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When the time came for her to learn how to build a fire during her internship, Sarah Waller planned to do a dry run — to build it without an audience.
The facilities director at Trout Lake Camps in north central Minnesota had talked her through the steps. Then, he invited her to practice at Shalom House during the father/daughter weekend retreat that fall of 2018.
She arrived early expecting to work in an empty great room. But lodge guests already in from outdoor activities greeted her from their comfy chairs and couches and watched as she made her first attempt to fill the modern space with an ancient comfort — with warmth and flickering light.
Under gentle pressure she knelt before the two-story fireplace to build a fire with a nest of scrunched paper, kindling, and logs.
Now, Waller, 26, works as the camp housekeeping manager and builds fires in three different lodges almost as effortlessly as many of us flip switches to light gas fireplaces.
So, as a volunteer in her department during a youth retreat weekend our two older sons attended in early January I paid attention when she invited me to learn how.
This opportunity both strengthened my survival skill and prompted me to reread “To Build a Fire” — a short story I first read in middle school by American author, Jack London.
The New Century Magazine published the famous, anthologized second version of his story in 1908. And it has stuck with me as a cautionary tale about a man who misjudges his power in nature — something all of us do to one degree or another — and fails to appreciate trail mates.
An old-timer warns him about the Klondike Alaskan wilderness — tells him not to travel alone there if the temperature drops under 50 degrees below zero.
The man sets out anyway on foot with his husky at 75 degrees below zero to hike more than 10 miles over the Yukon River with ice 3 feet thick and then down a trail along Henderson Creek toward another encampment: “… Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.”
This man, never named in the story, builds two fires along the way.
The first celebrates his 4 mph pace and melts his “ice muzzle” — the frost his breath crystallizes in his beard — so he can open his mouth to eat the bacon biscuits he packed against his bare skin for lunch.
He builds the second fire after breaking through thin ice created by a spring along the creek bank. The frigid water came up to his mid calf before he lunged out of it — a misstep that accelerated the freezing cold already spreading from his extremities to his core.
So the man races to protect himself with a bonfire as he removes clothing to dry while he warms up: “… His German socks were like sheaths of iron half-way to the knees; and the moccasin strings were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted…”
In his haste, though, he built the fire under a spruce tree, and its rising heat eventually triggers an avalanche in the boughs and snuffs the flames with a thud: “… The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.”
I learned how to build outdoor fires with our sons in Boy Scouts — something my husband learned from his dad. Since building an indoor fire can lift someone’s mood and be a lifesaver, too, I appreciated Waller’s expert instruction last month.
But my learning experience with her follows me beyond actual fireplaces to any place where we can build lifegiving hotspots — in a family, at a restaurant or bar, on a team, or within a workplace or ministry — with the same proven method, however figurative:
*Open the flu to exhaust the smoky byproduct.
*Unlock the air vent to feed the fire oxygen.
*Gather fuels, including scrunched paper balls, four kindling sticks, and three logs.
*Put paper balls on the bottom of the fire grate; the four kindling sticks in a hashtag formation; and one log perpendicular to the grate bars at the front and another at the back before laying the third log across both logs and the other two fuels at an angle so the logs form a “not equal to” sign.
*Strike a match and light the paper balls first. When kindling crackles the fire is lit and will soon catch on the logs and spring to life.
“There are always challenges,” Waller said. “Logs cut this year will still be wet. But you need to use the resources available — whether or not they’re ideal – adjust accordingly, and work off the fundamentals. … Now, building fires is one of my favorite jobs. It is almost primal to put the right things together to make it happen.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-746-0942. For more stories and photos, please visit timescall.com/tag/mommy-musings/.
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