You might be wondering: So, Denise is planning on having this grand off-grid adventure somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. Does she have the requisite skills to survive out there?
I’m wondering that, too. (I know, I know: Not comforting.)
I accidentally got the opportunity to test one of those skill sets back in November when the furnace in the cabin where I was staying crapped out, leaving me with only a wood stove for heat.
The Setting: 200 Acres of Woodland in Southern Indiana
Shortly after my Bodhi died, dear friends of mine extended the generous offer of their cabin for a couple of weeks so I could process my grief in solitude. Situated by a small lake and wrapped in 200 acres of forest, the cabin provided both comfort and healing hours of walking in nature.
The cabin itself, built in the late 70s, has several bedrooms, a full bath, and a roomy, albeit simple, kitchen. A lovely loft overlooks the spacious living room, where a large wood stove stands on a raised hearth of local stone. I used the stove more for the enjoyment of a crackling fire than for heating the cabin, which task falls to the furnace and heat pump.
And then, just a few nights before my soul-soothing stay ended, the furnace gave out.
Wood Stove Fires vs. Campfires
The temperatures had dropped to levels appropriate to a proper autumn, so I definitely needed heat. I glanced out the front window to the load of wood a neighbor had gone to the trouble of stacking before I’d arrived. Ironically, I’d only built a couple of fires in the stove, and then only because I felt like an ingrate. The logs were hefty — not split — but I had plenty of tinder and kindling, so using the large chunks of wood hadn’t been an issue, and their size meant not having to feed the fire as often. There was plenty of wood. I’d notified my friends, and they’d scheduled furnace repairs for the next day, so I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.
Let me emphasize the challenge here: I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.
Now, I’ve done a fair amount of camping over the decades, and I’ve successfully built a good number of fires, even in wet, rainy weather. Before that week, however, I’d never fired up a wood stove, but even with the large logs I’d done well and soaked up the comfort of the crackling flames with a big cup of hot chocolate as I relaxed in the evening. From my YouTube research (Yep. Did that.), I learned that although laying a stove fire is a little different from laying a campfire, the basic mechanics are pretty similar.
But laying and lighting a fire is only part of the experience. Keeping it going is a whole other story. The rules change when you’re relying on a fire for heat — and, therefore, survival.
When I’m out camping, the specter of potentially starting a forest fire hangs heavily over me. (Anywhere from 60-90% of forest fires are caused by careless humans.) A gust of wind, a fallen branch, or wildlife visitors can stir even a single coal into sparks that will take out thousands of acres of forest, as well as any homes and businesses within range. So any campfire I build is carefully extinguished before I turn in for the night.
In other words, the exact opposite of what I needed to do with the stove.
What I Learned
As it turned out, the overall experience wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. Yes, I had to get up two nights in a row at about 3:30 a.m. to stoke the fire. (The furnace repair guy was delayed by a day.) But I managed to keep the coals alive, which allowed me to light the next morning’s fire quickly and easily a Good Thing, since two days of rain meant all the branches I needed for kindling were soaked. But I did learn a few important things:
- I’m completely convinced that the stove I buy will have soapstone inserts. They radiate heat after the fire goes out, which means I won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to tend the fire.
- Hot coals are critical if I run out of tinder and kindling, and
- I need NEVER to run out of tinder and kindling.
- Dryer lint makes a freakishly effective tinder material. Seriously. (You want a sobering experience? Light some dryer lint in a fire-safe place sometime. You’ll never let lint build up in your lint catcher or dryer vent again.)
- I really need to practice with wood-chopping tools. Really. REALLY. Because I’ve never had to do it before, except with a small hatchet on small logs. Very. Different. Experience.
And, pursuant to that last bullet point (and for your amusement)…the video.