Monday, September 24, 2007

Catching Things On Fire

This whole post is about following the old boy scout motto of “be prepared.”

I am not sure how many non-outdoors people follow this type of thing. But, whenever I go into the woods I usually take a minimal amount of stuff with me. The more remote the area, the more stuff that usually goes with me. One of the things I always have is at least a couple of means to make fire. A lighter is the good old standby, and is more than likely the only thing you will ever need. It has been all I have ever needed for a long, long time. But, things can happen. You can have a leak of fluid which could render it completely useless, or simply take a dunk in the lake which may make it useless until it can dry out. That is where the ferro rod comes in. They are very compact, very tough, and still work when wet. Even if you manage to break one, you still have plenty use in terms of pieces. That is why it is good to have one to fall back on.

For years, I have always had one to fall back on. But, the extent of my testing with it was to scrape it quickly, and to see it spark. Sure enough, I would get a spark, and it would go back in my bag. It is a far cry from actually starting a fire with one. So, I figured I better experiment a little.

The old standby tinders are cotton balls (usually soaked in petroleum jelly) and dryer lint. Lighting both of those are EXTREMELY easy. In fact, I can probably light a cotton ball from 4 feet away if my aim is good. I carry a couple of PJ soaked cotton balls in an old 35mm film canister in my outdoors pack. Enough testing? No way!

It should go without saying that a means for firestarting should literally be strapped to you, and in your pocket. It is cool to have more in your pack, but this is the norm for all those that believe in Mr. Murphy. The classic example of this is flipping your canoe in cold water, and becoming separated from your pack. Cold and with no gear, you will need a fire. So, I wanted to try the ferro rod on natural materials found in the typical woods around. Brendan and I have tried a few things so far.

I should stop here to note that Brendan has the same pyro tendencies as me. He likes fire. So, I let him help me start the BBQ and the campfires. If he sees me using the ferro rod, he wants to also. He is actually pretty good, and has started a few fires with the ferro rod. More specifics below.

Birch Bark – I rate this one an easy. Take a knife and scrape the bark a little to get some fine shavings to catch sparks. Once you do this, the shavings catch the spark, and the rest of the bark burns like gasoline! Birch bark actually contains an oil and is famous for being able to be lit even after it is soaked in water. Brendan was able to do this one on his own too.

Dry field grass – Dry grass alone is not so easy. It just requires more precision with where the spark is landing, and you need to get a good hot spark. This one was hard enough that I didn’t let Brendan try. Although, you combine this with cattail fluff and you got a GREAT combo. More on that later.

Cattail Fluff – I tried this once with cattail fluff that just felt very “green.” It didn’t light well, and I couldn’t even start it with a match. So, I tried one that was beginning to shed naturally. I could instantly tell that was much drier. This stuff is rated extremely easy. Brendan did this one extremely easy as well. The only issue with this one is that it is almost like gasoline. The smallest bit of spark an it takes off like an explosive and it is very FAST. Since your flame do not last that long you are better off combining it with another tinder (see the next one). The flame on this one is so explosive that I had some dried pine needles setting about a foot to the side to experiment lighting those later. The cattail went up in such high flames it caught those on fire too! I guess I will have to get more pine needles to play with!

Cattail fluff and dry grass – Combining these two made things real easy. The cattail lights so easy, and the dry grass will carried the flame for a longer period of time. Brendan did this one with no issues.

Pine Firestick – This one was the most fun. As Ray Mears would say “firesticks are the most undervalued source of tinder.” I used about a 1 ½ diameter dried branch from a white pine. With a very sharp knife, you carve increasingly smaller curls into the wood (that stay on the stick) until you end with real FINE curls. They have to be fine, because they need to catch a spark. This lit pretty easy, but you have to be a lot more accurate with where you are shooting sparks. You are not just shooting sparks into a big pile of dry stuff. Because of this, I did not let Brendan try this one. I am anxious to try other types of wood, like maple. I picked pine for this one because it was my first go at a firestick with a ferro rod, and I figured it would be easy. So, we will see how the other ones do.

Maybe next time I will have a couple photos of Brendan in action.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Better for the Environment - Bushcraft or Gear?

It seems over the past few years all the activities that I have done in the past have become much more gear intensive (and complicated). I remember hunting, fishing, and roasting a marshmallow to be pretty simple things. Today, it seems you can not open a hunting magazine without seeing ads for $300 rain gear, scent elimination clothing, all kinds of gadgets and gizmos to put on your bow, and let’s not forget about all the electronics that are supposed to keep you from getting lost or talking to your buddies.

When I was growing up, and we either went camping or had a bon fire we always cut our own marshmallow stick from green sticks growing around the yard. The stuff always grew back quickly, and never made that connection until recently.

As I got older, I started feeling guilty about cutting down a living thing to roast a marshmallow. Conveniently, every outdoors store sells a nice metal, chrome plated (probably made in china) device to roast stuff over the fire. So I bought one. No more feeling guilty about cutting green sticks.

I have not thought much on this topic until recently watching all of the first two seasons of Bushcraft by Ray Mears. As the name implies, the series is about how to do things in the woods with natural materials. Of course, his shows are really interesting because there is a lot of history provided, but that is getting off topic.

It begs the question…..what is better for the earth? Cutting a couple of green sticks, which are likely to re-grow quickly? Or to have petroleum based equipment extract metal from the earth, ship it to a manufacturing plant, form it in the shape of a fork, but a nice chrome plating and wooden handle on it, then ship it all over the world so that we have a nifty little gadget? I will leave that one to you.

I think the reason it was not so obvious before, like anything else, when you do it yourself you see the consequences first had. While they may be bad, they are far better than the alternative. Kind of like how killing a cow and butchering it is probably not high on anyone’s “want to do list.” But, when you buy the nicely packaged steak (or stop at McDonald’s) none of those thoughts about killing and butchering enter your mind because you didn’t do it (directly anyway).

The same concept can be extended to many examples in the woods. For example, if you have to purify water, would it be better to start a small fire by gathering some dead wood, and possibly cutting a green stick or two to suspend at pot to boil water? Or to have some pump made from plastic with rubber hose and a paper filter with carbon and who knows what else in it? Again, it goes back to seeing the small impact you made to the earth, and not seeing the bigger impact that someone else has made for you.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Medicine in the Sky

I am blatantly copying this from someone else's blog, but it is true. So, I wanted it here as well.

It is Tale 71 from Ernest Thompson Seton's "Woodland Tales."

This is one of the greatest and best secrets of Woodcraft--The Medicine in the Sky.

Let me tell you a story about it. There was once an Indian who left his own people, to live with the white man, in the East. But the Great Spirit was displeased, for he did not mean the Indian to live in houses or cities. After a year, the red man came back very thin and sick, coughing nearly all night, instead of sleeping. He believed himself dying.

The wise old Medicine Man of his tribe said, "You need the Medicine of the Sky." He took it and got quite well and strong.

Another Indian, who had gone to visit with a distant tribe of red men, came back with some sickness on his skin that made it very sore. It was far worse than Poison Ivy, for it began to eat into his flesh. The Medicine Man said, "Sky Medicine will cure you." And it did.

One day a white man, a trader, came with chest protectors to sell to the Indians. He was sure they needed them, because he did; and, although so well wrapped up, he was always cold. He suffered whenever the wind blew. The old Medicine Man said, " We don't need your chest pads, and you would not if you took the Sky Medicine." So the trader tried it, and by and by, to his surprise and joy, no matter whether it was hot or cold outdoors, he was comfortable.

This man had a friend who was a learned professor in a college, and he told him about the great thing he had learned from the old Indian. The professor was not old, but he was very sick and feeble in body. He could not sleep nights. His hair was falling out, and his mind filled with gloomy thoughts. The whole world seemed dark to him. He knew it was a kind of disease, and he went away out West to see his friend. Then he met the Medicine Man and said to him, "Can you help me?"

The wise old Indian said, "Oh, white man, where do you spend your days?"

"I spend them at my desk, in my study, or in the classroom."

"Yes, and your nights?"

"In my study among my books."

"And where do you sleep?"

"I don't sleep much, thought I have a comfortable bed."

"In the house?"

"Yes, of course."

"Listen, then, O foolish white man. The Great Spirit set Big Medicine in the sky to cure our ills. And you hide from it day and night. What do you expect but evil? Do this and be saved. Take the Sky Medicine in measure of your strength."

He did so and it saved him. His strength came back. His cheeks grew ruddy, his hands grew steady, his hair ceased falling out, he slept like a baby. He was happy.

Now what is the Sky Medicine? It is the glorious sunlight, that cures so many human ills. We ask every Woodcrafter to hold on to its blessings.

And in this wise, O Guide, you must give it to the little ones. Make it an honorable exploit to be sun burnt to the elbows without blistering; another to be sun burnt to the shoulders; another to the waist; and greatest of all, when sun burnt all over. How are they to get this? Let them go to some quiet place for the last, and let the glory fall on their naked bodies, for ten minutes each day. Some more, and some less, according to their strength, and this is the measure--so long as it is pleasant, it is good.

In this way they will inherit one of the good things of the woods and be strong and hardened, for there is no greater medicine than the Sun in the sky.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

We Have Fire

It is not all that cold up here yet. But, it has been getting down in the upper 40s at night. Anxious to try out the new woodstove and installation, we fired it up last night. Just a small kindling fire, for about a half hour or so. Everything worked great, it looks even nicer.

With the stove, you are supposed to have 3 small break-in fires anyway. The paint cures with heat, cements for the gaskets cure with heat, etc. So, you are supposed to break it in a bit. We will probably have a couple more small fires before it gets really cold. Hopefully some pictures too.