NORTH OF GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — It must have been midday, but we couldn’t verify that by the sky. It was gray as a junco’s back over the little lake where Tom Chapin of Grand Rapids and I were paddling. A few confetti-size snowflakes dropped to the water, dimpling the surface like raindrops.
We were headed for a grassy shoreline where we could see Chapin’s trapping partner, Dan Hertle of Grand Rapids, huddled over something on the ground. The two had been checking their marten and fisher traps for the past couple of hours, first together and then separately when Chapin inspected a couple by canoe.
The two men, trapping partners for 15 years, always met at this little spot for lunch when they were checking traps.
We eased the canoe up to shore and climbed out. It was a damp day in late November. The temperature had barely cleared freezing. Light rain or drizzle had fallen much of the morning as we trudged around in the Chippewa National Forest in rain gear and knee-high boots.
Once we nosed the canoe to shore, Chapin and I could see what Hertle was laboring over. With a Leatherman tool, he was peeling wet bark from a piece of dead Norway pine. After the bark was removed, he began making a small pile of dry shavings from the stick. He was trying to build a fire. Beside him was a small pile of birchbark.
I had been thinking about a fire as we tramped through the woods during the morning, but I wasn’t optimistic. When the two men had set their traps three days earlier, 17 inches of snow covered the forest floor. An ensuing thaw had melted it down to almost nothing. Water puddled in every depression. The swamps were full. Snowmelt ran in every gully. Now more moisture was falling from the sky.
Inspired by Hertle’s optimism, I went to find more birchbark and tiny branches of dead spruce. I delivered them to Hertle but did not place them on the fire. In the unspoken code of the woods, you never mess with another person’s fire.
I was gone for more tinder when I looked back and saw the wisp of smoke twisting into the gray beyond. Well. There was hope.
When I returned, I could see a tiny orange flame at the base of Hertle’s shavings. He was shoving more wet birchbark into the base of the pile. The thick gray plume of smoke was growing.
Let’s just say something right here about birchbark: what wonderful stuff. Once its initial responsibility of protecting the tree is complete, tatters and curls of it fall to the ground, a gift to all fire-builders. I don’t know what’s in it, but it wants to burn, wet or dry.
Chapin and I sat back on our life jackets and watched Hertle work his magic. At some point in the life of every fire, it reaches a critical mass. It’s going to go. Our little fire was there. The birchbark and the curled shavings and the tiny twigs were crackling. Flames towered a good six inches.
Hertle, gingerly now, began adding a few larger sticks.
It’s hard to say precisely what such a fire means on a day like that one. We could have had lunch without it. Could have hunkered there in the penetrating dampness and munched Hertle’s venison sausage. Could have looked out at the slate lake and the pewter sky and the falling flakes and been mighty happy to be alive.
But fire. Fire is good. Fire is warm. Fire smells good.
Fire changes everything.
And, on some level, making a fire on a day like that confirms that your woods skills are intact. It tells you that if it really mattered, if you were a long way from home and in a tight spot, you could make a fire that really mattered.
Chapin and Hertle and I lingered over our modest blaze until we knew it was time to move on. It was hard to kick snow on those flames. It was like turning your back on a good friend.
But we had two more traps to check.