Thursday, September 19, 2013

Adirondack Backcountry Ethics: Building A Fire

Fireplace along the Oswegatchie RiverFire has held great fascination for man ever since Prometheus stole it from the Greek gods and put it in our hands. Or so the myth goes.

This allure for combustion extends to the backcountry, where every popular campsite contains either a well-maintained fireplace or a makeshift fire ring.

Even wilderness enthusiasts loathe abandoning this love of fire, despite all the adverse impacts that accompany it.

There are many reasons people light up a fire in the backcountry, some are social, while others remain based on superstition and folklore. Sitting around a campfire has a visceral appeal, whether due to the social interaction, the unique foodstuffs (smores anyone?) or the fact that the dancing flames strangely appear like the shifting images on a television screen (or for the younger folks, a digital mobile device). In addition, there is the safety a fire provides from all those nasty beasties that lurk just outside its ghastly glow.

It has been many years since I lit up in the Adirondack backcountry. That is not to suggest I am against fires per se. Like most people, I had a healthy interest in all things conflagration related while growing up. A family car camping trip never failed to provide many hours hovered over a campfire with my siblings, armed with nothing but leaves, sticks and an active imagination. Despite my parents’ constant chastisement, many leaves met their grim demise in the open flames.

Although the onset of adulthood smothered much of my fascination with fire, I still enjoy the occasional campfire. On those few trips with companions, I often demure to the general consensus on fire. These occasional fires allow me to maintain my fire-making skills at a rudimentary level, which just might come in handy in an emergency. When no one is watching, a few leaves may still meet their fiery end in these infrequent conflagrations.

When it comes to my solo sojourns bushwhacking through the remote Adirondack backcountry, building fires comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis, where the cost in time and effort clearly outweighs any benefit of warmth, protection or unique delicacy, especially during the warmer months. I cannot remember the last time I went to the trouble of building a fire while bushwhacking, it’s possible that I’ve never built one.

After a long day bushwhacking, searching for a suitable campsite with a generally flat topography and reasonably devoid of vegetation is enough of a chore; engaging in the exercise of preparing a fire is too much to bear. Not to mention searching for sticks or worse yet, cutting them up, especially when the only cutting implement available is a knife with a one-inch blade. The path of least resistance demands my time and effort be spent elsewhere (like setting up the camp, ingesting some much-needed calories and just enjoying being outside), despite the protection the flames and heat provide from all the threatening wildlife during the waning hours of the day (i.e. ravenous mosquitoes).

What effort you might ask? All you need do is dig a pit or throw down some rocks in a ring, right? How hard can that be? Like many aspects of life, the modern and environmentally friendly way of building a fire shows little resemblance to acceptable methods of our youth. That is, for those who have reached middle age, or beyond.

If one chooses to follow the Leave No Trace guidelines on fire building, a ring of rocks or a pit are not even necessary. Instead, a fire is best set on a durable surface (i.e. exposed rock), but regardless of its location, steps are necessary to avoid any environmental damage. The current methods of ensuring the least amount of damage is either a mound fire or a fire pan, both of which prevent heat damage to the surrounding soil biota. Both methods insure that the fire remains relatively small and thus further reducing any environmental impact from gathering fuels.

The mound fire requires an ample supply of mineral soil, which means locating a camp near a stream or large tip-up mound – just the places where those sneaky rocks are hiding! Lay down a tarp, ground cloth or trash bag; place the mineral soil on top, building it up into a mound of 4-5 inches thick and 18-24 inches in diameter, positioning the fire on top.

See what I mean about it being too much of a bother? Wait, there is still the fire pan method, right?

The fire pan method is almost exactly as much effort as the mound fire except it is located in an aluminum pan instead. Using this method, the fire is placed in the aluminum pan, which has sides of 3 inches or more. The surrounding ground must be protected, either by propping the pan up on rocks or by placing mineral soil in the bottom, much like the mound method.

Making a mound or placing a fire in an aluminum pan kind of ruins the romantic notion of a campfire, huh? Welcome to the wonderful world of being a responsible adult in the backcountry in modern times.

Regardless of the campfire method employed, the procedure for cleaning up the crime scene and disposing of the evidence is identical. Before disassembling the campfire, ensure that all wood is burned to ash and all coals are extinguished. When finally departing the campsite, spread the remaining cold ashes over a wide area and return the mineral soil to the site that loaned you it.

Scarring the land or obliterating the soil ecosystem is not the only concerns when building a fire in the backcountry. Forest fires from incorrectly built campfires or those left unattended may not be a constant concern in the Adirondacks (as it is out west), but they can happen.

I came upon a nascent forest fire once in the Adirondacks many years ago while hiking by Glasby Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness. I passed the main campsite along the pond (on my way to either Cat Mountain or Cowhorn Pond) where a still raging fire filled a pit dug into the forest floor. The duff and litter surrounding the pit was smoldering nearly a foot from the edge of the hole. Luckily, a responsible hiker (me!) took the time to stop and put it out before it had a chance to get out of control, a risk increased by the surrounding blowdown from the 1995 storm.

Fire has many uses in the backcountry, from providing warmth during a bitterly cold evening to protection from the flame-fearing beasts lurking outside its glow. Unfortunately, the current acceptable methods for fire creation dampen many of the romantic notions surrounding campfires. Considering the effort involved, many may choose to pass on the traditional fire while in the backcountry. The soil biota will thank you, as will anyone who lives with you, since they will not have endure that damn-awful smell that seems to linger for weeks.

Photos: A campsite, complete with a traditional fire ring, along the Oswegatchie River in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

One Response

  1. Wally says:

    My top concern is minimizing my own impact on the forest when backpacking. And I won’t carry a pan. Hence, I never have a fire. In fact, I go a step farther. If I’m hiking and come across a smallish fire ring, I will dismantle it and scatter the stones and any left over burned would far and wide.

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