Sometimes life or fate or a fit of temporary insanity that inspires you to sign up for an Outward Bound expedition will lead you to a frozen lake in northern Minnesota in the wintertime, and you will have to rise to the occasion. The lake itself is broad and flat and covered with snow, and the shoreline is covered with pine and birch trees, and the entire landscape is so clear and pristine you will wonder what the hell something as messy and clumsy as yourself is doing there.
You will also feel very cold and tired because you don’t just get dropped on the shore of a frozen lake in northern Minnesota, especially not in the Boundary Waters where motors and sails are forbidden in all seasons. In winter, you will have traveled by skis or by dog sled or by trudging through knee-deep snow or some combination of these. All of them are exhausting. (Yes, even the dog sledding. You think the dogs just pull the sled along while you lie back with a nice warm thermos of hot chocolate? Think again. You will also be pushing the sled, or running beside it, or in front of it while tugging the guide rope because the dogs don’t always like to stay on the track. They, too, like to be the architects of their own destiny, even if it makes things harder for themselves. Yes, there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.)
You will, of course, be sensibly outfitted in layers of wool, down, and water-resistant synthetic fiber. You will have heavy, rubber-lined paratrooper boots that make your feet look like they belong on Mickey Mouse, and gaiters wrapped around your legs, just like a World War I doughboy, so the snow doesn’t fall in. You will feel like the kid in A Christmas Story who can’t put his arms down.
Nevertheless, staying warm requires energy, and by the time you land on the shore of the frozen lake, you will need more fuel. You could, of course, subsist on energy bars, but any nutritionist will tell you that is irresponsible and and you should be eating a hot meal.
Fortunately, you are a practical sort of person who plans hot meals a week ahead of time and does all the chopping and spicing and distributes all the meal elements into separate plastic bags so all you have to do is dump them into a cast iron pot one by one. Or, more accurately, you have been traveling with practical and responsible Outward Bound instructors who have supplied you with a packet of chicken ramen and a foil-wrapped bundle of potatoes, carrots, onions, and bratwurst. You are golden! All you have to do is build a fire.
Logic tells you that since every surface around here is covered in either ice or snow and since both ice and snow are crystalized water, and since water puts out fires, you are in a bit of a pickle. But fear not! Remember those trees along the shoreline?
I forgot to mention that you have been marooned with tools. Well, a tool. You would think that it would be a hatchet, like the titular tool of the celebrated survivalist young adult book, but actually saws are much more useful for our purpose here. You’re only cooking dinner, after all, not splitting a cord of firewood to last you the rest of the winter. So all you’ll need is a saw.
Go off into the forest and gather up as much wood as you can. Make sure you get a few feet of birch bark, too. Go for the dead wood since it’ll burn better. In the interest of being kind to the environment, take wood from trees that have already gone down. Use your saw for the thicker branches you can’t break off with your bare hands (though it’s sometimes fun to do your Incredible Hulk imitation and try). In the end, you’ll want a pile about the size of a Smart car. You’ll also want four or five logs that are about a foot long and about the width of your leg, or maybe a little wider. These are the base logs that you’ll be building your fire on top of.
Drag all your wood back onto the surface of the lake. Don’t worry about falling in; since it’s winter, the ice is likely about eight inches thick and will hold you nicely, even if you stomp your feet in frustration.
Lay your base logs down in the snow so they form a little platform. Then break down your kindling into two separate piles, small and smaller. Smaller is one finger wide, small is two. Try to break sticks by standing on one end and pulling upward instead of smashing them across your knee; otherwise, you’ll get a lot of really nasty bruises that will alarm your loved ones should they ever see you again.
Now you’re ready to build a fire! Try to banish that really dire Jack London story you had to read in junior high from your mind. You are already warm from running around for the past few hours gathering your firewood and from cracking sticks and sawing logs. You have an entire box of matches. You will be totally fine!
Cover your base logs with a layer of snow to keep them from catching on fire. Then make a nest of birch bark and the smaller twigs. Scatter the birch bark liberally across the base logs and make sure there’s lots of air in the pile. The idea is that the birch bark will burn first and fastest, and then the flames will spread to the twigs, and in a little while you’ll have a real, live cooking fire.
Strike a match. Make sure you do this close to your pile of kindling. Light a piece of birch bark. It will smell very nice. It should catch. It should spread. You should feel very proud of yourself.
However—if you get complacent, the fire will die. (This, too, feels like a metaphor for life.) Keep adding little twigs, and then the bigger twigs. Toss them on. Make it blaze! Blow on it if you have to, or fan it with something to bring in more oxygen.
Now you can start getting ready to cook. Stack the larger twigs into a tower, like the popsicle stick houses you may have built when you were a kid. (You will wonder, why did we ever have to build popsicle stick houses? What purpose did that serve? To prepare you for this very moment, decades into the future?) Make sure you keep adding the little twigs in the middle. You have heard this process compared to a relationship: you want structure, like regular dates and activities, but you want a little bit of spontaneity, too, because otherwise the relationship will get stale and boring and die. The nice thing about the structure is, you might be able to rest your cooking pot on it if it’s stable enough.
That’s right, the cooking pot! Remember, the whole purpose of this was to cook dinner?
You will need some water. You might already be carrying some with you in a bottle. You could also drill through the ice to the lake water below, but remember, that’s eight inches, and you’ll need some sort of drilling tool, like a blade attached to a long pole, maybe, that you bash repeatedly against the ice again and again and again and again, for half an hour or more, until you strike water. It will feel like striking oil, and you will rejoice. But is that really worth the trouble when you could just melt snow? Be careful, though: if you dump snow directly into your cooking pot, it will burn. (Isn’t nature wonderful?) So add a little water first to get it going. Put the lid on so the heat doesn’t escape. Don’t think about all the soot accumulating on the side of the pan and how you’ll have to scour it once you get back to a full working kitchen because that will only depress you.
Your pot may want to tip over and spill your dinner all over the ice. This would also be sad. Prop a forked stick against the handle to hold it steady.
Once you have boilage, you can add your noodles, veggies, and meat. This is just like cooking at home. It will feel familiar and domestic, except you will probably be stirring with a stick and you will have to reach over every now and again to add more wood to the fire. In this respect, it’s a bit like a survivalist video game.
Et voila! Dinner! But be sure to rest your pot on a couple of sticks, like a trivet, instead of placing it directly on the snow so you don’t get your pot all slushy and so your food doesn’t get cold. Everything will taste delicious because you will have been working so hard and gotten so hungry that, honestly, anything would taste delicious right about now.
Once you have eaten your dinner while contemplating the flames of your campfire and eternity and your eventual death, it’s time to do the dishes!
Scrape out the contents of your bowl and pot into a plastic garbage bag. You will carry this with you back to civilization where you can dispose of it responsibly. True people of the wilderness Leave No Trace. (The wilderness may also make you a bit paranoid that They—whoever They might be—can track you down.) Then dump a bit of snow into your pot and use it to scour out the leftover bits of food. Snow makes a really great scrubbing agent. This is a fun fact you can pull out at parties, once you’re back in the world where people have parties. Those people will probably look at you strangely, but maybe someone will be impressed that you had the fortitude to go winter camping and you will be hailed as a hero. You never know.