Thursday, March 28, 2013

foraging fuel for th' fire

Folk often ask me, as a forager, what do i do in th' winter time- well, there are many things to do in life besides gather plants for food. As a life long lover of primitive skills, I've always seen winter as th' time for honing your craft. And of course, one of th' most basic and essential of all skills is that of making fire. Th' two types of fire making which were popular in this area of th' world, in recent recorded history, and which i have become proficient in, are th' bowdrill, used mainly by th' native americans, and th' flint and steel, used mainly by th' fur traders and "pioneers".
Here is a picture of my fire kit, consisting of two ways to make a fire with out a lighter or matches.

flint and steel fire kit
traditional fire kit

It consists of th' components for a flint and steel fire: a steel striker, which must be high carbon steel to make a good spark, a flint rock to scratch th' steel, which makes th' spark, and a tin of char cloth, usually cotton or linen, but cotton works better, to catch th' spark. Other rocks will work too, but experiment at home, before you rely on them to make a fire. Flint and steel fires are made by striking th' steel with th' flint, which makes a mess of sparks, one of which is caught on th' char cloth, which keeps it alive. Th' char cloth is placed in a bundle of tinder, around here i use the inner bark of th' cotton wood tree, and blown gently into a fire. Th' tender should be finer than paper in order to catch. 

Char cloth is made by placing all natural plant material, usually cotton or linen, in a tin with a hole in th' lid. This tin is placed in your fire. It will smoke for a while, then stop, when it does, remove it, and you've made char cloth, which is basically char coal made from your pants. This is a good way to use up old clothing which has outlasted it's usefulness for wearing. 

tin of char cloth
Inner cotton wood bark comes from cottonwood trees (i know, right), easily found along riversides and waterways here in northern colorado.

 Also in my fire kit are the components for a bow drill fire, which is my favorite way of fire making, and predates flint and steel fire making by many thousands of years. Also, bow drill fires were made th' world over, it was/is a truly universal skill, without which people probably would not have lasted very long. 

bow drill fire kit
To make a bow drill fire you need a small bow, a spindle, a fire board, a socket, something to catch th' coal, and some tender, in this case again, inner cotton wood bark. I've experimented with many different woods for fireboards and spindles, and can say without a doubt and against any challenge, that th' best combination (around here) for th' fastest coal is using a willow spindle on a willow fireboard. A coal can be made in under a minute consistently, and usually within twenty seconds. 

sagebrush and cedar root fire boards with walnut spindle

I am often asked why i would want to make a fire this way when i could just use a lighter to start a fire much quicker. I like this question because, usually, people who ask this are not proficient in fire building, and i can make a fire quicker because i know how to make a fire. A lighter is fast, sure, but you still have to build a proper fire consisting of tender, kindling and bigger woods, which lighter users often overlook in their confidence in that tiny plastic device. If there's water nearby, i like to ask th' person for their lighter, then throw both it and my fire kit in th' water, and see who can still make a fire. Th' flint and steel or bow drill fire will always win this contest. Besides this, being able to make a fire from natural materials is empowering in a way that can only be understood by experience. You feel that if you can make a fire you can do anything. And it's true. 

So what about th' rain, i'm often asked. 

In the upper left corner of the above picture is a piece of pitch pine. It's a piece of wood cut from a pine, or any conifer, (abundant here in th' rockies) that has been cut while still alive. Th' sap seeps into th' wood, saturating it. You get this lit with your tender, and you've got a candle that will burn for an hour, more with a larger piece of wood. That's long enough to dry our some wood for burning, which can dry out more wood, which can keep you warm, and dry. 

Aside from making "campfires", you can also use a little oil and a string, and make yourself some oil lamps. 

cattail fluff and bamboo oil lamp.

I hope this gets you excited to try out new, or old rather, ways of fire making, and if you want more detailed instructions, feel free to ask us. Learning how to make a fire from scratch changed our lives, and it can do th' same for anyone.

And, just in case we've given anyone the impression that we are these foragers who only eat healthy food, here's an incriminating photo of us roasting hot-dogs over a fire, one of our favorite meals. Enjoy.