THE success of outdoor cookery depends largely upon how the fire is built and how it is managed. A camper is known by his fire. It is quite impossible to prepare a good meal over a higgledy-piggledy heap of smoking chunks, a fierce blaze, or a great bed of coals that will warp iron and melt everything else.
For a noonday lunch, or any other quick meal, when you have only to boil coffee and fry something, a large fire is not wanted. Drive a forked stake in the ground, lay a green stick across it, slanting upward from the ground, and weight the lower end with a rock or peg it down with an inverted crotch. The slanting stick should have the stub of a twig left at its upper end to hold the pot bail in place, and should be set at such an angle that the pot swings about two feet clear of the ground.
Then gather a small armful of sound, dry twigs from the size of a lead pencil to that of your finger. Take no twig that lies flat on the ground, for such are generally damp or rotten. Choose hardwood, if there is any, for it lasts well.
Select three of your best sticks for kindling. Shave each of them almost through, for half its length, leaving lower end of shavings attached to the stick, one under the other. Stand these in a tripod, under the hanging pot, with their curls down. Around them build a conical wigwam of the other sticks, standing each on end and slanting to a common center. Leave free air spaces between the sticks. Fire requires air, and plenty of it, and it burns best when it has something to climb up on; hence the wigwam construction. Now touch off the shaved sticks, and in a moment you will have a small blast furnace under the pot. This will get up steam in a hurry.
Meantime get two bed-sticks, five or six inches thick, to support the frying pan. The firewood will all drop to embers soon after the pot boils. Toss out the smoking butts, leaving only clear, glowing coals. Put your bed-sticks on either side, parallel and level. Set the pan on them, and fry away. So, in fifteen or twenty minutes from the time you drove your stake, the meal will be cooked.
A man acting without system or forethought, in even so simple a matter as this, can waste an hour in pottering over smoky mulch, or blistering himself before a bonfire, and it will be an ill mess of half-burned stuff that he serves in the end.
When making a "one-night stand," start a small cooking fire the moment you stop for camping and put your kettle on. Then you will have coals and boiling water ready when you begin cooking, and the rest is easy.
For baking in a reflector, or roasting a joint, a high fire is best, with a backing to throw the heat forward. Sticks three feet long can be leaned against a big log or a sheer-faced rock, and the kindling started under them.
Often a good bed of coals is wanted. The camp-fire generally supplies these, but sometimes they are needed in a hurry, soon after camp is pitched. To get them, take sound hardwood, either green or dead, and split it into sticks of uniform thickness (say l 1/4~inch face). Lay down two bed-sticks, cross these near the ends with two others, and so on up until you have a pen a foot high. Start a fire in this pen. Then cover it with a layer of parallel sticks laid an inch apart. Cross this with a similar layer at right angles, and so upward for another foot. The free draft will make a roaring fire, and all will burn down to coals together. The thick bark of hemlock, and of hardwoods generally, will soon yield coals for ordinary cooking.
To keep coals a long time, cover them with ashes, or with bark which will soon burn to ashes. In wet weather a bed of coals can be shielded by slanting broad strips of green bark over it and overlapping them at the edges. In windy weather build your fire in a trench.
Camp-fires, as distinguished from cooking-fires, are usually built by laying down two short, thick logs five or six feet apart, for bed-sticks, crossing these with two parallel logs about a foot apart, and firing with small poles between them. Such a fire is generally too hot for good cooking, and it blazes or smokes too much. Cook in front of it, or to one side, with coals raked from under the forestick.
When staying several days in one place, build a separate cooking-fire. It saves trouble in the end. On a level spot near the camp-fire set up two'stout forked stakes about five feet apart and four feet to the crotches. Across them lay a green stick (lug-pole) somewhat thicker than a broom- stick. Now cut three or four green crotches from branches, drive a nail in the small end of each, invert the crotches, and hang them on the lug-pole to suspend kettles from. These pot-hooks are to be of different lengths so that the kettle can be adjusted to different heights above the fire, first for hard boiling, and then for simmering. If kettles were hung from the lug-pole itself, this adjustment could not be made, and you would have to dismount the whole business in order to get one kettle off.
Then get two thick, flat rocks and bed them under the lug-pole to support your fire-irons or the frying pan itself. A pair of green logs will do if there are no rocks handy.
There is much in knowing how to select fuel. As a rule, hardwoods make good, slow-burning fuel that produces lasting coals, while softwoods make a quick, hot fire that soon dies to useless ashes.
The following woods will scarcely burn at all when they are green: aspen (large-toothed), black ash, balsam, box elder, buckeye, hemlock, pitch pine, sassafras, sourwood, sycamore, tamarack, tupelo (sour gum), water oak, poplar (tulip), and service berry. Butternut, chestnut, red oak, red maple, and persimmon burn very slowly in a green state. Such woods are good for backlogs, hand-junks, or andirons, and for side-logs in a cooking-fire that is to be used continuously. Yellow birch and white ash, on the contrary, are better for a camp-fire when green than when they are seasoned. It may be said, in general, that green wood burns best in winter, when the sap is down. Trees that grow on high, dry ground burn better than those of the same species that stand in moist soil. Chestnut cut on the summits of the southern Appalachians burns freely, even when green, and the mountain beech burns as ardently as birch.
Arbor-vitae (Northern "white cedar") and chestnut burn to dead coals that do not communicate flame. They, as well as box elder, red cedar, hemlock, sassafras, tulip, balsam, tamarack, and spruce, make a great crackling and snapping in the fire. All of the soft pines, too, are prone to pop. Certain hardwoods, such as sugar maple, beech, white oak, and sometimes hickory, must be watched for a time after the fire is started, because the embers that they shoot out are long-lived, and hence more dangerous than those of softwoods; but they are splendid fuel, for all that.
The following woods are very hard to split: Blue ash, box elder, buckeye, cherry, white elm, winged elm, sour gum, hemlock (generally), liquidambar (sweet gum), honey locust, sugar maple, sycamore, tupelo. Some woods, however, that are stubborn when seasoned are readily split when green, such as hickory, beech, dogwood, sugar maple, birch, and slippery elm.
Firewoods that split easily are: Hackberry, red oak, basket oak, white oak, ash, and white birch.
Best of all Northern firewoods is hickory, green or dry. It makes a hot fire, but lasts a long time, burning down to a bed of hard coals that keep up an even, generous heat for hours. Hickory, by the way, is distinctly an American tree; no other region on earth produces it. The live oak of the South is most excellent fuel. Following the hickory, in fuel value, are the chestnut oak, overcup, post and basket oaks, pecan, the hornbeams (ironwoods), and dogwood. The latter burns finally to a beautiful white ash that is characteristic; apple wood does the same. Black birch also ranks here; it has the advantage of "doing its own blowing," as a Carolina mountaineer said to me, meaning that the oil in the birch assists its combustion so that the wood needs no coaxing. All of the birches are good fuel, ranking in about this order: black, yellow, red, paper, and white. Sugar maple was the favorite fuel of our old-time hunters and surveyors, f because it ignites easily, burns with a clear, steady flame, and leaves good coals.
Locust is a good, lasting fuel; it is easy to cut, and, when green, splits fairly well; the thick bark takes fire readily, and the wood then burns slowly, with little flame, leaving pretty good coals;* hence it is good for night-wood. Mulberry has similar qualities. The best of the oaks for fuel, especially when green, is white oak; it also splits very readily. The scarlet and willow oaks are among the poorest of the hardwoods for fuel. Cherry makes only fair fuel. White elm is poor stuff, but slippery elm is better.
In some respects white ash is the best of green woods for campers' fuel. It is easily cut and split, is lighter to tote than most other hardwoods, and is of so dry a nature that even the green wood catches fire readily. It burns with clear flame, and lasts longer than any other free-burning wood of its weight.
Most of the softwoods are good only for kindling, or for quick cooking-fires. Liquidambar, magnolia, poplar (tulip), catalpa, red cedar, and willow are poor fuel. Seasoned chestnut and poplar make a hot fire, but crackle and leave no coals. Balsam fir, basswood, and the white and loblolly pines make quick fires but are soon spent. The gray (Labrador) pine is considered good fuel in the far North, where hardwoods are scarce. Seasoned tamarack is fairly good. Spruce is poor fuel, although, being resinous, it kindles easily and makes a good blaze for "branding up" a fire. Pitch pine, which is the most inflammable of all woods when dry and "fat," will scarcely burn at all in a green state. Sycamore and buckeye, when thoroughly seasoned, are good fuel,* but will not split. Alder burns readily and gives out considerable heat, but is not lasting. The wood of the large-toothed aspen will not burn when green, yet when dry it "burns freely, does not crackle, lasts well, and leaves good coals. The best green softwoods for fuel are white birch, paper birch, soft maple, cottonwood, and quaking aspen.
As a rule, the timber growing along the margins of large streams is softwood. Hence driftwood is generally a poor mainstay, unless there is plenty of it on the spot.
The best kindling is fat pine, or the bark of the paper birch. Fat pine is found in the stumps and butt cuts of pine trees that died on the stump. The resin has collected there and dried. This wood is usually easy to split. Pine knots are the tough, heavy, resinous stubs of limbs that are found on dead pine trees. They, as well as fat pine, are almost imperishable, and those sticking out of old rotten logs are as good as any. The knots of balsam fir are similarly used. Hemlock knots are worthless and will ruin an axe. The thick bark of hemlock, and of hardwoods generally, is good to make glowing coals in a hurry.
In a hardwood4 forest the best kindling, sure to be dry underneath the bark in all weathers, is procured by snapping off the small dead branches, or stubs of branches, that are left on the trunks of medium-sized trees. Do not pick up twigs from the ground, but choose those, among the downwood, that are held up free from the ground. Where a tree is found that has been shivered by lightning, or one that has broken off without uprooting, good splinters of dry wood will be found. In every laurel thicket there is plenty of dead laurel, and, since it is of sprangling growth,, most of the branches will be free from the ground and snap-dry. They ignite readily and give out intense heat.
It is a good test of one's resourcefulness to make a fire out of doors in rainy weather. The best way to go about it depends upon local conditions. Dry fuel and a place to build the fire can often be found under big uptilted logs, shelving rocks, and similar natural shelters, or in the core of an old stump. In default of these, look for a dead softwood tree that leans to the south. The wood and bark on the under side will be dry —chop some off, split it fine, and build your fire under the shelter of the trunk.
To light a match in the wind, face the wind. Cup your hands, with their backs toward the wind, and hold the match with its head pointing toward the rear of the cup—i. e., toward the wind. Remove the right hand just long enough to strike the match on something very close by; then instantly resume the former position. The flame will run up the match stick, instead of being blown away from it, and so will have something to feed on.
Never leave a fire, or even a spark, behind you. Put it out.