Meridian Star

May 24, 2013

Pain or comfort; life or death; our outdoor narrative

By Otha Barham
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — In Longfellow's poem, the beautiful young Indian maiden, Minnehaha froze to death in part because Hiawatha could not find even a snowshoe hare in the bleak snow-covered woodlands nearby for food that would have warmed her body.

    Jack London's character had modern matches, but got too cold on the Yukon Trail to carefully utilize them “To Build a Fire.” His first fire was doused by snow falling from warming limbs and by then the 76 degree below zero temperature immobilized the man whose numb hands fumbled away his last hope of using his remaining matches. He froze to death.

    These works of fiction address the very real history of thousands who could have survived in their wilderness surroundings had they just one of our modern aids to building a fire.

    I have hunted in Colorado in 20 degrees below zero temperature two different times. I was comfortable because of our modern clothing. But once in Routt National Forest in northern Colorado near the Continental Divide (perhaps at 10,000 feet elevation) I came upon a monument to two fellows who froze to death there. They had spent a long winter at Hahns Peak, now a town with little more than a curio shop and an abandoned jail, and grew hungry and tired of waiting for spring. So they unwisely set out for Steamboat Springs some 25 miles to the south. The monument is where they were found after the spring melt.

    I once was hunting elk with a friend from Mississippi who was on his first mountain hunt. Far back in the woods a cold winter rain fell on us, and at 9,000 feet elevation that rain came from somewhere thousands of feet above us where it is as cold as a well digger's shovel. Each drop felt like a sharp icicle. One of us suggested a fire and my buddy correctly gathered dry twigs from the lower branches of Douglas fir trees and we found a little sheltered dry grass as well.

    My friend pulled out matches and tried to start the tender. The matches would fizzle one by one. I let him continue until his matches were running low so that this lesson would be impressed on his memory his whole life. When he looked up in frustration, I pulled a candle stub from my pack, lit it with one match and put it under the tender. We had a good fire in two minutes.

    A candle flame will last on and on, a hundred times longer than a match flame. With the extreme shortage of oxygen at our elevation, a flame and its heat are severely reduced. A sustained flame that a candle provides is needed to ignite even dry twigs. And a candle will light even when wet. I learned to use candles from experience, but it must be in a manual somewhere. My friend will remember.

    Even in Mississippi winters, I carry candle stubs in my pack. Birthday cake candles are never thrown away when I am around. An ounce of them could save my life in the mountains. I collect them.

    Another indispensable fire starter is a cigarette lighter. You can buy three of them for a dollar, for heaven's sake! Always have at least one in your winter pack!

    Oh to go back in history and hand one to every American Indian and settler and mountain man who came up short in materials for a life saving fire; the Hiawathas and the Jack London “man” of all the tribes and the camps and the lost hunters. Can you visualize a freezing man inside his teepee trying to find heat for his family suddenly finding a Bic in his hand? He sees a wheel that when turned makes sparks which ignite a wick soaked in miracle water that makes a flame! To him and thousands more; magic! In those early days, simply magic!