“I bet you’re really good at building fires after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
I’ve heard that a few times, usually when I’m crouched beside a pile of smoking sticks that just won’t seem to light. You’d think that after a 147 day stretch of backcountry travel I’d be a fire master, but my ability to get a good blaze going is limited at best. Truth be told, I only built one fire on the AT. Most nights I’d sit by fires ignited by fellow hikers or I’d fall asleep right after dinner, full-bellied and exhausted.
Campfires are often referred to as “wilderness television”. They’re the perfect centerpiece for sharing stories of adventure and singing songs passed down from generation to generation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost myself in daydreams while staring into hot coals, or watched glowing embers float upward toward a sky full of stars. Fires are magical.
And so, in May I decided that I’d spend the next three months getting better at making fires.
Our Opening Day schedule shifted a bit this summer, making room for a camp-wide game and a special ceremony for our oldest campers (CITs), among other things. I took the lead on preparing the CIT ceremony, which, we decided, should begin with a fire on Nature Hill. This was it – the chance to hone my skills. I was stoked (and really hoped my fire would be, too).
On the first evening of each session, I walked up to Nature Hill alone, collecting materials along the way: tiny pieces of dry Hemlock, small sticks, and a pocket-full of dryer lint from the Laundry Hut. As I prepared the fire, I quietly thought about words I wanted to share with the CITs as they began their session. I also thought about my own goals for the weeks ahead. In the busy day-to-day life at camp, quiet, introspective moments aren’t always easy to find, so I relished these times beside the fire ring.
On some occasions, a camper who felt a little homesick or a counselor seeking advice would come up and join me as I worked. We’d talk about different methods of building fires, snapping sticks and delicately adding them to our tee-pee of wood. Somewhere along the way, the homesick camper would laugh, and the counselor and I would talk through a tough issue, all before flame first touched those little sticks.
On one of the final nights of the summer, I made my way to Nature Hill a few minutes before our JPA/PA campfire. There were a couple counselors trying to get the fire going and not having much luck. We’d had a lot of rain the days before, and everything was wet. I kneeled beside them and tried to help, but nothing would catch. A few minutes later 60+ campers arrived, excited about campfire singing and s’mores. I could feel the anxiety swelling in the two counselors working on the fire. I assured them that we’d get it going (although I was beginning to worry a little myself). The three of us continued to work together as the campers sang, and eventually ignited a beautiful, albeit small, blaze.
When the campers went to their cabins a little while later, we stuck around for a few minutes to enjoy the dying fire and laughed about how we didn’t think we’d get it going. I realized a couple of things in that moment that will stick with me. I improved my fire-building skills this summer, but I’m certainly still not great at it. But through the process, I connected with campers, staff, and myself in a special way. Sure, I could’ve poured fuel on some wood and had a roaring fire each and every time, but slowly and intentionally building the fires created a space for me to listen, share, and connect. I’ve always been drawn to beautiful campfires, roaring flames, and glowing coals, but this summer I found magic in the process.
Liz Snyder, Assistant Camp Director