December is my favorite month of the year, but not because I get caught up in the holiday spirit. In fact, I'm more Krampus than I am Kris Kringle.
But I do enjoy the cool weather and look forward to the annual Christmas Campfire my Boy Scout troop holds at Fort De Soto.
Sure, I paddle, fish, hunt and camp, but only because I need an excuse to light dead trees. For me, there's nothing better than kicking back on a cold winter's evening, telling tall tales as the flames flicker in the wind.
Friends and family think I'm crazy 'cause I don't just like campfires — I love 'em. There's something ancient and primordial about burning wood. For me, a good campfire has almost religious significance.
It must be genetic. My old man was a fire freak too. He'd sit around the pit for hours, sharing stories about days long gone until his bear-like snoring signaled it was time to douse the flames and head off to bed.
His father was a campfire man too. Back in 1917, Arthur Tomalin and three other men founded Boy Scout Troop No. 1 in Allendale, N.J. According to the troop's website, the "main activities during its early years were the sale of bonds to support the American effort in World War I and the collection of old newspapers," which Gramps probably wanted so he could light some fires.
Those Old School Scouts took their fire building seriously. The First Edition of the Boy Scouts Handbook, 1911, contains a lengthy passage by Chief Scout Ernest Thomas Seton on how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together.
While such knowledge might be useful when stranded on a desert island, I adhere to another one of Seton's rules, "Be Prepared." That's why I never head into the woods without a box of waterproof matches and an assortment of combustibles that will enable me to make fire even with wet wood.
While some purists might consider it shameful to employ products of the petroleum family, I do so with zeal and honor. In fact, in some circles I am known as the "Fire King" for my uncanny ability to create flames when others cannot.
Sure, some may laugh and perhaps even dismiss my interest in the combustion science, but when it's midnight and you are cold, wet and tired, stranded on a sandbar, you will be thankful for what I carry in my "bag of tricks."
The Boy Scouts of Troop 219 have all seen but never looked inside Tomalin's fire bag, the contents of which make Old Arthur's newspapers look like amateur hour.
As a boy, my father taught me to take great care when gathering kindling. Each stick and piece of birch bark was carefully selected, then placed, as if constructing a skyscraper from the ground up. But today, I don't have the time to crawl around looking for twigs.
So go to the hardware store and buy a pack of shims, the kind they use for windows and doors. These thin, strips of wood broken lengthways make fine kindling. Another option: "fatwood." Sometimes called "pine knot," or "knotter pine," this resin-impregnated wood comes from the heart of a pine tree. It lights easily, burns forever and as a result, is a must for every fire kit.
I also always pack a tube of "fire paste." Squeeze a thin ribbon of this petroleum product on any log and it will light. The secret is you just can't let anybody see you do it. This magical material, sometimes also called "napalm in a tube," will even work with wet wood.
In the same vein, get a package of "fire sticks." They are nontoxic, leave no odor, burn completely and will light when wet. Break some sticks in half and place them under your kindling and you will have a roaring campfire before you can make a s'more.
However, even with all this, the secret to any good campfire is oxygen. Sometimes all it takes to get a fire going is a few strokes of a wide-brimmed hat. I've showed my scouts a hundred times over the years how to "fan the flames." But even so, if asked I'm afraid that all they would tell you is that Scoutmaster Tomalin is indeed, "full of hot air."
A word of caution: Never leave a fire unattended. A ring of rocks around the fire should be clearly established as a "no kid zone." Be watchful of your sparks. Keep a bucket of water handy to put out the fire when you are done. Dirt works even better.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]