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To Build a Fire

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

** Warning! Spoilers Ahead! **

Now that the snow is just starting to fall…

If you have ever read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” there are a few Critical lessons that “The man” travelling with his dog learns along the way.

Here is a story about a male protagonist who ventures out into the sub-zero boreal forest of the Yukon Territory. He is followed by a dog and is en route to a camp to meet up with his friends—ignoring warnings from an older man about the dangers of hiking alone in extreme cold. The protagonist underestimates the harsh conditions and freezes to death.

In the very first paragraph, the man has already left the main trail and gone off the beaten path.

While the Bushcraft Highway encourages exploration and finding your road to the middle of nowhere, we also cannot stress the importance of being prepared for emergencies, and the environment you plan to travel through.

The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine. He was quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their meanings. Fifty degrees below zero meant 80 degrees of frost. Such facts told him that it was cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to consider his weaknesses as a creature affected by temperature. Nor did he think about man’s general weakness, able to live only within narrow limits of heat and cold.

So here, he has no clue what the cold is capable of and what kind of risk he is putting himself at. Jack writes “80 degrees of frost” which converts to about -45° Celsius for us Canadians. A fairly cold day by any measure.

Jack also reinforces how cold is (-75°F or -59°C!) when the man spits and it cracks in the air BEFORE hitting the snow. The man pays no attention to this detail and keeps on going.

He has very little with him as far as provisions or equipment. His lunch laying under his jacket to avoid the cold described as “bred enclosing a generous portion of cooked meat”. His clothing sounds reasonable - mittens, ear coverings, warm moccasins, and thick socks. We know from the title he has matches, and later, a Sheath Knife is mentioned.

The dog that follows him is less than enthused to be out in this cold:

But the animal sensed the danger. Its fear made it question eagerly every movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned about fire, and it wanted fire. Otherwise, it would dig itself into the snow and find shelter from the cold air.

If I were travelling with an animal, I would take cues from them. The dog 'wanted’ fire, or to find its shelter. Yeah. I’m good with staying warm too.

The man is not completely ignorant about his environment and knows to avoid certain areas while following a creek.

But he knew also that there were streams of water that came out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top of the ice of the creek. He knew that even in the coldest weather these streams were never frozen, and he also knew their danger. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three feet.

It’s when the man stops for lunch before he lights his first fire to stay warm that we learn something valuable.

He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and pulled forth his lunch. The action took no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment, the numbness touched his bare fingers.

Once he stopped moving, he got cold very quickly. This will come back again to haunt him later in the story.

I have had the unpleasant experience of falling through the ice much the same way the man does. He got wet up to the knee. I got wet up to the belt. Luckily for me, I was around 80 Feet away from a warm cabin and dry clothes.

I have no shame in telling you it happened fast and took the breath right out of me. It was not an extremely cold day like the story, but it was still cold enough to make that walk one of the most difficult things I have done. Iced water had soaked thru my pants, and my thermal underwear and filled my boots.

All I could think about for that 80-foot walk was getting warm and dry.

When it is 75 below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire. This is especially true if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile to keep his blood moving. But the blood in wet and freezing feet cannot be kept moving by running when it is 75 degrees below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze even harder.

My socks did not freeze “like iron almost to the knee” and my boot laces were not “like ropes of steel”, but it was still difficult to get out of the cold and stiff clothing. Like wearing cardboard pants.

His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pushing the blood to all parts of his body. But the instant he stopped, the action of the heart slowed down. He now received the full force of the cold. The blood of his body drew back from it. The blood was alive, like the dog. Like the dog, it wanted to hide and seek cover, away from the fearful cold.

Everything comes undone when he lights his second fire under the pine tree. Gathering branches and pulling the branches for fuel causes the snow to drop from the higher branches and put out his fire. He tries to light a second fire, but by now his hands are no longer working due to the cold.

At -55°C it takes less than two minutes to get frostbite. Jack does not say how long the first fire took to get started, but I bet it was longer than two minutes. He never even got a chance to warm his hands on the first fire.

Then his “survival instinct” kicks in and he thinks of killing the dog and using it to warm his hands and light another fire. The man quickly realizes he cannot even do this with his hands in their current state. Proximity to the dog’s body heat may have helped his hands enough to try again, but we know the man never respected the dog, and the dog had no love for him either.

From here, the man succumbs to increasing stages of hypothermia after fear takes him and he realized this is not a question of frostbite, or losing a few fingers, but his very life.

After running a while, he stops to catch his breath and he notices he’s no longer shaking, and a warm glow had come to his body. After trying to continue he resigns and accepts his fate.

With this newfound peace of mind came the first sleepiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep his way to death. Freezing was not as bad as people thought. There were many worse ways to die.

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