Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fired up!

Hello Everyone!

So it's been a couple of weeks since I left Toronto for the cooler, quieter lands of New Brunswick. Life here is very different, and I am sure that I will write about the daily grind at the centre here in more detail later. But first, a story from last weekend.

In Ontario, we have a day off on the first Monday of August, with the super-lame name of the 'civic holiday' or something. Brief aside: I'm pretty sure that it is actually called Simcoe Day, but due to the fact that no-one remembers who Simcoe was anymore, we opted for a neutral name rather than admit our ignorance (for the record, John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and the founder of what would become Toronto). I was pleased to find out that this tradition exists in New Brunswick as well, although by the name of "New Brunswick Day."

As it happened, some people in the area who used to work with Falls Brook Centre (the NGO I’m working with) were offering a two-day bushcraft course – topics included fire-building, shelter, and general survival/craft skills that could be used in the bush. While there was a bit of a price tag attached to the offer, I and two other interns decided that we couldn’t pass it up. Most of our colleagues opted inexplicably for a long weekend full of partying and fun. What fools! Clearly they were unaware that the best parties involve starting fires with flint and steel, or sleeping in lean-tos.

Growing up, I had always heard my father’s stories about going to wilderness camp, something that was never much of an option for us, since these camps are now few and far between, and exponentially more expensive. However, I had always felt that a certain amount of traipsing through the woods was missing from my life. The weekend provided an ideal opportunity. We began by talking about firecraft, starting with practical things like gathering and lighting bunches of tinder and kindling, and lighting twig bundles. Then things got interesting. While our instructor freely admitted that we would almost certainly start every fire we ever made with matches or a lighter, he wanted to show us some ways of making fire that predated matches (which, incidentally, have only been in common use for just over a hundred years! Weird, eh?). We started by looking for hoof fungus and chugga fungus, which grow on white and yellow birch, respectively. Both contain a kind of corky tissue that lights very easily, and quickly turns into an ember once a spark has been cast onto it. To cast sparks, we used our knives and a ‘metal match’, a long piece of flint. We also spent a few hours learning how to search for materials and construct a bow drill, a tool that creates an ember by drilling into a dry piece of wood, which creates friction.

The most curious moment of the weekend happened after dinner on the first day. We had already explored some fairly outlandish ways of starting fires, culminating in a small flame that we got from casting sparks onto chunks of hoof fungus and putting the lit mushrooms into a nest of kindling. However, even this was outdone by a challenge that was put to us in the evening. We were provided with an old pair of blue jeans, several hacksaw blades and an encyclopedia. We were then directed to search through the gravel road for bits of quartz. All of these ingredients would, it was said, make fire. I was somewhat skeptical. This is it, I thought, as I went through the roadside looking for quartz rocks, this is some kind of bizarre New-Brunswickian sacrifice ritual and I have minutes to live. I contemplated fleeing, but I was really curious to see how it would turn out.

Those of you with more wilderness training (or logical minds) than me may have already figured it out. The blue jeans were torn into the strips, and the strips were allowed to catch fire. Before they had burned completely, they were extinguished by dropping them on an open page of the encyclopedia, which was then shut, This ruined the page of the encyclopedia in question, which is why we used one of the index volumes that no-one really ever opens (side note, does anyone even remember how to use encyclopedias anymore? I remember when they were all the rage in grade four). The result is a piece of cloth that is charred all the way through. This is the tinder cloth that will catch a spark and start to form an ember that can grow into a fire. The sparks are cast, then, with the quartz and hacksaw blade, by striking the blade against a jagged edge of quartz. These edges tend to get worn out rather quickly, however, so the process requires a constant smashing of quartz so that new edges can be created.

The rest of the weekend was great – we learned to make a basic shelter the next day using a frame of willow and alder stakes, and covered with an old parachute. We made a bed inside using spruce and fir boughs as well – we put down two body-length logs, then some larger branches for bedsprings, and then a layer of branch tips for bedding, with clumps around the head and hips for comfort. It ended up being one of the most comfortable beds I’ve had.

Thanks, as well, to our hosts' generosity, we were also able to attend free of charge by showing up on Monday (New Brunswick Day, if you were paying attention) and doing a day of farm chores. Finally, my fascination with shovels and pitchforks is paying off!

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful, Adam! I wish I had had such adventures when I was growing. I am not sure if such things as wilderness camps exist in India!