Outdoor Afro Essentials: Build a Fire

By Chaya Harris

Prefer to watch a video? Check out fire making with Antoine Skinner!

You arrive back to your campsite in the evening after a long day’s hike, ready to build a fire to cook dinner and enjoy s’mores. Or maybe you have your loved ones over for some cozy, socially-distanced fun around your firepit in your backyard. You strike a match, drop it on a log, and….fizzle. Nothing.

Don’t let your fire plans go up in smoke!

This season especially, we encourage you to enjoy some time around a fire, whether indoors or out, reflecting on the good that endures. Many indigenous people honor the way fire can restore in nature, and perhaps it can stoke the wonders that we are.

Here are our sure fire tips – and yep, a few more puns – for a successful blaze every time.

Know Before You Go / Getting Started 

  • If you’re camping or backpacking in a national or state park, or a private campground, know the fire rules before you go. There are regulations about if and where you can build fires, seasonal considerations, and usually rules around outside wood.
  • Bringing in wood from another area commonly introduces invasive insects, like the emerald ash borer beetle, and tree diseases.
  • Build your fire on a stable surface; clear rocks, pinecones and other debris from the fire pit or ring.
  • Be mindful of your surroundings, including the space between your fire and tents, trees, tablecloths, etc… Flames and sparks spread easily and quickly. Different types of wood and weather conditions can cause embers to “jump” unpredictably.
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Gather your supplies 
 
Bring more than one way to start a fire, including waterproof matches, a lighter and a ferro rod stored in a dry sack

Whenever you’re creating a fire, think of a triangle of heat, oxygen and fuel. If you remove any of those elements, then you will extinguish the fire. In gathering your materials, consider what the fire will burn (the fuel) and how you’re going to spark a flame (the heat). Of course, include safety precautions with gathering your supplies and be sure to have a small fire extinguisher which works on any type of fire, or a bucket of water for wood fires.

  • Use a small hatchet
  • Practice at least two ways to ignite the fire, such as waterproof matches, a lighter, and different types of firestarter kits (like a magnesium bar or ferro rod)
  • Gather wood in a variety of sizes. You will need small twigs and branches as well as larger logs if possible. Use wood from fallen trees and scattered branches.  Dry tree bark often lights easily.
  • Grab a stick or bring a fireproof tool for stoking the fire
  • If you’re buying wood, different types of wood will give you different scents and varying burn times.
Firestarter

Outdoor Afro Leaders love talking about firestarter! It’s one of our most frequently asked questions during events and will ignite some creativity when you start discussing options. While you can purchase firestarter at most outdoor and sporting goods retailers, there are some everyday household items to use, like dryer lint

Wax, dryer lint and egg cartons make for fantastic fire starters

Wax, dryer lint and egg cartons are fantastic fire starters

  • Dryer lint, stored in a baggie with petroleum jelly
  • Toss the dryer lint covered in petroleum jelly or soaked in oil in an egg carton
  • Place the lint in an egg carton and drizzle with old candle wax
  • Cotton balls, also covered in petroleum jelly, can be stored in a balloon to keep them dry or a mint tin (solid option for wet conditions)
  • Save the sawdust from your home projects, or ask for the leftovers at a home improvement store, and then add old wax for sawdust balls
Structure / Fire lay
Logs stacked in a cabin style will support a long burn

Coming back to the fire triangle, the structure is crucial for how the oxygen and fuel (the wood) will interact for the ongoing chemical reaction. Decide on your structure, then place your firestarter and tinder, then kindling and build up to larger sticks. These structures balance the oxygen and fuel for a long-lasting fire.

  • Teepee style: arrange your smaller pieces over wood over your firestarter and kindling like a teepee; add larger pieces around the outside.
  • Log cabin style: crisscross 4 pieces of wood like a tic-tac-toe board with your tinder in the middle. Add a few layers until you have a small cabin.
  • Lean-to: Best for wind protection and to use in light rain. Using a larger log, like a tree trunk, or a large, flattop boulder, place your tinder close to the log or boulder. Then lay your kindling and larger branches across the tinder so it’s slanted from the ground to the top of the log.

Always light your fire from the bottom of the firestarter and tinder so the flames move upward and burn the larger pieces of wood.

Extinguish the Fire

After you and your loved ones admire your fire building skills, be sure to put out the fire completely. This means it is cool to the touch. You can let it die out, or…

  • Douse it with water and break up remaining embers
  • Dig down a few inches, and use dirt from under the fire to cover the embers. Then douse to create mud.

Never leave a fire unattended, and if you’re using charcoal, many of the same fire starting techniques apply. However, do not dispose of charcoal outside of a fire pit or near a tree. For other details about charcoal, that’s a whole other post.

Wait – what about the hatchet?

In addition to boosting confidence and posing for outdoorsy photos, a hatchet is great for trimming wood for kindling, such as stripping off some tree bark or cutting small branches from a downed tree. If the wood is wet or iced over, use a hatchet to strip the wood down to the drier core and dry the outer layers around the fire you’ll have built in flash.

….and there we go – you’re ready for a blazing fire! What other essential skills would you like to see us demonstrate?

Fire Making with Antoine Skinner

Finding a Path in 2020: Blackpacking with Outdoor Afro Leaders

By Chaya Harris

What do Outdoor Afro Leaders do with the challenges we face in 2020? We make a way.

In the fall, I found out that six of our Leaders near Washington, DC were planning a backpacking trip in the Otter Creek Wilderness in West Virginia. I had not seen them in person this year since our annual Leadership Training was virtual, and my local trails have been pretty crowded, so I invited myself along.

Our team of seven – Antonio, China, Jessica, Monette, Ray, Scott, and I – started our Zooms and planning documents, first deciding on where we wanted to go and considering safety precautions, including our own Covid-19 protocol. Using vague maps we found online, we narrowed down an area and had a few routes in mind, depending on how we felt as a group during the trek. As we learned more about the creek crossings, likelihood of a mudfest and the start of bear hunting season, we dug a little deeper and found our new friends, Purple Lizard. They’ve published two detailed maps of the Monongahela National Forest and provided a lot more info about trailheads and parking.

Another part of our risk management is preparing for our psychological safety, too. With more people wielding flags as symbols of hate all over the country, we knew what to expect to see on our drive, and with local hunters likely to be out, we were also prepared for the who. Even though this was not part of our official training, all Outdoor Afro events provide ongoing fortification so we’re able to connect and uplift each other in nature. Also, Mike and Justine with Purple Lizard informed us about a friendly town for strong coffee!

We organized our gear, resolving that it was best for everyone to bring their own of everything, even though it meant a bit more weight in our packs. Although we agreed not to share food, one of the best parts of backpacking, we stored meals from Backpacker’s Pantry that we looked forward to as we settled into camp for the night.

Under overcast Friday morning skies, we set out in our cars through northern Virginia into the deep western hills, buzzing with the excitement of actually being together and heading into  the backcountry.” 

Perhaps from being indoors more, our curiosity about outside was piqued, asking each other about the weather and fog in relation to the wildfires, and discussing the potential conflicts of coal mining and wind turbines for the residents, in between singing along to the road-deejay’s hits.

About four hours later, we all met at the trailhead near the small town of Thomas on Massawomeck Indigenous land. As with any of our trainings, we had a long greeting full of joy and gratitude in seeing each other and hearing that our loved ones are healthy. We checked our packs, some of us still weighing whether that extra fleece or instant camera was worth carrying, and checked our outfits, seeing how we could coordinate on the trails. We even had an opening circle, setting our intentions for our three day, two night hike.

Immediately after the parking lot, we crossed a wooden bridge over the Dry Fork River, where we peered down and marveled at the evidence of passing time: symmetrical grooves in the river rocks from glaciers and changes in the tree density and heights showing a second-growth forest. The path narrowed quickly with lush bushes and trees, short inclines and quick boulder scrambles along Otter Creek. We paused often for Monette to take pictures of the fungi, for China to wander along the water’s edge, and for Antonio to assess backup campsites.

At every stop or fallen tree we had to navigate, I spent extra time petting the velvety moss! We shrieked while crossing the chilly creek, but you could hear ooohs and aaahs in between.

An Outdoor Afro Leader climbs over a fallen tree on a muddy ledge

After the creek crossing, I left on my sandals as we continued our hike instead of changing back into my Keen boots.

The overgrowth was even thicker, with large rhododendrons limiting us to single file and just a few feet of visibility, and it was easy to lose the trail if we didn’t stay toget her. Then came the mud and steep ledges. Frustrated, I asked, “Do y’all think the trail will be like this the whole way?”

Scott replied, “I don’t think about it.” I laughed, thinking that makes perfect sense. I shifted my thoughts to the squishy mud oozing around my feet, feeling appreciative that I get to choose physical discomfort, and various footwear in doing so.

About six or seven miles from the parking lot, we made camp that evening along the Otter Creek River. Settling in felt like such a relief, not just to be done hiking for the day, but to have clear options and being able to focus on the now. Some of us reflected by the river quietly, and I whispered Rue’s reminder, “Nature never closes. 

We had sufficient space to spread out, and worked pretty independently in setting up tents, filtering water, building a fire and preparing dinner. I had endless questions for Antonio about his lightweight pack – just 18 pounds! We teased each other with you packed it, you take it to avoid the shared responsibility of bear bags and bear canisters, putting off the task until we put the fire out.

In the morning, we had a leisurely start after oats, eggs or almond butter and jelly bagels, brushing our teeth and moisturizing, and making sure our campsite looked untouched. We thanked Mother Nature for providing the space, and warmed up with a few yoga moves. We were back to negotiating the same skinny, muddy overgrown trail, but something was different.

Our laughs felt lighter, our discussions more substantial and our encouragement for each other flowed. I know it’s cheesy, but as the sun came out, so did we.

Throughout the day, Jessica stayed at the helm of navigating the map, but we made more decisions as a group, figuring out which trails to follow and traversing more streams. We decided on a loop that took us up a ridge along a steeper section with endless pines, oaks and a few birches. We called out trail hazards so nobody walked into (another) tree, and held poles or lent a hand when needed. When we encountered more mud, this time close to our knees, we shimmied along the sides pushing through the undergrowth.

China literally had Scott’s back, grabbing his arm as he started to fall to prevent a mud bath! 

Sunset came quickly that evening, and we pitched our tents in two areas about 20 yards apart as there are just a couple of sites along that trail segment. We moved quickly, helping each other with rainflys, collectively gathering wood and maintaining a hearty fire, and sharing items like sleeping bag liners so we could all have a comfortable night’s sleep. Although we debated the best cartoons like Rugrats or Hey Arnold, we easily cooperated for tasks like hanging a bear bag. Under patches of stars, we were all smiles sampling a crème brulee.

The next day, we were up and heading out early to cover the last 8 miles or so of our adventure. We had an easy but quick pace as we made our way winding down the ridge, crossing a small stream and coming out to hillside with vivid grass, fall wildflowers and downed trees.

I twisted under one of the trees, behind Antonio and Scott, chatting about our much anticipated dinner, when Jessica yelled, “Snake!”

I pushed Scott out the way and took off.

Jessica, China, Monette and Ray admired the black Eastern diamondback beauty, taking photos as it warned us with a gentle rattle and finding a way around the tree that still left a wide berth. I kept thinking about how close we were and I didn’t even see it! We resumed down the trail, a teammate called out a hole and I screamed, still shook from the snake. Thinking back, nobody laughed at me – well not a lot – and Antonio thoughtfully walked a bit faster and talked to me about his fears to help me calm down. When I finally swallowed my stomach, we noted how the animals around us just want to be left alone.

As we made it to the north part of our loop, the trail flattened out under the canopy and became a bit rockier on the approach to crossing Otter Creek again. We heard hunting dogs in the distance, and saw a few truckfuls on a short hilly road. When we arrived at the stream, we did our water crossing dance of looking for a path without getting too wet, determining whether we should change out of our boots and then stepping carefully across, savoring the last chill of our journey.

Two white guys, decked out in camo gear and carrying more guns that I could quickly count, holding six dogs on leashes bounded out of the forest swiftly across the creek. We said hello with no response. If I had been alone, I would have been on edge as I finished hiking, but being with my team was a firm reminder that we belong there.

Sooner than expected, we were back at the bridge, strutting in a fashion show and heading to our vehicles for a long departure, which included celebratory Oreos and a closing circle. While we have a renewed appreciation for each other and sharper skills to continue leading our communities, I want to remember that we made a way through connecting with each other and relying on what’s inside to navigate the unknown.

A Reflection on Harriet Tubman’s Relationship with Nature

“Looking musingly toward a nearby orchard, Ms. Harriet asked suddenly “Do you like apples?” On being assured that I did, she said “Did you ever plant any apple trees?” With shame, I confessed I had not. “No,” she said “but somebody else planted them. I liked apples when I was young, and I said ‘Someday I’ll plant apples for myself and for other young folks to eat,’ and I guess I done it.”

    In 1990, the United States Congress passed a resolution naming March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day.” The date marked the 77th anniversary of Ms. Tubman’s death. On March 10, 2014, Outdoor Afro joined our sisters at GirlTrek to honor Harriet Tubman’s life.

     Leading up to the hike, each of us spent time reflecting on Harriet Tubman’s relationship with nature.  For me, this assignment re-connected me with cherished memories of my youth.  I remembered that as a child I would write stories about Harriet Tubman’s journeys south, imagining her moving through forests, not with fear but with confidence and knowledge of her environment.harriet wood sawing I’d conjure up images of her pausing to listen to the trees, watching the movements of the birds, and crossing purposely through rivers.  I remembered when my mother took me to see the Jacob Lawrence Series of Narrative Paintings on Harriet Tubman at Hampton University and bought me a print to hang in my bedroom. I would fall asleep staring at this painting of my hero sawing wood, and imagine that she was fashioning a strong walking stick for her next mission.  Years later, my mother would send me that painting to hang in my office, as a reminder to dream.

photo 4 (2)     So when GirlTrek and Outdoor Afro came together in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, we set our intention to honor Harriet through reflecting on our own associations of Harriet Tubman in nature. GirlTrek, a movement of Black women across the country inspired by Harriet Tubman to make a bold change one step at a time, radiated in their super hero blue. We walked side by side as we made our way past California Bay Laurels, Madrones and Eucalyptus trees.  When we crested the Round Top Peak and gazed out at a 360 view which included Mount Diablo,  Mount Tamalpais, and the rolling green hills of the East bay,  a feeling of joy rippled through all of us.  It reminded us of the happiness that Harriet Tubman’s passengers derived when gazing at the magnificent Niagara Falls, a beautiful natural, symbol that their long journey had come to an end.

Before we began our return trip, we spent time describing Harriet Tubman in one word. The words “brave,” “courageous,” “spiritual,” “strong,” “hero,” and “legend” rang out. In addition, we called her “astronomer,” “forager,” “hiker,” “botanist,” and “birder.”  We thought about Harriet in all of those roles as she guided her people through nature.  She navigated her way from North to South, taking routes that are still unknown today.  Abolitionists, freed Blacks and slaves referred to these paths as the Underground Railroad, and they used railway metaphors as code to discuss escape plans. Slave catchers stated that when Black people were on those trails they seemed to just “disappear underground.”

photo 1 (1)

In fact Black people on the Underground Railroad weren’t traveling via loud machines on trails made of concrete, iron and steel. They quietly hiked on grass, dirt, moss, and through rivers.  They relied on the illumination of the moon to light their paths.  They foraged for herbal remedies and food. Their leaders, Harriet Tubman and other “conductors,” weren’t steering massive machines and shoveling coal into fires. Instead they were following memorized paths, gazing up at the vast night sky to identify the Big Dipper and the North Star. They studied bird calls and mimicked them to communicate danger and safety.  They used their relationship with nature to get them to freedom.

     At Outdoor Afro, we often deliberate on the connections our ancestors had to nature, especially when we remember the importance of maintaining our own connections with the outdoors. We take particular pride in the community we build around that intention and we’re so honored to carry our history as we make our way on the trail. We held all of that as the sun set on March 10, and we made our way back to our start. And like Sister Harriet, we left no one behind.

 

photo 4 (1)Join us on our next hike!