PAT NEAL: The sometimes soggy search for fire

“I AM A woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire.”

How often I have remembered this line uttered by a clown in a Shakespeare play that was named after and based upon the old English proverb, “All’s well that ends well.”

It expresses an optimist’s view coined in the 1500s that problems do not matter as long as they are solved.

It’s not unlike our modern expression that we must crack a few eggs to make an omelet.

The meaning of this medieval musing becomes even more poignant while trying to build a fire in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest in winter.

Where every piece of wood is so wet it starts soaking up water and sprouting mushrooms shortly after it hits the ground.

Where just finding a place dry enough to build a fire is a challenge and a burning match will be extinguished by the falling rain before it can burn half way to your fingertips.

Building a fire is a challenge, an art and sometimes magic all rolled into one time-consuming failure that can make the difference between a cozy camp and a bone-chilling form of water torture.

James Swan, who explored and wrote about his adventures on the Peninsula starting in the 1850s in his books, “The Northwest Coast or Three Years Residence in Washington Territory” and “Almost Out of This World,” described his Chinook friends as, “The most expert people to build fires in wet weather I have ever met with.”

The Chinook would habitually start a fire any time they stopped on a journey for a half an hour to wait for friends, the tide or the weather to clear.

Swan describes a night on Shoalwater Bay where they were stranded in a storm on the beach.

There were no large trees and nothing but wet driftwood.

Swan saw no possibility of building a fire.

His friends gathered the dead hollow stalks of the cow parsnip which contained a dry sort of tinder inside no matter how hard it rained outside.

They soon had a blazing fire going.

This is a handy trick that would depend on the presence of plenty of dried cow parsnips, which in my experience, never seem to be around when you need them.

These days there are many modern methods of starting fires in adverse conditions from highway flares, automatic transmission fluid to pieces of leaky rubber boots.

I must have tried them all at one time or another.

None of these Industrial Age fire starters seem to work because of the difficulty of igniting wood that is so wet there are mushrooms growing out of it.

At a time like this of soaking desperation with darkness coming on, there is only one thing that will get a fire going and that is pitch.

If you are able to find some of this rare substance, be it either spruce or fir, you can set fire to almost anything, even the mushrooms themselves.

Finding enough pitch is the problem.

It is at times like these that a bear can be your best friend.

They strip the cambium layer of the trees in the spring.

The pitch is the life blood of the tree that flows out when the tree is wounded.

Sometimes the pitch will drip onto the ground where it forms a coal-like mass with twigs and needles.

Set fire to this and stand back.

Once you get a pile of pitch burning, you have to keep it going with plenty of night wood.

The bigger the better in wet weather.

I like a good fire.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]

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