campfire tales Nanook's Campfire Tales
The Campfire that Never Was

"The Indians always build their fire small", I was often lectured in my early campfire days. "They lay their sticks in a circle pointing into the fire so just the ends burn, and push them in closer when the fire begins to burn low."

I can't vouch for the truth behind this popular wisdom. I've sat round many a campfire since, and to me as to many others, it's the best part of the trip. Some like their fires small and neat, others can't rest until every twig, branch and green log for miles around is blazing in a pile huge enough to create its own firestorm. I like to think I'm somewhere in the middle ... a cozy fire shared among cozy friends.

woodboat (27K)
You never know whether there will be wood at the next campsite. I like to gather wood as I go downriver, and carry it in the bow of my boat, as shown above, in anticipation of a cheery evening blaze.

This past spring, our party of four brothers spent our first night on the Miramichi River camped on Slate Island, a snug little two-by-four patch with room for two, maybe three tents if someone wants to pitch a tent on the sandy beach. There was no firewood on the island, so I set out with my pole and ferried across the back channel of the River in my canoe to the far shore. A fallen tree had cast its net of branches into the current, and I was able to lift enough driftwood from the snag to fill my boat and still leave lots for the next visitor.

I remember my prime piece was an eight-foot length of two-by-eight lumber, new enough that the nails still protruded from its ends with not a touch of rust. I took the time to worry and pry the nails from its ends. We spared this from the fire, using it first as a shelf to lay our cooking implements on, and later laying it across two stumps for a cozy bench at the fireside. We had a dandy campfire that night, sharing stories and jokes with a couple enjoying their first trip down the Miramichi. There was much more wood than we needed.

The Miramichi opens up wide at McKiel Bogan.

In the morning, I carefully piled the remaining wood by the path leading to the lower tentsite. It was still quite a lot. Surely there was enough for at least one more fire, I thought to myself. We had saved the makeshift table-bench plank. It was too useful just to be burnt. I remember pushing off with a self-satisfied, self-righteous feeling that I was doing a good deed for my fellow river runner, smug and noble in my anonymity.

Miramichi River
A short hike up a side stream brings us to a dramatic waterfall.

That evening, we arrived at the Trout Brook campsite on the Miramichi, and found the Perth-Andover gang, and other veteran Miramichi river runners I've seen several times before, all well-entrenched. There must have been twenty people staying at the site. It's a beautiful site, with room for at least a dozen tents. As dusk was nearly upon us, we found spots for our tents, and met old friends and made some new ones too.

I was kinda sulking at my brothers ... I'd told them all day long Trout Brook was going to be crowded. They had brushed aside my pleas to stay at the mouth of the Clearwater an hour and a half upstream. Perhaps they sensed there would be a crowd at Trout Brook, and were looking forward to a party.

A quiet corner on the Miramichi.

Over the years, most of the good wood has been plucked clean from the site. A huge fire was burning in the fire pit, and there was no more wood to be tossed in. They had even started on the huge logs that had been hewn especially to provide benches around the fire. There had already been several search parties up and down the river, and a decent armful of wood took an hour or more to collect. Hold on to your paddles, I thought to myself.

Shortly after, four more boats pulled in, and they were obviously members of the same gang from Perth-Andover.

"Hey boys, look what we got!" Their joyous voices rang out, as they proudly showed off the heaping bounty of wood they hauled from their boats. "Look at this nice piece!" And there was our eight foot bench, in this stranger's hands. "Where'd you get that?! That's mine", I wanted to say, but didn't.

Miramichi River
Rocky turn after turn

I quickly recognized other pieces as well ... especially the long smooth stick I had used to poke around in the coals, complete with the black burnt tip. It had perfect weight, and it had fit so right in the palm of my hand the night before. It took an effort, but I bit my tongue, and watched in silence.

It's funny how I had developed an attachment to a pile of wood ... to my romantic idea that tired travelers would pull ashore at Slate Island, and knowingly nod their heads as they intone a quiet thanks to a considerate fellow canoeist. They would dry their clothes, brew their strong coffee, and cook their steak and beans over my hard-won fuel. It was not to be.

Miramichi River
A morning campfire on the Miramichi

I watched quietly as the whole shooting match was hauled up to the campfire, and eager hands began feeding it to the already six-foot high flames right away. I don't think it lasted more than half an hour before it all ended up consumed in the roaring furnace, and the boys were once again looking for more.

There must be a lesson here somewhere. Oh well, it was their fire, and their wood. We all had a great time, and the next morning traded our farewells until the next campfire. But I can't stop thinking about that wood.

campfire tales    Booty ... One man's tragic loss is another man's treasure.
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