A Day in the Life, Part 4: Home-making
As you gaze around from inside the grove of Red Spruce that will be your home for the night, visions start dancing in your head of sitting by the campfire silently. At this point, you’re slightly conflicted. Your feet are tired from the hike, and your hammock only takes five minutes to set up. On the other hand, it’s much easier to gather firewood before you sit down to take a load off, because you know you won’t want to get back up for a while.
Walking over to the two trees that will be your foundation, you drop your pack and unclasp the top pouch. Shoving your hand into the nylon bird’s nest inside, you feel around and find your folding saw. Your decision has been made. Firewood gathering will come first. After a large swig of water, you wander over towards the thicker trees, secretly hoping you will come across a full cord of seasoned, split hickory that a good Samaritan has left. A quality fire is all about preparation, so you’ve resolved yourself to 45 minutes of gathering.
Behind a few rhododendrons, you spot a tall maple tree peeking out. Here’s hoping it’s dropped a few branches.
You work your way around the thicket of jungle-like green leaves of “rhodies” and come to the base of the maple. It’s at least 2 feet in diameter, and seems out-of-place in the otherwise evergreen filled valley you’re in. There are plenty of dead leaves on the ground, but only a few sticks and branches, not nearly worth the effort to harvest, as they’re likely wet from lying on the ground. Now though, you see it. There is a huge, dead Red Oak that has fallen just beyond, and the trunk is elevated a few feet off of the ground. “I’ve got my firewood”, you whisper to yourself.
Looking back towards your site, you spy a game trail (or is it a “latrine” trail?) that leads into the main void in the branches, where your fire ring sits. This is where you will drag your fuel back. You then examine the oak, and select a sizable hunk, about 4 feet long, to process. Experience tells you that this is easy enough to manage carrying while holding a saw, but still large enough to sustain your fire for a few hours into the night.
Oak sapwood is “stringy”, especially when dead, so after a few false starts with the saw, you finally get into the heartwood. After 30 seconds of vigorous sawing, you have a dried log about 8 inches in diameter. You’re working backwards, harvesting your fuel first, followed by kindling, and finally, tinder. This method seems to work the best, because otherwise, you always find that your arms are tired before you really need them to cut into the thicker stuff. It’s no fun processing a log down with arms of goo.
You drop the log beside your fire ring, and head back into the thick of the trees. If you spot some easy pickings like deadfalls, you’ll take them, but really, the fallen oak is still the most promising. Arriving back to it, you scout out a few choice branches that are about as thick as your forearm. These are lopped off easily, and dragged back to the site completely intact…some over 10 feet long.
All of this can be processed beside the fire ring as needed. You need some tiny things for the basic kindling, and spruce branches work the best for that. Crawling under one of the nearby trees, you simply pull out one dead branch.
It’s only taken 20 minutes to find all of the fuel you need to start and maintain your fire, with a small amount left over for the next morning. The next 20 minutes will be spent in processing it all. The hike already seems a distant memory. Without the load of the pack and the hot boots on your feet, you’ve calmed into a meditative state almost. You pull out your knife, and begin to prepare your initial “bird’s nest” of spruce twigs. As you shave off branchlets from the larger piece, anything longer than 8 inches or so are set aside. The tiniest pieces are laid on the rocks of the fire ring.
With your newfound pile of spiny twigs, you bend them around into a circle. With a twist and wrapping a few of the longer pieces around themselves, you have yourself a perfect little fire starter bundle, just waiting for some tinder and a spark. You set your nest aside, and break off some of the smaller ends from the oak branches. Some are as thick as a pencil, and they gradually increase in size up to about the width of your thumb. Your OCD kicks in, and you lie these pieces together by size, and in the order that they will be added to the flames.
Once the pieces are becoming an inch or so in diameter, it’s easier to use your knife, and split them by batoning. It’s something you always forget…finding a good baton stick before you get to this point. You slowly get up from your rock seat, not realizing that sitting for a bit has cooled you to the point of stiffness. With an ample stretch and a sigh, you look at your resources, and decide to just saw the end off of one of the larger limbs. It will get tossed into the fire at some point, but for now, it makes the perfect baton. It’s about 18 inches long and 3 inches in diameter…quite the hammer.
You quickly process through the remaining wood, deciding that the larger trunk piece will stay intact in order to bank your fire through the night and hopefully provide you some coals in the morning. You’ve grown bored with chopping up wood, and there’s a hunger growing in your belly. It would be all too easy right now to just light the fire and relax, but there are still so many more camp chores to do before that. You set your knife, baton, and saw aside near the fire ring, and get up.
Smoothly moving over to your pack, you reach in and slide your hammock out. This small bundle of nylon is going to be your bed for the night. Opening the drawstring, you’ve smartly packed the tree straps right on top. Whipping one around the tree on the first try, this second camp routine kicks in. There has to have been hundreds of times you’ve done this, and it’s muscle memory at this point. You’re on autopilot. The other tree strap is secured to the opposite tree, about 15 feet away. Before you even pull the hammock itself out, you adjust the straps’ height so that the head end of your hammock will be ever so slightly lower. Experience has shown that having your feet elevated makes for a more restful night’s sleep.
Finally sliding the main hammock body out of its sack, you hook the main support line’s loops over the aluminum toggles you’ve installed on your tree straps. As you hook the other end, you stand back and admire your work. It’s only about 7:00 PM, but it would sure feel nice to lie down, wouldn’t it? You oblige yourself, and take a seat, seamlessly turning your feet up and into the hammock.
As you start to doze off, a breeze kicks up. You haven’t looked towards the sky for a few hours now, being hemmed in by the thick evergreens. The wind chills your back, and you begrudgingly get up from your almost-cat-nap and look west.
A storm is coming, fast.
This article is the fourth in a series titled “A Day in the Life”. The entire series puts the reader into the experiences and mindset of a weekend backpacker taking a short overnight trip into the backcountry. I hope that in basing this on my own travels, it encourages you, the reader, to have these experiences yourself.