuelled (pun intended!) by the Sangria…and the wine.
Together and with great gusto, we began to shape the dead wood I had collected in High Park last week into the essential fire making components for the “Fire by Friction” method. Operating by candlelight, I anticipated significantly more serious injuries, with a possible trip to the hospital by the end of the night, but our frenzied flashdance of steel and flying bits of wood only resulted in one minor cut and one swollen eye.
Here’s what we needed for the Fire by Friction Method of Firemaking:
(1) The Fire Board: basically a piece of wood not thicker than 3/4 of an inch and cut with a V-shaped notch with a shallow hole cut at the tip of the notch. There is a lot of 1/4 of this and 3/4 of that in the instructions for this part. We just cut notches and holes the best we could.
(2) The Spindle/Drill – a very straight, very dry piece of wood that is 9-10 inches long with a rounded end (to fit into the round little hole you cut in the fire board).
(3) The Fire Pan: This can be anything, a leaf, or a piece of wood. It is placed under the fire board to collect the “smouldering coal” that you are supposedly going to produce.
(4) Tinder: This can be dried grass, pine needles, leaves fashioned into a kind of nest. In our case, we used dried grass, leaves and some of Lucy’s fur. Lucy is Laura’s dog and she happened to be sitting there. It was a very MacGyver move on Laura’s part, I thought.
And that’s it! The idea is that you rub the spindle between your hands very, very rapidly, while pressing it down into the hole of the fire board. This action should generate saw dust that then heats up from the friction and turns into smoking coal and eventually turns into a full on ember that can be transferred to your tinder nest. Blow on that a few times and it should ignite. It looks easy on YouTube. It isn’t.
We put our all into spinning that spindle, for at least an hour, and we were literally dripping in sweat from our efforts. Our hands still hurt two days later and Laura’s relationships with her neighbours may never be the same. Despite our best efforts we managed to generate some heat, but nothing more.
And for those Boy Scout types out there, yes, we also tried The Bow Method, fashioning a bow out of a green branch and duct tape, and using this to spin the spindle. It was a total and utter failure. Actually, if there was a stronger word for failure than “failure”, than I would use it here.
To salvage the evening, we tried the Battery and Steel Wool Method which I discovered on YouTube. I tried it first, as Laura was afraid she might get electrocuted. A useless technique as far as survival skills go ( I mean how often do you just happen to have steel wool on you?), it proved to be highly effective, and I had a fire within seconds! Success at last!
Sweaty, drunk, exhausted, and slightly injured, we decided to call it a night. But there are more techniques still to try: The Magnifying Glass Technique, The Fire by Ice Method, The Coke Can and Chocolate Bar Method, and the Condom Method. Also, I haven’t entirely given up on the Fire by Friction method. The Tenderfoot to Queen’s Scout Manual warned me that likely my first attempt at making fire would fail. I spoke with my dad last night, a former well-badged Boy Scout himself, who wondered if it might be the wood I used. Indeed the manuals all talk about the importance of choosing the right wood. I just don’t know how to distinguish one type of wood from another. Perhaps this is something else I ought to learn.
While I am not sure that any of this makes me more interesting, Laura and I sure had a good time trying to make fire. So much so that it has motivated me to keep going with this re-education project of mine, and to involve others whenever and wherever possible. So, if any of you want to volunteer to try something with me, even if you are miles away, that would be great!
Next up: 30 days straight of yoga. I started this morning at 7 am. I already feel accomplished for having got up that early for a yoga class. Just 29 more days to go! I have another friend who felt inspired by this undertaking and has committed to also doing yoga everyday for 30 days, but in her home and not at 7am!
Keep tuned in, as there will be more things coming this month too!