I went camping this past weekend with the Cub Scout Webelos den. Our den has been planning this trip for nearly two months, and since the first planing meeting, my son has said that he wanted to bring the fire starter.
This is a big deal because while in Colonial Williamsburg last summer, he chose as his souvenir a piece of flint and a steel striker that was hand-forged in their blacksmithing demonstration shop.
He has not yet had the opportunity to try it out, and therefore understandably very anxious to provide fire for his fellow scouts.
The day before we left, I looked up videos on YouTube about how to make char cloth, which is the missing element in making his fire starter complete. We needed a small metal tin with a closing lid, an awl to pierce a small hole in the center of the lid, and strips of 100% cotton cloth. Instructions:
- Poke a hole in the top of the container with the awl (on my swiss army knife) and fill it with small size scraps of %100 cotton cloth like that from an old t-shirt or duck cloth tarp (we used an old rag towel).
- Place the container into a bed of coals from your campfire (we used the barbecue grill).
- Let it sit in the coals until it starts to smoke and than continue to allow it to smoke for a few minutes (about 5 minutes) until the smoke slows and stops.
- At this time, pull the container out of the fire and let it sit until cool. Do not open the container until it is cool, as the hot cloth may spontaneously ignite if suddenly exposed to oxygen. It the low-oxygen of the tin, the cloth becomes charred creating “char cloth”.
- Once cool (it doesn’t take long), you can place these fragile strips of cloth into your “tinderbox” with your flint and striker.
We arrived at the campground, and while I made the char cloth under the dinner grill, he used his free time to practice. We set up a large board across the fire pit, and while the other scouts chased each other with sticks, he carefully gathered some dry grasses to ignite.
Here’s a blog that describes how to use the type of “C” striker he used, and a picture from that blog showing the proper hand position.
Now my son’s piece of flint was very small, and getting the proper striking motion so that sparks would fly off it was very difficult. However any time a spark landed on the char cloth, the cloth would immediately hold it as an ember. From this ember, we gently blew and pressed the dry grass against it.
Sometimes, he would miss with the striker and the flint would take a nick out of his knuckle. Many other times, an ember would land, but while he would blow and blow, the entire char cloth would glow and eventually be consumed without igniting the strands of grass. And when both of us were both blowing, inevitably the smoke would get in our eyes, and the ember would go out. My son said “I didn’t know it was going to be this tough! When you use flint and steel in Minecraft, it always lights right away.” Classic.
So we tried making a bird-nest-shaped grass bundle and cradled it in our hands. A hard-won ember landed on the cloth, and we put it in the nest. We blew and blew together, making more and more smoke. As the carefully nurtured smoke began to grow and grow as he consistently made more grass start to glow, suddenly the nest of grass erupted into flame, almost like magic!
I felt a childlike exhilaration, and was immediately reminded of the fire-making scene in Castaway. “I have made fire!!!” Even now only a day later, it is hard to capture adequately the huge significance it held for me as well as him. We felt just a tiny bit like MEN.
So we swept the burning grass into the fire pit where our campfire was to going to be stacked and started once the sun went down. All the other scouts gathered around, and this time we used a more modern fire starter made with magnesium and ferrule rod. Lots of sparks, lots of skinned knuckles. The boys all had a great time becoming cavemen and mastering a vital key to survival.
Now back at home, showered and thoroughly checked for ticks, I have the same strange feelings that Chuck had at the end of Castaway, when at his welcome home party he picked up a BBQ lighter. What he had worked so hard for and depended on for survival was packaged and sanitized for creating a nice atmosphere with candles.
I used to go backpacking as a teenager and through my twenties, and so I really appreciated that our den leader took the time to show the scouts a backpacking stove and even cooked a freeze-dried dinner with it for them to try. Now I do want to go backpacking this summer, just my son and me, where we can experience the solitude of the wilderness and test our mettle.