The Axe & the Campfire

“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (1864)

My family hiked to a remote, backcountry lean-to in early October, at the peak of fall foliage. We spent a few days exploring, canoeing, talking to squirrels, and soaking in the solace of the wilderness – doing all of our cooking (and coffee making) over a wood fire. And keeping that fire going required some work. Baxter State Park allows the gathering of dead and downed wood to burn, so I brought along that quintessential tool of the northern forest: a Hudson Bay axe.


Evolved from the design of early French Biscayne fur-trade axes from the 1600s, the Hudson Bay Company developed this pattern to be easily transported (being lighter than American-style felling axes), easy to hang on a new haft (the short eye makes fitting a handle a breeze), and eminently tradeable (collect all six!). Voyageurs carried them to every corner of Canada and used them for any conceivable task – from cabin building to shaving a winter’s beard. Mine is one of the classic Norlund makes, apparently in vogue these days among tool collectors and hipsters alike. I prefer swinging an axe rather than ogling it on the wall as I sip my soy latte, so I keep this one razor-sharp and ready to go. This trip was a good workout for it.


One occasionally mentioned complaint about the Hudson Bay pattern is the propensity for the haft to work itself loose (due to the leverage exerted in that short eye). And, for the first time, I experienced this particular issue during our trip. After bucking up a decent-sized piece of softwood, I noticed that the head had crept up off the haft shoulder by a sliver. After some splitting of that softwood log, the head could be wiggled slightly. I don’t believe it was in danger of coming off, but it’s a little nerve-wracking to use an axe with a loose head. Visions of that sharp bit catching a ray of morning sunshine as it hurtled through the air and into the pond came to mind. Kids, stay behind me, please. I clubbed the base of the haft every few swings to make myself feel better.


Some eminently practical folks might ask, why bother with firewood at all? If you’re carrying all your gear and food miles into the backcountry, why not just bring a camp stove and fuel? After all, they together weigh less than the axe. And think of the time savings! It is utterly convenient to twist a knob and have instant, predictable heat. To them I’d say, it’s also utterly convenient to just stay home. It also seems somewhat absurd to carry in a can of refined hydrocarbons from Saudi Arabia and a titanium stove made in China to cook my kids’ oatmeal when there is a nearly inexhaustible (for our needs) supply of dead wood within 200 yards of our idyllic forest dwelling. This kind of energy is as locally sourced as it gets – carbon absorbed, stored, then released again (to be reused by surrounding trees) within a stone’s throw of where it began. It’s a beautiful, closed loop.


It sometimes seems a bit of a task to establish a roaring blaze just to make a pot of coffee, but I have an ace up my sleeve. I bought this great little woodburning cook stove from an ad in Backpacker magazine more than 25 years ago. (Quick Google search – the company I purchased it from – ZZ Manufacturing – is still producing these stoves.) It has a little fan in the base that circulates air through the firebox, putting out a terrific amount of cooking heat. It weighs 1lb and can heat a quart of water in minutes, powered by pinecones (and one battery. Solar retrofit?). It’s a good example of what E.F. Schumacher termed “intermediate technology” – a device that is simple, easy to understand and fix, and sustainable with local resources. I’ve cooked on it hundreds of times.

All in all, the trip was a success. We hiked out in steady rain, our packs somewhat lighter than the trek in, our heads and hearts full of memories. Spending time in the woods does that for you. I tried to put together a few video clips to remember our time out there – you can check it out below, if you'd like.



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