We arrived at the trail head in middle of the White Mountain National Forest in the middle of the day and walked in on a trail for several miles before turning off into the bush. We waded through thick brush before it opened into a wetland, where our feet sank into the boggy mix of sphagnum moss and Labrador tea. After crossing a small stream we continued our progress across the wetland and finally to the island of spruce that was our destination. It’s a place that is set away from the trail system and has two ingredients for a good campsite: easy access to water and ample firewood.
After locating a spot on the high bank near a slow-moving stream, we began our preparations for the night. I was feeling slow and lethargic, but the students were excited and full of energy. They immediately got to work building their beds, then lining them with boughs. When they were done they put up their roof poles and finished their shelters. I took another approach and gathered firewood. As I had just the clothes I was wearing the fire would be my heat source through the night. When they had finished their shelters I had accumulated a significant pile of firewood, but hadn’t started on my shelter. Mine would be a simple raised bed with a piece of plastic for a backwall to keep the wind and rain off of me. This type of shelter is useless without a fire, but with a fire I’ve slept in them in the cold of winter to the heat and bugs of summer. When I had amassed a large pile of firewood I started on my bed, smoothing several dead saplings with my axe. Then I gathered boughs to make a mattress. By tipping the trees for my boughs I wasn’t harming them, just pruning them. I’ve used such methods at winter camps in Maine for several years in a row, and each year you can’t tell that the trees were tipped the previous year – a sustainable use of the renewable resource.
When my bed was finished I put up my vertical poles, then gathered some poor quality firewood that would give me coals as it smoldered. Such wood is the bane of the woodstove or the cooking or baking fire, but I was using the fire to keep me warm through the night, and it serves this purpose well.
While we were working the air was chilly and the sky was dark with rain. The wind was whipping the clouds past the nearby peaks, and from time to time some raindrops fell.
As the daylight faded and darkness fell, the wind began to die down. The cloud cover kept it warm as we cooked some soup over their fire, then settled down for the long night. It had taken them about two hours to build their shelters and gather their firewood. It took me a little less time.
In the near-darkness I positioned some of the wood a good step away from my shelter, then started a small fire. As it grew I arranged the wood into my desired fire lay, then sat back and watched the flames dance in the darkness.
The students were nearby, but a short distance seems longer in the darkness. I could see their fire and knew they were warm enough.
After building up the fire I lay down and caught my first sleep of the night. As the fire consumed the wood and began to die down, I felt the cold and woke up to add more wood, then slept again. In the light of the fire I could see my breath, indicating the temperature had dropped significantly once the sun went down. After I had several sleeps I awoke to a clear sky and colder temperatures. I could see my breath and was chilled, so I built the fire up a little bigger than before and went back to sleep to the call of a Bard owl in the distance.
I had vivid dreams as the night wore on, interrupted by me waking to put wood on the fire. I finally woke in the pre-dawn light and sat up. After checking on the students I came back to my shelter and let the fire consume the last pieces of wood. I had burned just over half the wood I had gathered, while the students had burned almost all of theirs.
It had been a great night and a great learning experience for them. They had understood that they could sleep beside a fire and stay warm throught the night. But now they knew it.