The magic of campfires

It was a bitterly cold day many years ago on the unpaved Richardson Highway high in the mountains of central Alaska. Snow, driven by a biting wind, was falling when we left our overnight campsite on the Tolsona River in an open Jeep at about 7 a.m. It continued all morning. About noon, as we started to descend from the mountains to the foot of the Black Rapids Glacier, the snow changed to rain, but the driving wind continued. We were wearing ponchos, but they proved to be of little value as the icy rain eventually found its way through to our underwear.

When we reached the valley headed by the glacier, my second in command, Sergeant Jack Omohundro, a Native American of Cherokee roots, said, “Let’s stop and build a fire to warm up and dry out.” There was no argument.

Half numb with cold, with movement difficult, we gathered wood, but I had my doubts about the outcome. Even the dead under branches of spruce trees were soaked, but we eventually amassed a pile of wood. I thought the only way to get the wood to burn was for the sergeant to intone the “Magic Indian Firelighting Chant,” known by many woodsmen to produce miracles in such situations. However, he said he didn’t believe in such nonsense, and, besides, he could not remember all of the words. Rather, he casually proceeded to demonstrate an old Indian method of starting a fire in the rain with wet wood. He poured about a half of a gallon of gasoline from the Jeep’s jerry can on the pile of wood and tossed in a lighted match.

It was a good fire that warmed our bodies and spirits as we stood around it letting the heat soak in as it dried our clothing. We were feeling almost human again when we climbed back into the vehicle and, in relative comfort, pushed on the next 90 miles to our destination, which was the Army base at Big Delta.

There is something unique, almost spiritual, about a fire in the open as a source of heat and cooking. A fireplace, especially in a dwelling without any other source of heat, comes the closest to a fire in the open, but in many ways, it lacks the mystique and aura of a fire out of doors.

The fire is the heart and soul of any camp, and it is usually started just after the duffle is unpacked. I particularly like the warmth of a morning campfire and can think of nothing more pleasant than the aroma of bacon frying and coffee brewing over an open fire. Every day should begin like this!

The campfire I like next best is in the evening. Dinner is over, the mess gear has been cleaned and properly stored away, the campsite has been tidied up, and dry kindling for tomorrow morning’s fire has been collected and stashed away. The evening campfire is for fun and relaxation—for stories, songs, and camaraderie, or, if alone, for meditation and reflection.

The cooking fire is something else. Roaring bonfires, with smoke and enough heat to singe your hair at 20 feet, are to be avoided. The cooking fire should be just large enough to get the job done. It may be a quick fire to heat a can of pork and beans for lunch, or it may be long-lasting to cook a pot of hunter’s stew or to gently blacken a freshly caught trout. For slow cooking, a hardwood fire should be allowed to burn down gradually to the point where only glowing embers remain. That’s the time to put that steak on the makeshift grill.

Man’s fascination with the campfire is an inherited instinct that dates back to our early ancestors who started down the long road to civilization only after they learned how to harness and use this powerful force.

It’s sometimes good for our inner selves to leave the propane or gasoline-fueled cooking stoves and heating devices behind when we venture into the out of doors. These devices may be more convenient to use, especially in wet weather, but there is nothing that can duplicate the aesthetic and stimulating characteristics of a campfire. When I look into a campfire in the evening, I am somehow able to transcend the ages and imagine I am sitting in a cave roasting a mammoth steak over my fire, which is keeping the lions, tigers, and bears at bay.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!