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Archived Outdoors

Beginners luck, or magic touch?

out caitlinFire is a life source. Without fire or some other form of heat, it’s nearly, if not impossible, to survive in the wilderness — making it arguably the most important outdoor skill.


Having never started a fire on my own (at least not intentionally), I wanted to learn how to build a fire with just the basics — some wood and matches. Ideally, it would be an impressive all-night fire that I could dance around like Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves.”

That’s why, this week, I was excited to finally learn this key and crucial outdoor skill. All I would really need after that is to figure out how to kill squirrels to roast over the fire, and I would be ready to give up everything and move into the woods. Bye, comfy bed and electric blanket. Hello, cold and dispassionate nature.

Thankfully for me, Haywood Community College breeds woods experts in its Forestry Program, a number of which participated in a regional timber sports competition Saturday at the college.

HCC’s forestry club advisor Blair Bishop suggested I participate in the water boil event (unofficially, of course). Not only would I learn the fire skills I wanted, it would be under the pressure of a stopwatch.

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The gist of the contest is to start a good enough fire to get your can of water boiling first — thus the aptly named “water boil.”

Luckily, I was paired with accomplished water boiler, Judge. I put on a pair of oversized, neon orange chaps. Judge set up on the outskirts of the competitors. We had a circular disc of wood to build our fire on, a square of wood to break into inch-thick sticks, another piece to make wood shavings, a box of matches and a tin can with about a cup of water in it.

Then Judge explained the basics. He would rub a hatchet down one of the wood pieces to make shavings. (Definitely for the best. Given my propensity for accidents, I don’t trust myself with sharp objects.)

I’d start a small fire with the matches and shavings as he cut thicker chunks of wood that would stack up around the can, exposing the metal to as much heat as possible. Then using long, slow breaths, we would stoke the fire until the water in the can boiled over. 

I was in a tizzy as he explained all of this in about two minutes, right before the referee yelled, “Go!” And the competition only added to that feeling. I wasn’t actually participating, but in my mind, I was David trying to defeat Goliath. I would attempt to smoke everyone else, with considerable help from Judge. (By that, I mean Judge did most of the work. I just followed orders.)

When the water boil race started, I did just like Judge had said, gathered the shavings into a mound and used a couple matches until they stayed lit, and the fire started growing. Methodically, he placed the large wood sticks around the shavings to set the can on and then started piling more around all sides. After seeing his plan, I doubled his efforts.

But we still needed the fire to spread to the whole woodpile. Judge told me to start blowing air underneath the fire to get more oxygen to the flames, making them grow. As I blew air in, smoke funneled out into my lungs. Exhale slowly, Judge said.

We took turns stoking the fire. The blaze swelled. I jerked my head back several times as the flames reached out for my face. Eventually, it was enough to send the water bubbling up over the edge of the can.

People around us were making a ruckus, but I was too consumed with the task at hand to realize Judge and I, who weren’t competing at all, had finished first. My competitive ego danced on the inside. I’d learned to start a stable, long-lasting fire — a useful outdoor skill — meanwhile Judge and I rocked the water boil event. All in all, not too bad for a first-time fire starter.

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