“Who has smelled the woodsmoke at twilight, who has seen the campfire burning, who is quick to read the noises of the night?” Rudyard Kipling from The Feet of the Young Men
After the camp meal, and some dusk fishing and night hiking, we sat around our campsite in the pine-oak fringe woods, common to southwest New Jersey. We had performed the usual camp chores, snacked a bit, fiddled with some fishing gear and composed some field notes. Both screech and barn owls could be heard nearby, and bullfrogs croaked awesomely along the shores of the pond and lake we camped between. A young but veteran outdoorsman and a handsome black hound with a white left paw were my companions again. We talked about our hiking, fishing and trail running possibilities, and the hound’s fitful naps suggested he knew he was going to have more excitement come the morning. As the possibilities of adventures for the next day materialized into a plan, they did so while we all three sat gathered around a blazing camp fire. Same, as they say, as it ever was.
I originally took an interest in camping, because it fit in so well with fishing. In so many ways camping and fishing fit like a hand a glove, complementing each other and enriching the mutual experience. Not all campsites are near water, but more than enough are, and those are the ones I sought out, to extend, enrich and enable numerous fishing expeditions. And so it was that the fishing and camping combinations gradually sparked more interest in camping itself. And That spark produced a blaze, both figuratively, and literally, I had always been attracted to campfires and the lore associated with them, so I guess that’s really. where this all began.
I was never a Boy Scout, so my affinity towards campfires was not a formal education or even familiarity with actual campfires. But I was a Smokey Bear Junior Forest Ranger, and was well aware of the proper protocols of extinguishing a campfire, and could recite all of the safety slogans verbatim. So I guess that as a baby boomer, growing up in the dawn of the TV era, my initial exposure to the call of the campfire was in the sundry horse operas that populated the networks in the 50’s. Motion pictures added to the imagery, and often in Technicolor, but not with the effect that the TV media blitz of westerns did. Morning coffee over the campfires and assorted cowboys and mountain men falling asleep next to the dying embers were a nightly broadcast in some form. Vegetation like cottonwood and ironwood and creosote became familiar fuels. Long before The Revenant, these media had established the importance of campfires to living and even surviving outdoors was well established
Every young Easterner has dreams of the West, and images of crackling campfires seemed an integral part of the west I would eventually seek. Too often in life, when we finally encounter the reality of our dreams, it falls short of the expectations.This seems especially true in the west where it is often hard to behold the Big Sky or the scope of the Rockies and have it meet your preconceived notions, especially at first glance. In my case, the overwhelming image of the west, and of a campfire was as one. A couple of old sports sitting around a blaze cooking cutthroat trout and discussing beaver sign on a high desert plateau amongst endless sagebrush.
My first trip west was to Taos, New Mexico, and my vision, expectations and dreams were fulfilled for both the west and campfires at first glance, The trout from the Rio Grande, cooking fires outside the adobe structures scattered across the high desert, the mournful barking and howling of coyotes, actual prairie dogs, petroglyphs, and the picture was complete. I was hooked on the west, and on my subsequent trips to fish in as many western states as possible, the lure of the campfire remained in the forefront as well.
The imagery of campfires was not only gained from visual means as discussed, but as an avid reader, I found the description of hours around campfires particularly evocative. Whether it was Douglas MacArthur’s patriotic “around a thousand campfires” speech from his farewell address, to the chilling words of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, or tales by Teddy Roosevelt, Nessmuk, John Muir or Zane Grey, they all added to my love of the campfire. I basked in their words as if basking in the warmth of the roaring blaze that roasts your potatoes, and fills your nostrils with the sweet acrid smell of your chosen firewood, the memory lingering in your Woolrich coat for months. So from the campfire to camping, the progression was a natural one.
As an experienced and enthusiastic camper at this point in my life the campfire is a key aspect of the experience, both esthetic and practical on most trips. I’ve always liked camp lanterns as well, from my old Coleman liquid pump model with the mesh bulb you had to light to prime, to the incredibly efficient battery powered versions of today. I use several models for specific chores around the camp, but almost always have a campfire going. Depending on the season, a roaring blaze in the campfire provides morning warmth around which to huddle and drink coffee which I may have boiled over the propane stove for convenience.
And even as a warm summer dawn breaks, as it did recently in a Mississippi swamp, a modest blaze adds to the ambiance of a camp breakfast, appealing still to all three senses that are involved in the process. On rare days when the camp is occupied all day, the campfire is kept burning, in those cases usually providing a cooking function of some sort. I like to utilize an evening fire in several ways. Often the campfire is set up in conjunction with the cooking fire, usually charcoal to my taste. Or sometimes, I’ll convert the charcoal fire into the main evening campfire and hunker down. And stare.
To me, gazing into the campfire, being mesmerized by the smell, sound, and sight of the dancing flames is the essence of the thing we call campfire. Ignoring the functionality the campfire may have displayed during a particular camping trip, the appreciation becomes more for what it is, not what it does. As the flames and embers reach towards the embers burning in the night sky, the lights of the stars and the campfire seem to seek the merging of their eternal light. In the forest surrounding, the gleam of a pair of eyes, usually raccoon or opossum hereabouts, reflect the dancing flames as must ours. I may be contemplating the next day’s activities, writing in my fishing journal, or dreaming about the bass I saw near the sunken log earlier. What do our animal companions, both domestic and wild, see or feel beholding the light and crackle of the fire? Maybe we are just trying to join the rising smoke and spread our thoughts and consciousness, whatever they may be, among the boughs above. And without a campfire, we’d be trying to do this by “the light of the silvery moon”, and I’m not sure how that would work out. As humanity has done through the ages, I’ll stick by the campfires.
Photo by the author, Wayne Heinze