John Harrigan: Classic 'To Build a Fire' is surely worth a read, but this one, maybe not

JOHN HARRIGAN January 20. 2013 1:24AM

People are fascinated by fires, as anyone with a fire pit knows. The fire pit at South Hill is composed of cement blocks, just in case I want to move it a few feet, which I have done several times over the years in an effort to find the ideal spot for it to catch the prevailing northwesterlies and send what little smoke there is off toward Maine.

If I live long enough, I might just build a nice fieldstone fireplace in just the right spot.

Supper guests inevitably sit around the fire pit, weather permitting, and stare at the flames while talking about bears, ice fishing, bird hunting or getting the hay in, depending on the season. Egged on by longtime friend Glen Zibolis of Merrimack and Rhode Island, we've even sat out there at 30 below, in our best down-filled parkas, coyote-trimmed hoods and all, because Glen likes to "experience" extreme environments.

I should mention here that he is a sailor, which probably explains a lot. We should have sent him to the top of Mount Washington, where I've been during a February gale, and it's no place you'd want to be, nosiree bub.

What prompts this subject is a letter from a reader, who's stuck with me for most of these 38 years and has been curious about fires that I've mentioned here and there. "You oughtta write about building fires," he wrote. Well, OK.

A guy never forgets his first fire, his first fish, his first deer, his first car, and the list goes on, but not here.

My first fire came when Billy Haynes and I were packing down skiing trails on Hicks Hill, just out of town, and we made a little dry-twig fire under a can of beans and a couple of hotdogs on green sticks. No big challenge there - it was a matter of plunging into a thicket of small spruces to get out of the wind, and in the fire-making business I was aided by a sardine can full of paraffin, with a curled piece of cardboard embedded in it for a wick. I'd seen that trick somewhere in a survival magazine.

A bit later on, my brother Peter and I began building a series of mad-cap camps out in the swamp behind the house, and became experts, sort of, at building fires in cheap little sheet-iron stoves we could buy from Hicks' Hardware with money we'd made from shoveling snow, including off steep roofs. I still have bad dreams about falling off roofs.

Still a bit later, I began living and working with Rudy and Joan Shatney at Clarksville Pond, and one of my many jobs as part of the family was not to just help find deer, and help drive deer and get deer, and most certainly drag deer (which is why to this day my right arm is longer than my left), but also to keep the various cabins supplied with wood and kindling, and to build fires in the stoves after we'd all been out on a long, cold, and often wet day of hunting.

Here is the scenario: We all get back, soaking wet and cold to the bone. The boys (that would be everyone but me) gallop off to the main camp for attitude adjustment and tall tales before supper. Rudy, over his shoulder, says "You taking care of the stoves, Bub?" which, of course, meant me.

This meant that I had to run around making fires in every single camp, which I've often thought should be an Olympic event. Needless to say, I became an expert at building hot, fast fires, and then adding more substantial wood to them on the way back to main camp, home, hearth, more Dr. Beasley's Stomach Shellac (for them, not me), more tall tales, plenty of wet, stinking clothing hung from the rafters, and supper.

It bears mentioning here that a live-in weasel (a great boon for a camp, because presto! - no mice) often came along on the upstairs floor joists, upside down, to beg for morsels. This is worth mentioning because everything heretofore sounds like drudgery.

A bit later on in life, after I'd graduated from snowshoes to cross-country skis, a bunch of us would head off into nowhere and, eventually, stop for lunch. A fire atop four feet of snow? No problem. I was the go-to guy. I stamped out a place in the snow, fetched several pieces of whatever trees had fallen down, gathered some dry branches from under spruces or fir, found a piece of birch-bark or mined my pockets for paper towels, and touched her off.

Many a time we'd have a good fire going, roasting this or that, and imbibing this or that, and passing snowmobilers, wondering at the scene, stopped to visit. It truly was the old way of life on the trail. Never did we get or give an ugly word from or to snowmobilers. And I like to think that it is still that way. In my experience, it is.

There came a day when my fire-making was put to the ultimate test. We were ice-fishing on Third Connecticut Lake, a ridiculous foray to begin with, and it was bitter cold, and getting bitterer (more bitter?) as the wind from Canada picked up speed. Mike MacDonald, one of our number, had a new dog, a chocolate Lab with more sense than the humans aboard, in that he dug himself a shelter in the snow and proceeded to hunker down, snout to tail, to wait out the storm.

MacDonald wished for a warming fire, looking straight at me. So I trotted over to shore, found a couple of dry white-birch blowdowns, gathered an armful of dry branches and birch bark, tramped out a little hollow under the blowdowns, and set the pile ablaze.

It was a warming fire, all right, more or less a conflagration. A good part of the entire eastern shore of Third Lake went "poof" and, I thought, surely could be seen from space. I wondered if the crew at the border station just up the road could see it, but figured that at this, among the loneliest of border crossings, they'd be playing cribbage.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or

John Harrigan

Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Facebook Follow our RSS feed
Union Leader app for Apple iPad or Android *
Click to download from Apple Apps StoreClick to download from Android Marketplace
* e-Edition subscription required