Opinion » Maxed Out

Canada – where we know how to build a campfire



The recent, unexpected death of a close friend has left me at a loss for words. Fortunately, the following words, now almost 20 years old, still seem appropos in this most drippy summer. I'll be back next week.

The best thing about travelling — alright, one of the best things about travelling — is you get to see a lot of things you don't usually see. The worst thing about travelling is this: If everywhere you go looks like where you came from, why bother going in the first place?

My road trip through the darkest interior of British Columbia was largely sideswiped by this reality. Everywhere I went — with the possible exception of Lumby, which looked a lot like a place my car broke down about 25 years ago — looked just like it does here. Cloudy and rainy. A mountainous landscape of greys and halftones, high rushing rivers of white-frothed quicksilver and endless lakes of reflective, infinite black. Leave the Kodachrome home, mama; we're shootin' black 'n' white tonight.

The Search for Summer turned out to be, instead, the Journey of Many Shivers. A week or so of pre-departure sunshine, possibly my entire spring allotment, lulled me into making what I will generously refer to as unwise wardrobe choices. I was long on shorts, T-shirts and sunscreen; short on fleece, down, and large, bulky animal skins. Many evenings were passed wondering whether goosebumps could ever be considered fashionable or whether they were just the body's natural defense mechanism to entertain you while you freeze to death.

As a result of the weather, the theme for this vacation was 50 Ways to Warm Your Lover. The 48 generally confined to overcoming the body's initial shock when it comes into contact with the ice-cold nylon interior of an otherwise toasty sleeping bag are way too personal to outline in the family-friendly pages of Pique.

This pretty much leaves the two most effective methods anyway: fire and hot springs. There is, in man (generic sense) a primordial attraction and fascination with fire. Nowhere is this more highly evolved than Canada where the convergence of long stretches of cold weather and an embarrassment of forests have conspired to produce the best damn fire builders in the known universe. Yeah, baby; We're No. 1!

Before I moved to Canada, I thought I made pretty passable campfires, though I preferred not to. Sparks always seemed to find my rainfly, my clothes, my beard, my beer. Being a wind magnet, I was in the path of smoke regardless of where I sat. If I chose not to sit, in a pointless attempt to outfox the smoke, my motion created a sufficient vortex to ensure smoke would engulf me in a permanent spiral. After the first evening, I both felt and smelled like a kipper.

Knowing the importance of warmth to survival, however, I dutifully learned to carefully collect dry tinder — needles, moss, fine twigs, last Saturday's New York Times if one was handy — sort sticks from small to large, and patiently bring the entire mess to fiery life with only a single match... and a generous soupcon of stove fuel. Lacking stove fuel, I found it more efficient to just swallow the burning match, wash it down with a large scotch and crawl into my sleeping bag until morning.

On rare occasions where lots of dry wood and a desire for fire came together in time and space, I managed to put together some pretty great fires. They say Indians (generic North American Aboriginal First Nations People) build small fires, stand close to them and get warm while White Men (generic North American Swaggering Males) build big fires they have to stand so far away from only one side gets warm. In those pre-deposit days, I built fires hot enough to vaporize aluminum beer cans, light cigarettes (yeah, sure) held one metre away, and reduce the hair on my forearms to a fine, if odorous, white ash.

But I was humbled when I moved to Canada. Canadians know fire. I camped near a Real Canadian Guy on this trip who must have been, I swear, forging steel in his campfire. Sleep that night came to the rhythmic ringing of his hammer straightening, I believe, the rear axle of his ageing Land Rover. His fire still burned early the next morning.

At a lake outside Kamloops, I camped on the shores of what would have been a perfect trout lake had all the trout not been preoccupied making new trout in a ritual orgy of sex and depravity. The Forest Service has kindly created a "primitive" campground at this particular lake. It consists of a couple of pit toilets and circular, metal fire rings way too small to ever hold a campfire created by a Real Canadian Guy. Judging by the many telltale rock rings and scorched circular patches of earth, either no one pays much attention to the established fire pits, or this lake is frequently visited by aliens, perhaps conducting beginner crop-circle classes.

There were, at this lake, several "camps" of mind-boggling proportions. It looked as though whole extended families, possibly rural villages, had encamped, maybe for the entire summer. One of these, the camp of many dwellings, contained the following structures: a large fifth-wheel house trailer; two pop-up trailer tents; one pick-up bed camper of teetering proportions; an enormous walled tent; two sizable dome tents; three well-hung tarps and a field shower large enough for two.

Several picnic tables had been arranged to provide food preparation surfaces. There were two elevated lanterns attached to 20-pound propane tanks, two four-burner stoves, a generator, a small chest freezer, an air compressor to inflate a half dozen belly boats, coolers too numerous to count, a large wooden structure that was either a hope chest or a coffin, several idling chainsaws and enough lawn chairs to hold a good sized concert audience. The camp was ringed and protected by a veritable used-car lot full of one-tonne pickups.

All of the above didn't seem particularly out of the ordinary. Camping is sufficiently flexible to embrace this collection as well as no-trace backpacking. What did strike me as unusual was the three cords of wood cut, split and stacked high between several spindly birch trees. There was more wood at this camp than I'd burned in the last several winters combined and more, I thought, than anyone could possibly burn in the 14-day stay limit requested by the Forest Service.

Needless to say, well after the sun set in the west — this is a presumption on my part since I never saw the damn thing through the cloud cover — the woods to the east glowed long into the night as flames danced and leapt into the lower branches of trees surrounding the camp of many dwellings.

And then there was the Hot Springs Where People Froze to Death. But that's another story.


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