Thursday, 20 June 2013

Building Fires and Creating Community

Homer Simpson buoy!
One of the great things about hiking the West Coast Trail is that unlike in much of the western Canadian backcountry, summertime campfires are not only permitted, but very feasible. In fact, during the wet week that I hiked the West Coast Trail in May, a Parks Canada staff member actually encouraged us to 'build a fire every night' to keep warm and cut the risk of hypothermia. 

Enjoying a fire at Cribs campground on the WCT
Fires are also generally easy to build on the WCT, at least in the spring, as drift wood is often abundant. Large logs are great for fireside seats, and many pre-established fire pits are ready for use. Even if wet, all it takes is a bit of firestarter (lightweight cubes or sticks are highly recommended) and you will have a roaring blaze. An axe is completely unnecessary as drift wood conveniently comes in a variety of sizes, and an axe contributes to the heaviness of a pack. I recently met one hiker who brought a small hatchet with a lightweight handle on the trail, and by the end of trip regretted bringing it, as it proved unnecessary and added substantial weight.

Also, if the weather is friendly hikers can cook on the fire. I met a couple of hikers who didn't even bother to bring a stove, as one experienced hiker (he had hiked the trail 11 times) was so adept at building a cooking fire that he deemed it unnecessary. I would NEVER suggest not bringing adequate stove and fuel, and counting on the ability to build a fire is never a safe bet while backpacking. However, if you're running low on fuel, it can be a nice way to cook dinner, as long as your cookpot is fire-friendly (watch out for plastic handles) and most importantly, you know how to build a proper cooking fire ( hot coals, small hot flames....a big roaring bonfire that you can't get close to is useless). Proper fire etiquette on the  WCT also includes building fires in pre-established fire rings or below the high tide line.

But when camping people seem to build fires for more than warmth or food, rather they build fires for the sheer enjoyment for having a fire. Personally, I love the scent of campfire smoke on my clothes as it calls forth all sorts of lovely childhood memories of family camping trips and warm, happy times. I am highly sceptical of any claims to so-called deep cultural memories of 'primitive' times spent around the campfire running through some 'primal memory'. Such BS is Lamarckian and generally ridiculous. However, I know that for myself campfires call up feelings of being safe, warm, happy and surrounded by people I care about, due to my personal history of growing up camping and my family's proclivity for backyard weenie roasts. I also know that for some people that smokey smell can recall negative memories. An Australian ex-boyfriend didn't like the smell of campfire smoke because it brought back traumatic memories of his childhood home being nearly engulfed by bushfire. However, for me, and I think for many others, campfires are active symbols of pleasure in being outdoors. 
Rum and crystal light is also adds to the campfire experience

Nearly everyone I've encountered on the WCT so far has built a fire on at least one night of their trip. This may change as the summer wears on and driftwood becomes more scarce at popular campsites like Michigan and Tsusiaht. But there's also an interesting social pattern to fire-building on the WCT that I've observed. On the first night or two or three of the trip, separate groups will build separate fires. So for example, on their first night at Thrasher Cove one set of hikers had begun the trail divided into 5 different groups of 2, and had built 5 separate fires. They were all northbound, following the same route, which is often the case on the WCT. By their third night, they were all sharing a fire. By the fourth night they were making jokes about who built the best fire, and  arranging seating for all the groups around the fire. By the last night, the fire was the social centre of the campground, with everyone cooking, eating, laughing, swapping stories, and taking photos of each other around one single fire. Sharing fires as the WCT trail experience progresses seems to be a common experience for many hikers I've spoken with in May and June. Many hikers also seemed to associate their 'best nights' on the trail that involved sitting around the fire with former strangers, now fellow hikers, and bonding over the common experience of the difficult WCT trek. Fires seem conducive to creating temporary communities of shared 'wilderness' experience, bringing people together who know little of one another, and may have little in common, besides their common experience of being 'out there' in the backcountry. I've shared fires with a surprising variety of folks, many of whom I have a hard time imagining another realistic circumstance where we'd meet. 

Fire-side buoy carving also seems common
 However, I wonder if this 'fire-bonding' phenomena is a product of the relatively low numbers at the WCT campgrounds in the spring. It's easy to share a fire with 6-8 people, but could the same sort of thing occur when the trail season is at it's peak and there are 20, 30 or even 50 people at one campground? I guess I'll see. I remember when I hiked the trail in August of 2011 my hiking buddy and I had a fire every night. However, I don't recall sharing it. Is there a point on the trail where too many people actually prevent socializing? Probably. It's funny, one thing that I've noticed is that despite the fact that many people backpack to 'get away', many also mention the sense of community they feel on the trail. People nearly always greet each other on the trail, gear is borrowed or shared with equanimity, and invitations to share a fire are common. Yet I know this sort of camaraderie does not occur on the more crowded day-hiking trails I've been on in the Canadian Rockies. I wonder if during the high season on the WCT people will retreat into their own little backcountry bubbles and the temporary fireside communities will become more rare. I guess I'll see.
The communal fire pit at Michigan also seems to amass a collection of beachcombing finds, a 'trail trash' museum of sorts, such as this broken surfboard tip

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