We ran our first School Of The Forest kids program this past Saturday during a bitter cold snap and with ten inches of fresh, powdery snow on the ground. The day was a mixture of bushcraft, nature lore and games, and even though we were constantly checking to make sure everyone was warm enough and could feel all their fingers and toes, it was a fun experience.
The biggest challenge came when we were trying to light a fire. The previous several days had seen a big thaw, then ice and rain, then bitter cold, then snow with continued bitter cold. This left every stick and tree in the woods coated with ice. Even the larger tree I felled was coated in a sheen of ice and it was filled with frozen moisture. These are some of the most challenging conditions for fire lighting. The dead standing trees become very dry in the cold winter air. When there’s a thaw accompanied by rain, the wood will often soak up the moisture like a dry towel. Then when there’s a rapid cooling, such as when a cold front comes through and drops the temperature forty degrees in a few hours, the moisture doesn’t have a chance to evaporate into the dry air. It freezes in the wood, making the wood marginal at best for fire. Add a coating of ice to the outside of every tree in the forest and you’ve got a recipe for challenging fire lighting. It took us a little while, but we did get a nice fire going to make a pot of hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) tea.
A few years ago on a two-week winter trip we ran into a patch of similar weather that made it hard to find good firewood. We were running the wood stove all day and night, but because of the added moisture to the wood it wasn’t putting off much heat. In such conditions it’s much easier to have an open fire because you can build it big enough to generate the needed heat to combust the poor fuel. With a wood stove size is limited by the size of the firebox, so you’re rarely able to generate enough heat. The result a cold, smoky fire and lots of creosote in your stove pipe. On that trip we tried to dry the wood by splitting it into small pieces and drying them by the stove, but it was a struggle until the end of the trip.
The next School Of The Forest kids program is February 1st.