The Art Of Campfire


A wilderness ethic has emerged over the last decade or two that discourages campfires while camping, because they char the earth, put too much pressure on forests in crowded wilderness areas and pollute the air with wood smoke.

After all, lightweight backpacking stoves can efficiently cook food, and sleeping bags and quality gear can keep you warm.

But it is hard for me to get my mind around camping without a campfire. Fire draws and bonds us together in a primordial way. I especially enjoy them this time of year, crackling on a crisp autumn night.

A campfire warms cold feet, sets a stage for stories, serves as a centerpiece for conversation and provides an oven for S'mores.

I once went on a 10-day expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the border of Minnesota and Canada with two other adults and six Boy Scouts. These are kids who swapped CDs in the van on the drive up, or played their video games and talked about their favorite television shows.

After each day's paddle and portage through the wilderness, we would find a spot to pitch our tents and cook a meal. As the late summer sun set, we would find ourselves automatically gathered around the campfire.

Early in our trek, my co-leader, Cavett Taff, pulled out selections from the epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the guys took turns, night after night, reading the story aloud by the campfire.

Without warning, a couple of nights later Taff launched into an insane monologue from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." We were mesmerized.

Other nights, our guide recited the Yukon Gold Rush-era tales in Robert Service's poetry—including his most famous "Cremation of Sam McGee." He came through again one night by recalling from memory Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din."

What began as a bit of an accidental gathering around a fire turned into a nightly ritual. The guys who had been tethered to the 21st century with headphones and Game Boys just days earlier, begged to hear—of all things—narrative poems.

At the end of a long day, staring at a crackling fire or into the chilly Canadian darkness, these stories had little in common with the dry words I'd read in high school textbooks and so much to do with voice and imagination.

As we progressed from one evening campfire to the next, it was easy to understand how storytelling traditions evolved around campfires throughout time. This wasn't a literary exercise; this was entertainment and community.

The campfires on that trek are among my most memorable. But others stand out as well: exhausted backpackers swapping stories in front of a tiny fire on a frosty night; hundreds of Boy Scouts at an organized campfire at Philmont Ranch in New Mexico; family and friends gathered outside a cabin after a fun day of paddling; or those nights three decades ago with just with me and my dad camping on a sand bar of Black Creek.

I realize I'm not on to anything new here. The marketplace recognizes the draw of the fire. The L.L.Bean catalogue that will undoubtedly be in your mail slot this season offers outdoor fireplaces for your patio. Your grocery store carries chemical things in the shape of logs. Your home may even have a campfire, though you call it a fireplace.

But a real campfire—on a camping trip—can stick with you for life.

One night a couple of years ago, the father of one of the boys in our Scout troop started telling us a story about his experiences while hunting for Civil War relics in Mississippi. Michael began so casually that I wasn't sure who he was talking to, but he proceeded with such detail that I was sure the story was going to be true.

We soon settled in and found ourselves listening intently as Michael recalled how he looked up from his metal detector to see a boy of 11 or 12 some 50 yards away. The boy was dressed in clothes that didn't quite seem contemporary. The boy motioned for him to come forward, and then zipped into an abandoned house on a hill.

My friend approached, looking for the young boy who seemed to move a little too quickly. The boy said nothing but kept motioning with his finger. "What do you want?" Michael recalled asking him. About a dozen of us were now entirely with him and his story, silent and still.

"What do you want?" he repeated incredulously, recalling how he spoke to this strange child a few feet in front of him.

As we leaned in, breathing suspended, Michael gave us the boy's response by letting out the loudest scream I think I've ever heard, stopping my heart and re-starting my breathing. The guys all jumped in shock.

That was a campfire we won't ever forget.


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