'T am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire."— All's Well that Ends Well.
Cold night weighs down the forest bough, Strange shapes go flitting through the gloom.
But see — a spark, a flame, and now The wilderness is home!
— Edwin L. Sabin.
The forest floor is always littered with old leaves, dead sticks, and fallen trees. During a drought this rubbish is so tinder-dry that a spark falling in it may start a conflagration; but through a great part of the year the leaves and sticks that lie flat on the ground are too moist, at least on their under side, to ignite readily. If we rake together a pile of leaves, cover it higgledy-piggledy with dead twigs and branches picked up at random, and set a match to it, the odds are that it will result in nothing but a quick blaze that soon dies down to a smudge. Yet that is the way most of us tried to make our first outdoor fires.
One glance at a camper's fire tells what kind of a woodsman he is. It is quite impossible to prepare a good meal over a heap of smoking chunks, a fierce blaze, or a great bed of coals that will warp iron and melt everything else.
If one would have good meals cooked out of doors, and would save much time and vexation — in other words, if he wants to be comfortable in the woods, he must learn how to produce at will either (i) a quick, hot little fire that will boil water in a iiffy, and will soon burn down to embers that are not too ardent for frying; or (2) a solid bed of long-lived coals that will keep up a steady, glowing, smokeless heat for baking, roasting, or slow boiling; or (3) a big log fire that will throw its heat forward on the ground, and into a tent or lean-to, and will last several hours without replenishing.
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, so you can easily regulate the height of the pot. The slanting stick should be notched, or 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 a foot 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 small conical wigwam of the other sticks, standing each on end and slanting to a common center. The whole affair is no bigger than your hat. 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. Feed it with small sticks as needed.
Meantime get two bed-sticks, four or five inches thick, or a pair of flat rocks, 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 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.
First get in plenty of wood and kindling. If you can find two large flat rocks, or several small ones of even height, use them as andirons; otherwise lay down two short cuts off a five- or six-inch log, facing you and about three feet apart. On these rocks or billets lay two four-foot logs parallel, and several inches apart, as rests for your utensils. Arrange the kindling between and under them, with small sticks laid across the top of the logs, a couple of long ones lengthwise, then more short ones across, another pair lengthwise, and thicker short ones across. Then light it. Many prefer to light the kindling at once and feed the fire gradually; but I do as above, so as to have an even glow under several pots at once, and then the sticks will all burn down to coals together.
This is the usual way to build a cooking fire when there is no time to do better. The objection is that the supporting logs must be close enough together to hold up the pots and pans, and, being round, this leaves too little space between them for the fire to heat their bottoms evenly; besides, a pot is liable to slip and topple over. A better way, if one has time, is to hew both the inside surfaces and the tops of the logs flat. Space these supports close enough together at one end for the narrowest pot and wide enough apart at the oth?r for the frying-pan.
If you carry fire-irons, as recommended in a pi 2« vious chapter, much bother is saved. Simply lay down two flat rocks or a pair of billets far enough apart for the purpose, place the flat irons on them, and space them to suit the utensils.
If a camp grate is used, build a crisscross fire of short sticks under it.
Split wood is better than round sticks for cooking; it catches easier and burns more evenly.
Pots for hot water, stews, coffee, and so on, are more manageable when hung above the fire. The heat can easily be regulated, the pots hanging low at first to boil quickly, and then being elevated or shifted aside to simmer.