The hearth outside my cabin.

“A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him.”  –Mae West

I sure hope that’s true.  Especially the “fire making up for going bald” part.

Anyway, as I mentioned in a previous post, I once participated in a year-long primitive skills immersion in the Northwoods of Wisconsin with some mighty-fine folks.  However, when we went into the forest to make camp, we kinda over-did the building of our first hearth.

We set out to collect large rocks for a fire ring, and carried them quite a ways to get them to our site. Then we dug a big hole for the fire, and lined it with the rocks.  One of the guys offered a few words of prayer as we lit our first blaze.

I have to admit, it was quite an event, and the results were downright pretty…maybe like what you’d see in a national park campground.  We were proud of ourselves – a fine beginning to our year in the woods.

Then that evening an elder came out and joined us by the fire.  It wasn’t long before he asked “So, why did you make the fire like that?”

Good question.  None of us really had an answer, other than that’s how we’d all seen them done.  I think maybe Smokey the Bear got an honorable mention.

Then we discussed the pro’s and con’s of how we’d done it.

Pro: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”  Ok, fair enough.

Con: The fire can’t get much air down in that hole, so it’s pretty darn smokey, not to mention harder to start and not as hot as it could be.

Pro: It looks pretty.

Con: The hole and the rocks shielded folks from most of the heat of the fire, so it was even less good for warmth.

Pro: It’s how we’ve always done it.

Btw, that’s not me…that’s a friend from the Teaching Drum Outdoor School.

Con: Next rain, the hole will fill up with water (which it did, the very next day in fact).

Pro: Hmmm…that’s all we could think of, actually.

Con: We lugged a bunch of rocks, and dug a hole, which involved a fair bit of effort.

Con: Our fire ring would take just as much effort to remove, otherwise it would always be there as a sign of our presence…not exactly “Leave No Trace”.

“Ok then” someone asked “how would you have done it?”  The old man brushed some of the duff aside with his hand, clearing a spot for a fire in all of about three seconds.

“Done” he said.

It never ceases to amaze me how good we “modern” humans are at complicating things.

And these days I tend to look at campground hearths with a very different eye.  Especially the big steel fire-rings you see in the well established ones.  I know they’re built for safety…an attempt by the powers-that-be to protect the forest from the dumbest among us.  That’s probably a good thing, I guess.  But it’s no wonder a lot of folks these days don’t enjoy camping as much as they could.

Fast-forward ten years and I now live in a small cabin next to a creek, in the woods just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.  It’s a good cabin, and it provides all the shelter I might need from both summer rains and winter snows.  But it’s not very big.  And not really set up for more than a couple of modern people to feel comfortable in it at one time. Though to be fair, a whole family of pre-contact Athabascans would have found it more than adequate to their needs. But these days folks have furniture, and are not so easily content.

At any rate, the cabin doesn’t work very well to have guests over.  And like most people, I like having guests over.  So what’s a guy to do?  Build a house with a spare living room?  Nah.  Don’t be silly.  Much easier to just built a campfire in my front yard.  I mean, everyone likes hanging out around a campfire, don’t they?

It was simple, though I put a bit more effort into it than that elder from ten years ago. I took a little sand from the creek that flows past my cabin and made a fire-proof pad so the duff wouldn’t catch fire.  (Up here in Alaska’s boreal forest there is usually a flammable layer of organic matter underfoot, so it’s best to be careful.)  The nice thing about the pad though, is the fire is up where it can get air, and everyone can feel the heat.

More friends from the Teaching Drum warming themselves over one of their hearths.

Then I arranged a number of large pieces of firewood in a circle around the hearth for folks to sit on, stump style. All set.  Just add wood, flame, and people (and maybe food and a little beer), which I did the next evening.  It felt good to invite friends over to a warm campfire under an open sky.  And as the sun set through the trees, the stars came out.

The same thing is often achieved (sort of) by my fellow Americans when they buy a gas grill and a patio set.  But I’ve got to admit, I prefer the primal feel of something a bit more rustic.  Plus it’s more of a novelty for my buddies, who can get the patio grill experience pretty much anywhere these days.

And to boot, I saved some serious cash by doing it old-school.  In these tough economic times, going a bit more primitive can have it’s advantages.  Some folks might call me a “hick” or a “red-neck” for inviting them over to sit on stumps by an open fire…but I can live with that.  I think there’s a deeper magic to an outdoor hearth that not everyone can see.

Wild peace,


Categories: (Mis)AdventuresTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. Gorgeous! Beautiful! Totally going up to the firehearth at Nadmad here once the mosquitos die down. Oh yes I am! So funny, because someone who lives here now was lamenting the lack of atmosphere, and how he missed barbecues, and I was like, “huh, I totally don’t miss those….let’s go have dinner at the hearth!”

    No takers. But why let that stop me?


  2. Nice! Dinner at the Nadmad hearth…wish I could join you!

  3. You red neck sitting on those stumps! Just kidding, It’s good to let go of our personal judgements isn’t it? I loved the story and am surprised at the accuracy of the retelling(at least as I remember it). Thanks for the deep honesty Brother

  4. Sooner or later I feel that my Path will take me back to the North Woods and the amazing gathering of folks there. i would love to join either or both of you at your hearths. glenn, it looks so inviting n the cabin sounds great too. In fact, I was just jotting in my journal this morning a picture of a simple cabin that I believe me and my two children would be quite content in. Now just have to find the spot by the stream to build it…. Thanks for the image and moment to stop and dream a bit.

  5. Thanks guys…glad to hear memories were fairly accurate and some dreaming got inspired. Nice. 🙂

  6. Namaste Glenn! Now see, it is as if my kids read this very post…they are on about hiking to the waterfall, making a fire and sleeping under the stars. We shall take your lead and do it the primitive way and hope that the acres separating us from the cabin is enough to keep it from getting burned down. And for us it will be minus the beer (at least on this trip anyway) but will def include marshmallows and prolly cocoa as well…

    Thanks so much for the sharing!

  7. That’s awesome Kismet…marshmallows and cocoa go with fire even better than beer (sometimes, of course!). Hope you guys had a great time sleeping out. 🙂

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