The extent of my camping experience until I was nineteen, included a three day camping trip with my grade seven class, a three day camping trip with my grade twelve Phys. Ed Class, and two summers working for Camp Homewood on Quadra Island, BC. None of these experiences prepared me for building fires daily to stay warm and dry.
When I turned nineteen I volunteered to work for a wilderness Bible Camp in the Rockies of Southern Alberta called Blue Bronna Wilderness Camp. I was super excited for the chance to work with this camp as I had heard about it all my growing up years and had always wanted to go as a camper. Unfortunately, my family wasn’t big into camping or into paying for the expensive horse trips I wanted to take with this camp. So it was a big fulfillment of a dream of mine to actually work for the camp.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I was quite the greenhorn to this whole wilderness camping/horse wrangling business. I had a huge learning curve that summer and number one on that list was how to stay warm and dry. I struggled lots partially due to poor gear, poor knowledge and a high expectations for bodily comfort—the kind you are used too when you have always had access to central heating and electricity.
I shared a tiny wall tent with wrangler Rachael, who had about as much experience as I in building fires in wood stoves—little to none. We moved into our cozy wall tent some time in the middle of May and called it “home” until the end of August. That particular spring was not very warm or nice. The nights were frigid, the days were overcast and rainy.
During those first few weeks I functioned in mostly-damp clothes, and somehow managed to melt a hole right through the rubber on my hiking shoes trying to dry them out.
Lesson One: Don’t put shoes too close to hot fire. Better to walk around in slightly damp shoes than with big holes in the toes. Big holes don’t keep your feet dry at all.
I also succeeded in melting my rain suit pant-legs together.
Lesson Two: Plastic or PVC rain gear (and fleece) melt easily from sparks or in my case exploding water-logged rocks.
And finally Rachael and I nearly burnt our tent down.
Lesson Three: Don’t try to dry wood out on top of a wood-burning stove, no matter how damp and water logged it is. Especially when you light a fire inside and leave the door to the stove cracked open and all the dampers wide open, before leaving camp for a half a day.
Yeah, we felt pretty stupid after that one. In our defense, let me explain how this all came about. We may have been stupid, but we reasoned our way to stupid.
“The way of a fool is right in his own opinion, but the one who listens to advice is wise.” Proverbs 12:15 (NET)
In our tiny little wall tent we were given a smaller, rectangle-box of a wood stove. It was probably two and a half feet from front to back and maybe a foot from top to bottom. It had a small door on the front with a three hole damper just below, and was supported maybe three feet off the ground by 4 legs. There was a damper on the stove pipe that was sticky and hard to move. The stove rested only two feet from my metal frame bunk bed.
We were given a lesson on the stove when we first arrived and we would fight with the thing every night before bedtime. This stove was finicky and petulant. The air-holes on the front didn’t help much, as ash would often block them, and few nights we smoked ourselves out not knowing how to work the dampers properly. Once it got going though, it ran hot and fast.
By trial and error we found out that the stove worked best if we left the door open a crack, which we would do until it got going really good and then we would shut the door. Usually an hour later we had our tent flaps pulled back and were laying on top of our sleeping bags sweating and fanning ourselves from the intense heat. Then the fire would die down and we would be too sleepy to close our tent flaps and about three in the morning we would wake up shivering and shaking in the cold, far too stubborn to crawl out and light another fire.
It had been raining lots and we had been struggling every night to get a fire going due to damp, cold wood and the fire, even then, really didn’t take off and would just smolder—never hot enough to warm the tent up by the time we went to sleep. So by now, both of us had a lot of wet clothes that needed to be dried out. We decided on the day that we were taking a trip down to Window Mountain Lake, that we would light a fire that morning and try to dry out some of our stuff while we were gone and at the same time, dry out some wet wood, so that we would have an easier time lighting the fire come nightfall.
So we started our fire as usual and let it burn while we gathered our gear for the day’s trip and stacked a bunch of split wood underneath the stove. Then we shut the door and were going to leave it at that, but the fire immediately started to fizzle. Mark, another wrangler with much more fire-expertize, told us as he passed by the tent, that this stove ran wide-open. We took him literally and thought wide-open meant leaving the door wide open, so we opened the door wide.
The fire was just barely smoldering and I don’t think either of us thought it would actually get going, because it rarely did even when we tried to “help” it along. And then at the last minute we took some of the wood we had stacked underneath the stove, and put it on top of the stove. We figured if the fire even managed to warm up metal of the stove even a little bit while it smoldered, it would dry out the wood quicker than if it was stacked underneath—and that night the fire would start easier for us.
We left camp.
When we returned, I entered the tent to drop off some stuff and noticed it was dry feeling. Such as nice change. Our stuff that we had laid out to dry was exactly that. Hooray! Then I looked at the stove and stooped down to peer inside the wide-open door and there were a few white ashes but the box was mostly empty, and then I remembered that we had left wood drying on top—except there was no wood! Only a skiff of ashes!
I ran to ask Rachael if she had moved the wood off, but she hadn’t and we both realized that somehow that fire got roaring and managed to burn the wood on top of the stove to a skiff of ashes and somehow didn’t scorch the roof of the tent or fry the clothes I had hanging from my bunk a few feet away!
Lesson Four: Be careful how you interpret advice.
When we told Mark about our little incident, he scoffed at our interpretation of wide-open. “I meant wide-open as in that stove burns hot and fast, NOT wide-open as in leave the door open!” Duh! And then he never let us live that down—until one morning a number of weeks later he and his tent mate Craig almost burnt their own tent down with a pillow falling on a propane heater, and burned their hands in the process of putting it out.
There’s a lesson in that as well, but I’m practicing keeping my mouth shut.
“Even a fool who remains silent is considered wise, and the one who holds his tongue is deemed discerning.” Proverbs 17:28 (NET)
Well Rachael and I never did master that stove—I think that little incident scared us and made us pretty wary. We were also too tired at night to mess with a fire, so we just quit fussing with it and got used to living in damp clothes and crawling into slightly damp, cold sleeping bags. The stove became our catch-all, regulated to dressing table vanity, instead of tent heater.
Not long after this, we had to stay in a tent with a bunch of 10-12 year old girl campers, and we refused to light a fire for them, even when they whined and cried in the dark. One little girl asked us if we could just go, “Turn on the fire.” We laughed at her because she thought all we had to do was push a button! We explained that it was far too much work for us to get out of bed to light a fire. Then we cruelly made them sleep in the cold tent with us, without a fire.
I say cruelly, because by this point, Rachael and my bodies had acclimated to living in the mountains and sleeping without heat, whereas those poor girls had to suffer it out. By the fourth night of their five-day camp, I think they all finally quit shivering and whining and actually slept! I still feel really bad about this.
So I’m saying sorry right now to all my former campers! I know I can never make up for those cold nights of suffering, but from now on, I promise to not let the “formidable task of building a fire” get in the way of another person’s well-being.
“You do well when you complete the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: “Love others as you love yourself.”James 2:8 (MSG)