It’s all about the fire.
Sure, a bit of shelter’s nice, especially when the snow starts flying, but in the darkest, coldest hours of the night, it’s the warm glow and reassuring crackle of a fire that can be the difference between some semblance of comfort and complete misery.
That was the No. 1 lesson I took away from the 24-Hour Survival Experience that I was lucky enough to participate in this past weekend.
Well, maybe lucky isn’t the best choice of words.
When my 9-year-old son, Owen, came home from school a few weeks ago begging to go to survival camp with his friend Logan, I figured he was talking about some kind of summer camp.
But later that same night, Logans’ dad, Ben Vegh, called me up. Ben, the senior pastor at The Gateway Church in Spring Lake, had joined up with Russ Gable’s Freewater Experience, an outdoors ministry, to put on a 24-hour survival camp.
We would drive up into the woods, do our best to emulate Bear Grylls in his Man vs. Wild episodes, and head home the following day.
At the time, sitting in my comfortable recliner in my cozy living room, it sounded like a fantastic idea — let the boys get together and carve sticks with their pocket knives while the dads sit around a roaring fire on a mild April evening under the stars.
Well, that’s not exactly how it went.
The biggest X-factor, it turns out, was the weather.
Typically, high temperatures across Michigan this time of year reach the low 60s, with average lows dipping into the high 30s.
We could live with that.
But on Friday night, as we departed The Gateway Church around 5 p.m., the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and it was expected to drop around 10 degrees over the next several hours.
We arrived at our destination — a scenic piece of state land on the White River near Hesperia, and Russ gave us our instructions.
“You’ve got two hours until dark,” he said. “Your first priority is shelter. Your second priority is fire. Off you go.”
And off we went, burdened with backpacks loaded down with only those items that were on the list to bring: a sleeping bag and pillow, a tarp, a hatchet or saw, a multi-plier, rope and twine, two rolls of toilet paper, some matches, a few cans of soup, a handful of granola bars, and some beef jerky, along with what we hoped were enough clothes to keep us warm.
One caveat to the instructions is that each pair (our group consisted of five father-son teams along with a few singles) were to spread out and set up their own shelter and make their own fire.
First things first, Owen and I trudged off to find a nice, flat spot between two stout trees on which to set up our shelter for the night. We found a suitable spot, noted the prevailing direction of the wind, and quickly strung up two corners of our tarp between the two trees.
Please note that whenever I say we, I mean I, because as anyone who has a 9-year-old can attest, their attention span when it comes to doing work lasts, at best, about 5 seconds.
The back part of the tarp was then lashed to a dead log on the ground, creating what I hoped would be a wind barrier and a shelter from the expected rain/sleet/snow.
Our second tarp was then placed under the first, and we unrolled our sleeping bags onto our cozy little shelter.
Next up was a fire. I’ve always been something of a pyromaniac, so getting a nice fire going has never been a problem for me. Even in wet conditions, there’s almost always something dry to burn.
But considering that the area we were in had received record rainfall over the previous few days, finding dry wood became akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.
Oh, there were plenty of tiny twigs and brittle branches to be had, especially in a stand of cedar trees near our camp. But finding anything substantial to burn was a daunting task.
While the kids did their best to help, the dads spent the last 90 minutes before nightfall scrambling around through the soggy woods, looking for anything that might offer a sustainable fire.
I finally found a fairly solid dead tree that I could push over, and after dragging it back to camp, proceeded to saw the tree into 3-foot sections, which I then stacked behind our small fire pit in hopes of drying them out even further.
A few more somewhat stout branches and a big pile of smaller wood completed what I hoped would be enough fuel to get a healthy fire going.
With no other fire starter on the approved list of items to bring (other than my Bible, which I figured would be bad luck), I grabbed a roll of toilet paper, peeled off several feet, and began building the base of our fire. I also tore the cardboard roll out of the center, figuring that would provide a bit longer burn as I tried to get the wood above to catch fire.
I carefully stacked the smallest little twigs on top of the paper, then slowly built up to larger sticks.
Finally, it was time to test our skills — could we do it with one match?
I let Owen have the first go at lighting the fire, and while he struck the match well enough, the wind blew out the flame before he could touch it to the tinder.
My turn. I huddled in close, struck a match, and watched the little orange glow spread from the matchstick to the paper buried deep within the pile of wood.
The paper quickly flamed up, but the wood on top, no matter how dry it seemed, just didn’t want to catch very well. Finally, after using up a few more yards of toilet paper to keep the flames going, I took my hatchet and hunted down a few small dead cedar branches adorned with dry brown needles. These I added to the top of the small flickering flames, and the result was as if I had tossed a cup of gasoline onto the fire. Flames bellowed up, and quickly spread to some of the driest wood in the pile.
Russ warned us all that no matter how big a stack of wood we had, it would take probably 2-3 times that much to make it through the night.
I figured we didn’t need our fire to last that long. If we turned in at 10:30 and were asleep by 11, heck, our fire could go out any time after that, for all I cared. We could stoke it back up when we woke in the morning.
Well, that plan only works if you can fall asleep, and for the first several hours after nightfall, sleep evaded me.
Fortunately, Owen fell asleep quickly, wrapped first inside his 20-degree mummy sleeping bag, then tucked deep down into my 50-degree summer bag.
I was curled up next to him in my zero-degree bag, which has kept me toasty warm on several icy cold November nights during deer hunting season.
The thing is, during deer season, I’m lying on a comfortable mattress in our pop-up camper.
Lying on the hard ground with the wind howling at your back all night long is an entirely different matter.
I can’t say for sure, but I don’t remember getting more than a moment or two of shut-eye for the first several hours of the night. I was constantly tossing our reserve wood onto the fire to keep its comforting glow alive.
It wasn’t until around 3 a.m. that I finally managed to ignore the snow and hail that pounded down on us and fell asleep.
A few moments later, I woke to Owen, complaining about the cold and how he couldn’t fall asleep.
By this time, our fuel for the fire had long been used up, and I was presented with two unenviable choices: Try to go back to sleep without a fire or leave the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, gather some more wood, and rekindle the flames.
My recollection of these wee hours of the morning are fuzzy, but it seems like I tried to sleep for a while before abandoning my bag and wandering around in the moonlit woods gathering more wood for the fire.
On the plus side, wood that had been too damp to burn earlier in the evening had now frozen solid, and seemed to burn much better. In no time, I had a roaring fire going again, and enough wood to keep it going for another hour or so.
Eventually, light began to creep up over the horizon in the east, and before long, morning had broken.
Everyone was awake by 6 a.m., eager to warm up around the fires that were once again springing up in the gloom.
It’s all about the fire.
In talking with some of the other guys later in the morning, we agreed we’d have had more fun had we all set up our tarps in a confined area and pooled our resources to make one big roaring fire. We could have teamed up to keep it blazing all night long.
But what would that have taught us about how to handle a survival situation?
Instead, while the social interaction left something to be desired, that isolation served to force us to view the situation for what it was — a way to practice what we’d do if we actually found ourselves in a spot where we had to spend a night on our own in the woods.
We weren’t dropped off on some remote mountaintop and asked to find civilization like Bear Grylls.
If need be, we could have retreated a few hundred yards through the woods to our cars.
But we didn’t. We spent a very long, very miserable night in the woods, in below-freezing temperatures, and while it wasn’t fun, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon, we survived.
And that’s the name of the game.