The late afternoon is cold with occasional snowfall. Low clouds scuttle overhead, threatening a more powerful storm may be in the offing. Temperatures remain in the low 30s. The walls and floor of Mount Wilcox North shelter on the Appalachian Trail are damp. It’s not Marriott by a long shot, but home for this night. My tardy arrival is accompanied by smarting muscles which have been punished by clambering over Race Mountain, Mount Everett, and tumbling off Jug End. It was a long and unexciting tramp to Wilcox. Only the weather is more surly than my mood
My synthetic fill sleeping bag is still dry, so I fluff it up and fling it on my pad to get some loft. Normally, I wouldn’t look forward much to my next duty: gathering firewood. I still relish a fire — I need a fire. I already envision those red, yellow, and orange tongues of heat basking away the miserable dampness. Only fire will dispel my mood. What, until recently, had been a chore — bumbling about the surrounding area with armloads of wood, much of which would fall from my arms and have to be reclaimed by return trips — was now a cinch due to a short length of parachute cord.
The cord is twice my arm in length with a loop at one end, a simple but incredibly effective tool. I commence by pickting twigs and light kindling, some arm-thick limbs, and a substantial log. I lay the cord out in a straight line in front of me and set the wood bundle across the middle of it. Then I run the free end through the loop, and tighten the heap together by lifting the free end. I can then wind the cord around my hand to carry it, or toss the load over my back for transport. Then it’s on to the next harvesting site where I loosen the cord and tuck more wood into the portable stack. Four or five stops provide enough wood, laid in with minimal effort.
I take time to assemble the fire; I don’t just lob down tinder, kindling, and hurl a match expecting magic. Such effort would be squandered and result in exasperation and used matches.
I start with a fist-sized bunch of cedar fibers, toothpick thin sticks, and dried grasses. If I can find bark from a paper birch tree, so much the better. The surprising thing about birch bark is that it burns even when waterlogged. Touch a match to it; it will flare into life every time.
Next, I manufacture tepee around the bundle. The wood must be no thicker than a pencil. I plant three or four of these supports into the earth to form a sturdy frame to hold up the weight of the remaining firewood. I continue setting other wood of the same size on all sides of this cone, leaving space between the sticks so air can circulate.
Next I use kindling larger than a pencil but no thicker then a broom handle. As before, I plunge three or four sticks in the soil to support the cone, then continue adding wood as before. Patiently, I build the layer thicker, still allowing space for air circulation. I leave a gap in the cone so I can reach inside to the tinder bundle to touch a match to it.
By now half an hour has elapsed. I add a final layer of arm-thick pieces of wood. Lastly, I make sure I have extra leftover birch bark, twigs and tinder, and kindling.
When it’s ignition time, I use a single wooden match from a Ziplock bag of kitchen matches. I strike it and carefully touch it to the tinder bundle. If the job is done properly one match is all that’s required.
As the core of the pyre catches and the flames lick the kindling, I feel an intense flush of satisfaction. My one-match fire is blazing. It will keep on burning through the night in all but the wettest conditions, with only intermittent feeding required. In the morning, a handful of birch bark and tinder will have the flames roaring again without undue effort.
Dinner is over, dishes are cleaned, and I sit by the fire with a mug of piping coffee, the fire immersing me in welcome waves of heat. My worn out muscles start to yield their tightness under the soothing flames. My efficiency in gathering wood, patience and focused construction to build the cone, and a single match, have all come together into a blissful blaze without which camp on the Appalachian Trail would be dreary indeed!