On a late July morning, sunny, with a cool breeze rising off Lake Morey, fifteen-year-old Sarah McGrath laid the first sticks in the center of a raised fire platform. She worked intently, placing lengths of wood in a neat four-square around a small pile of kindling. She stood back, considered, reached in and moved some of the pieces. Satisfied with what she saw, she took three long matches out of a box and set them in the grass next to her. They were the only matches she’d get.
She struck the first one. A yellow bud of fire rose where she touched the small flame to the kindling. She moved the match to another part of the pile and held it there, but the wood didn’t catch. The first flame burned down, the tiny flickers extinguished. She had two matches left.
Sarah was a fourth-year camper at Aloha. For the past month, she’d been working toward this moment, when she would build a one-log fire and light it with three or fewer matches. The first week of camp, she’d been given a squat hardwood log so wide she couldn’t put her arms around it. Over the following weeks, she’d split the log with an axe and a wedge until the firewood overflowed from a pack basket. Some of these pieces she’d worked into kindling size with a hatchet and a jackknife. The kindling filled two plastic produce bags.
Building the one-log fire was crucial to Sarah’s goal for the seven-week session. She was trying to earn her Vagabond rank, the third highest of four campcraft ranks. It’s a tradition that goes to the heart of the 105-year-old camp. “One of the camp’s core values is to give girls an ease in nature,” says department head Sarah Sincerbeaux. All campers sleep in tents and spend their days outdoors, but there’s more they can learn, if they wish. In previous summers, while earning her Tramp and Hobo ranks, Sarah had learned the basics of fire-building, had built a ceremonial fire, and with another camper had cooked a meal over an open fire. She still remembered the menu: “…biscuits, beef stroganoff, stir-fried vegetables, apple crumble.” The higher ranks, Vagabond and Guide, involve inter-disciplinary skills in canoeing and swimming, as well. The Vagabond rank focuses on individual skills and self-reliance in the outdoors. If Sarah earned this rank, she’d be able to start working on the fourth and highest rank, Guide, developing her outdoor leadership skills.
Three or four decades ago, many campers worked on the four campcraft ranks each summer at Aloha. In 2010, Sarah McGrath was the only camper attempting to earn the Vagabond rank, and the first since 2007. She’d already taken her required six trips, including a one-day hike up Mt. Cardigan, a paddle trip to Flagg Island, and three days at Crawford Notch. She’d led a bushwhack to Bald Top in the rain using her map-and-compass skills. And she’d been tested on her knowledge of plants, animals, constellations, and knots. She’d spent all but five activity periods working on the rank. Now she needed to build her one-log fire.
She moved the kindling into a teepee position in the middle of the log cabin frame. In her hand, ready to receive the flame, she had a piece of kindling that she’d whittled into a “fuzzy stick” with long, feathery edges. Once this was burning, she’d use it to touch off the rest of the teepee. She lit the second match and brought it to the piece of wood. A gust of wind blew through, extinguishing the match before it could light anything.
She turned to her woodcraft mentor, counselor Annie Schulzinger. “Does that count?” she asked. Annie responded slowly, “I think it’s just three matches.”
In the Jack London story, “To Build a Fire,” a man new to the Yukon disregards the advice of old-timers and sets out for a camp late on a bitterly cold day, 70 below freezing, accompanied only by a dog. He has trimmed his margin of safety so close that he can afford to have nothing go wrong, but of course it does: He gets his feet wet, builds a first fire under a snow-laden tree that dumps its heavy load on the blaze before it can warm him, then overturns his match box with clumsy, freezing hands. He’s able to rescue one match. It’s his last hope, though he doesn’t admit it to himself.
Sarah McGrath was not in a life-or-death situation. The day was sunny and warm. She was building her fire only about 20 feet from the Woodchuck Hole, watched over by her mentor. But it was clear as she relaid her fire, taking even more care than before, that the stakes, to her, were very high.
Success was not assured. Annie watched quietly but offered no advice, no support beyond her presence. It was up to Sarah to figure out what she needed to do.
She asked Annie if she could use a knife to whittle some of her pieces. Annie nodded. Sarah feathered out thin pieces from a long stick. They looked like teeth on a comb until she turned the stick over and worked the other side. Then it looked like the backbone of a fish. She created several more and rearranged the pile of kindling again, until it resembled a delicate latticed sculpture.
She hesitated, then lit the match, and touched it to her sculpture. The small bits of wood flamed up on one side. She quickly brought another thin shaving to it, lit that, and moving quickly but carefully, laid her miniature torch at the other end of the pile. She leaned in and blew on the second flame. For a second, it reached higher, but then faltered and burned out. Sarah quickly turned to the other side, deliberately, betraying no sense of nervousness, and set to work on the dime-sized flame, her last chance. It held. She brought another stick to it. But this seemed too much for the fragile fire, and it flickered out.
Sarah blew gently on the end where the flame had been seconds before, cupping her hand behind it. The sparks glowed bright red, but didn’t spread. One after another, the bright spots faded to black.
She put the piece of wood back with the others and looked over at Annie. “It just went out,” she said.
“You did a really good job,” Annie said. “You tried really hard.”
Tears filled Sarah’s eyes.
Quietly they packed up the remaining pieces of wood, putting them back in the pack basket and the plastic bags.
There are many lessons at Aloha, and some of them aren’t easy. Like what to do when things are hard. What it means to invest fully in something that may not work out. Or how to recover from disappointment.
It wasn’t immediately certain whether Sarah would get another chance to build her one-log fire. Annie needed to talk to department head Sarah Sincerbeaux first. “We’ll take a break from it today,” Annie told Sarah. At this, the tears that had filled Sarah’s eyes spilled over. Annie wrapped her in a hug.
* * *
Two weeks later, on another sunny day, Sarah McGrath returned to the raised platform behind the Woodchuck Hole with two gallon-sized plastic bags full of tiny matchstick-sized shavings. She’d been allowed one more chance. Sarah Sincerbeaux asked the camper what would be different the second time compared to the first attempt. Sarah McGrath swung one of the gallon bags toward her. “I didn’t have any of this before,” she said.
She had one hour, again, to build a one-log fire using three matches. She spent fifteen minutes setting up a log frame around a large pile of her whittled shavings. She lit the first match and touched it to the pile.
It blazed up and immediately caught the next layer, licked at the bigger sticks and caught there, too. It was a hot day, but Sarah stuck close to the fire, feeding it, focused, red-faced, sweating — and grinning. She built the flame into a conflagration. She burned the entire log in that hour.
On the last Monday of camp, Annie Schulzinger and Sarah Sincerbeaux stood up in the dining room of Aloha Camp at breakfast and announced that Sarah McGrath, fifteen years old, had earned her Vagabond rank. The entire room gave her a standing ovation.
Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors. After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor. Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.