We, Paddlin' Hal, Scooter and I were running through wet weather up north on the St. Francis River, where the provinces of Québec and New Brunswick butt up against the State of Maine.
The St. Francis flows from lake to lake forever, it would seem, with narrow quickwaters and the odd bog between. The rains had soaked us through and the banks were steep and slick with mud.
We were looking forward to coming ashore somewhere near the end of the third day. We finally found a spot out of the rain, on the deck of an ancient cabin. Miracles be, there was a small pile of wood stacked in a dry corner.
We had no choice, we had to burn it. Everything was wet, our clothes, tents, and other stuff. It made no sense to sit there and shiver, this was the only dry wood in the North Woods.
This wood ... it's all about the wood ... was dry but “punky.” The edges and ends of each log shredded like cheese between our fingers. We finally got a fire going, but it turned out to be more like a smolder than a blaze.
We did our best to dry ourselves and our stuff by its anemic flame. But I think we only smoked ourselves and our gear like the natives once did, maybe still do, when curing strips of salmon on drying racks by the fire. We never really dried out till we ran into the Saint John the next day or so, and basked in a warm sun on the American side.
One other time, Aaron and I were way up on the Kedgwick, maybe even in Québec, and it was dry, well, not raining. We camped that night just up from a rocky shore, where beaver-chaw ends and de-barked bracken from alders and such had fetched up in a ragged pile.
It was mostly softwood, dry, and burnt fairly fast, but there sure was lots of it at arm's reach. And it was nearly smokeless. That was a good night, no rain, a soothing spring breeze, and best of all, no bugs.
Then there was the campfire on the shore of the Restigouche. I was with Pete that time.
Over many generations, lumberjacks had man-handled billions of logs down this stream to the mills at river's end. So our wood du jour was pulp logs, and there was no shortage.
It took a lot of coaxing to start the fire, but soon enough, a pile of logs lay simmering, yes simmering, in a heap. They were so wet and rotten, steam and spit spewed in ribbons from the sawed-off ends facing away from the fire's centre.
Were the pulp logs “punky” or “doty,” that's the burning question. But they were good enough for us to haul up a stump and stare into the fire, such as it was.
Sometimes the best wood for a campfire is the wood you bring along from home ... as long as you are confident there are no harmful bugs in your “imported” wood that may escape into the ecosystem. This source of wood has saved me and kept me warm many a time on a wet and cold night.
Oh, and I gotta add this. Did you stop and consider why your burning wood snaps, cracks and spits up sparks all the time? Chances are it's because a bug's remains in the wood are going incandescent. Valhalla, baby.
I could go on, you betcha, about how the wood makes the fire, but I think the company we share around the fire is the most important component of all.
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