Why a campfire?


Training adult Scout leaders always produces a few puzzled looks, and occasional passionate, fearful rebukes, when I note that a campfire gives a boy or a girl an opportunity to play with fire.

No, I don’t mean, exactly, that we should let kids play with fire.  There are rules — what’s burning must be in the fire pit, is the chief rule.

There is some primal need to watch a fire, to study it, to experiment with it, and finally just to watch it go. If you camped as a kid, you probably know what I mean.

Camp fires are universal.  This one was outside Bangalore.

Camp fires are universal. This one was outside Bangalore.

Every kid needs to do that.  It’s a part of growing up.  It’s a necessary memory for healthy and sane adults.

Start a fire, and a kid will get a stick and poke the burning logs and, especially, the red-, yellow- and white-hot coals after the fire burns a while.  They’ll start the stick on fire, put it out, and light it again.  They’ll pull the stick out of the fire and watch the flame consume the stick.  Kids will experiment with different things on the fire, to see whether, how fast, and how they burn.

Just keep it in the fire pit.

A Scoutmaster can tell which kids have been camping. A Scoutmaster knows which kids have been able to sit around a campfire and play with fire in that way.  Kids who know fire are more mature, generally, more relaxed about the excitement of the stuff, and much more careful with it.  Scouts who have dabbled in the campfire respect fire for what it is and for what it can do, good and bad.

What you’ll remember 20 years later, or 30 years, or (God bless me!) 40 years, and I hope 50 and 60 years, is the watching of the fire as the flames die down to a red and pulsing bed of coals.

You’ll remember some of the stories — Freddy Jonas’s often-told story of racing down the Champs Elysee in horse-drawn carriages, bribing the driver of the other carriage to go slower to win the race; the story of Rulon Skinner, the best non-swimming canoe instructor on Earth, and the big canoe race in which his opponent finally tipped Skinner’s canoe, and then yelled “snake!” to appeal to Skinner’s other great fear; the night the bear invaded the camp at Ben de la Tour, a bear later found to have antlers and four hooves.  You’ll remember the s’mores, and you’ll forget how messy they are.  You’ll remember the time you waited for the cobbler to cook after someone forgot to start the charcoal, or the the time the story got so good you forgot to take the cobbler off the fire, and how the Dutch oven had to be thrown away because it never would come clean.

You may remember that little fox at Camp Carter, sneaking just beyond the light of the fire and carefully circling every chair, looking for something good to eat, to steal.  Or that stupid porcupine that, now that you think of it must have been rabid, heading straight for the fire there in the only stand of Ponderosa pine in Utah County, up Payson Canyon.  And that will trigger the story of the night the fire wouldn’t start in the Catskills, and what seemed like hundreds of giant porcupines convened in bacchanalian festivities while campers dared not sleep in their tents.

Someone will mention retiring U.S. flags, and you’ll remember the retirement ceremony for the flag from the widow of the veteran, how she insisted that you promise the flag would be burned completely and honorably, and warned “he’ll be watching!”  You’ll remember the mass flag retirement after the lifting of the burn ban at Wisdom, and how you suddenly realized lots of flags put out lots of toxic fumes — but somebody ad libbed a part to the ceremony to add time to let the fumes clear, and no Scout noticed (you hope!).

We haven’t even gotten to the singing.

I was put in mind of the power of the campfire with a remembrance from Real Live Preacher writing at High Calling:

I remember how worried we were the first time we tried to set one of those brush piles on fire. We nervously stood before a ten-foot high, fifteen-foot wide mound with a can of lighter fluid and a couple of matches. I squirted a modest amount around the bottom of the pile and stood back while Michael threw the match. That’s when we discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to set things on fire. Now I marvel at stories of people casually throwing cigarettes out of their cars and setting whole forests ablaze. Michael and I had a hard time starting fires even when we used diesel fuel and a blowtorch.

It takes about five hours to burn a giant pile of brush and cedar, so Michael and I would start a fire, then sit on the tailgate of the brown pickup truck and talk while we kept an eye on it. Apart from the searing heat and looking like chimney sweeps, it was fun. I’m always looking for guilt-free reasons to sit around and talk with friends. I don’t suppose I’ll ever have as good an excuse as I did back then.

A guilt-free reason to sit around and talk with friends?  A campfire is an automatic reason — guilt only obtains if there’s a ban on burning where you’re making the fire.

Carl Buell painted another one that took my breath away the first time I saw it.  Go see it. (I’m asking permission on this one; it may take a little while. Posted below with permission.)

That’s not a photograph, you can tell because it so well preserves what you remember — better than any photograph ever could —  it preserves what you remember from that campout up in the San Franciscos the night the sky was so blue so late and you could see the whole moon from the earthglow — or was it in New Mexico?  Probably not Colorado because there aren’t any mountains — oh, but if he’s looking east, it could have been south of Pueblo . . . no, maybe near Albion in the Sawtooths . . . Buell works in the east; it’s probably up in Maine . . . but he lived and painted in Marin County.

Didn’t he perfectly capture that night?

Campfire, by Carl Buell. Copyright Carl Buell, all rights reserved; used with permission

Campfire, by Carl Buell. Copyright Carl Buell, all rights reserved; used with permission

8 Responses to Why a campfire?

  1. […] was more than five years ago I originally posted this?  Heck, I won’t even add links or a “More” section at the bottom.  I deserves […]

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  2. […] was more than five years ago I originally posted this?  Heck, I won’t even add links or a “More” section at the bottom.  I deserves […]

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  3. onkelbob says:

    I agree that campfires are an important link back to the old days, both those we can remember and those only our ancestors recall. However, we now suffer from the excess of success. More people go into the wilderness than ever before. A century of logging and fire suppression have left the forests of the west in a dangerous condition. Combine the two, and you understand my concern. When I hiked Big Bend 10 years ago, I carried 12 liters of water – only because NPS asked us not to draw water from the only seep on the trail. We all must sacrifice a little to avoid the tragedy of the commons. If we all draw, even just a little, then the impact may just overwhelm the landscape. There’s a place Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) well known to PCT and JMT hikers that has a campfire every night. The wood is brought in from the foothills, and the hikers always gather around it a swap stories of the Class 3 ledge they traversed, or the 25 mile day they put in yesterday, or the disappointment they felt when arriving at Happy Isles trailhead (northern terminus of JMT in Yosemite NP) only to see a “touron” feeding a bear. The weekend camper has the opportunity for the fire that us through hikers never seem to have the time or energy for, so I only ask that you bring the wood. That through hiker who went over the pass during the afternoon storms may need it to dry their clothes!! :^)

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  4. Ed Darrell says:

    I’m not advocating burning forests. I’m not advocating denuding forests of dead wood while hiking. I’m talking about the joys of a campfire where people fellowship with each other.

    Onkel Bob gets close. I’ve been at altitude where there was no wood, where the wind was way too high, and where we got about the same feeling from two cups of warm soup (tough to heat water over 10,000 feet) and a brilliant sunset from the crest of a mountain.

    But that was after we’d both built a few dozen major campfires together, for groups of 400 to 800, and uncountable fires for 10 or 30.

    See that picture from India (Bangalore) above? The flames you see aren’t the important ones.

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  5. Jude says:

    I taught my sons how to make a campfire properly, but I never use campfires when I camp. It’s an important skill for them to have, but I really hate campfires, especially campfire smoke. A few years ago, we were experiencing a drought in my part of Colorado and we were ringed by forest fires. I drove up Little Box Canyon to the Flattops, passing three campsites with campfires on the way to the mesa top, where I could see a large forest fire in the distance. When it comes to campfires, people can be idiots.

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  6. onkelbob says:

    As a long distance hiker, I have spent months outdoors over the past 10 years. Over that time I started 1 or 2 campfires. Much of this is due to the fact that I camp in alpine environments where fires are discouraged or outlawed. I will admit that in ’04, my neighbors started a fire and it was welcome as we had been beaten by thunderstorms all afternoon. Nevertheless, the current paradigm of the NPS asking we build fires only when necessary and only as big as needed is wise. While building an alcohol stove from a pop can is not as glamorous or romantic, it affords the student the opportunity to learn many useful scientific principles. (And you re-use, not just recycle.)

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  7. Donna B. says:

    When my oldest daughter’s husband was stationed at Ft. Huachuca, we started what we hoped would become a Thanksgiving tradition… the campfire.

    Another son-in-law is an Eagle scout. The first year, they scoured the non-landscaped portion of the acre the house was built on. The built a perfect fire. (In a firepit, of course!)

    Several large rocks were moved near the firepit, but lawn chairs, even dining room chairs were brought out so that everyone had a seat. The s’mores were incredibly messy and the marshmallows generally burnt, and no one could remember all the verses to the songs we wanted to sing.

    My Eagle Scout son-in-law thrilled us with recognition of stars and stories about how they were named. This being southern AZ, there was practically enough starlight to read by.

    For the three years my son-in-law was stationed there, the campfire after an afternoon Thanksgiving meal was a tradition.

    Now, everyone lives within the confines of a city’s limit somewhere and we can’t do this… but we remember and talk about it every year.

    The saddest part for me — grandma — is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to get the whole family together again, campfire or not. They are scattered across the nation, and it’s a big nation.

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  8. Mary A says:

    Ed, you’re the poet-laureate of Scouting. If we do that adult leader flag retirement gathering later this year, it needs to be when you & Kathryn can be there. I love keeping up with your blog.

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