Old Candles and Matches

It’s reasonably mild when we start out shortly after six p.m., having been lured here by encouragement and a few vague threats. The trek to the campfire site on snowshoes is about 15 minutes. It gets dark before we arrive. My first surprise is that this 15-minute hike isn’t enough. I didn’t know everyone wanted to drop their stuff off at the campfire site and keep going. What? But we’re here! Why go further? It’s dark out there. And cold. And I’m no outdoors expert, but I think I hear wolves.

So of the ten of us, eight drop their packs and keep going, now into the pitch black. The words, “And they were never seen again” pop into my head.

My long-suffering wife and I offer to stay behind to start the fire rather than continue to risk becoming wolf chow. Such sacrifice. We are handed a fire starter, a small paper-wrapped brick about the size of an old fashioned chalkboard eraser, and two butane lighters. They say, “You were a Boy Scout, this should be easy.” Yes, I was, and I’m sure that, over the past 55 years, I’ve retained all the knowledge of how to build a fire on the snow in the dark and the cold with wolves circling. Those are skills that stay with you forever.

My second surprise is that butane lighters don’t work when they’re cold. We build a little pyramid of cedar kindling pieces over this fire starter but can’t get the lighters to ignite it. Click, click, click. We’re getting nothing out of these lighters. Carpal tunnel syndrome maybe, but no flame. I figure they are empty, but no, like me, they’re just cold. Maybe that’s why I won’t spontaneously ignite. I recall matches working quite well at any temperature.

We’re on the snow here, so everything we put down gets wet; the wood, our mittens and gloves, our knees as we try to get this thing going and simultaneously pray for it to start. Plus it is pitch dark, so we can only see what is in the light cast by our Dollarama headlamps. These little beauties cast a laser-like beam of light that might be able to blind a pilot at 1,500 feet, but don’t cast a beam broad enough to see a foot to either side. Finally, my wife, who I now credit with our survival, mentioned that she had some napkins in her bag. Of course, who doesn’t take napkins into the wilderness? We’re able to get enough spark out of a lighter to catch one on fire. We continue to light one napkin after another off each other – something they don’t teach in Boy Scouts – and stuff them into the cedar kindling, which lights quickly. By the time les coureur des bois return from checking their traps, we have a decent little fire going that provides both heat and light, two commodities we have in abundance back at our apartment. But I digress.

My next surprise comes when people start pulling stuff out of their packs. I wasn’t even aware most of them had packs. These are from L. L. Bean and other professional outfitters. We have a suitcase. We just don’t belong here. So out come a couple of bottles of wine with cups, some beers and other mixed drinks, a cheese platter, a dozen homemade cupcakes, a bag of chips, hot dogs, mustard, relish and ketchup, a set of battery-operated lights that get hung at one end of the campfire area … what, no kitchen sink? There were also blankets and an old sleeping bag and a couple of pillows. Then there’s the new high-tech pillow designed by NASA for use on the moon. It was new because it had cardboard on it. Where was that kindling when we were trying to get the fire started?

So we sit around the campfire on logs in the pitch dark to enjoy the comradery of shared misery. I can now tell you from personal experience that a weiner, when held over a smokey flame long enough to singe the hairs on the back of your hand, gets really hot on the outside but stays cold on the inside. It’s gastronomical abuse, if not attempted suicide.

I mention that we’re going to smell like wood smoke.

“That’s why you wear an old coat.”

What? Nobody told me to wear an old coat. I don’t even own an old coat. I barely own a new one. We winter in Florida. Not much call for a collection of old winter coats when the mercury rarely dips down to uncomfortable-without-a-sweater temperatures. This advice, along with the advice to bring something to sit on, was never imparted prior to the trek to base camp. I sense treachery.

After a couple of hours, we start getting cold. So we pack up, a process that takes quite a while because we’d brought so much with us. We put copious amounts of snow on the fire, which billowed smoke like an industrial chimney, most of it in my face, and head back. The “wimps” as we were affectionately called, the group of which I am the proud leader, take the shorter, straighter path back. The others, I’ve forgotten if they gave themselves a name but I had a couple come to mind that I wisely kept to myself, take the path back through the absolute pitch black woods over bumps, humps and tree stumps and a few fallen explorers who lay frozen on the trail because they just couldn’t cut it in the wilderness like we could. Rookies.

Fortunately, there are no more surprises. Our cars start and we thaw out on the drive home.

In reflection, I recall suggesting the use of old candles to start a fire. Yes, something that I recalled from Boy Scouts. Old candles and matches.

“That’s a great idea. We’ll do that next time.”

Next time?