Whenever bushcrafters get together sooner or later the talk always turns to the subjects of fire and food. I believe that there is something in all of us that loves to look into the flames of a fire, especially when we have a full tummy. When you have prepped a fire, lit it, managed it and cooked your food over it you always want to sit down and stare into the heart of this woodland TV.
This post will focus on the activities we undertake in the art of fire making.
I work with many children from London and this experience is so rarely these days given to them. Our cadets generally experience sitting around a campfire when they come camping with us for the first time. They have to learn to cook their food on stoves first and the only food that they may get to cook over the fire to begin with are marshmallows. It is at these times we talk about their highs, lows and learns of the day they have just had. Afterwards I like to steer the conversation onto the subject of bushcraft and what possibilities are available to them in the Sea Cadets.
On a bushcraft course I will try and give the cadets a number of experiences of lighting a fire. I always ask them though at the beginning of their first lesson on lighting a fire the following question:
“What is the first thing you need before lighting your fire?”
After much humming and haaahing and answers such as water, first aid, wood and paper I give them a clue by asking “Who owns the land we are on?”
Very quickly they answer the first question with “Permission”.
Some may say I am being a bit over zealous on the health and safety angle but it is the first question I ask and the last point I recap on at the end of the lesson.
Usually we start with firesteels and different types of tinders (man-made and natural).
With the younger ones we talk about creating Fairy Lights. Once they realise that they can create a stream of sparks from the firesteel without hurting themselves there is no stopping them.
Weather permitting I have always found the sun to be a popular tool, focusing its power with the use of parabolic mirrors and magnifying glasses.
Whenever we are out and about foraging or doing navigation I will get the cadets to forage for tinder. Thankfully where we operate Birch bark is always plentiful.
Cadets are taught to ‘build’ their fires. I like to use parts of the body to relate scale to the cadets when collecting tinder and kindling. Tinder needs to be as fine as their hair (scraped birch bark, honeysuckle bark, Usnea, Common Reed heads etc), kindling of various sizes which should be no bigger than their pinkie (as long as it snaps easily), wood no thicker than their thumb to help the fire sustain (again it should snap easily) and finally cooking wood, which should be no thicker than their wrist (it should be able to be sawn easily).
Here the cadets are being tested in lighting their fire to a point where it is self sustaining and the flames can burn through a piece of cord (thanks to Charlie Brookes for this idea).
Another skill that we teach is that of the group bowdrill. To teach a cadet to create a fire on their own using a bowdrill is quite a feat, although certainly possible if you have the time. As we never have enough time and also because I personally feel that the art of using a bowdrill is communal activity, I prefer to use the group bowdrill method. I like to have two cadets holding a large bearing block and two cadets using the bow. Not only does this create good team work, you are (with good supervision) guaranteed a higher success rate.
Whatever way you create a fire it always leads to happy fire faces.
Depending on the time available, I like to get the cadets to construct a flaming candle. I have heard them referred to as both Swedish and Finnish candles. Swedish is the more common term but they are also known as Finnish candles because soldiers in the Finnish/Russian war in the winter of 1939/40 used this method for cooking. I like the fact you can boil a kettle on one of these candles and you only need an axe to make one.
With all these methods, teaching them in a safe and fun manner is paramount. Cadets are taught to respect their environment: to forage from a wide area and always to put out a fire thoroughly so as to leave no trace that the fire had ever been there.
The next instalment of the Bushcraftage series will be on some of the foodstuffs the cadets cook over their fires.