Smoking in the backyard.

I’ve recently found out about a old style of minimalist camping called Bushcraft.  It was created in the late 1800s and focuses on using skills to replace equipment so you don’t need to carry as much and keep your negative impact on the land as low as possible.  (It also is a great way for those with a very low budget to get into the hobby.)

Wanting to learn more, I discovered Bushcraft USA, a website that has tons of information on the subject.  In the forum section, there is a section called Bushclass that is chock full of lessons and exercises to motivate you.  (You have to join the forums to see this section.) It’s like scouting but at your own pace.  There are pictures or videos of how to do the exercise and a section to post your attempt at it.  The guy, Sgt Mac, who created the class broke it down into three sections:  Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced.  I dove in deep and so far have done ten of the thirteen required exercises along with completing three of five electives.  I just finished an exercise of making a twig fire. You’d think it would be easy, but I figured out a way to complicate it.

Here’s how I reported it.

First, normally I would just use palm frond stalks and be done with it, but since this is a twig fire, I wanted to do it right.  I collected small oak branches three weeks to a month ago for this exercise, then I piled them up nicely by my firewood to let them age/dry. Surprisingly, its been a moist month. Lot’s of heavy fog in the morning and three showers, one two nights ago. Yep. The wood was still wet. You could bend it almost in half before seeing a split. (No cracking sound whatsoever.)

It took roughly an hour to cut up the twigs using hand pruners. (The wood had dried enough to the point of being hard to cut with the pruners)

Since I was doing this, I figured I’d try and use some Spanish moss as fire starter. Grabbed a bunch and pulled it apart until I found some that felt dry to the touch. I placed the old, half burned wood in a platform and rested the moss there as I continued to work on the twigs.

Three sizes stacked up in separate piles along with a starter set, I was ready to go.

Try out the ol’ ferro rod and…

Nothing.

I was getting enough spark. No problem there, but it just wasn’t catching on the moss. Maybe it’s too wet or needs air. I pulled at it and fluffed it a little.

Again, nothing.

Sweat was dripping off my brow. (It was 80 something which is overly hot for this time of year, even in Florida.)

“That’s it! Time for the big guns.” I went to my pack and pulled out my fire bag. Inside was the starter I knew would work. Pompous grass heads. These things are like pulled cotton and roughly six inches in size. They take a spark quick and burn hot! I took a quarter of it and shoved it under the Spanish moss.

-Skritch!- The striker scratched along the ferro rod.

-Whoomp!- The fluff lit up instantly.

The moss over it didn’t light! It must’ve been wetter than I thought. Disgusted with it, I tossed it aside.

Pulling out more pomp grass fluff, I tried again. Again it lit beautifully, but the twigs would not catch. They must be too wet and too smooth on the outside.

So I took a few that I knew to be the driest (They actually snapped when I bent them by hand.) and feather sticked them.

I pushed the twig pile aside, noticed some unburned pompous grass and hit is with the rod. As it burned I set the feather sticks on it one by one. Yay! The took! I rolled the twig pile back over the burning tinder.

-Sssssss.- The twigs sizzled. Wow. Those twigs were really wet! But they caught and man did they smoke. I’ve made many fires in this pit and this was undoubtedly the smokiest one ever. But it held and it grew.

Time for some pictures.

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That should be roughly knee high.

Pictures done, I took the rest of the twigs and threw them on. After all that work, I was damned if I was not going to use them. The flame got really high. Higher than I like to be honest. It settled down quickly enough though and I threw in my new cup and a tin of cloth for some other experiments.

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I wanted to see how quickly the cup would boil the water and make some char-cloth for my fire starter kit.  (Char-cloth is a fabric version of charcoal.  It’s made of cotton, and lights easily with a spark so if you don’t have a lighter, you can still start a camp fire fairly easy. It also burns slower than the Pompous grass puff I used so the twigs would have a better chance of igniting.)

After those were done and the twigs pretty reduced to ash, I put out the fire. Again smoke billowed from the pit as water poured onto the wood and coals.

It took a bit of work, but I got my twig fire going. I was happy.

Ten minutes after I cleaned up a siren howled outside. Gee. I hope it wasn’t for me.

Decisions

“Hurry up!” I chided, staring at the dog as she reluctantly wandered around the yard. Rain was falling moderately as a cold wind blew from the east.   I pressed myself against the wall while the dog debated to go to the bathroom or wait and see if I would flip a magical switch to make the rain stop. The rain danced off the leaves of the palms in a loud sizzling pattern as if they were landing on a tent. I shivered involuntarily as a rush of cold as a gust of wind slid along the wall.  And then I wondered about someone I’ve never met.

His name is Mitch and right now he’s probably wondering if he made a wise decision. You see, right now Mitch is somewhere deep in the wilds of British Columbia filming a wilderness show.  He’s either under some sort of tarp or huddled under a pile of branches and leaves as winters frigid fingers stretch down from the arctic.  Mitch is under contract not to divulge much about the show, including the name of the thing, but did allow the facts that it is a long term-single person production.  That means he’ll be living in the wilderness alone for a long duration of time without a camera crew or support.  He is supposed to record events as they happen and then transport them to a post office to the nearest town where the “film” (could be a chip for all I know) will then be mailed to television company for editing and release. This is a risky way of trying to do a show.  National Geographic tried it once years ago only to have the host, whose name I can’t remember, ended up having to be rescued after nearly starving to death, weeks into filming.  (He also had the misfortune of losing an entire week’s worth of film when his canoe overturned while paddling to town.)  This is probably why the TV Company behind the show doesn’t want Mitch to talk too much about it.  He might end up in the same predicament and they want to make sure they have enough episodes in the can for at least one season before announcing the show.  (They also probably want to make sure the show is interesting enough to watch without the predictable/planned arguments and tension caused by throwing opposite people and drama queens together in close quarters.)

The company, whoever they are, did a better job at picking a host for this show than National Geographic did. They did some research and picked out a dozen or so youtube bushcrafters to see who would apply. Derek, who goes under the handle of “Sargefaria” posted his audition on his channel, “The Woodsman School”.  Mitch has his own channel called, “Nativesurvival”.  He posted his last video before leaving for Canada roughly three weeks ago.

While I do look forward to the show, I have to ask myself if I would take this opportunity if it was offered. Could I spend a year alone?

I’m not talking about, “in the wilderness”. I mean a year alone anywhere:  Sailing the open seas, floating around in a space station, living in a lighthouse, or even travelling the back roads of the world.  Could I cut all ties and live with myself for a year.  No friends, no family, no pets, just myself.  Could I live without my wife?  What about my father, brother, and other family members?  What happens if something bad happens and they need me?  Would I be allowed to stop what I’m doing and fly back to be there?  Would I even know of the event or find out about it when I came back?  What would my family think of me if I wasn’t there in that moment of need?  I think about all the soldiers that had to deal with these very thoughts and events these last ten years.  It couldn’t have been easy for them. Now imagine explaining how you couldn’t be there because of a show; because of money.  How selfish would that sound?

Mitch also has a daughter. I wonder how explained it to her.  I’m sure he’ll be sending private video messages back along with the footage the company will need, but will he be allowed to do more?  Will there be phone calls in town or even visits for the holidays?  Would they help or make it worse for him after they left?  And what happens after the show is filmed?  After living alone for that amount of time, will he be able to readapt to dealing with large crowds and the diplomacy of society?  Will he be able to compromise with his wife again after doing things his way for a year without question or debate?  (I almost think a show about the re-adjusting to society would be every bit as interesting as the show of living alone in the wild.)

There are many disadvantages and hardships, but the show is also a great opportunity. Mitch will have a season to sell himself to the audience, create a larger desire for those who might want to take any classes he might create after the show, read the book he will eventually write, and buy the gear he will be using.  If the show is a large enough success, some companies might even court him to use his name on their products for a commission. He could secure his business/brand security with this adventure.  There is a lot to be gained.

Would I do it? Would I take a risk like this and live alone for a year?  I don’t know.  In my heart I’d want to.  It would be a great challenge and adventure along the lines of George Washington Sears, Joshua Sloccum, and Jefferson Sipvey.  Money wouldn’t be a problem since the company sponsoring the show would have to cover my lost wages from my regular job just to get me to even think of the project.  No, the biggest concern would be my wife.  She would have to be on board with the project before I committed. Could she handle being apart for so long a time and could she accept the risks I would be taking whatever the challenge would be.  (She already thins I take too many risks just by hiking down various paths and trails when the opportunity comes along.)  Marriage is a compromise. Would this opportunity be one of those things that got lost along the way?

My thoughts are disrupted by the sound of my dog barking. She’s done doing her business and wants to go inside. It’s cold and raining, after all.

To build a fire

It may be September, but summer is still hanging on strong in Florida. It had hit the mid 90’s again that Saturday and the usual afternoon rain hit heavily. So, of course, around 8:00, I decided it would be a great time to start a fire.

Yep. High temps and ungodly, sticky humidity just cry out for camp fires.  No?  Actually, you’re right.  This was an act of complete lunacy.

Ok. It was crazy, but not that crazy. I did have a reason for doing this.  I wanted to test myself and see if I could get a fire going without using a lighter or matches.

For a few years I’ve been watching those “survival” shows as well as various camping shows on You Tube. (Kennith Kramm is great!  So is A lone wolverine 1984)  And I can’t forget my WordPress campers.  (Lookin’ at you, Girly Camping)

This let to gear gifts. I put tons of items on my wish list as well as buying many things outright.  I don’t know about you, but I hate the idea of having all this money spent just to let it sit around and collect dust. Uh-uh.  That’s not gonna happen!

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I’ve been playing around with a fire-starter that consists of a ferrocerrium rod and striker. You shave the ferro rod with the striker which gives off extremely hot sparks.  The rod is thicker than the one glued to a metal magnesium bar found at Wal-Mart, but is smaller than the ¼” diameter that Dave Cantebury uses.  I’d scrape the rod with the striker of the back of my pocket knife just to see the sparks fly.  It was easy to tell that the back of my knife did a much better job at creating sparks from the rod than the striker did.

I also had some shavings lying in my hat. (Part of a project from Bushcraft USA forums) And then there is the clothes line wrapped up in a spool sitting next to my router on my desk.  That should be good tinder.  Along with this is a nice bucket load of dry kindling sitting quietly in the garage.  This will work.

But can I make it work?

My idea was to start a fire using the clothesline and shavings, and then building it up with the kindling before adding on the very wet wood.

I cut off two pieces of clothesline, each an inch long. Then I separated the outside weaving from the inside and shredded the outside weave while opening up the inside. Tossing it in the hat, I took the supplies outside to the fire pit.

One minor problem here. The pit is so deep that if I place the shaving bundle and shredded rope into the middle, I’m going to be stretching really far to get that spark going.  If it was dry, I’d place it all on a palm frond.  Since they’re soaking wet, I cheated and placed it on a sheet of newspaper.  I figured since the paper is just for support and transport and would not be used to start the fire, it was ok.

Now I was ready.

I took the striker and pulled the rod against it. You’re supposed to pull the ferro rod against the bottom of the striker so that you don’t accidentally knock the kindling bundle away.

One. Two.  Three pulls.  Sparks flew lightly into the air, but nowhere near enough needed to get this thing going.  I set the striker aside and pulled out the knife.  I have seen some people use the sharp edge of the knife to strike the sparks, but I didn’t want to ruin the sharp edge I worked so hard to get on this.  I used the back spine of the blade instead.  Gripping tight, I pulled again.

One! Oops!  The bundle spilled into the pit. I had held it so tightly that when the knife pulled away from the rod, the hand holding the rod moved forward and knocked the bundle away.  I quickly grabbed the bundle off the wet soil and put it back on the paper.  During the move, I could tell that the moisture in the air is getting wicked up into the bundle.  It felt moist in my hands.  Not damp, mind you, but definitely wetter than it was when I brought it out.  I needed to get this thing going.

With this added urgency I took the inner part of the cotton clothesline and pulled it to open up its fibers.

One more strike.

Fhzzzzt!

Sparks flew heavily in a shower of light and catch of the mix of cotton and wood. A flame started immediately and started to consume the small bundle with alarming speed.  The fire is started and it’s hungry!  I quickly placed the paper holding the fire into the pit before throwing some very small splinter thick pieces of wood on it.  While those were consumed, I started to build a teepee around and over it with my kindling of dried palm frond stalks.  (Dried palm frond stalks and leaves are wonderful for fires!  They have natural oils in them that burn very hot.  It burns similar to pine, but without the fumes or odor.)

After building that up came the next challenge, using wet wood. The fire wood has been sitting uncovered for a year now and that wood has been rained on constantly over the summer.  Besides the rain in the afternoon, it had rain water soaking in it throughout the week.  Only one day out of the seven did it not rain.  This wood is beyond wet.  It is soaked.

Pulling the thinnest branches out, I started to break them into proper lengths. Some parts bent rather than broke.  Other thicker pieces just crumble in my hands.  They were so wet that they were rotting!  Placing these on top of the kindling, I worried the fire might not be hot enough.  The cure for that?  More palm stalks.  Dead palm fronds stood in easy reach.  The problem was that they were wet from the rain, just like the wood.  Would they work?  I grabbed a few from the palmettos and was instantly sprayed by the water that had collected in the pockets of the frond leaves.  This was going to be interesting.  Six fronds later and I was ready.

I placed them strategically in the fire and watched in amazement as they lit up. The oil in the palm fronds really helps out.  I relaxed as I watched the soaking wood dry out and catch fire.  Plus the mixed sound of sizzling water and cracking fire was such a treat.

Finally I pushed the limit and threw in a decent log. It was four inched thick and over two feet long.  The fire would have to dry it before cutting it and then dry it again to consume it.  Would it work?

fire

Yep.

So I succeeded in my experiment. I was able to get a fire going and was able to burn very wet wood.

Was it a true test of wet weather fire building? Definitely not.  I used dry tinder and dry kindling.  I didn’t try to carve out dry wood from the inside of logs, nor did I forage for dry inner bark of pine trees.

Did I start a fire in somewhat adverse conditions? Yes!  It was dark when I started the experiment and very humid.  The tinder was absorbing moisture very quickly and had a limited time of use.  I think I did well.

Did I accomplish my goal of starting a fire without a lighter or match. You bet. Even if I hadn’t gotten the wood to take, I had built and lit a small starter fire with nothing but a ferro rod and a knife.  That was cool.

Do I recommend using a ferrocerrium rod over a lighter? No way! Lighters are so much easier it just makes sense to use them.  This was a test of a new skill and an experiment to see what I could learn from it.  It was fun to do, but in an emergency I would rather have a lighter.

I had a great time with this experiment and when I was done, I was sweaty, smoky and smelly. I was also proud of my accomplishment.

My wife just thought I was crazy.