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July 19, 2019

6/22/2019 7:28:00 AM
Naural Reaction: Students get fired up at Nicolet College
Jacob Friede
Of the Lakeland Times

The winds were howling on the Point at Nicolet College on the evening of June 12. The peninsula that juts out from the campus into Lake Julia was about the toughest place in Oneida County that night to try to start a fire, but that was just fine for the group I was with as they were there to put their fire making skills to the test, and the gusty breeze only added to the challenge.

"We got the butane lighter and the Bic lighter, but who wants to use those? We don't," said Andrew Warner, the instructor of a Primitive Fire Starting course held as part of Nicolet College's Outdoor Adventures program of classes.

Warner, a former snowboarding instructor, team rider, and all-around outdoor renaissance man, was there to teach students how to start a fire using a striker and a ferrocerium rod.

"That's really just a slightly more modern evolution from the flint and steel," he said.

When a metal striker scratches the side of a ferrocerium rod, sparks fly. Simple enough, right? Not exactly. In order to get a fire going, those sparks have to catch onto something and therefore a major portion of the class was dedicated to the details of proper tinder selection, because every fire is only as good as its fuel.

"Anything that can catch a spark really well is what were going to be working with, so when you're prepping that tinder you want something that is going to be really combustible, but also is going to be able to catch and hold that spark long enough to actually get a flame going," Werner explained.

He went on to say that cedar, juniper, and birch bark all make great tinder, as does Old Man's Beard, dandelion fluff, milkweed fluff, and wasp nest husks. Additionally, he advised the highly flammable sap on pine needles and pine cones is also quite effective at catching a spark.

But finding the material is only the first part. Prepping it is equally important. With the ferrocerium rod method, tinder has to be broken down very fine, either in strips or a powder.

By scraping the back of some birch bark with his knife Warner demonstrated how a powder consistency is obtained, and once a tinder bundle is acquired, he said, kindling must be added in order to hold the flame.

"Kindling is going to be typically wood that's, kind of like, not much bigger than your pinky," Warner said. "Being dry is going to be critical."

He recommended softwoods or resinous pine for kindling and explained if a stick snaps when it's bent then it's dry enough to burn.

Warner also talked about proper wood selection to build up a fire.

"All the birch and aspen and popple that's here, that's going to be your first go-to around the Northwoods," he said. "To keep that sustained fire going, and the nice hot fire, obviously the hardwoods are going to burn the longest, burn the hottest. You're going to get the most fruits out of your efforts."

In addition to the actual fire starting process, Warner also talked about proper knife selection, stressing that a rounded blade is ideal for prepping tinder. He also gave some tips on man-made materials which can be used as emergency tinder like lint, steel wool, wet-wipes, and energy bar wrappers.

"Sometimes you can be pretty creative and come up with something that is maybe right on you that will work fairly well in an adverse situation," he said. "Real minimal stuff you can have with you like that can go a long way."

After Warner's presentation, the students hit the woods to forage for fuel, then everybody arrived on the Point with armloads of sticks and branches.

But before they practiced starting their own fire, Warner demonstrated with one of his own. He assembled a tinder bundle of birch bark within a lattice work of small sticks. Then he put the ferrocerium rod right into the pile of birch powder and struck it. The sparks off the rod caught the powder and immediately created a flame. The kindling then caught fire and Warner added layers of more sticks, and within a minute a nice, warm fire was burning.

Next it was the students turn, and though it did not go as quickly for most, eventually, after much scrapping and scratching at the ferrocerium rod, everyone had a flame started and soon the warmth of a handful of small fires could be felt.

"It was more difficult than I thought, from the way he did it," said Yu Schwartz, one of the students in the class. "But we finally did it."

Her husband, Kevin, said the key was getting the tinder into a powder, as only then would it catch, but just as importantly, he said, was knowing what sort of fuel to look for.

"I think it helped having him explain what kind of kindling and what to look for first. To initially put on your fire," Schwartz said. "Otherwise it might have been tougher if I didn't have that guidance."

The Schwartzs have frequent campfires in their backyard, but don't expect to see a lighter around this summer when they get started.

"It will be fun just to get it going from your own skills," Kevin Schwartz said. "No cheating."

For more information on Nicolet College's Outdoor Adventure program visit and keyword search "Outdoor Adventure."

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakeland

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