Paul Arden | Monday, 11 June 2018

Following up from TZ's page last week I thought I'd talk about one of our essential life skills - fire making! Now I am happy to inform you that I an expert fire maker :p I've had very many thousands of fires, all over the world, in all conditions, altitudes and with burning different types of wood - some years I've cooked well over 300 days using outdoor campfires. Being able to successfully light a fire in a heavy rainstorm is an essential survival skill and will transform a miserable and dangerously cold night into... well a party! I've never actually "lost" control over a fire however you most certainly need to respect fire because it has potential to burn down entire forests. So I'll talk about the fire lighting skills that I've learned over the years, and some of the short-cuts, but first there are times when not to light a fire - such as during fire bans or when everything is parched bone dry. If the wind picks up you may end up causing severe devastation and even loss of life - so you do need to use a bit of common sense, which is something in short supply these days.

The first thing is to find appropriate wood. On my second trip to NZ, a friend and I, after 14 inches of rain fell in one dramatic afternoon, found ourselves stuck on an island in the middle of a flooded river, deep in the backcountry, where we had found a large log to sleep on with a tree that we could climb if the water level continued to rise. If you’ve ever read the story about Pooh Bear when he was stuck up a tree during flooding - this was it. It was a bad night, because we were in the mountains, the temperature plummeted and we were wet - and try as we might, neither of us had the skills to light a fire in such waterlogged conditions. When we got back to the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers my friend Johnson discussed the problem that we had faced up on Mystery River C., with the then lodge owner and big time deer hunter, Les. Les told Johnson that trying to burn wood that was on the ground in such conditions was next to useless, and that we should have looked for standing dead wood. Since then I have *never* had a problem lighting fires, indeed ever since, while walking, I have always made mental notes of standing dead trees. I've been in campgrounds across America without one single small piece of twig on the ground and had wonderful fires because the other campers had all failed to look up!

I like to use a fire starter and lighter and carry them both with me when camping - always carry a spare lighter or two as well. The fire starters are the paraffin based ones for starting barbecues. Of course I know how to start a fire without one, but it's a hell go a lot easier with one - and you can take a bunch of shortcuts which saves time and gets the fire burning quicker. I mention this because I’ve taken people camping who consider it to be "cheating" - of course they live in the city and don't have campfires most nights as a practical necessity - and certainly it's important to know how to start a fire without them, in which case you are going to need kindling. This you will have to find when it's dry, pack it in a plastic bag, and carry it around with you. Birds nets make excellent kindling (not if there are birds in them of course :p), and on many rivers if you look to the high water mark you can find lots of dried plant stuff that's been washed down the river and this burns easily too - dead grass and so on - so long as it is perfectly dry. So if you're not going to carry fire starters with you, or forgot, then you will have to be prepared to carry kindling. Screwed up plastic bags can also start a fire. I remember one night - also on the same river actually, lower down on the same branch - with Ronan, Chris and Sture - where we managed to get a fire going in a massive downpour - similar conditions to the earlier trip but without the Pooh Bear drama. We got that fire started using one small screwed-up plastic bag - it was very close to not starting, but thankfully it kicked did and we had a very pleasant night dancing the fish boogy in the rain. 

I have two other things to tell you. The first is a story that I always remember from school, where the science teacher told us about a biologist who saw a butterfly emerging from its cocoon; it was struggling and the biologist decided to help the little insect. The insect then immediately died right in front of him - the moral of the story being, that struggle is an important for life, and that despite us only being 10 years old at the time, that we should remember this and work diligently for the rest of our lives. Obviously she was a bit crazy this teacher, imagining that we would fall for such a story, even only being ten years old - however where I noticed the struggle for life as being important is in fire-making. A successful fire should have to work hard to get going, semi-suffocating the flames so that they burn slowly, has always worked well for me. You don't want all the easy to burn stuff going up in a puff of smoke, leaving the larger stuff untouched. Instead you want to suffocate it and make it work slowly but surely. This is where you can make the short cut of piling wood on the fire work for you; above and around your small ignition flame, pack the dry and smaller stuff first and if you have wet stuff pack this on top. Pack it fairly tightly - not too much air - remember the story of the butterfly! You may have to get down close to the fire, on your belly, to very gently blow on the flames but it’s far better to have too little oxygen than too much. Don't do what Camo-Guy once did to a fire that I was making and bring out the air compressor and blast the shit out of it, because all that will happen then is that you will have no kindling, no fire and possibly no compressor!

The second story is actually two campfires with Hairy in NZ, both of which we were short on wood. The first it was limited so I thought "let's make a small fire", Hair instead thought it would be best to put all the wood on, which he promptly did. And the second was a fire where we only really had one decent piece of wood - and it was a long bit. With that we had to first burn the wood in half and then with the two pieces we had a good fire all night long. Both of these lead me to the design of the fire... The best design, I think, is to place logs on top of each other end to end. In this manner, they burn slowly, completely, the heat is consistent and the fire is very little work. There are two things that annoy me; one is hot-cold-hot-cold fires where you have to move back, in, back, in and ultimately attack whoever is responsible for this nonsense and the other is the man (it’s always a man) who likes to play with the fire, poking it with a stick - take the stick away from him and burn it!

Something that surprises many people, is how easily fires start the next morning. I you have a few logs that produce heat after knocking the surface charcoal away, and glow red when you blow on them, put two or three of these bits close together and blow. It’s almost like magic how they come alive - and you can save your bird‘s nest for soup and not kindling.

Finally, something that TZ discussed last week; cooking. Cooking is a different fire that's for sure. Generally I'll make two fires - one for warmth and one for cooking. Often just shovelling out some hot coals is all that you need for cooking. In fact I'd rather cook over coals than flames - a good fire will provide plenty of cooking coals - once you have a good bed of coals don’t be frightened to move things around. Losing the flames is not a problem, since placing two hot pieces together and blowing will always magically reignite them. 

Oh one last thing - I know that people often worry that if you turn your back on a fire that if will suddenly leap up and burn the forest down. I’ve never noticed this. I’ve spent many years of my life sleeping next to the embers in my bivvy bag. 

There is something very earthy or grounding in a campfire. I suppose it’s really getting down to our roots as humans - language and fire probably evolved together. I know if I have a problem in my personal life - any problem - that I go and have a campfire under the stars. If it’s a really big emotional problem - for example maybe I lost a really big fish - it might take a few campfires to get over if, but it always works and I get back to the “real me” - indeed if I go too long without a campfire I sort of lose track of myself. It sure as hell beats TV and there would be a lot less trouble in the world if people spent more time getting to know themselves. 

We have been fairly busy on Sexyloops this past week. We’ve been sellIng on average 2 rods/week and this year and are on target to sell 100. Which will be fantastic because that was in fact my target at the beginning of the year! Next year the target is 200 - which will still mean that customer service is directly handled by me, which I think is important. That’s kind of where I see the rod business at the moment; 200-250 super high-end flyrods per year. Not so much work that it becomes all consuming, but enough that it’s respectable. 

We have a 12WT prototype in the wings by the way. Many of you have been asking for this and despite what Ashly thinks, I do listen!

Cheers, Paul

PS if you haven’t seen it, go here: