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Getting toasty in the snowy woods

In Jack London’s 1908 version of the short story “To Build a Fire,” the protagonist does most everything wrong and pays for his failings by losing his life.

It was never a matter of life and death, but when Dave Mauser successfully lit a fire in the Summit Shelter cabin, he did everything correctly while displaying a sense of persistence and expertise. It took a while for heat from the wood stove to truly warm the cabin, but eventually, sitting inside the ever-warming cabin, nibbling snacks and sandwiches, and sharing stories with friends too seldom seen, we appreciated Dave’s ability to build a fire.

We had cross-country skied up snow-covered Four Mile Road from the sno-park parking area off Highway 140 before taking a detour to the shelter. Early on, the snow was icy slick. Our group of six eventually spread out, with Mike Reeder taking the lead. At the junction for the cabin, Mike saw Grant Pine behind him and, assuming Grant would follow him, left Four Mile Road. But taking Grant for granted was a mistake. Instead of turning, he and Dave’s wife, Faye Weekly, who was following close behind, missed the turn and continued up the road.

By the time three of us trailing farther behind reached the junction, we were confused and perplexed. There were no obvious tracks toward the cabin, our planned destination, because only Mike had made the turn. After debating, Dave, Charlie McGonigle and I sidestepped from Four Mile Road up the short but steep grade to where the trail levels off and heads for the shelter.

We weren’t sure what to expect, so reaching the shelter and meeting up with Mike was reassuring. But what had happened to Grant and Faye?

Assuming, and hoping, they’d realize no one was following them and retreat, we stepped from the deep snow down into the shelter’s entrance. After wondering what to do next, Dave gathered up shards of small sticks, stepped outside to gather pitch from sappy trees and combined those with some paper.

Using a lighter he found in the shelter, he clicked it trying to get a spark. And clicked, and clicked some more. He tried 20 times, 40 times, so many times no one kept track. It seemed hopeless. Still Dave persisted — click, click, click. Then, magically, it sparked. Its flame caught on the pitch and, eventually, the paper and small sticks. As the flames increased, Dave patiently worked to build a rousing fire, adding small then larger logs stored underneath the shelter’s seating benches.

“The best thing is the pitch from the trees. That always works,” Dave explained as the fire flamed.

In London’s “To Build a Fire” story, a bullheaded man is traveling with a dog — described by London as the man’s “toil slave” — in the Yukon Territory. But London’s traveler had less patience and knowledge than Dave, ignoring warnings and trudging in sub-zero temperatures on his way to visit prospector friends. He stops to eat lunch, building a warming fire — “For the moment the cold of space was outwitted,” London tells. But shortly after resuming his journey, he falls through a patch of ice and, chilled from his soaking, builds another fire. But because he’s thoughtless, he builds it under a snow-covered tree. The resulting heat causes the tree to dump its massive load of snow, dousing the fire and further chilling and frightening him — “It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.”

Grizzly things follow. After burning himself, using up all his matches and accidentally putting out an almost simmering fire, he attempts, but fails, to kill the dog — “he would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body.” Frostbitten and hypothermic, as he dies he imagines his friends finding his body, thinking, “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.”

The dog, who throughout the tale has shown wiser instincts, realizes, “There were no signs of a fire to be made.” After the man peacefully dies, it “turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.”

Nothing that dramatic happened to us. As the fire Dave had doggedly started gained heat, Grant and Faye arrived, tired but happy to be reunited. The morning’s cool and crisp temperatures had warmed. No snow doused Dave’s fire. No one fell through ice.

Instead, we lazily enjoyed the slowly but steadily increasing heat as Dave continued to stoke the fire, feeding it fresh logs, logs supplied in the Summit Shelter and other backcountry shelters by — thanks — snowmobile groups, including the Klamath Basin Snowdrifters and the Chiloquin Ridge Riders.

As the shelter warmed, we gradually shed hats, gloves and jackets while sharing stories, including some that possibly were true.

Eventually it was time to go. There was some careful stepping on the return ski to Fourmile Road, including tumbles by those trying to ski the final steep section. Others unclicked from their skis and walked the final section past face-planted skiers.

Once back on snow-covered Fourmile Road, we zipped downhill — kicking-and-gliding, double-poling or just swooshing along letting gravity do its thing. There were no grave endings or tall tales for us, just a warm appreciation for a sunny day of skiing snow-covered trails and a place to build a fire.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Dave Mauser adds a log to the fire in the Summit Shelter. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Grant Pine zips along the snow-covered Fourmile Road. Photo by Lee Juillerat